First things first. I’ve never seen the 1964 movie starring Sean Connery, but I’d heard rumors that it featured a daring raid on Fort Knox, a scary bodyguard named Oddjob, and a girl who was gilded to death by the villain, the titular Goldfinger. Also, Pussy Galore (how did that name make it past the British Board of Film Censors?)
When I checked out the film’s trailer, it seemed I was right. It promised a dizzying parade of car chases, gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, and girls, girls, girls. “James Bond,” the narrator proclaims. “Mixing business with girls … and thrills! Girls and fun! Girls and danger!”
Plus, I’d seen the satiric Mike Myers vehicle, Austin Powers in Goldmember, so I figured I was well-versed in the general plot and theme of the original 1959 novel, Goldfinger, by 007 creator Ian Fleming.
But I was wrong. It’s not about gold. Or girls. Or even James Bond. It’s about food.
As I was soon to find out.
Humming this catchy Beyonce tune, I threw myself into the 191-page novel, dodging typos all the way.
Having finished it, I can confidently report that the book, Fleming’s seventh Bond novel, is about the joys of eating and drinking. That’s it. I mean, the first words of the book are, “James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him…”
And what does he do, whilst those two double bourbons are inside him? He reflects on a café in Mexico, the site of a recent undercover job, then drinks yet another bourbon on the rocks.
Keep in mind one little fact as we explore this topic further: Ian Fleming did not like James Bond.
In 1958, just after he finished writing Goldfinger, he told fellow author Raymond Chandler, “I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them. … He’s always referred to as my hero. I don’t see him as a hero myself. On the whole, I think he’s a rather unattractive man.”
What’s an author to do when he’s contractually obligated to write about an unheroic “rather unattractive man”? Give him something attractive to do — specifically, something you wish you were doing.
What Fleming clearly wished he were doing, rather than writing yet another Bond book, was eating and getting mildly drunk. The following is just a small sampling of the odes to the pleasures of the table that the author unspools throughout the course of the book:
“He ordered himself a delicious, wasteful breakfast.”
“Bond walked over to the drink tray and poured himself a strong gin and tonic.”
“After luncheon—the traditional shrimp cocktail, ‘native’ snapper with a minute paper cup of tartare sauce, roast prime ribs of beef au jus, and pineapple surprise—it was time for the siesta before meeting Goldfinger.”
“[He] ate one of his favourite meals—two oeufs cocottes à la crème, a large sole meunière (Orleans was close enough to the sea. The fish of the Loire are inclined to be muddy) and an adequate Camembert. He drank a well-iced pint of Rosé d’Anjou and had a Hennessy’s Three Star with his coffee.”
“Bond … proceeded to eat, or rather devour, the most delicious meal he had had in his life. The meat of the stone crabs was the tenderest, sweetest shellfish he had ever tasted. It was perfectly set off by the dry toast and slightly burned taste of the melted butter. The champagne seemed to have the faintest scent of strawberries.”
When 007 meets the book’s Bond girl, he immediately hands her some cash and pleads, “Please buy us lunch—anything you like for yourself. For me, six inches of Lyon sausage, a loaf of bread, butter, and half a litre of Mâcon with the cork pulled.”
And when he finally finds himself alone with the alluring lass, what does Bond do? “He pulled to the side of the road. They sat in the car and ate a polite but almost silent picnic, neither making any attempt at conversation, both, it seemed, with other things on their minds.” The “six inches of Lyon sausage” was clearly not a euphemism.
Fleming even has Bond play golf at a course called Sandwich!
Though there’s a lengthy passage about canasta, favorite card game of Florida’s snowbirds; some business about the intricacies of gear shifting as Bond pilots a loaner Aston Martin around Europe; and an excruciating 20-page golf game in which Goldfinger and Bond alternately cheat, the true tagline of the book should be “Mixing business with food … and thrills! Food and fun! Food and danger!”
Even Pussy Galore barely makes an appearance, being little more than a supernumerary among the various gangsters Goldfinger cons into taking part in his quixotic Fort Knox gold heist.
If you’re wondering whether Fleming was using the Goldfinger novel as an excuse to gorge himself on stone crab, prime rib and rosé in the name of “doing research” you probably wouldn’t be far off.
After Chandler criticized one of his novels for including a mistake about drink service at American restaurants, Fleming protested, “As far as my material is concerned, I’m afraid I just get mine by going to places and taking down copious notes because I can’t remember anything. … I rather pride myself on trying to get these details right.”
Details about food were what he wanted to get right in Goldfinger because food was the part of the story that Fleming really cared about.
Or maybe not.
Maybe he just wrote when he was hungry.