M is for Mornay Sauce
To illustrate the shallow world in which Will Firestone lives, I begin the novel with his wealthy mother’s complaints about her chef’s rendition of a mornay sauce, which is really just a basic cheese sauce. It’s variation of a bechamel, or white sauce, one of the standard “mother sauces” of French cuisine. A bechamel starts out with cooked flour, butter, and milk; it becomes mornay sauce when you add cheese, like gruyere, and certain flavorings, like nutmeg. Will’s mother has such a sensitive palate that she can tell when her chef has doctored the recipe, and not to her liking. The cream puffs, which she rejects, become the catalyst for Will’s life-changing journey into Chinatown.
Here’s a typical recipe:
- 3 cups whole milk
- 4 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 1 oz. coarsely grated gruyere cheese
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. black pepper
- 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- Melt butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, then add flour and cook over low heat whisking constantly, 3 minutes. Add milk in a stream, whisking, and bring to a boil, whisking. Reduce heat to low and gently simmer, whisking occasionally, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add cheese, whisking, until melted, then whisk in salt, pepper and nutmeg. [from epicurious.com]
N is for Norway Rat
Norway rats, also called brown, wharf, or street rats, could almost be considered characters in the book. Those rodents, whose bodies can be up to ten inches long (with equally long tails) brought the first bubonic plague virus to San Francisco aboard a ship sailing from Hawaii. By the turn of the 20th century, medical professionals knew that rats carried the plague, and during the Chinatown outbreak, authorities killed and dissected thousands of the critters to determine the extent of the infestation. But they didn’t realize how the disease spread from rat to rat, or from rat to human. Eventually they figured out that it was through fleas (many more people are bitten by fleas than by rats).
O is for Opium
Most adults have heard of opium, a natural narcotic that comes from the dried, milky latex of a poppy plant called papaver somniferum. The latex (nicknamed “poppy tears”) has been around for thousands of years and is used to produce other familiar drugs, including morphine and codeine. Laudanum, which was popular in the Victorian era, is a mixture of about ten percent opium and ninety percent alcohol, with a little flavoring, like cinnamon, thrown in. Heroin is a processed form of opium; it’s less bulky and therefore easier to smuggle; it’s also far more potent than its morphine equivalent.
When Chinese men began to emigrate in the nineteenth century, they took their custom of smoking opium with them. In places such as San Francisco’s Chinatown, that led to the rise of “opium dens,” which were essentially flop houses in which men smoked their way to oblivion. Such places helped fuel the hatred of whites toward the Chinese. Will Firestone, the main character of The Depth of Beauty, is a man who prides himself on solving problems. To impress a young Chinese widow with whom he’s smitten, he “rescues” her opium-addicted younger brother from such a “den of iniquity” and sets him on a path to get healthy again. While the young man does succeed in breaking the drug’s hold, it’s too late for Will to take credit for the kind act.