Friday, March 27, 2009

Book Review: The Cook



Food has the potential to be a very powerful tool. The preparer, or cook, is thus uniquely advantaged to exploit that control for her/his benefit, like an alchemist turning base metals into gold. The dictionary definition of a cook is "one whose occupation is to prepare food for the table; one who dresses or cooks meat or vegetables for eating." Yet, this meaning does little to convey the authority the position can command.

The use of food as an instrument for personal gain is compellingly revealed in The Cook, a novel by Harry Kressing published in 1965. The Cook is the story of Conrad, a man hired to cook for the wealthy Hill family in the bucolic village of Cobb, and his path to dominance over the household. Towering at 6' 6" tall and with an imperious demeanor, Conrad is formidable in both appearance and disposition. But it is his cooking ability that allows him to transform the domestic structure of the entire Hill estate, resulting in a new household order by the end of the story.

When Conrad arrives, he is told that the Hills like only simple food, do not linger over their meals with second servings, and never come into the kitchen. But after Conrad's first meal, a breakfast, is served to the family, one begins to sense a shift in the dynamics of the Hill household as the maid returns to the kitchen almost immediately with a request for more muffins. Another change soon occurs:

After breakfast a tall, statuesque woman came into the kitchen. "I'm Mrs. Hill," she smiled, concealing her surprise at Conrad's appearance. "I just wanted to tell you that your muffins were delicious."
Conrad inclined his head and thanked her.
And before Mrs. Hill left: "Could we possibly have some more muffins for breakfast tomorrow morning?"


From this point, food is used to exploit the characters' psychological weaknesses, whether they be feelings of inadequacy, lack of self esteem, or arrogance. Under Conrad's manipulation, the fat become thin, the sick become healthy, and vice versa.

As in a meticulously executed chess match, Conrad sets the stage for a deposition and redistribution of power, effortlessly maneuvering events and the minds of those around him. The reversal of roles evolves so naturally that even the reader is left bemused by the deftness with which the outcome is achieved.

Although out of print, it is well worth the effort to find an old copy of The Cook. Not much is known of the author and it is believed that "Harry Kressing" is a pseudonym. This only adds to the mystery of this delightful little masterpiece of ambition, greed, and cunning deception.

8 comments:

Verena said...

This looks delightful. What an exciting book! I must try to find it somehow..This is perfect for anyone interested in the relations between food and power.

Marta said...

I know this book, having read it nearly 30 years ago. It was unforgettable, quite original. I think I re-read it at least twice more later on. Thank you
for this unexpected pleasure.

the five o'clock teaspoon said...

Verena,
Hope you can find a copy...I think you'll enjoy it.

Marta,
This was my second time reading The Cook. Having read it over 10 years ago, I thought I might not like it as much as before. I found, however, that the book did justice to my memory!

hellaD said...

I read this book years ago when I was in culinary school and haven't been able to track it down since. I finally remembered to look it up again.
I am an avid reader and this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read. Thanks for your great review. It's been so long I have forgotten many details!

Anonymous said...

I read this book about 20/30 years ago and it has stayed with me since. I just wish I still had a copy.

the five o'clock teaspoon said...

Definitely worth reading again. You might try Abebooks.com.

Tetsuzo said...

I am Japanese of 31 years old, and have a Japanese translated version of "The Cook". This book is very interesting, and somehow sophisticated. So, I want to read the original in English.
Thank you for your introduction. I will read this book again.

the five o'clock teaspoon ~ fiveoclockteaspoon.com said...

Tetsuzo,
This would definitely be worth reading in the original English. I agree, the story has a quiet sophistication to it.