It was on a cold and dreary night in November 1892 that I was first introduced to yet another of the singular talents of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, talents with which he was wont to so often surprise those that thought they knew him well.
The fire was blazing in our chambers at 221b Baker Street and I was seated comfortably in an armchair, browsing through the privately published memoirs of a Ruhr industrialist visiting Siam in incognito. Meanwhile Sherlock Holmes sat listlessly at his desk with his commonplace book open before him but ignored. Once again it was clear to see he was in the grip of one of his queer humours.
Looking across, I recognised of old that glint in his eye that signaled a brooding determination to break loose of his lethargy. I feared his gaze would soon turn to the drawer that held his vials of five percent cocaine solution, or worse still, to his violin case.
Suddenly Holmes leapt to his feet and began to pace about the room. “I feel like something spicy and gamey,” he ejaculated.
“Why my dear Holmes, whatever could you mean?” I murmured, rising to feet and closing a chapter on a stimulating account of nubile hermaphrodites in Indochine.
“The Devil’s Kidneys, Watson! That’s what I mean,” he curtly exclaimed.
“Good heavens! You’ve finally found the solution to the Case of the Missing Claret? I’ve always thought it was connected with the evening the Diogenes Club came back here after that show of photographic slides about fertility rites in West Africa-“
“No Watson,” Holmes vigorously interrupted, “I meant I could do with a spot of devilled kidneys right now.”
“A capital idea,” I remarked, for I too was feeling the pangs of night hunger, and I immediately rang the bell for Mrs Hudson. After waiting a minute I rang again as she had not appeared with her customary alacrity.
I looked at Holmes with a quizzical expression and said “Perhaps Mrs. Hudson is entertaining?”
“I’ve never found her so,” he replied with some asperity.*
At that moment, the door to our room was flung open and there stood Mrs. Hudson on the vestibule, clad in a blue and somewhat distressed flannel nightgown with her hair all awry and apparently in the grip of some strong emotion.
“It’s four thirty in the f_____g morning! What the f__k do you mad b_____ds want now?” Mrs. Hudson cried.
Holmes regarded this apparition with some amusement and then blandly remarked “Why Mrs. Hudson, I would venture a guess that you have recently risen abruptly from a deep sleep while reclining mainly -”
“Too f_____g right I was !” she replied with some passion.
“Please calm yourself my good woman,” Holmes crisply replied. “As you can see, Dr Watson and myself are perfectly safe and sound. Although perhaps not in such animal spirits as we would prefer. Could you pray prepare some of your delicious devilled kidneys and we shall feel whole again in a trice.”
“Oh f__k a fishwife with a Tilbury bunt! I’ve put up with a lot from you two I have. I never complained about the b____y bullet holes over the mantelpiece, I never said a word about Mr Holmes’s used vials littering the landing and I always turned a blind eye while cleaning to the Doctor’s folios of “artistic studies” left all over the b____y place. I’ve opened the front door to those f_____g Irregulars of yours at all hours more times that I care to remember and thrown some of them out again when you was passed out from that coco juice s__t, I can tell you. The things they get up to with your makeup case! And why only the other night I had to let the both of you in at three in the f_____g morning, reeking of cheap gin and even cheaper cologne – all dressed up as b____y Haymarket trollops.”
“Ah yes, the affair of the Dollymops and the Duchess of D________” Holmes languidly interrupted. “Thank you for the loan of your undergarments Mrs. Hudson as their appearance of verisimilitude proved invaluable at a certain crucial point in our investigations.”
“Loan my a__e! You pinched them from the b____y washing line! Now you want me to cook at this f_____g hour! Well, you can shove that right up your Khyber!”
With these parting words, Mrs. Hudson slammed the door shut with a resounding crash and left down the stairs with further and thankfully now inaudible imprecations.
Holmes turned to me and dryly remarked “I fear the absence of conjugal companionship these past fifty years since Sergeant Hudson failed to return from Afghanistan is finally taking its toll on his other half. ** Never mind Watson, we can fend for ourselves this just this one. It should be no hardship to an old rough campaigner like yourself.” ***
“What in the devil’s name do you mean Holmes,” I replied.
“I mean devilled kidneys and that is what I mean to have right now. Unwrap that parcel of eight lambs’ kidneys reposing on my desk that I bought to further my research for my monograph on penknife wounds inflicted in second-class carriages leaving from the Metropolitan Underground Railway station at Aldgate during Bank Holidays. **** Now hasten to the bath room and under running water, peel the filmy skin from these kidneys, remove anything else that is white in colour or gristly in texture and then cut each kidney into no less than three pieces but of no more that this length. As you do so, I shall assemble the other ingredients.”
When I returned from the bath room with the kidneys prepared as Holmes instructed, he briefly sniffed the organs before returning to the absorbing task of weighing various items on his scales.
“Look what I have here Watson,” he said with some pride. “I have accurately exacted the following measures. They are: three tablespoons of worstershire sauce; one heaping tablespoon of Coleman’s English mustard powder; one tablespoon of freshly squeezed juice of a lemon; half a table glass of water; one two-ounce canister of Fullers Earth, one substantial tablespoon of cayenne pepper; a heaping pinch of ground black pepper; and four drops of Tabasco sauce.”
While Holmes was distracted by the task of lighting up the Bunsen burner, I deftly removed the canister of Fullers Earth from his desk as I knew full well from the affair of the Radium Éclairs that my friend was often perhaps too dazzled by reports of the immediate effects of new but not sufficiently tested scientific compounds and elements.
“Now Watson!” Holmes urgently blurted, “The game is afoot. As I briskly blend the materials I have just assembled in a china bowl, you must place a saucepan on the stand just above the Bunsen burner and dissolve into that pan two ounces of fresh and unsalted butter. You will find adequate quantities stored in the toe of my Persian slipper*****. When the butter reaches liquefaction then cast in the pieces of kidney and stir until their colour turns from deep red to umber.”
I did as Holmes dictated and soon a powerful odor filled our chambers, followed shortly by the thumping of a broomstick on the ceiling below our floor, accompanied by muffled cries of protest. The scent emanating form our efforts carried some faint but perceptibly unwelcome reminders of the all too earthly functions of the originating organs.
I mentioned this observation to Holmes who replied with some spirit.
“Why this is why I am mixing together these compounds. They will completely hide your disapproval of the smell and yet subtly and indeed paradoxically play off against what olfactory and other traces linger. Now let me decant what I have stirred together over the kidneys that I assume are now the colour of your oxblood brogues. Yes they are and away we go. Whee-hee! Observe as I stir briskly using the wooden handle of that lethal edged souvenir of yours from Khandahar. Now I strongly urge you to place some slices of bread on the toasting fork and retire to brown them by the fire. When they are done, butter them well. If my calculations are correct, only five minutes should have elapsed since the kidneys have simmered, while being occasionally stirred, at half-full heat in the sauce I have prepared. Now if you please Watson, the hot buttered toast on the plate. I place the kidneys, with a generous dribble of Holmes’ Personal Effusion of Borneo Lavage, like so atop the toast. Et voila! Now perhaps you could remove the cork from the bottle of the Cockburn’s 1880 that I see there weighing down your medical bag and we shall feast. If it will taste as I suspect, I must send a telegram to Mycroft insisting that this be on the menu for the next supper meeting of the Diogenes Club.” ******
I did as Holmes instructed and then we ate with great good appetite and before long we were feeling quite sated. I rang for Mrs. Hudson to remove and wash the dirty dishes and cutlery.
“A marvelous dish to welcome the start of a new day, “ I observed to Holmes as rosy fingered dawn stole through the windows. ******* “However, it is curious is it not that a dish based on the mammalian glands of purification and extraction should prove so delicious?”
Holmes looked up keenly from the divan on which he was now reclining as he filled his pipe with shag tobacco and added a few grains of some opium-based tincture.
“Why my dear Watson. We have just consumed the concentrated essence of the organs that process food and drink. Sweetbreads, offal, call it what you wish. I have always found the consumption of such dainties when well prepared to be both a savoury experience and a very sensual summation of how all life is basically meat. Why, allow me to predict that within several decades, the manager of an establishment in Zurich that projects onto a screen moving photograms will attempt to artistically render in print the emotions and speculations that we have just enjoyed by consuming the parts of animals necessary to the passage of food throughout themselves.” ********
“Astounding Holmes! How do you do it?”
“Alimentary, my dear Watson,” Holmes replied and reached for his f_____g fiddle.
* A great one-liner from “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” 1970. Feature film. Colour and sound, Co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, natch!
** Sergeant Hudson died fighting at Piper’s Fort, Afghanistan in 1842 – according to the first volume of the Flashman Papers.
*** Doctor John H. Watson was a military veteran of the second Anglo-Afghanistan war where the Afghans again handed the Brits their arse on plate. If you think of Watson as an affable late twenties Vietnam vet sharing digs with a brilliant high bohemian post grad student of similar age that’s also a well connected covert Empire fixer, then the whole Baker Street ménage and general mise en scène starts to come into focus a bit more, n’est-ce pas?
**** The Bank Holidays Act of 1871 specified in law the days when both metropolitan and country wage earners could take time off at the same time to attend major matches between regional cricket teams.
***** Holmes was documented as using his footwear as a storage medium for valuable and/or perishable commodities. See “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, 1893. The Strand Magazine. B&W.
****** Mycroft was Sherlock Holmes’ older brother – sometimes perceived as perhaps too smart and well fed for the Empire’s long term good. His possible involvement in instigating the latest ill-fated Mesopotamian excursion by HMG remains unproven.
******* I spent some serious time working how to integrate that classic piece of Victorian innuendo naturally into this text. In the end, as you can see, I just gave up and blodged it in where I could.
******** James Joyce – regrettably Irish – who discussed at length the pleasures of eating kidneys and other sweetbreads and organs in the opening chapter of “Ulysses”. 1922. Book. Colour, sound, smell and taste.
And a tip of the bowler to Sidney Paget for the original Strand Magazine illustrations with which I fear I have taken some liberties.