Essay from Volume 4 Issue 2
Maigret Makes Me Hungry
The Voracious Eating Habits of a Voracious Reader
It's not a mystery why I stand five feet six inches and weigh two hundred pounds. In this day of dieting I remain an anachronism, my mouth chomping merrily through literary tons of food like a perpetual food processor.
Reading and eating are a happy combination. The suggestion of food, the mere mention of a picnic or a plate of food being set down in front of a character in a novel and I'm in the grip of a subconscious compulsion: my eyes glaze over and I become a slave— Batman obeying the bat signal, which orb, shining high over Gotham City, is a large sausage and mushroom pizza to go: C'mon Robin; it's ready. I turn slowly from the page and zombie-like start toward the refrigerator and pantry. The phone ringing at this point brings a snarl from my throat. The confusion is staggering. My feet shuffle in both directions at once. But desire makes me clairvoyant, and I know it's only a computerized telemarketer named Lloyd. I continue toward the food holding areas. I'm usually well-stocked because of this aberration, but if I'm low on paté or cheese or endive or sausage, there are some excellent specialty food shops, butchers and greengrocers in striking distance to help appease my cravings as I follow the peregrinations of such an eminent eater as chief inspector Maigret, Georges Simenon's detective.
He meets Janvier, one of his inspectors, in a small bistro to discuss a murder they are investigating in the neighborhood. No boring stakeout in a modern radio car for Maigret. No beeper that sends him to the nearest phone for a message. For him it's the warm, homey atmosphere of a small, family-owned and operated restaurant. It is headquarters for him while he's on the case, so the patron will pass his calls on to him. Maigret, a lover of bourgeois cuisine, orders some andouillettes or saucissons served cold with hot potato salad, or if there's a lapin saute chasseur... Janvier might start with the soup, a potage Saint-Germain, followed by a fragrant choucroute garni or a navarin printanier in season.
The scene is not to clarify the case but to focus on the enigmatic Maigret who grunts occasionally to some speculation or other by Janvier about possible suspects, who mostly thinks to himself, or sighs, leaving Janvier and us as much in the dark as ever, and who chews methodically but with such innate pleasure that we stare at his moving mouth, sensing that pleasure and wishing to copy it. Maigret will have a marc, a nice, coarse after-dinner brandy designed to knock the wind out of anyone under sixteen stone. All in all a mouth-watering repast. All this ruminating, mental and dental, are necessary for atmosphere.
By now the hunger is overwhelming. I'm craving what they are having. I don't begin to claw at my stomach exactly, nor do I begin to salivate and look wildly about for something edible: the geraniums don't cower, nor do the cats, their fearful eyes on me, back away from their bowls, hissing. But it's close. I leap... well, lumber, into action.
My selections from the refrigerator are careful; this is no Dagwood preparation: whole small new potatoes in to boil, crusty French bread, cold bratwurst, an excellent hot mustard or horseradish sauce, some terrific pickles. Skin the hot potatoes, butter them and sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley, arrange with the rest on a plate and dig in, a ghost third party at Maigret's strategy eat-in. A ham sandwich would not do. Now where a ham sandwich will do is during his night-long interrogations of prime suspects. After much point, counterpoint and pacing back and forth until the wee hours of the morning, Maigret, a kind man, will call a break. Does Maigret go to the john? Does he go in and shoot the breeze with his cronies on the night shift? Does he stick his head out the window for some night air and a view of the lamp lighted Seine? Non! This immense, tenacious, but humane person is thinking about FOOD! He asks the alleged criminal if he's hungry and then calls Lucas in to order them food. By the time Maigret has prodded and poked his pipe clean, peering in it and thwocking the bowl against his palm to dislodge any residue, and by the time he has tamped it just tightly enough to allow perfect draw with fresh, moist, assuredly pungent tobacco in the true spirit of the real pipe smoker, and by the time he has lighted it with the match flame the proper distance from the tobacco and taken a few tentative pulls, glancing surreptitiously now and then at the suspect to see how he's bearing up, there's a knock on the door. In walks the waiter from the Brasserie Dauphine across from Maigret's office on the Quai des Orfevres, arm cocked under the weight of a large tray of sandwiches and beer. He sets it down on Maigret's desk and glides out, the finale of a surreal ballet. Me? What am I thinking about? This immense, tenacious, but humane food hound is thinking about sandwiches and beer, too.
To be companionable I build an open-face sandwich. I start with great rye bread and layer it with mustard, Boston lettuce, cold slices from a ham, Gruyere cheese, and the pickles again, on the side. No waiter, but that's life. It's surreal enough without him. If it's after 11pm and quiet, then even the mood has been matched. It's too late at night to eat, says my right mind; but who's in his right mind?
These fits of desire don't come on me when I'm not reading. I can pass people seated in windows of restaurants tucking into tortellini alla panna or omelets or fat hotdogs and they could be eating their hats for all I care. I guess Pavlov would explain my compulsion and the attendant salivating as conditioned reflex. In the final analysis that might be the case, but it's really Maigret who is responsible. His approach to food is as a lover to his partner during an interlude— fond, distractedly attentive, caressing, but not overtly passionate.
His discussion with the patronne about the plat du jour, his decision to order it, and the act of eating are invested with a natural worldliness and subtle sensuality wherein lies the atmosphere for my seduction.
When Maigret can make it home to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir for a rare luncheon with Madame Maigret, she has a roast with trimmings ready for him, not some crumby sandwich and canned soup. They sit and eat, the not-easy silence punctuated by some comment from one or the other— she, still timid about his broodings when he's on a case, he, not very voluble in his most lighthearted moments.
This luncheon may be cause for militant feminists to hurl her effigy into boiling, clarified butter, but from Maigret's seat and vicariously mine, it's the way to live.
The nice thing about Maigret is that he and his colleagues are the main eaters in at least thirty novels.
Back to Top
Stephen Cucé, Flemington, New Jersey, writes, "Whenever I read an escape novel where one of the main character's significant, if subconscious, considerations is food… I would get this incredible urge to eat something similar to what the protagonist was having or, at least, eat. With Georges Simenon's Maigret, who broods over a case he's on while eating a plate of saucisson at a brasserie in the vicinity of the crime, the compulsion became almost too much to bear. I would put the book down and fix myself something to eat. Unfortunately, Maigret brooded a lot. At first it was subconscious with me, too, and suddenly the realization hit and I immediately began to write a humorous essay about it."