The curious incident of the peacock at dinner time
When originally conceiving of the idea of writing a blog about food, and its relation to history, science and pop culture, me and my girlfriend – hereafter referred to by the gender flipped title of Professor Plum (in the Dining Room) – spent most of our time discussing what it should be called. In the end, the answer was written right in front of us, and you too if you just look a little up and to the left. That’s because when I’m cooking I look like the blog’s profile pic up there, wearing this apron featuring the great amateur detective/occasional murderer Colonel Mustard.
Yes, I’m a great lover of the game Cluedo – retitled Clue across the Pond (and somewhat missing that the original name was supposed to be a pun) in the same transatlantic swap that caused Baltic Avenue to go by Whitechapel Road. I admire both the neatness of its gameplay and the way it evokes the golden age of English murder. If, as Orwell suggested, when you’ve enjoyed your roast beef and Yorkshire, when “your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant”, then murder is the subject on which you wish to read, presumably that may also apply to play. Amongst my circle of friends Cluedo has long enjoyed a popular status as an entertainment for after dinner (served, naturally, on Cluedo place mats). And, if you think the place mats are a bit obsessive, you should see the board we sometimes play with.
One of my friends, known to the online world as Sam Le Pirate, has constructed the entirety of Tudor Manor, the Cluedo board, out of Lego bricks in intricate detail. Here you can see, for example, the fully equipped kitchen, in which Lego Colonel Mustard investigates a leak in the plumbing to find a piece of lead piping has been removed. A potential murder weapon?
But, what if, given the culinary themed names of the likes of Mustard and Plum, Cluedo didn’t just form the basis of the after dinner entertainment, but was the dinner itself? Aside from those two, the game also includes Miss Scarlett, Mrs. White, Reverend Green and Mrs. Peacock, all of which have names that could be appropriated for dinner with a bit of lateral thinking.
If you’ve looked at that list closely, you’ll have noticed that there’s only one Cluedo character who could provide the meal with its protein and that’s Mrs. Peacock. Instantly this throws up two questions – 1. Can you eat peacock? And 2. If so, where can I get some? Fortunately, I’m not the first person to wonder about that first point and WikiAnswers gets straight to the point with its succinct conclusion: “Yes”. The second question proves a little harder. It’s pretty easy to acquire both game meat and rare and exotic meat online these days. Peacock, however, appears to be one thing that those sites don’t stock. It seems that the fancy feathered birds are so loved for their decorative quality that it’s harder to buy their meat than zebra, python or kangaroo.
Which leads us to an extra question – 3. What is an adequate substitute for peacock meat? What does it taste like? Once again WikiAnswers has got there before us and, this time, chooses to be a little more verbose. Essentially, the taste of any animal comes down to what it eats, you are what you eat after all, and so, while they might be closer in size to a chicken, which mostly feeds on grains, a peacock’s omnivorous diet gives it a gamey flavour more akin to pheasant.
So, using pheasant as a substitute for peacock, what do the other character names suggest as an accompaniment, starting with plum, the one that is an actual food? Plum sauces usually work well with duck so it’s not too much of a leap to imagine pairing one with pheasant (or peacock). “White” also implies a sauce, but I’m not sure something creamy is really going to work with the other ingredients. I decided, then, on making a plum and port sauce, but with a sweet white port rather than the traditional ruby.
This was going to prove quite sweet so far, but fortunately we’ve got the Colonel to fall back on and save the day by providing an earthy, spicy flavour to cut through it. Because he’s my enduring favourite character I decided on using both mustard seeds and the more appropriately coloured paste of a whole grain mustard in conjunction with the final portion of my Cluedo dinner.
The final components of a traditional English dinner, vegetables and starch, lend themselves nicely to the final two character names, as red scarlett is a variety of potato, whilst spring greens are a fitting seasonal accompaniment to the rest. So, what we end up with is a dish that could be described as: Roast Mrs. Peacock served with a Professor Plum and Mrs. White port sauce, spring Reverend Greens and Colonel Mustard roast red Miss Scarlett potatoes (well, could, if you enjoy a tongue twistingly lengthy pun of a name, and I think I do).
Incidentally, the central mystery of Cluedo – who killed Dr. Black and dumped his body at the bottom of the stairs, where and with what weapon? – is much more solvable using traditional detective work than the game would like you to believe. Although it tries to suggest all possible outcomes are equally likely, really in that situation certain narratives appear more plausible than others. Adding up the evidence that does exist, I’d strongly suspect Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. Surprisingly, this method of detection has rarely proved as effective when playing the game as totally random guesswork. But that’s a story for after dinner.
Back in the kitchen, I decided fairly quickly that, although using the Cluedo ingredients and just the Cluedo ingredients was possible, it wouldn’t serve to make the best dish imaginable. As long as those were the primary flavours, that was all that was important. So, I wrapped my pheasant, peacocking around as a different bird, in strips of bacon, the fat allowing the bird to stay moist, and put it in to roast before getting on with the accompanying parts of the meal. Meanwhile, I also added brown sugar to caramelise the plums in my sweet sauce and ginger, garlic and onions to add to the flavour of the spring greens.
When Anthony Pratt first invented the game in 1944, his concept of naming the characters drew on a vision for making the board look as colourful as possible (although Miss Grey and Miss Silver were originally also in the mix) and I hoped that this would mean my plate would turn out an equally pleasing mix of colours. However, as I began to cook it occurred to me that despite their coloured associations, all of my ingredients except for green fit more with the Colonel’s yellow-brown shades than their own bright tokens. The “white” port is only white compared to a red, plums may have a reddish purple skin but are yellow on the inside, the same with a red skinned potato and even a real peacock when it got down to the meat wouldn’t be that peacock colour.
Fortunately, as I caramelised the plums in butter and sugar they started to release their red juices, creating a sweet crimson sauce when I added the port. While there was never going to be a real “plum colour” to the final dish, the rich redness of the sauce ensured something that would at least look pretty nice. But, if Pratt’s names were picked for colours that worked together visually, could they possibly work as flavours together as well?
I was kind of surprised, and very pleased, by just how well they did, actually. It was almost as if Pratt deliberately inserted some flavour names in order to set people on the path toward a Cluedo dinner. The sweet sauce worked very well with the gamey flavours and the Colonel’s influence certainly came through, the warm spicy mustard in the vegetables giving them an extra something. In fact, it worked so well that discussion turned to the possibility of other board game themed menus – a chessboard of king prawns and stinking bishop cheese anyone?
And the after dinner game? My deductive reasoning on the probability of Colonel Mustard in the Library was proved utterly inaccurate as the perpetrator turned out to be the Reverend Green, revealing himself as an evil counterpart to Chesterton’s Father Brown – it’s always the brassica you least suspect.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Considering this dish was built entirely around a mad conceit, it tasted really good. I think the Colonel picked the right combination of ingredients – we’d discussed white onions, ‘scarlet’ wine, and so on – the sweet port and plum sauce with the hot mustard potatoes and the gamey pheasant worked just right. Might pull this one out again for a dinner-and-a-boardgame night.