… the word is American-commercial-synthetic, like Nabisco, Delco, Socony. It stands for the Haitian-American Sugar Company - an immense factory plant, dominated by a huge chimney, with clanging machinery, steam whistles, freight cars. It is like a chunk of Hoboken. William Seabrook, The Magic Island.
Historically, to be a cook, to prepare food for others, was always to identify oneself with the degraded and debauched. Antony Bourdain, Typhoid Mary.
In 1928 Charles Souther, from Skowhegan, Maine, was appointed manager of the Hasco plant in Haiti. It was a new adventure for him. The American occupation was in full swing, and Haiti was under the control of the USMC, but there were still echoes of rebellion up in the hills. Souther, never a courageous man, stuck with his own in Port-a-Prince as much as he could. He was afraid of the Haitians, even the sophisticated men and women who had lived in France, and preferred the company of fellow Americans. He did not expect to stay long in Haiti. Ambition drove him, and this post would be a step up the ladder to success. He hoped, if he did well, to secure a better post Stateside.
One of the problems he encountered was how best to staff his house. His wife was not up to the task, and they suffered for months, especially with food. No cook could satisfy them, and burnt, cold, ruined dinners thoroughly spoilt the Souther's digestions for the first few months of their stay. They tried to bring someone over from Maine, but couldn't find anyone willing to make the trip.
Then they found Antoine Baussan, an answer to a prayer. Classically educated in the Escoffier school, he could also turn out respectable American fare, like corn chowder and baked beans. It was love at first bite.
They ignored warnings from their Haitian neighbors. What did it matter to the Southers that Baussan had a bad reputation? When it came to lobster rolls and brown bread, Charles didn't care if it was prepared by the Devil himself. Moreover he was coming to love some of Baussan's Haitian dishes, particularly a curried stew that he called Chevre de Montagne a la Toussel, or Mountain Goat prepared as Baussan had done for a particularly famous wedding feast. Souther couldn't get enough of it, and his wife was growing fat.
When time came for Souther to move on, he found it impossible to part with Baussan. He arranged for the Haitian to come with him back to Maine, and Baussan was happy to oblige. In fact, he said he was looking forward to it.
Unfortunately Mrs. Souther was struck down by a devastating malady soon after their return. Charles was thrown into depression, relieved only by the devoted attentions of Antoine, who cooked up all his wife's favorite dishes to ease her pain. The doctors could do nothing for her; at least Baussan was trying to help.
When his wife passed, Souther was thrown into a frenzy of despair. He stopped seeing his friends, stopped going to his clubs, gave up work almost completely. After several weeks without word or sign of him, his friends and work colleagues finally descended on his house, alarmed at lack of contact.
Souther was not there. Nobody could say where, or when, he went. His devoted cook Baussan had vanished too. However alarm reached new heights when it was discovered that the family vault had been desecrated, and that Mrs. Souther's body was missing. What was more, it seemed as if the vault had been broken open from the inside.
As it had the hallmarks of a kidnapping case, the Federal authorities were called in. Bureau of Investigation agents began to suspect Baussan's involvement; the man's background was, at best, suspect, and it was thought he might be a Socialist agitator, inspired by European radicals. It was suggested that German Haitians had drawn Baussan into their conspiracies during the War, and that Baussan was on some kind of one-man revenge crusade.
Reports from Haiti that suggested Baussan was a devotee of sinister cults were discounted as fantasy.
Tracking Down Baussan
The investigators can be brought in independently by Souther's family and friends, as experts hired by the Bureau, or some other excuse as the Keeper desires.
The question for the investigators is, where did Baussan go next?
- Historic Maine. Baussan went to the Watch Hill Inn, Rhode Island, beloved of Hollywood stars and well-heeled industrialists. He's become an institution, training several intelligent men and women in his particular style. Moreover he's attained spiritual guru status, and become increasingly attached to Douglas Fairbanks, who relies on Baussan's advice to kick-start his failing film career. There's talk Fairbanks might persuade Baussan to come with him to California.
- High Seas. Baussan is one of the senior chefs aboard the USS Leviathan, formerly Germany's Vaterland, a luxury liner that cruises between New York and Europe, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers but never making a cent's profit. It couldn't sell alcohol during Prohibition, and by the time it got permission the Great Depression knocked the guts out of the cruise market. More often than not she sails at half capacity, at best. For whatever reason she has great difficulty keeping crew; people just seem to vanish. Sailors are notorious for jumping ship in foreign ports, but this is becoming a serious problem.
- East Coast Hotspots. Baussan goes up and down the East Coast, working for wealthy families and hotels, but never staying long in any one place. Bad luck haunts him. There was that nasty incident in Florida where the son of the house went instantly insane, on getting a peek inside the walk-in freezer. Or that time in New York, where all the family died in a matter of hours, except the youngest daughter, who was bedridden with some kind of intestinal parasite for weeks. Where Baussan goes, trouble follows, and only his habit of continually crossing state lines looking for work has kept him out of the reach of the authorities - so far.
That's it for this week. Enjoy!