Crime Destroys, Food Restores: The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook

A new cookbook offers insights about the crucial role of food in mysteries

Food Features America
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Photo via Flickr/Nana B Agyei

“All food is memory,” says Brad Meltzer in the introduction to his recipe for The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. We might not always remember the specifics of meals, but food inhabits our memories, creating a sense of wholeness that typifies nostalgia. Even without Proust-like descents into food-induced flashbacks, and sometimes without even realizing they’re doing so, mystery novels use food to tap into this yearning for a past that feels complete and rich, a narrative we can draw on to make sense of our present.

But The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook is not a mystery novel. It’s a cookbook, and a fun one with diverse recipes from over 100 mystery writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. Kathy Reichs’s favorite Shrimp Scampi—“quick and easy, that’s my kind of cooking,” she says, which I suppose leaves her more time to think up enthralling Temperance Brennan plots—appears as an entrée, and Leslie Budewitz, bestselling author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, serves up Farfalle with Fennel and Pine Nuts along with a description of why she writes food-based cozies and the importance of food as story. “[M]urder is unnatural,” she says. “It damages the threads that tie a community together. The killer must be brought to justice and the social order restored. And what does that better than food?”

What’s unexpected about this cookbook—apart from the writers’ own quips, stories, and sidenotes included with their recipes—is that it helps readers see directly what mystery writers have always known: food, to paraphrase Jean Brillat-Savarin, defines us. The way that food is used in mysteries, from hard-boiled to cozies, is crucial to atmosphere, character, and plot. Rex Stout’s genius sleuth Nero Wolfe would be nothing (probably literally, as shown when he loses most of his 300-plus pounds to go undercover and defeat archenemy Arnold Zeck in In the Best Families) without elaborate gourmet meals provided punctually by his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner. In Jason Goodwin’s mysteries set in 1840s Istanbul, the eunuch Yashim slices and simmers delectable meals of eggplant and rice, onions and fragrant spices, as he contemplates his investigative work in the shaky Ottoman Empire.

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Olivier’s Bistro in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series is an essential nerve bundle at the center of Three Pines and its dark village secrets. Its decadent breakfasts and gourmet dinners provide a comforting touchpoint for the characters, a place for them to reach back for the rhythms of normal life when murder and suspicion creeps through their small village. When they begin to feel invaded by the dark forces of humanity’s underbelly, Penny’s characters host potlucks where food is elegant or sumptuous or just delicious (with the exception of curmudgeonly poet Ruth Zardo’s contributions of canned peas); food scenes form backdrops to shaken relationships, stolen glances, desperate wishes that life could remain as predictable as a sanctuary.

Food is wrapped through mystery novels with an importance that it isn’t always given in non-genre literature. In a novel, food might be a plot point or a cultural illustration. In mysteries, it’s continually used to define our humanity. Lord Peter Wimsey is a gourmand who delights in the exquisite, expects the best, and is the kind of man who cements his high opinion of a woman when he finds that she prefers claret to Champagne (he doesn’t like Champagne, one of his few flaws). A scene from one of Laurie King’s Kate Martinelli books, where Kate and her partner eat two orders of burgers and beers during an exhausting case, brings the reader even closer to the story than the characters’ relationships and investigations do. The need for the food, the comfort it gives them, is palpable and familiar. And Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon has a relationship with wine that is crucial for her development throughout the series.

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Photo by Steve Legato

Speaking of Anna Pigeon, where would a mystery genre-related food book be without drinks? Anna Pigeon and her wine, Nero Wolfe and his beer, Lord Peter Wimsey and his vintage claret. The Drinks section at the end of this cookbook is a nod to alcohol-as-character that was a hallmark of the genre for most of the twentieth century, although modern mysteries don’t seem to go for the hard-drinking habits of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe liked they used to (Spade and Marlow “pounded the hooch like it was their job,” notes an article in Modern Drunkard Magazine. “In a sense, it was their job. At least an integral part of it. Of all literary genres, none is more inextricably bonded to alcohol than the hard-boiled private dick”). We don’t tolerate sloshed sleuths much anymore, though they make for interesting characters. Even Anna Pigeon eventually ditches alcoholism. But still, in this cookbook we’re given tipples like Alison Gaylin’s “Smoking Gun” Margarita and Peter James’s personal Vodka Martini Writing Special, which sends James “typing away happy as Larry!” An admirable sentiment to a writer like myself, because vodka martinis send me straight to sleep, not the computer. Which can be rectified by Lee Child’s slightly tongue-in-cheek contribution on this cookbook’s final page: Coffee, Pot of One.

Although I was drawn to The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook because I love mystery novels, I found that it’s one that will likely gather many mysterious splatters in my kitchen. Its main purpose isn’t, as one would expect from a cookbook, cohesion, which means it’s open to humor and serendipity. It doesn’t adhere to any cooking philosophy or style or the messaging of a famous chef. I found plenty of simple dishes for busy lives, and one-pot carb fests that are as familiar as a friend you’ve loved and bickered with for decades. But I was also intrigued by recipes like Kim Fay’s Caramelized Clay Pot Fish, a dish she picked up and refined during her four years in Vietnam, and discovered laugh-out-loud funny authors I hadn’t known about, like Bill Fitzhugh, whose Spicy Beans recipe was an answer both to his wife’s former vegan/macrobiotic diet and his native Mississippi’s “two food groups: (1) fried anything and (2) vegetables boiled with a chunk of pork fat until they’ve reached the consistency of pureed caterpillars.”

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Photo by Steve Legato

In this book we have Oklahoma biscuits on one page and high tea on the next, along with an entertaining (and, obviously, disturbing) overview of how easy it is to poison someone with common plants that will defy toxicology screens. Sidenotes like D.P. Lyle’s “The Last Supper” remind us that murder mysteries deal not just in life, but in death and all that comes after. We eat as a form of sustenance, love, connection, survival. And when we die—violently or otherwise—we decay just like the animal and plant products left for too long in our refrigerators. Murder mysteries remind us of this reality in the most oblique of ways, by putting death in our faces and then skirting the physical reality in favor of digging up the truths behind our shared humanity and hidden passions.

Every cookbook is a kind of conversation with its readers. This one brings lovers of mystery novels into the inner world of those who write them, teasing out one of the core constants that make the genre work—their search for justice and balance in a world that so often feels chaotic and unfair. It reminds us of what we’re looking for in shared stories as well as shared meals. Like a good mystery novel, The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook is funny, self-deprecating, heartfelt, gripping, and very, very human.

Antonia Malchik’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Orion, Lunch Ticket, and The Boston Globe, among many other publications. She is the managing editor of STIR Journal and a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People.

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