Gumshoe’s Mortar, Mobster’s Pestle

Kitchencraft in the milieu of Prohibition-era gangland is a neglected topic, so we must be grateful to Hoagy Velikovsky, Pipsqueak Professor of Organised Crime and Kitchencraft at the University of Slop, for his thumping great tome Gumshoe’s Mortar, Mobster’s Pestle, recently reissued with corrections. This is film noir territory, and the Prof demonstrates convincingly that the mortars and pestles of gumshoes and mobsters were invariably black, or white, or shades of grey, and that both mortars and pestles, being solid objects, cast shadows which, in this context, could often be eerie and even expressionist. Indeed, his opening chapter is devoted entirely to kitchen shadows. In some cases, a gumshoe is lurking in a kitchen shadow waiting to put the heat on a mobster. In others, a mobster hides in kitchen shadow preparatory to socking a gumshoe with a blackjack. There are even occasions when the kitchen shadows are empty, concealing nothing, for both gumshoe and mobster are absent. Velikovsky is very good at evoking the suspense inherent in an unattended mortar and pestle, resting on a kitchen table or countertop. We know something is due to be crushed and ground, but we do not yet know what manner of thing it might be. We know, too, that at some point both the gumshoe and the mobster will enter the kitchen, separately or together, and flit between light and shadow, armed perhaps not only with their roscoes but, fresh from grocery shopping, with a bag of caraway seeds or arrowroot biscuits ready to be crushed. The gumshoe will almost certainly have patronised a legal grocery, whereas the mobster will have made his purchases on the black market. It is a pity that the Prof does not spend more time discussing contraband caraway seeds and illegal arrowroot biscuits, for this would be fertile ground. He does have a few paragraphs, however, on the near-identical brown paper bags in which both seeds and biscuits would be ferried from grocery or black market to the shadowy kitchen wherein the mortar and the pestle await, inert and inanimate yet somehow throbbing with potential violence, just as the gumshoe and the mobster themselves, violent men by necessity, so throb. Velikovsky reflects, too, on the mutual dependence, the duality, of gumshoe and mobster and mortar and pestle. The one cannot have any meaningful existence without the other. In a passage of sparkling prose which I am sure will find its way into many an anthology of kitchencraft writing, he posits a second, or dual, duality, that of gumshoe and mortar and mobster and pestle. Curiously, he does not extend this conceit to the further combination of mobster and mortar and gumshoe and pestle. I suspect his failure to do so is due to deep and intractable psychological horrors the like of which frighten the horses. Horses, so essential to the western genre, are almost entirely absent from the film noir world. Yet in terms of kitchencraft, there are many parallels, and we are as likely to come upon mortars and pestles in a tumbledown Wild West shack’s kitchen, outside which a horse is tied to a post, as we are along the mean film noir streets down which a man must go in order to make his way to his kitchen. Indeed, without a mortar and pestle, one wonders how the cowboy might crush and grind to a digestible consistency the grainy content of his horse’s nosebag. This is a topic Professor Velikovsky may wish to explore in a forthcoming book.

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