Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall

37 responses to “Pass the Biscuits, Please*

  1. Ha, I was sure you would mention Bruno and Montalbano – some of my favourite foodie detectives! Armand Gamache also enjoys a good meal at the restaurant in Three Pines, although Louise Penny doesn’t go on endlessly about it. Donna Leon’s Brunetti always has a great home-cooked meal with his wife and children. Of course, we can’t forget the Winemaker Mystery series, where we might argue that wine is almost a central character… and which wine goes with which meal.

    When not done well, however, it can become a sort of ‘tourist trap’, rattling down ingredients to attract readers who appreciate French or Italian cuisine and culture. I’ve read a few like that (usually, it has to be said, by foreign writers, rather than natives).

    • Marina Sofia – There is no way that I could write a post about descriptions of food without including both Bruno and Montalbano! And you’re quite right about Gamache as well. He does indeed enjoy his meals at the bistro, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. But as you say, as much as he does enjoy delicious food, Penny doesn’t go on and on about it, and I like that.
      You make an interesting point too about how food and descriptions of it are woven into a story. When it’s a natural part of a story, it just seems such more more authentic than it does if it’s just, as you say, listed, or if it feels like an ‘aside’ to the reader. And I suppose it makes sense that natives of a place, or people who have lived there, would have a better sense of the way food and meals are woven into daily life than would people who’ve only visited. Interesting point!

  2. The English TV series Pie in the Sky was an excellent mix of food and detective stories, with the protagonist a “retired” police officer who had become a restaurateur but kept getting called back to solve crimes.

  3. One interesting difference I spotted in French vs. US/UK police drama. In the UK/US version, the policemen and women drink coffee at the police station out of plastic or paper cups. In French films, they drink out of proper coffee cups (not mugs).

    • Oh, interesting, Marina Sofia! I’ll have to check on some other dramas I’ve seen from other countries. It seems to me that drinking coffee would be just as culturally contextual as anything else is. Thanks for the ‘food – er, coffee – for thought.’

  4. Kathy D.

    Oh, woe is me with food descriptions in the Italian mysteries that pass before me. There is never a description of meals in either Salvo Montalbano’s or Guido Brunetti’s life that doesn’t make me want to rush out to the nearest trattoria. Montalbano is always either remembering a meal he had, contemplating what is in the oven or refrigerator or at his friend’s cafe or eating it. And Paloa Falier makes such mouth-watering meals that one wants the recipe or to be invited to dinner at the Falier/Brunetti household.
    And Irene Huss doesn’t have it bad either; her spouse, Krister, is a chef and uses his talents at home, too.

    • Kathy – Oh, I have exactly the same reaction, both to Camilleri’s work and Leon’s. There’s always something delicious in those stories that makes me hungry. And thanks for reminding me of the Irene Huss novels. Right you are indeed about the terrific food that Krister makes. She may eat her share of pizza when she’s on a case, but she eats very well at home, too.

  5. Margot: And don’t forget the special red sauce (ketchup and cream) with which Russell Quant’s mother plies him.

    In Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, spy thriller, there is a recipe at the end of each chapter for something that has been eaten during the chapter. It is an unusual touch for a thriller but not unique.

    A generation ago in The Monte Cristo Cover-Up, also published as It Can’t Always be Caviar, by Johannes Mario Simmel. WW II spy, Thomas Lievens, is a gourmand. There are menus to start each chapter with recipes throughout the book.

    • Bill – Oh, yes of course! What’s life without red sauce? Thanks for the reminder. And thanks for mentioning both the Simmel and the Matthews. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read them, but any sleuth that’s enough of a gourmand to provide recipes is a great example for this post. It’s interesting too how those details are woven into stories, too, without overwhelming the plot.

  6. Ah, but what about that great connoisseur of fine dining – Rebus! Who when he isn’t munching a sausage roll will be chomping down a roll and sausage. Two fine examples of British gourmet food… to be washed down with a can of vintage Irn Bru of course! 😉

  7. Margot did you know Puri – is also a name of a type of bread ?

  8. Love the reference to ‘Ode to Billy Joe’, Margot, which made my list of best crime stories in a song.

    Among the most memorable scenes I’ve read about food in a crime novel was in an early Michael Dibdin/Aurelio Zen, where Aurelio and a female friend were told by a waiter that the lamb the restaurant was serving was so young, it was a crime to kill it; but now that it was dead, it would be an even bigger crime not to eat it. I’ve never forgotten it!

    • Thanks, Angela! And thanks very much for the mention of the Aurelio Zen series. I think those novels are terrific! I’m also glad you liked the song I chose; it is an excellent song, I think, and the reference to the crime is very well-done. Thanks for sharing your post about it.

  9. Anyone who’s read any of Blake’s adventures knows he can’t go too many chapters without the mention of food. It’s such and integral part of our lives no wonder it also plays such an important part in murder mysteries 😉

  10. Thanks for the shoutout Margot. Some of my friends and family would be saying it was hardly surprising that food is on the menu where I am concerned. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone likes the Hungarian specialities at her local restaurant. And John Harvey’s Insp Resnick likes a deli sandwich from the Polish shop – he’s always spilling it down his tie. Full marks to Harvey – in effect this is fast easy food for Resnick but (unlike in so many lonely-cop stories) the sandwiches always sound mouth-watering.

    • Moira – I’m grateful for the inspiration. And I’m glad you mentioned Kinsey Millhone and Rosie’s restaurant. It really is a good example of the way food plays a part in her life even though she’s hardly what you would call a gourmand… And you’re right about Inspector Resnick, whom I ought to have thought of for this post. Those sandwiches do sound delicious, don’t they?

  11. Viktor Arnar Ingolffson’s The Flatey Enigma has descriptions of Icelandic food which are fairly grim. Lots of raw fish. Makes you happy for the comforts of cooking!

    • I’m glad you mentioned that one, Sarah. I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time and just haven’t got to it (yet). I think I would have a lot of trouble adjusting to that diet…

  12. Col

    Just read the latest Steinhauer – All the Old Knives, where a lot of the novel unfolds in a restaurant. More espionage than crime, but still recommended!

  13. RTD

    What a wonderful concept! I have nothing to add to the discussion — I cannot remember such details as well as everyone else — but I will BOLO for exactly these kinds of morsels in my future reading. BTW, at Beyond Eastrod, I am beginning a new self-imposed reading challenge, and I would welcome your (and everyone else’s) recommendations.

  14. Of course, I am reminded of the Sherlock Holmes story – THE BLUE CARBUNCLE. (I think I spelled that right?) The food in question, is the “getting” of the Christmas Goose, and what the thief put in the belly of the Goose in question – mainly the jewel!

    Your mention of Agatha Christie and Poirot reminded me of the story of the dinner at the nightclub where a flower was prominent at the dinner table [and I think one of the guest was poisoned through the wine]. There was the first meal, then the anniversary meal, where the criminal tried to do it again, but this time Poirot intervened. Now if only I could remember the name!!! (Something to do with Argentina or Brazil.) Do you remember that particular story?

    • Oh, yes! The Blue Carbuncle!. That is indeed a great example of the way food and meals can play a major role in crime fiction. Thanks for filling in that gap.
      And you’re absolutely right about the Agatha Christie work. The short story was called Yellow Iris, I think. And Christie later expanded that into a novel called Sparkling Cyanide.

  15. Kathy D.

    I must admit that even though gourmet meals are made by Nero Wolfe’s chef, they don’t make my mouth water. But they do provide for some great humor, as when the corpulent eccentric yells at his chef because he put 3 juniper berries in a recipe, instead of 4, or when the beef doesn’t come from his favorite butcher shop.
    Those arguments between Wolfe and his chef are often hilarious, as are the mealtimes, especially when there are guests. Crazymaking. Humor for we readers.

  16. Kathy D.

    Yes! It’s fiction and fun, not “discussions” we have to live with on a daily basis.

  17. I enjoy very much the mystery story where the writer goes into food, at least somewhat. At the other extreme is the novel, mystery or otherwise (movies, too) where there’s no mention, or very little mention, of food. Ok – maybe the de rigueur coffee, alcoholic drink or drag on a cigarette.It’s distracting in a subtle sort of way, as though the sleuth exists in a dream world and all he does is solve cases, or not solve them!

    • You make an interesting point, Bryan. No matter what, where or when we eat, we all have to eat. So a sleuth who doesn’t eat just doesn’t seam ‘real.’ If the author is going for surreal, that can be all right; but in general, I’m with you. I prefer my sleuths and other main characters to be real, and that includes eating.

  18. tracybham

    Amazing how many mysteries focus on food. I guess just enough mention of food makes the story feel realistic, but too much discussion of food weighs it down. All of the series / books you mention are ones I want to read. Especially Cards on the Table.

    • Tracy – Food really does figure into a lot of mysteries, doesn’t it? As you say, it’s best discussed in measured doses, but it is a part of life in every culture somehow or other. And I hope you’ll enjoy Cards on the Table. It’s a good ‘un.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s