Having read pretty much everything that Silva Moreno-Garcia has written, including a few of her most excellent short stories, I was prepared to love Velvet was the Night, if only for the noir-ish title and the gorgeous cover. I love noir in both literature and film, and of course I fell madly in love with her previous novel Mexican Gothic, which I blogged about last year. Well, this was a good read but I wouldn’t call it great. The book premise itself was promising – a young secretary named Maite lives a fairly dull and self-centered existence in Mexico City circa 1971. She’s somewhat of a drab character, which I thought was an interesting departure from the usual “hiding their light under a bushel” book heroine who starts out an ugly duckling and turns into a beautiful swan. Not so here. Maite’s inner life is what is interesting and what sustains her as she goes to her boring job as a legal secretary, and goes to boring family events where her mother and sister alternately bully and ignore her. Maite, you see, is a closet romantic whose life truly revolves around her soap opera magazines and the handsome heroes of Secret Romance, her favorite novela magazine. So when her glamorous next-door neighbor, Leonora, asks her to cat- and apartment-sit, Maite leaps at the chance to snoop around in Leonora’s apartment. From there, the adventure starts.
The other protagonist of the book is Elvis, a young member of a squad called The Hawks, who essentially exist to bully and beat up anyone who expresses contrary views to the government in Mexico City. Now, this part was interesting because The Hawks did actually exist in 1970s Mexico and were quite well known and feared, even in the United States. Elvis is kind of a thug, but with a heart of brass, because he too has inner romantic longings, in his case, to become a famous singer. Hence his moniker, Elvis, or as it was likely pronounced in Mexico, El Vez.
Maite inadvertently brings a box containing a statue to her house from Leonora’s, and of course, it’s that box that contains potentially damning photos of certain higher-ups in Mexican government. Leonora is not a spy, she’s just a rich and beautiful socialite-student who, as it turns out, has more sinister family connections than she realizes. Maite ends up going in search of Leonora when Leonora doesn’t return and Maite has to continue caring for Leonora’s cat. This is probably why I didn’t care for the book as much as I did Mexican Gothic – I didn’t really like either Maite or Elvis. Maite is not only extremely superficial and self-defeating, she doesn’t come across as being very caring about anyone else and she’s not very nice to the cat. Being an animal lover, this immediately turned me off. I also didn’t like the overall story trajectory of Maite on the run and being chased by quasi-police who think she has the photos that Leonora had stashed while Elvis glimpses her one time and is instantly infatuated. I didn’t understand why he was so infatuated because Maite doesn’t really come across as having any kind of inner (or outer) charms that would attract someone. They also literally don’t meet until the very last chapter – sorry for the spoiler – so it was a bit anticlimactic.
Don’t get me wrong. The writing is as beautiful and lyrical as is always the case with Moreno-Garcia, and I loved the Hawks history and just the overall noir sense of the book. It almost felt as though it was taking place in 1920s Los Angeles, with private investigators in trench coats and fedoras smoking cigarettes and calling all the women “dames” or something like that. It’s just that I personally think Moreno-Garcia’s writing style is better suited to the Gothic, supernatural, eerie environments that she has created in her previous works. I couldn’t really connect with either Maite or Elvis and when you can’t connect with a book character, you may as well go read something else.
I wasn’t inspired by any specific food passage in this book, though there were a few good foodie references. However, I was definitely inspired by one of Elvis’s thug colleagues, who calls himself Gazpacho because he is originally from Spain. Gazpacho is sort of like Elvis’s big brother/conscience and though Elvis doesn’t admit he looks up to Gazpacho, he really does. Also, because I love cold gazpacho and learned to make it when I lived in Spain, I was inspired to create this version, using almonds because the gazpacho I learned to make was taught by a Basque cook and almonds are a big part of many Basque recipes. Being that it’s been so devilishly hot lately, this cold vegetable and almond soup seemed perfect to make. And best of all, it is so simple. No cooking involved!
4 large, very ripe beefsteak tomatoes
1 medium English cucumber
1 small red onion
1 yellow bell pepper
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup green olives
2 tablespoons capers
1 cup olive oil
1 cup toasted almonds
1 cup tomato juice
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Chop up the tomatoes, peel and cube the cucumber, peel and chop the onion, and de-stem and de-seed the yellow bell pepper before cutting into chunks. Toss into a food processor, then tip in the olives, capers and garlic chunks.
Puree the vegetables together until they liquefy, adding in some of the tomato juice to help keep the soup moving.
Grind up the toasted almonds in a small food chopper and add them to the liquidy soup to thicken. You’ll find that toasting them beforehand really adds a depth of flavor that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Pour the almond-thickened soup into a large bowl, and pour in the tomato juice, the stock, the red wine vinegar, the olive oil, and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Refrigerate for up to 3 hours or overnight if possible. You’ll get a wonderful mix of flavors the longer you let it sit. Oh, and yes, that is my pug. Isn’t he cute?
When ready to serve, decant into bowls and garnish with small chunks of vegetables and some of the toasted almonds, and guzzle to your heart’s content. A fitting tribute to poor old Gazpacho, who as you can imagine, does not fare well in the book but hey, he does leave a legacy and that’s what counts. ¡Olé!