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It was my first visit to New Orleans but I felt I knew it. Unforgettable images of black bands swaying through the street playing jazz music as they followed a funeral were largely responsible. The dazzling and colorful abandon of the Mardi Gras with its spectacular costumes, its nonstop music and its floats that had escaped from the world of fairy tale had to be held accountable, too. Delicately lacey wrought-iron balconies came into my slightly hazy memory, too, though these tended to have elegant ladies with shawls gazing down with casual disdain as they sipped mint juleps. This probably came from an earlier period although the balconies remained.
I had lunched in a veritable museum of classic New Orleans cuisine, Arnaud's. The restaurant spreads over an entire city block, twelve buildings all connected by hallways and stairs. It has a true sense of history; one wall in the main dining area was completely covered with photographs from 1918 onward. The only underground wine cellar in New Orleans is here, too. From the street, the leaded windows portray an earlier era, and inside are the potted palms in five-foot-high pots on pedestals, the dark wood panels, the twenty large ceiling fans and the fifteen crystal chandeliers. We had walked through this main dining room on our way to a small alcove that had undoubtedly seen its share of romantic trysts in its day.
I reminded myself sternly that I was here on business and firmly refused the offer of another Sazerac. But my host insisted and I was gracious enough to yield. He leaned forward, doubtless to press home his advantage while my mood was still mellow but not yet inebriated.
"You'll take the commission, of course. Franklin said you would—he also assured me that you werethe best man for the job."
He had outlined the job between the main course and the dessert. It was superb timing. I was in a state of utter culinary satisfaction after a dozen plump oysters on the half shell followed by a delicious shrimp-and-crab étouffée.
I was mildly irked by his statement that Franklin had said I would take the commission. Franklin does not make decisions for me—well, he likes to do so but I don't always fall into line with his wishes, his dictates, really. The sop he had tossed out afterwards, saying that I was the best man for the job, was possibly true although it was just as likely that Henry O'Brien in Dublin and Jacques LaPoche in Montreal had been asked and turned it down.
"You will enjoy the event anyway—you must have been to a lot of these but as you will learn while you are here in our wonderful city, New Orleans knows how to put a different slant on many aspects of life."
Eric Van Linn was a robust (I avoid the word fat even for people I don't like), florid (I prefer it to red-faced) persuasive (it sounds better than domineering) individual. He was a well-known lawyer in New Orleans, I learned, and though I share the human race's feelings about the profession, I accepted when he phoned me in Los Angeles where I was attending a Food Fair. A client of mine wanted the fair assessed so that he could decide how heavily to invest in such an endeavor next year. The purpose of Van Linn's phone call was to invite me to stop over in New Orleans on my way back to London.
Why me? Well, I operate under the name of The Gourmet Detective. I seek out lost recipes and rare spices, find substitutes for disappearing or suddenly expensive food ingredients. I advise on topics like the food to serve in a film set in the seventeenth century or at a suitable "theme" banquet for the fiftieth anniversary of a department store. The occasional job turns up, such as attending the Los Angeles Food Fair—not noticeably lucrative but easy to do and a good chance for me to pick up one or two prospective clients.
The phone call I had received in Los Angeles came in a richly rounded voice. Van Linn said that I had been recommended to him by a mutual acquaintance in London, Franklin Bardo, a lawyer with whom I had done a mercifully small amount of business. Would I, Van Linn asked, like to stop in New Orleans for a couple of days and fulfill a simple mission? It would take only a few hours and all expenses paid, of course.
The Big Easy happened to be one of the few major culinary cities in the civilized world I had not visited, and the suggestion had a certain lure. While talking on the phone, my elbow rested on a copy of the Los Angeles Times showing floods in London after days of torrential rain and predicting that worse was yet to come. I made a decision.
The decision was, naturally, not an immediate agreement. It was a decision only to stop in New Orleans and have the job explained. Van Linn said he preferred to do that in person rather than on the phone so that even if I declined to take the job, I would have a free stopover in New Orleans. He added in a persuasive courtroom tone that he could not contemplate a refusal on my part. So naturally, I said yes to the first part and "happy to hear about the job and consider it" to the second part.
Eric Van Linn proposed lunch at the prestigious Arnaud's Restaurant, which I certainly knew by reputation. So here we were after a superb meal and Van Linn was using all his legal training to cinch the deal.
"It's not a difficult task, as I told you," Van Linn continued. He leaned his bulk back in a big chair that the restaurant had had built with sufficient strength to support those diners who had eaten too much of their food. "This book auction is a major event and is always well-attended. You'll meet a lot of very nice people and have an agreeable day."
"Books are a bit out of my line. People call me The Gourmet Detective because I—"
"Yes, yes, you explained that—but this isn't a matter of merely buying a book. We could get anyone to do that. It's the contents of the book that we are concerned about. The book probably sounds authentic to ninety-nine out of a hundred. You're the hundredth—you're an expert who can verify that the recipes are exactly what they purport to be."
"There must be chefs by the dozen in New Orleans who can tell you if recipes in a cookbook are genuine," I protested.
Was there just the least hesitation in Van Linn's smoothly hearty manner? I thought I detected it but it might have been a suppressed hiccup from the hot sauce on his crawfish. "Chefs in New Orleans are the same as chefs everywhere—they are all limited in their outlook. Take them outside of Creole, Cajun and French cuisine and they are all adrift. For this task, we need a man with a wide international background, someone who knows all the cooking techniques, all the ingredients."
He seemed to want me to accept that, to believe him, to agree with him. Did I? I could not think of any reason why not. There was some feasibility in what he said and, anyway, what did I have to lose? Just a couple of days to give London a chance to sweep all that rain down the Thames and out to sea.
I suppose the only thought that held me back was that in the past, I had accepted many commissions to perform seemingly simple and straightforward tasks relating to food, restaurants, eating and related subjects. Most of the tasks had been just that—simple and straightforward—but a few had turned out to have embarrassing and even dangerous consequences. When mussels and marjoram turned into murder and mayhem, I wanted to seek the nearest exit—a course of action not viewed sympathetically by the employer. I always maintained that it was not cowardice but common sense.
"Tell me again about this book," I asked.
"Certainly. How about coffee?"
"I recall reading that New Orleans coffee contains chicory."
"Yes, terrible stuff."
"I've tasted it, it used to be very popular in England. It's not that bad, I think I'll have it for a change."
"Chicory's some kind of vegetable, isn't it?" Van Linn was not reconciled to the thought of anyone actually drinking a vegetable. What had been his comment on New Orleans chefs—in fact all chefs—that they were limited in their outlook? Still, this was not the time to be picky.
"Yes, the roots of the vegetable you call 'endive' in the U.S.A. are the chicory used in coffee. Endives are eaten only in the form of the leaves. They use them in salad quite often."
Van Linn's pursed lips indicated that I had not converted him. "Terrible idea, putting a vegetable into coffee."
"Blame Napoleon," I said. "It was his fault."
"He's a bit of a hero in this part of the world," Van Linn reminded me.
"Yes, helped you fight against some occupying army or other, didn't he?"
"That's one way to put it." Van Linn's lips twitched. "There is a dessert named after him but I didn't know his interests extended as far as coffee."
"He set up trade barriers that severely limited imports into France. One of the commodities hardest-hit was coffee. The importers tried different additives to stretch out their restricted supplies—they found that chicory was accepted more readily than the others."
He waved the waiter over. "One espresso and one—er, chicory coffee."
When the waiter had left, Van Linn said, "The book, yes ... you will have heard of the Belvedere family?"
"Famous wherever food is discussed," I said promptly.
"Five generations of them have run the restaurant in New Orleans bearing their name. Five—that's more even than this place."
"Prominent in the history of New Orleans, originated several famous dishes," I contributed.
"True," said Van Linn. "Well, Arturo, the first in the dynasty, came to this country with his parents and his two sisters from Andorra. He was thirteen and had to go to work as did all of the family. Arturo worked twelve hours a day, six days a week as a cleaning boy in a restaurant. He was promoted to chopping potatoes then given more and more jobs till he was appointed a sous-chef. He saved money, other family members came from Andorra and chipped in to help him buy a small restaurant and that was the start of it all."
"How different," I commented, "from the hot, young, Generation X, fast-rising star, cutting-edge American type of chef that we hear so much of today and see too many of on TV."
"In the big cities mainly," said Van Linn.
"Yes—where the media are located. Does that suggest that culinary success is achieved with the aid of Madison Avenue hype rather than natural talent?"
"Hmph," Van Linn commented. It was probably a criticism of my interrupting his flow. "Anyway, each generation took over in turn and the reputation of the Belvedere family grew and grew."
The coffee arrived. Mine had that uniquely sharp aroma that chicory gives. Eric Van Linn inhaled his espresso with the snobbish look of satisfaction that his choice was superior.
"Which brings us to the book," he said. He sipped his espresso. I waited for my coffee to cool. "Arturo taught himself to read and write when he found he was climbing in the world. When he was advancing in age, he decided to write down his recipes—many of which he had developed himself. One of the recipes he wrote down was the one for oysters Belvedere."
"One of the most renowned dishes in the culinary repertoire," I added. I could see he didn't like my comments. It was not because of their content, but I supposed that years of courtroom oratory had caused him to have a lofty attitude about his own prowess. My knowledge of courtrooms did not extend further than Perry Mason and Horace Rumpole, and from this background I had come to think of "Objection, Your Honor" as punctuating every other sentence. This being fiction, I assumed the fact was that oration flowed largely unchecked.
Nevertheless, I had to make some input and intended to keep doing so. Van Linn acknowledged my words with the briefest of nods. "Just so. He passed the book on to his son and he passed it on—well, all the way down to Ernesto, the last Belvedere. Here's where the story takes on a sad note ... Ernesto became senile. At first, it was considered as eccentricity and he was lucky in having an efficient and loyal staff who covered up for him. His wife, Matilde, refused to admit there was anything wrong with him. His behavior grew worse. He insulted customers, alienated suppliers by insisting their product was inferior, he failed to place orders, misplaced reservations ...
"Well, the inevitable happened, business fell away and when Ernesto struck a diner for criticizing his food, the place closed. The accounts were in a shambles and it looked as if it were the end of a dynasty."
When he paused for another, longer sip of coffee, I tested mine. The chicory taste was not as strong as I would have liked but it was different from the average cup of coffee.
"You say, 'looked as if,'" I observed. "You mean it wasn't?"
Van Linn was pleased with the question. "Ernesto's son, Ambrose, was in college during the period that the restaurant was declining. He had no interest in the food industry. He has now graduated and has decided he wants to reopen the restaurant after all. He even envisions restoring it to its earlier glory."
"And all you want me to do is go to this auction and authenticate a book?"
"That, too, is correct."
"The book we are referring to is the recipe book that the Belvedere family has been using all these years," I persisted.
"Yes, it is."
"Now, tell me why the book is at an auction and not at the restaurant."
He sipped his coffee and looked at my cup in commiseration. "All of the Belvederes had added to the book that Arturo had started. The last time the book was seen, it was still in the restaurant. That was when Ernesto was first experiencing his mental problems. It was not really missed—apparently it's not the kind of cookbook that a chef has to refer to all the time."
"I can understand that," I told him. "This one obviously has historical value beyond its practical value. Still, it is common practice for a chef to have a book and write down all his favorite recipes and use it to refresh his memory. If the chef takes a day off or something like that, one of the sous-chefs can refer to it and that way ensure that the dish is cooked always in the same way."
Van Linn nodded. "In the case at hand, when the contents of the restaurant were being cleaned out, the absence of the book was realized. The staff were questioned closely and none of them knew anything about it. I was asked to question Ernesto in the nursing home he was committed to, as to its whereabouts, but by then he was too old and I could learn nothing."
"And now," I said, "it has surfaced at an auction."
"It's a charity auction, held once a year. It's a famous and popular event in New Orleans. Books come in from all sources—but where this book came from, nobody is sure. The books come, volunteers sift through them and pick out the more valuable ones. Individual books are sold, sometimes sets, sometimes small libraries or quantities of books all on one subject."
"A volunteer spotted this one and recognized its worth?" I asked.
"Exactly. If it has any worth."
"You mean, if it's not a forgery?"
"Certainly. People find lost manuscripts of Shakespeare, lost symphonies of Mozart ... a few years ago, the diaries of Adolf Hitler were found and authenticated by several of the world's leading historical authorities before they were declared forged. Howard Hughes' will appeared and was naturally contested ... The list is endless."
"I'm not an expert on books," I said. "I know I've pointed this out before but—"
"I know you're not. That's not why you are being hired. All you have to do is decide if the recipes in the book are genuine."
A light had just begun to shine in my brain. Chicory is believed in some quarters to have powers of augmenting mental activity. Maybe it worked?
"If the book is genuine," I said slowly, "it should contain the famous recipe for oysters Belvedere."
Van Linn pursed his lips, not altogether the effect of the espresso. "That's possible, I suppose."
"That alone might make it valuable."
I cogitated. "Your client is, I suppose, wanting to remain incognito?"
"For the time being," Van Linn said urbanely.
Excerpted from Roux the Day by Peter King. Copyright © 2002 Peter King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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