Thirty years ago, in November 1990, I’d been working at the Reader’s Den Bookstore for six months. It was across from Philosopher’s Walk, north side of Bloor west of Avenue. It’s not there any more. It went bankrupt in February 1993 in the recession—Christmas sales were dismal, I remember, though I was too inexperienced to see the inevitable—and the location has been an egg restaurant for quite a while now. I’ve never been in. Who knows, maybe with the pandemic it’s gone bankrupt too.
Some time in 1991, probably, I was given responsibility for handling buying from academic and small presses. The manager did trade frontlist (the biggest portfolio), the assistant manager did paperbacks (second biggest), and I ended up handling the rest. A few times a year reps would come by with catalogues and help meg pick out what the store would get in: two of this, one of this, eight of that, etc. The reps really knew the books, and they knew what the store sold, and their advice was excellent. It was a good gig.
One of the academic reps—I think he handled a bunch of smaller American university presses—was a man named Michael Romano. I remember one late afternoon he came by to go through the upcoming season of titles, and then he asked if I wanted to join him for dinner at the Swiss Chalet down the street.
I think I expressed some hesitation at the idea of Swiss Chalet, but he said they did a good chicken. I said okay. Besides, I barely had any money, and this was a free dinner. Looking back now, I realize he’d been out on the road for days or weeks—he’d do this at least three times a year, maybe covering all of eastern Canada—and he’d probably been to several stores in Toronto and had more to do tomorrow; the day was done, he was tired, and he’d enjoy some company at table before he went back to his hotel room. Being a travelling sales rep is a lonely job no matter what industry you’re in.
Over dinner he mentioned that he’d ghost-written The Nero Wolfe Cookbook. I didn’t know what to make of this. I’d never read any of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries (even though we sold quite a few in the bookstore; the paperback reprints did well), and had the outrageously presumptuous and jejune opinion that because I’d never read any of them they couldn’t be any good. My logic was: I’ve read many good series of classic mysteries; therefore if I haven’t read a series of classic mysteries it can’t be good. Of course this is nonsense. “Pfui,” Wolfe would say.
Twenty-five years later I realized my mistake and I began to read the Nero Wolfe mysteries. My reading diary shows I read 21 in 2016 and 17 in 2017. That was all library books. As P.G. Wodehouse says, “[Stout] passes the supreme test of being rereadable” and I’m enjoying working my way through them again, this time buying them from Sellers and Newel. I know I’ll reread them again.
Because of this rereading, and the frequent mentions of what Wolfe and Archie Goodwin eat, I thought about Michael Romano and The Nero Wolfe Cookbook. I got a copy from a used bookstore out west.
The book is wonderful. There are hundreds of recipes, all mentioned in the Wolfe books, with representative quotes. For example, there’s this quote from Death of a Doxy, followed immediately by recipes for the four dishes.
Business is taboo at the dinner table, but crime and criminals aren’t, and the Rosenberg case hogged the conversation all through the anchovy fritters, partridge in casserole with no olives in the sauce, cucumber mousse, and Creole curds and cream.
(Creole curds and cream has you “allow the sour milk to clabber in a 5-quart crock” so I won’t be trying that.)
The book’s first recipe (in the first chapter, “Breakfast in the Old Brownstone”) is for eggs au buerre noir, which are eaten several times in the books. Here it is:
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 4 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry
Preheat the broiler. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in each of the 2 shirred egg dishes and add the eggs, yolks unbroken, 2 to a dish. Cook over medium heat for 1 or 2 minutes until the egg white is set. Spoon the butter over the eggs. Put the dishes under the hot broiler for another minute until the eggs have filmed over. Remove from the oven and let stand in a warm place. In a skillet melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When white waxy particles have settled to the bottom pour the clear liquid off into a bowl. Return the clarified butter to the pan and continue to cook until it has turned a deep golden brown. Watch it carefully to be sure the butter does not burn. Add the sherry and stir until blended. Pour the butter sauce over the eggs and serve immediately. (Serves 2.)
I think it changed in a later edition, however. This post at Flame Noir Candle Co. has a slightly different recipe that I think comes from the paperback. Compare my version:
Remove from the oven and let stand in a warm place. In a skillet melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When white waxy particles have settled to the bottom pour the clear liquid off into a bowl. Return the clarified butter to the pan …
Remove them from the oven and let them stand in a warm place. Next, you will want to clarify the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. To clarify, heat the butter up in a skillet at medium-low temperature until the butter has melted and you notice a white foam forming at the top. The clarification process separates the water and dairy that has turned into foam from the pure butter fat, so you’ll want to skim the white foam off of the top of the butter and discard it in order to clarify the butter. Next, pour the butter into a small bowl. This will leave any additional white particles that may have floated to the bottom in the skillet. Wipe the pan out, and then return the clarified butter to the pan.
That’s much clearer: it explains that you’re clarifying butter and has lots of detail about how to do it. My version has you pouring melted butter into a bowl and then straight back into the pan. This morning I did a first test by just baking an egg in the oven in a ramekin with some butter and milk, which I’d never done before. Very nice! I’ll do the sauce next time.
All the other recipes I looked at seem fine, however. There are many I won’t make because I don’t eat mammals, but even if I did I wouldn’t make squirrel stew (which calls for “3 squirrels, skinned and cleaned” and begins “cut the squirrels into serving pieces”) or my own headcheese (“1 calf’s head; 1 pair pig’s feet,” “ask the butcher to clean the calf’s head and remove the brain and tongue”).
There are lots of recipes for fish, on the other hand, some nice desserts, salads with tasty dressings, basics like biscuits, a chicken fricassee I’ll try, and many more. The recipes I won’t make are still worth reading just to imagine what a meal with Nero Wolfe would be like, and when I read a Wolfe story and see a mention of a meal I can look up how it was made.
It’ll be quite a while before I can have a dinner party and serve these new recipes. Wolfe likes company at dinner, and he enjoys good conversation. Michael Romano did too, I now understand. Until that’s possible again, at least we have the books.