Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "Food in Mysteries"

Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library is back today with another guest post. Hope you already ate…..

Food in Mysteries

My first vivid memory of food in a book wasn’t from a mystery book but from  Heidi by Johanna Spyri, in which Grandfather gave Heidi the best bread and cheese.  Being a small child at the time, my frame of reference was packaged sliced bread and Kraft American cheese, and I failed to understand Heidi’s delight. I puzzled over it for a long time.  Apparently I wasn’t alone in my fascination, because a book entitled Fictitious Dishes has photo recreations of some of literature’s most memorable meals—including Heidi’s cheese sandwich.

Other than as a method of introducing poison into someone’s system, food didn’t seem to play much of a role in the mysteries until I started reading Rex Stout.  Food (and beer!) always played a strong role. I didn’t know what shad roe was, but the descriptions of Nero Wolfe’s dining were always a delight: oyster pie, roast duckling, squabs with sauce, shirred eggs, lamb, and so forth.  Such exotic fare! Rex Stout used Wolfe’s dinner table as a place for conversation, where no business was allowed to be discussed but where Wolfe (and Stout) could put forth his views on a variety of topics.

Food also figured in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, which I devoured (no pun intended) while in school.  Whenever a big case wrapped up, Perry, Della, and Paul would go out for dinner.  The menu was almost invariably steak and a salad, with form of the potato the only decision to be made: baked with sour cream and butter or as fries.  I think even then I realized that Della’s inclusion in this rather masculine meal meant she was regarded as an equal.

Food can be used to say a great deal about places and even eras. In Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, the child narrator has a litany of 70s era British candies along with mentions of various TV programs to keep the reader in the right time period. Jill Paton Walsh used food rationing in A Presumption of Guilt to remind readers of war time conditions in Britain.

And while burgers, fries, pizza, etc. are now American staples, it’s the little divergences that help bring a place and its people to life.  Lea Wait uses lobster dishes as well as baked beans and chowders to fix her Mainely Needlepoint mysteries in, well, Maine.  Julia Keller’s characters indulge in red-eye gravy and biscuits in West Virginia. One of the delights of the Tori Miracle series by Valerie Malmont was Tori’s introduction to the cuisine of Lickin Creek where delectable pastries and cakes are served along with baked  pig’s stomach. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo characters indulged in fry bread, while in daughter Anne Hillerman’s books the problem of diabetes among Native Americans influences the characters’ eating habits. 

However, sometimes authors have to walk a fine line between cultural awareness and stereotyping: you have to know just how many times to invoke RC Colas and moon pies before the theme from Deliverance starts to run through the reader’s head.  It’s bad enough that the covers often resort to
clichés images.  For example, two books from Cathy Pickens very fine Avery Andrews series featured pictures of fried chicken and a cherry pie neither of which featured prominently in the books. I could only assume that it was because the series was set in South Carolina and was more cozy than thriller.

Food choices also give clues to character and socioeconomic status.  Someone who insists on making fresh salads or baking his own bread tells us something about himself; likewise, a person who subsists on fast food burgers and Twinkies is likely to have different values.  It may also mean that the author is setting the character up for some health issue later.  In one long running series, a character finds a piece of sticky, lint-covered hard candy in an old coat and still pops it in his mouth.  I was both appalled and amused.  Later it’s revealed that the character is beginning to have cognitive issues. Laura Levine’s Jaine Austen series derives some of its humor from Jaine’s food obsessions and half-hearted attempts to diet. In the old Jiggs and Maggie comic strip, the nouveau riche Jiggs longs for corned beef and cabbage much to the horror of his social climbing wife Maggie. Some characters have to go for cheap eats because of lack of funds.  In the early Sarah Kelling books by Charlotte MacLeod, Sarah struggled to come up with ways to extend food to serve her boarders.

Finally, food can set the pace of a book.  Eating can give the author an excuse to sit the characters down and discuss the case. Hunger can be used as a way to stall the plot which might otherwise lead to a too-quick resolution of the mystery.  It can also be used as a way to slow a reader down, as he or she goes to raid the fridge after one too many vivid descriptions of a meal.

After all, food for thought can turn into thoughts of food.

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