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FOR A WHILE there, like two millennia, Great Britain was not highly regarded for its cuisine. Even Sherlock Holmes had trouble detecting a decent repast. The Sacred Writings, as Dr. John H. Watson’s chronicles are often called, are relatively free of culinary matters, though there has been Sherlockian research on the matter.
“The Gastronomic Holmes,” by Fletcher Pratt, 1897 – 1956, is one of the essays in Sherlock Holmes by Gas-Lamp. Pratt was more than a Sherlockian scholar. He was also a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, yet combined these whimsies with authoritative writing on naval history, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the Civil War and World War II.
Droll aspects of his writing appear in “The Gastronomic Holmes,” several examples of which I offer here with my added tidbits. Pratt’s thesis is that Holmes was an epicure, “one of a line of great names in that long line which is supposed to begin with Lucullus and Petronius Arbiter…”
Lucullus, 118 BC – 57/56 BC, was a skilled military leader who returned to Rome with so much booty that he became what Wikipedia terms “a cultural innovator in the deployment of imperial wealth.”
Let’s shy away from any current political connotations. However, the word Lucullan now means lavish, luxurious and gourmet.
Gaius Petronius Arbiter, c. 27 – 66 AD, was a courtier during the reign of Nero. Wikipedia notes “he became a member of the senatorial class who devoted themselves to a life of pleasure.”
It’s getting more difficult not to cite modern parallels.
Returning to Pratt’s comments, I observe that he didn’t think much of these Roman epicures: “Also, they watered their wine. This is a horrible fact but a proved one.”
Pratt writes of the late Victorian era in which Holmes lived and dined, “During his active period he was living in London, the capital of the world’s worst cookery, unless that title can be claimed by Chicago….”
Of course, new generations of English chefs, London eateries and Chicago Molecular Gastronomy put paid to such comments these days. However, no one would quibble with Pratt’s period description of “the average English dinner, with the over-done joint of beef or mutton, the brussels sprouts and the slightly gelid boiled potato swimming in its little lake of grease.”
Yum. Or, as Oliver Twist says, “Please sir, I want some more.”
Pratt treats Watson’s culinary taste with succinct analyses: “One must also recognize that Watson had practically no palate at all—a man who takes brandy and soda with his lunch obviously could not….” Also, he says Watson was “one who did nothing to preserve his figure.”
In “The Sign of the Four,” Holmes describes a dinner, one of only two chronicled in the Canon: “I have oysters and a brace of grouse, with something a little choice in white wine—Watson, you have never yet recognized my merits as a housekeeper.”
As for the grouse, Pratt notes “… they could only have been served in the classic manner prescribed by both Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier—roasted with the breasts only served, accompanied by a bread sauce, potato chips, and a gravy made from the unused portions of the birds.”
Zut alors! We ’Mericans would probably call the potatoes French fries. And serving solely the breasts reminds me of Gilded Age directions for correctly grilling a steak: Wrap the steak with inferior cuts of beef, grill until the lesser cuts are blackened beyond edibility, discard them and enjoy the succulence wrapped within.
Pratt confirms Holmes’ reputation as a gourmet by what happened after dinner: “The great detective became very gay and talkative, discussed medieval pottery, miracle plays, Stradivarius violins, and warships of the future [to Pratt’s delight, no doubt], and ended by pouring two more rounds of port….”
What’s more, Pratt observes, “Parenthetically, it is to be noted that Holmes poured it himself; another sign of the true gourmet, who would rather let a gorilla handle his sister than a waiter touch his port.”
To the left, my good man, and slide it, not lift it off the table! The port, not the gorilla. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016