I suppose if, say, Denny’s was to offer Grand Slams breakfasts of from 20 to 30 dishes, the restaurant chain may seek to expand to such inspired fare as prompted by Marx Rumpolt, head cook to Elector of Mainz, Daniel Brendel of Homburg and writer of Ein new Kochbuch (“A New Cookbook,” 1581), the first textbook for professional chefs in training. Perhaps then, in addition to the bacon and eggs, we’d see such offerings as boiled porcupine, carp pie, pig’s head stuffed with frogs, boiled cow udders, and ram testicles in chicken blood sauce. Yum.
But though you can forgo the smidgeon of most seasonings on a Rumpolt menu item, you will want to take it with a grain of salt. After all, Rumpolt’s gastronomic weird science—employed in skills that gained him not only the ability to “roast livers of all sorts, but also to cook quadapeds, winged creatures, animals of shallow river and deep sea”–came to him via some strange magic and an enchanted ring. That’s if, I suppose, you’re given to whimsical and witty flights of culinary fancy—bursts of “fictional biography” and cherry-picked cultural history, if you will–contained in Santa Fe author of the aberrant Brendan Connell’s kaleidoscopic but slightly uneven Lives of Notorious Cooks (available Dec. 5). We’re talking about playing fast and loose with 51 short—including several one- or two-page flare-ups—off-kilter and often disquieting profiles, whether dubious in details or not, of chefs throughout world history and legend, from Agis to Xavier, from a cannibalistic ancient Greek and his consensual victims/victuals, to a Bourbon King of France who cooked ortolons within the bellies of partridges.
And so we’re treated, or occasionally force-fed, course after course of such surreal morsels as the account of 18th century British actor Robert Baddeley, “low comedian and cook of high art” whose endeavors to entertain led to such dishes as “fried violin strings,” or “eel hash in the shape of slippers, and turkey deviled to look like psalm books.” Then there’s the curt chronicle of Abu Kassim, whose sherbet was not only a sure bet–“Sherbet for the heart! Sherbet for the mind! Sherbet for the soul” he cried–it could make men so drunk and discombobulated that, in one case, a man “lost his hands. They were later found at a circumcision feast, clapping to the sound of a kettle drum.”
Other tales are more involved and relatively multilayered with a subplot or two, such as seen in the assassination scheme at the heart of the story of hatchet-happy Fan Kuai, who seems a little too anxious and wayward with the meat cleaver, taking aim at any stray duck or pig that gets in his way. However, “He was famous,” Connell says, “for his method of butchering dogs, and made a dish called flattened dog,” his specialty. For all the foreboding, bloodshed, and suspense of this narrative dish best served cold, though, the ending is unexpectedly though refreshingly capricious and upliftinh. In many senses of the word.
But riddle me this: throughout the storyline interwoven through the stages and changes in the successful career of Tommaso Verzeni, the one constant lies in his sublime meatballs—“Remarkable. Fabulous. Magnificent. Ambrosial,” as his praises are sung—and in the secrecy with which he protects the recipe. It isn’t until the Milanese gourmet is dead and gone that the ugly truth of the mystery recipe is unearthed, but the wry twist within the twist makes for a ghoulish yet neatly tied-up loose end. And the story of the boastful and blind “Homer of cooks” Nereus, who declares that “When my pot begins to boil, all who smell the aroma drool until they’re sopping,” is also wrapped up in a tidy conclusion, succinctly deadpanned while subtly playing up that satisfying old “pride goeth before a fall” angle.
Indeed, the inventive Connell’s dry and sly and matter-of-macbre-fact intonation throughout Lives of Notorious Cooks (Chômu Press) aptly complements the sparse pointedness and incisiveness of the tales. And while some of the more bare-bones and too-brief tales of misery and imagination are a little too undernourished and enigmatic for their own good and for our edification, for the most part the author’s minutely-honed craftsmanship allows us to the read between the lines and connect a few more dots than we are used to doing, making what Connell’s cooked up here more challenging but ultimately more rewarding. And perhaps preparing us for whatever Denny’s is serving up should they start to take too many liberties with our beloved Grand Slams. Side order of boiled cow udders with that?Powered by Sidelines