Issue 160, Winter 2001
My career began with two strokes of good luck—fate, you might say, because as instances of good fortune none could have bettered them. After the war, towards the end of which I served as a cook in His Majesty's land forces, I had returned to England and, armed with the ability to knock up a wholesome bully beef stew for three hundred, presumed to pass myself off as a chef. In my new, ill-fitting suit (we all got a new, ill-fitting suit) I talked my way into the kitchens of a modest hotel in Margate, and several years afterwards found myself working in one of the superior hotels on the south coast. I won't tell you where because, about a decade later, at a moment when I gained some brief, local notoriety for swallowing slugs, my former employer at this establishment wrote to beg me never to divulge the name of the place to another living soul. Quite right, of course, only by that time I had completely forgotten what the hotel in question was called, and his letter served only to remind me of it.
Anyway, while I was working at this hotel as third chef, in which role I took charge of breakfasts, I found myself one morning summoned to the table of a guest in order to receive his compliments. His name was Mulligan, a regular customer, and familiar to us all, not by the frequency of his stays so much as by the dimensions of his body. He was, quite simply, enormous. In his tweed suit he resembled a well-tailored tree trunk, a huge lump of man. One would not have called him fat, although there was certainly more to him than meat and bone. No, not fat. Even as he sat, motionless but for the steady working of his jaws, one could tell that he wasn't a wobbler, that when he stood up his belly would not flib-flab around in front of him like a sackful of jellyfish. From head to toe he had achieved a condition only dreamed of by the obese, and scorned (somewhat jealously) by bodybuilders everywhere: firm fat. And underneath this magnificent outer layer there resided also an ample musculature, sufficient muscle indeed so that, had he been alive today, Mulligan would have been at least an American wrestler, and at best a great film star.
But as luck (for me) would have it, he was neither of these; he was the feted Michael “Cast Iron” Mulligan. And that morning, as I picked bits of uneaten bacon from returned breakfast plates, examining them for teeth marks before setting them aside for a quiche, he wanted to speak to me.
In those days I knew no more about him than what I saw, and that included what I saw him eat. On this particular occasion he had consumed enough porridge to fill a bowler hat, ham and eggs sufficient to keep a team of navvies on the move all morning, and half a loaf of toast. But, then again, he had done so the previous morning, and as far as I was aware my cooking had not improved miraculously overnight. So why he wanted to speak to the breakfast chef I could not guess.
As I approached his table he was sipping tea from a china cup, as delicate as you like. As if to mark my arrival he dropped a lump of sugar into the cup with a pair of silver tongs. Then he looked up at me.
“So you' re the breakfast chef,” he said, in an Irish accent that teetered between seriousness and levity, as if everything had two possible interpretations. “Well, many thanks indeed for another fine meal. Yes, many, many thanks.”
I accepted his gratitude somewhat awkwardly, not quite deciding on an interpretation.
“And now,” he continued, pushing a vacant chair towards me and lowering his voice, “I am in need of a little assistance, and you look as if you might be the right man for the job.”
I sat down at the table, and for the first time saw a pound note slotted under a side plate. He let me consider its possible significance for a moment, then went on:
“Today,” he said, then stopping to drain the last of the tea from his cup, “I have a little business, a professional dinner if you will... ”
I nodded, still looking at the money.
“... a rather special affair, for which I am to provide the liquid refreshment.”
I was about to tell him that access to the wine cellar was strictly by arrangement with the manager, having (incorrectly) deduced that he, like many others before him, balked at the prices on our wine list and fancied some vino on the cheap. But I was a rather timid young man, and before I could summon up a suitably tactful form of words to explain that every thief has his price, and that mine was three pounds a case, he pulled a small piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket and placed it in front of me. On it was a recipe, handwritten and with no title:
Fresh orange juice - 3 pints; fresh tomato juice, 3 pints; pure olive oil, 1.5 pints; honey, .5 pint. Whisk until all ingredients combine. Leave to stand two hours. Whisk again and decant into eight pint bottles.
Whatever else he might have been, then, there seemed little doubt that Mr. Mulligan was severely constipated. And do you wonder! one might add, although just how constipated a man can be, even a man the size of a tree trunk with the appetite of an elephant, was perplexing indeed.
And why the homemade remedy? “I see that you find this something of a strange request, but I assure you that it really is quite harmless, quite innocent.”
He nudged the plate with the banknote under it towards me. “And if you can supply me with the eight bottles by five this evening, in my room, there will be another small gift awaiting you.”
My eyes must have accepted the offer on my behalf, since he sat back in his chair as if the deal were done. Carefully, I extracted the note from under the plate and stood up.
“Oh,” he added, “and, please, olive oil, of that I really must insist.”
Now in those days, not so very many years after the war, and with rationing only just out of the way, oranges enough for three pints of juice was a tall order. Even before I reached the kitchen it occurred to me that procuring wine was a far easier sideline than juicing six dozen oranges clandestinely, not to mention the tomatoes. As for the oil and the honey...
Now, my career as a cook had been touched by the cold, pinching hand of rationing, and so without hesitation I set to grinding down the fruit-flesh with an ancient mincer (a-ha! If only I'd known... ), sneaking cupfuls of concentrate and the odd can of tomato juice from the stores, pulping and grinding in an anxious frenzy. The oil was a dilemma, but also the making of me. In it went, pure olive oil. There was secrecy in it, and no great abundance in the supply room. And all the time that pound note looked less and less like good value. Curiously, though, I felt a certain pride, almost a reverence for the task, with Mulligan's words echoing m my ears: Oh, and, please, olive oil, of that I really must insist.
And so it was that, as casually as possible, I stood over a pan of pure olive oil on a slow flame, and carefully stirred in a half-pint of honey, mimicking as far as I could manage the arm movements of someone heating milk and eggs for a custard. Now, oil and honey are at best distant relations, and although, once heated through, the emulsion had a not unpleasant taste, the oil did, of course, tend to rise.
However, the job of introducing the sweetened oil to my juice mixture posed more acute logistical problems, and I had little recourse but to carry the lot off to my quarters in a steel bucket. I whisked and whisked until my arm went into cramp. To my surprise, the stuff combined tolerably well, and although one couldn't have said that it was a tasty concoction, neither was it all that bad.
Then I returned to my quiches and the luncheon preparations, leaving the bucket hidden inside my wardrobe. Six hours later it had been whisked again and put into eight milk bottles.
At five minutes to five I began my furtive scurry through the hotel, the heavy crate in my arms, avoiding the main staircase entirely, sprinting along old servants' corridors and up dark, winding stairwells only used in emergencies. When I arrived at his room, sweat had begun to trickle down my forehead and into my eyes, and as he opened the door I was blinking maniacally. Before I had chance even to look at him I had been yanked inside, the door closed behind me.
The room was full of the charming, intermingled smells of cigars and cologne, and in one corner hung a purple velvet smoking jacket, which, since Mr. Mulligan was wearing waistcoat and trousers of the same fabric, I guessed was part of his evening dress.
He fussed around with the cigar he was smoking, unable to locate an ashtray, and finally popped the burning stub back into his mouth. From the wine crate he extracted a bottle, examined the color of the liquid against the light from the window and took a sip. He murmured his approval before replacing the bottle:
“Not all fresh, especially the tomatoes, but a fine olive oil at least.” He nodded towards a table, where another pound note awaited me. “And that comes with my sincere gratitude, young man, to be sure it does.”
But I didn't take the note. I wasn't going anywhere until I'd had an explanation. Although in retrospect it was pure naivete which led me to such presumptuousness. Michael Mulligan, as I was to learn subsequently, was not a man whom one obliged to do or to say anything. If the king himself (the queen by that time, actually) had desired something from him, then it would have been requested formally, as a polite favor. In my ignorance, then, I stood my ground until an amused curiosity crept across his face.
“I can see,” he began, sitting down in an armchair and gesturing towards another, “that you want explanations, not cash.”
He laughed, not the big belly laugh one might have expected, but a high-pitched, impish giggle. I sat down and waited for him to continue.
“That in itself is commendable. Here,” he said, offering me a cigar.
I accepted the cigar, lit it as one would a cigarette and, for want of knowing better, sucked heavily. All at once my lungs were full of burning rubber and dark, sizzling caramel, and my stomach lurched and tore itself in all directions, my throat near to rupture as I forced repeated vomit-spasms back downwards. Not only did I avoid vomiting but, to my amazement, neither did I cough.
Mulligan looked on with interest and, as I recovered from my first taste of a Havana, he said:
“Now that sort of thing I find really quite impressive.
You neither coughed nor were you sick, although even your evident pride has not been sufficient to keep your face from turning green. One doesn't, by the way, inhale the fumes of a cigar. But I digress. Keeping it down! That's what this is all about, my friend. The mixture that you prepared will help me to do likewise this evening.”
My head swam uncontrollably, and I was too debilitated by my lungful of smoke to make any response.
“Tonight,” he continued, “I will be eating furniture. And your fine mixture will ensure that not only can I get it down, but that I can keep it down! “I am an eating specialist,” he said, and again I hardly knew how earnest or capricious I was to take him, “although, ifl say so myself, of a rather exclusive kind. Not an attraction, in the normal sense. I do not actually attract people. My performances are entirely private affairs. But perhaps you have seen something of my profession, or heard of it at least?”
I assured him that I had not, shaking my head vigorously.
“And in the pub, or at the fair, have you never seen men competing to be the fastest with a yard of ale, to the delight of all around? And have you never heard of the great pieeating competitions, of tripe-swallowing and the like?”
I had to admit that I had.
“Well,” he said, turning his palms upwards humbly, “every profession has its amateurs, its quaint traditions and its side-street hobbyists. And every profession has also its experts, its virtuosi, its aristocrats. I, if I may be so bold as to say so, am of the latter category: a gentleman eater.”
And thus he began a narration which took us not only to fine seaside hotels in the south of England, but across the great oceans, into places and society which, even in the depths of despair during the war, I had hardly dreamed existed.