Max Folsom – Author of the Baker Somerset series of mysteries

When Our Detectives Get Hungry

A great evening is complete if it has a good mystery, and good food. Whether it is there as a break in the tension, a statement of social status, a clue to culture, or a weapon for murder – food is ever present in our beloved mysteries. 

A break for food provides the writer with benefits: time for the detective to contemplate clues when he, or she, has reached a stone wall, a conversation with a fellow investigator about the case, giving the reader a glimpse into the detective’s thinking, and a celebration when a crime is solved. Every one of us eats, and so, when our detective dines, we learn a lot about him, or her. 

Sherlock Holmes knows what good food is, and in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor he presents Watson with a brace of woodcock and a pate de fois gras pie. For himself, he prefers a curried chicken and he blends his own tea. His breakfast, prepared by Mrs. Hudson, is eggs, bacon, and kedgeree. So many British detectives seem to partake of kedgeree that I found a recipe and sent it off to my personal chef (read – husband stuck in Canada due to the closed border). He’s made it and pronounces it quite good. 

The Golden Age mystery writers, and later writers who emulated that style of writing, featured food as a way of making the detective’s intellect and social status clear. Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, a true, upper-class British lord prefers his food to be British as well; kedgeree for breakfast. In fact, he is very vocal in his disgust of Russian food, when he is forced to eat it. He often describes meals with a full menu and oysters, turtle soup and roast pheasant are frequently on the list. He buys fine wines, and attends luncheons, high teas, and often dines out with friends. Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Bonaparte, or ‘Bony’ as he is known by his friends, shows how food not only demonstrates social status but can also show the character’s race. ‘Bony’ can even tell when an Aboriginal has been living on a white man’s diet.

Hercule Poirot has a sensitive stomach added to his fussiness and he spends time, as Christie tells us, “…searching out and marking down possible sources of new and delicious food.” He tastes run to European cooking and his breakfast eggs must be perfectly matched and his toast trimmed and cut into squares. In Paris, Simenon’s Inspector Maigret lovingly describes the city’s bistros and cafes, and he is blessed with a wife who is an accomplished cook. Her coq au vin is one of his favorite dishes. The two of them dine regularly with Doctor Pardon and his wife. Madame Pardon’s best dish is gateau de riz. Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, in Sicily, is a bachelor, but he has Adelina, his housekeeper, who prepares dinners for him and leaves them in the refrigerator or oven. One hard and fast rule with Montalbano is that you don’t talk while eating. All your senses should be used to appreciate the food. In America, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe refuses to discuss the case at hand during the meal.

As American hard-boiled detectives entered the scene the culinary side of the detective became less pronounced, with the exception of Nero Wolfe. Wolfe (all 285 pounds of him) is as much a stickler about his food as Poirot. His cook, Fritz Brenner, is without exception a wonderful creator of dishes. But Wolfe also cooks, and he has strict ideas about how certain dishes should be made. Once he and Fritz nearly come to blows over the number of juniper berries that should be used in a recipe and the household is thrown into a state of emergency when the fresh corn on the cob delivery is late. Duckling is often on the menu, cooked multiple ways. Shad roe appears so often, when it was available, that Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant and legman, begins to dislike it. Archie reports in Gambit that Wolfe once burned up a cookbook because it said to ‘remove the hide’ from a ham. Sometimes, Archie gets a desire for a corned beef sandwich or fried chicken and he eats away from home. (Chicken would never be fried in the brownstone.) 

Neither Chandler’s Philip Marlowe nor Hammett’s Sam Spade had a chef at home to do the cooking, but we know that Marlow’s favorite eating establishment serves ‘lamb on a slab of burnt wood, ringed with browned-over mashed potatoes, onion rings and salad’. Sam Spade favors lamb chops, with a baked potato and sliced tomato. 

The rise in popularity of female detectives, both private and police, has changed the food dynamics. Fridges are usually quite empty, and fast food seems to be rule. I don’t know if this is due to the rise of feminism, as some claim, or not, but pizza, donuts, and peanut butter sandwiches show up regularly. I suspect it is simply that our female detectives don’t have a chef at home to prepare the meals, and who wants to spend the time cooking after a day of chasing bad guys? 

Three detectives that do enjoy putting a meal together are: Robert B. Parker’s Spencer, who puts together a mean Huevos Rancheros when he’s hungry, Robert Crais’s Joe Pike who whips up tasty vegetarian dishes much to the dismay of his friend Elvis Cole who prefers burgers and pizza, and Doc Ford who knows how to cook seafood. Ford has his own cookbook: Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook, which has a non-fish recipe – Deep Fried Artichoke Hearts with Hot Mustard Sauce. Yum yum.

One easily falls into a wishful, dream-like state when accompanying our favorite detective to the table, and thinks “Oh, that sounds so good.” Fortunately, some of our favorite sleuths have compiled cookbooks! Of course, there are those ‘culinary cozies’ featuring bloodless, sexless, cuss-free crimes solved by amateurs that just happen to have a dead body turn up. They come complete with a recipe or two, but I’m talking about those detectives who work at crime solving.

The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout begins with a note from Nero. “I beg you not to entrust these dishes to your cook unless he is an artist. Cook them yourself, and only for an occasion that is worthy of them.” It’s followed by words from Archie, “As for interruptions at meals, for him there is absolutely nothing doing; when he is once in his chair at the table, he leaves it only when the last bite of cheese or dessert is down.” What follows are delightful selections from the books, with a recipe. Bookmark Fritz’s Bread because Archie points out that if Fritz ever dies, Wolfe will probably never eat bread again. Included are at least twenty ways to serve lamb, and Wolfe’s trout recipe.

I segreti della tavola di Montalbano (The secrets of Montalbano’s table) by Stefania Campo is my treasured cookbook. Salvo Montalbano is my favorite policeman and he has an unmatched passion for good food. When I see all that he has eaten for a meal at his favorite restaurant I wonder how he can even stand up, but after his meal he walks to the pier and sits on a stone and discusses things with a crab. One of his favorite dishes is rice balls, which Adelina prepares. The cookbook has the recipe. I sent it to hubby and asked if he could learn to make it. His first attempt was followed by the comment that it took him all day and a hundred bowls. I knew he was exaggerating because he doesn’t have a hundred bowls up north. The recipe also called for caciocavallo cheese (which he had to hunt for). He got them made, declared them wonderful, and now seems to be making them quite frequently. The cookbook is in Italian. I know I’m missing a lot of the commentary, but Google translate has made the recipes easy.

Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu is a policeman in Botswana. Kubu means hippopotamus in the Tswana language. Kubu Bengu is a large man, with a large appetite, and like many famous policemen and detectives he prefers quality before quantity, provided the quantity is sufficient. He loves food and wine and so A Taste of Africa by Michael Stanley has recipes for both food and some of Kubu’s favorite drinks. It’s a small book of some thirty pages, but it will give you a taste of Botswana. Bobotie is a mild and slightly sweet curried ground lamb casserole and Southern Africa’s best-known dish. It was brought to South Africa by slaves from Malay over three hundred years ago. If there are any leftovers, Kubu stuffs it in pita bread with sour cream.

Madame Maigret’s Recipes by Robert J. Courtine is fortunately in English. Each recipe is accompanied by a quote from one of Simenon’s books and also the wine that Maigret drinks with the dish. (Very useful information.) Madame Pardon says to her, “I’ve always wondered how you made it…” She was referring to the coq au vin blanc they had eaten for dinner.” She went on: “There’s a faint aftertaste, you hardly notice it, that makes is so delicious. I don’t know what it is.”  “It’s simple…I suppose you add a glass of cognac to yours at the last minute?” “Cognac or Armagnac, whatever I happen to have…” “There you are! I add prumelle d’Alsace, though I know it’s not in the cookbooks. That’s the whole secret…” With the coq au vin blanc, Maigret drinks Riesling.

There are two cookbooks that feature a collection of writers, detectives, and police. One is The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook, a lovely edition with photos and asides from writers and the other is The Cop Cookbook with recipes and photographs from writers, actors who have graced our television screens playing cops and detectives, and from real-life detectives. 

Lord Peter Wimsey had a cookbook, now out of print so you have to find a used copy. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe (owner of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana) has a cookbook by Stuart Brown that’s trickier to find. Amazon lists a hardcover copy, sold by an independent seller, that is marked at $855; (used paperbacks are in the $40 range) just a little steep for some and completely unrealistic for others, but if you are good at hunting bargains in used book shops and second-hand shops you might find a copy at a reasonable price. Mma Ramotswe did remind me how how wonderful red bush tea was and I now have a tin on my tea shelf. 

Agatha Christie has taught us that meal time can be a dangerous time. And if poisoned food isn’t enough to worry about there are all those dangerous knives and pots and pans in the kitchen, and freezers that might hid a body. May all your meals, whether cooked in your favorite mystery or prepared from your detective’s cookbook, be tasty and safe.

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