Once a year, usually in Autumn, I pull out my paperback copy of Harry Kressing's The Cook and reread it. It is, quite simply, one of my favorite novels of all time.
Published in 1965, Kressing's novel is difficult to find these days, though the Ballantine paperback pops up in used bookstores - usually in the horror section. More sardonic fable than Stephen King tale, The Cook's failure to find a large audience probably stems from its hybrid nature. Too many readers prefer their literature more easily categorized.
The book tells of Conrad Venn, a preternaturally powerful figure who ingratiates himself into the household of a prominent family named the Hills by becoming their cook. Venn is a master of arcane and addictive cooking: his meals have mysterious, sometimes fatal, effects on the people he serves. Ruthlessly eliminating any potential obstacles to his gaining control of the house, Venn manipulates the Hills and their neighboring counterparts, the Vails, until he becomes indispensable to both families. Sexually ambiguous, he also weaves a spell on both son and daughter of the house. Ester, the dim and beautiful distaff figure in the novel, becomes so hooked on Venn's fattening cooking that she balloons to mega-size.
Mid-novel, we get our first view of how enthralled she has become. Wooed by a young avaricious suitor, even though she has already grown "as big as a small cottage," Ester makes plans to elope with her beau. One thing bothers her, however: if she leaves the estate, she'll miss Venn's lunch and dinner. She goes to Venn with her dilemma, and he offers to make a picnic basket for her. When finally forced to choose between her hapless fiancé and future Venn fare, the decision is inevitable. She bids adieu to her the young man.
By novel's end, Esther has married Venn and grown even huger (so big, rumor has it, that she can no longer bend her arms and has to have servants feed her). Venn, who has become master of both Hill and Vail, turns the estate into one bacchanalian celebration of gluttony. Slowly moving through it all - her eyes only lighting when she's has something particularly tasty to eat - is Ester.
Venn, the titular figure, is both a ruthless and charming figure, hardly anybody's idea of the model fat admirer. Though he himself grows super-sized by book's end, the transformation is not as appealing as Ester's. Where did this guy come from? What is the source of his supernatural culinary power? Kressing never tells us; Venn is the dark stranger of folklore, and you don't wanna cross him.
I stole Venn's name for a short novel entitled "The Weight Loss Camp." My way of acknowledging the pleasure this book has brought me.
According to the Ballantine edition, The Cook was made into a movie by Broadway impresario Harold Prince in the early seventies. Called "Something for Everyone," it starred Angela Lansbury with Michael York as Venn. I've never seen the flick, but a reading of Maltin leads me to believe that the movie downplayed the culinary aspect in favor of the hero's sexual manipulations, a curious choice indeed, as nothing explicitly sexual happens in the book. Too bad: I'd have loved to see a film depiction of Ester's progress.
Kressing (the name is a pseudonym) never wrote another novel as Kressing. But what he left us is choice. His book is quirky fun: not the kind of book you give to reassure anyone but perfect Fall reading for those who like a bit of weight gain fantasy mixed with darker fare.
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