A previously unknown short story by John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, has been unearthed and it’s about a chef and his cat.
The American writer lived in Paris in the mid-50s and wrote a weekly column for the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. One of these columns took the form of a short story Les Puces sympathiques.
The story is about a chef Monsieur Amité who is desperate for a second Michelin star. So determined is he in pursuit of it, that when things go wrong in his kitchen on the day of the inspectors; visit he kicks his best friend and muse “a great and dignified cat named Apollo”. The cat takes off in indignation and Amité is consumed with remorse. Amité resolves to win back the trust of his friend Apollo and decides to create the ultimate dish to entice him back to his kitchen.
“When he tasted, he knew he had succeeded, that any cat who could withstand this dish was a cat far gone in insanity. And last, he added one ingredient, almost a magic, to win back his friend,” writes Steinbeck. “The dish went to the oven, came out faintly brown and smelling like the breath of goddesses. M. Amité carefully filled Apollo’s plate, and without a coat went out in the rain to look for his darling.”
If you’re expecting a typical Steinbeck tale of human suffering, social injustice and the triumph of the human spirit you may be surprised that the tale is more a whimsical, comical look at French idiosyncrasies and an observation of the pressure involved in the culinary world of Paris and of food’s power to reconcile, even between species. The story was written in French and published on 31 July 1954 and was Andrew Gulli, editor of The Stand magazine, in Steinbeck’s papers at the Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin. The story will be published in The Stand this week.
“Don’t expect to read something dramatic in the vein of Grapes of Wrath,” Gulli said. The Amiable Fleas is interspersed with Steinbeck’s own voice, describing himself as “a novelist whose work is so despondent that the whole world flocks to him”.
He also observes, “As a species, we have been in trouble since we came down from trees and took up habitation in caves, but also, as a species, we have survived,” he writes. “We have not survived on great things, but on little ones, like a little story I have heard – probably an old, old, story. But this is the way I heard it.”