I am certainly not the first to acclaim Harry Kressing’s 1965 novel, The Cook as a neglected masterpiece. It rates seven five-star reviews on Amazon, and at least a handful of enthusiastic posts on other blogs (Wilson’s Pick; Hella D; Browser’s Bookstore; five o’clock teaspoon; and The Kind of Face You Hate). Still, something is out of whack when a book pops up so often as a forgotten favorite and commands upwards of $29.95 for what was originally a 75-cent paperback.
The Cook is a perfect fiction. It takes place in a stateless world. The characters seem American but could just as well fit in a dozen other countries. Kressing wastes nothing on anything but the story, and when he has achieved the effect he has been aiming at, he ties it off with a quick snip.
The story takes place in the town of Cobb, into which rides Conrad, an exceedingly tall thin man dressed in black. He is mesmerized by the Prominence, an enormous castle-like estate sitting high above the town on an almost inaccessible plateau. The people in the town work for one of the two great families that run its industries. The Hills and the Vales have something of a family curse that hangs over them from generations back, although it’s faded to the point that they manage to socialize on occasion. After quickly demonstrating to the townspeople that he is a chef of formidable knowledge and skill, Conrad insinuates himself onto the staff at the Hill’s mansion.
From then on, the plot of The Cook unreels through a series of episodes by which Conrad increasingly exerts his will upon all he encounters. Within days, his wonderful cooking wins the Hills’ gratitude, but his goal is not to feed them but to control them–indeed, to control the whole town.
Soon, he has not only convinced the Hills to fire most of their staff, but he has managed to subvert the Hills themselves to work as their own servants, under his increasingly forceful direction. The whole process is undertaken with just enough subtlety to make it seem inevitable:
The three Hills continued to stare at him silently. In appearance, Conrad was not quite the same as when he had arrived in Cobb. Most striking, he was no longer gaunt and starved-looking. Not that he was fat, but it was his size that would catch the eye rather than any want of proportion: before, he had only seemed very tall and thin; now he looked huge, which made his presence more powerfully felt. His face, too, was fuller and, consequently, less eagle-like in aspect. Yet, this impression remained quite evident: his nose, which really gave his face its cast, was still sharp and hooked, even though it was broader and not so pointed. Still, it was unmistakably a beak. Indeed, if anything it was a slightly larger and more forceful beak, as befitted the greater bulk of his figure. The eyes, of course, were as black as ever. That some of the lines around the corners had been smoothed didn’t seem to change their expression: they were still disconcertingly piercing.
It is as if he is consuming the Hills not just psychologically but physically as well. By playing with their minds and their diets, Conrad eventually rearranges lives of the Hills and the Vales in such a way that he becomes the all-controlling force over them, and ends up as master of the Prominence.
The Cook is a masterful diabolic fable, worked in elegant prose within the space of barely a hundred-some pages. Considering that we are living in a golden age of foodies, it’s crazy that this tale of gourmet wizardry (literally and metaphorically) hasn’t been republished with an intro by someone like Anthony Bourdain (who would certainly appreciate the book’s black humor).
Harry Kressing seems to have been a pseudonym, and although there have been a number of attempts to put a face to the name, so far the Internet has not revealed his secret. He (assuming someone else didn’t steal his pseudonym) published a second novel–or rather, a collection of two novellas–under the title of Married Lives in 1974. Married Lives is nothing like The Cook–instead of a fabulistic tale, we get two set-pieces that seem more like technical exercises than serious fiction. It’s best left neglected.
The Cook, by Harry Kressing
New York: Random House, 1965