Just Picture a Great Big Steak*

One of the things I love about crime fiction is the way it shows how we’ve changed over time. As society changes, so do social attitudes and customs. One of the many kinds of changes we’ve seen is in our diets and the way people eat.

I got to thinking about this after an interesting comment exchange with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog. By the way, if you like to read crime fiction, especially classic and Golden Age crime fiction, you don’t want to miss Brad’s richly detailed and informative blog. I learn every time I visit. Every time.

Brad and I were mentioning Fritz Brenner, who, as Rex Stout fans know, is Nero Wolfe’s chef. He is world-class, and always creates gourmet eating experiences for his boss. But, by today’s standards, we’d probably say that his cooking is far too rich and too full of calories, fat, and so on. Our views about what people should be eating have certainly changed since Stout was writing. Today’s top chefs know that there are healthful ways to cook that are also unforgettably delicious and beautifully presented. And many restaurants now offer vegetarian/vegan options, smaller servings, and low-fat/low-calorie dishes.

Choices such as low-calorie foods or vegetarianism haven’t always been seen as mainstream as they are now. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing when one of its prominent residents, wealthy Emily Arundell, unexpectedly dies. At first, her death is put down to liver failure, but soon enough, it turns out that she was poisoned. And that wasn’t the first attempt on her life. Not many months before, she had a fall down a staircase that was deliberately engineered. There are several suspects in this case, since Miss Arundell’s relatives are all in need of money. And there’s the fact that her companion, Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson, has inherited most of her fortune. Two of the witnesses that Poirot talks to are Isabel and Julia Tripp, who are friends of Minnie Lawson, and who were there on the night Miss Arundell died. These are eccentric ladies, to put it mildly. They have many non-conformist beliefs and are avid spiritualists. To add to this, they are vegetarians. While that fact isn’t the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder, it offers a glimpse of how such a diet might have been viewed at the time. Certainly, Poirot, who is a gourmand, is not exactly excited about the prospect of having dinner with the Tripp sisters…

Just because our views of what ‘counts’ as an appropriate diet have changed, doesn’t mean that all fictional sleuths eat healthfully. For instance, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel isn’t particularly concerned with keeping to a healthy diet. He’s not stupid; he knows that it’s a good idea to limit fat, salt, and so on. But he likes his pub grub and has no intention of cutting things like bacon out of his diet. The same goes for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. It’s not that they don’t know what they ought to be eating. Fans of Dexter’s series, for instance, know that Morse’s doctors have told him often enough. But that’s not the way they live their lives. What’s interesting about these sleuths’ attitudes is that they go against the proverbial tide. It’s now considered perfectly normal – even healthy – to eat less meat, less salt and fat, fewer fried foods, and so on.

We see another interesting example of that change in attitude in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI who does enjoy the occasional ‘not-good-for-you-but-delicious’ meal at his ‘watering hole,’ Colourful Mary’s. Still, he tries to watch what and how much he eats. That becomes difficult when his mother, Kay, comes for a visit in Flight of Aquavit. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her life making heavy-duty meals for hard-working farm people. So, her idea of what ‘counts’ as breakfast, for instance, are quite different to her son’s. It’s not that Quant doesn’t enjoy her cooking; he does. It’s delicious. But he also knows it’s got many times more calories, fat, salt, and so on than he should be having. This difference in views isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does show how our attitudes about diet have changed. It also shows (but this is perhaps the topic for another time), how lifestyle, culture, and other factors influence diet.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a Göteborg police detective, whose squad investigates murder and other violent crimes. In Night Rounds, we learn that Huss’ daughter, Jenny, has decided to become vegan. In fact, in one sub-plot, Jenny goes out one night with a militant vegan group to do what she thinks will simply be putting up vegan posters. It turns into something far more than that, and things quickly turn ugly. Fortunately for Jenny, Huss has suspected there might be trouble, and is able to get Jenny out of harm’s way. Jenny’s choice to become vegan does set up a conflict with her father, Krister, who is a well-regarded chef. But neither veganism nor a more conventional diet is portrayed as ‘right.’ It makes for an interesting discussion of what we think of when we think of ‘good’ food.

Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura is a half-Japanese/half-American antiques dealer who’s originally based in Tokyo (although her adventures do take her to several other places). She likes and respects some of the Japanese traditions she’s learned, but in many ways, she has a very modern outlook. And that includes her choice to be a vegetarian. What’s really interesting about that is that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as a rule. It’s simply accepted. And that shows something, at least to me, about the way our views about diet have changed.

That makes sense, too, since society is always changing. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, if you’ll be kind enough to go visit Brad’s blog, I’ll excuse myself. It’s time for lunch!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Colin Dexter, Helene Tursten, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton, Sujata Massey

27 responses to “Just Picture a Great Big Steak*

  1. This post about food in mysteries just made me hungry…going for a snack right now!
    Alice Horning

  2. I’m with Alice! How fortuitous that I read your post, Margot, just before going out to lunch with friends. There goes my diet!!!! Thanks so much for the shout out. 🙂

  3. Susan Condon

    Plenty of food for thought after this post, Margot!

  4. I enjoy reading stories where the MC/DI really enjoys their meal & the descriptions that accompany it, like Donna Leon’s Guido or Louise Penny’s Gamache.
    And it’s also what i did not enjoy about Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home…where all they ever ate was bad food 😉

    • That’s true, Anne. Long Way Home has a lot to recommend it, but restaurant suggestions aren’t one of those things… 😉 – I agree with you, too, about both Leon and Penny. Both of their sleuths enjoy good food; I’ve had some lovely vicarious meals with them. Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano, too!

  5. Interesting post, Margot. It makes me think of Cain and Abel as recorded in Genesis. Abel was a shephard and offered God a blood/meat sacrifice. His brother Cain, a tiller of the soil, offered God a sacrifice of the fruits of his labor (in other words, fruits and vegetables). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, and rejected Cain’s, which led to Cain rising up in anger and slaying Abel. Hmm, so we have God blessing the blood & meat sacrifice, and rejecting the fruits and vegetables. It seems the tables have turned with regards to the standing and value of food through the ages. Just an interesting “monkey wrench” I thought I’d toss into the discussion.” 🙂

    • That’s a very interesting point, Michael. And, if you look at literature from throughout history, including books that aren’t crime novels, you see how what people think is ‘good’ to eat has changed over the years. Just as one example, the amount of food consumed in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones would make a lot of people shudder today.

  6. Ha! I just got a lovely mental image of Nero Wolfe inviting Andy Dalziel round for dinner, and Fritz serving them up a vegan special… if Fritz got bumped off later, I reckon they’d both be suspects… 😉

  7. Col

    Slightly off-topic, doesn’t Brad Pitt eat in every scene in Ocean’s Eleven?

  8. Spade & Dagger

    The fact that authors record what their characters eat, and that readers notice & are interested in the meal choices of these characters, probably says a lot about the importance of food & eating rituals to our human psyche. Consequently, we inevitably form opinions on the characters traits based on our own knowledge & experiences.
    Personally I love a full Victorian style banquet a la Auguste Didier – Amy Myers’ chef detective (apparently based on her experiences living in Paris!).

    • You have a very well-take point, Spade & Dagger. I think it really does say a lot about us as humans. Eating is so deeply woven into the human experience that it would be hard not to pay attention to what others eat. And it makes sense, too, what we would form opinions based on our own eating experiences. And thanks for mentioning Myers’ series. That’s a series I need to explore more.

  9. Kathy D.

    Yes, Nero Wolfe’s diet in today’s more health-conscious world would definitely would not be one to emulate. But woe be unto Fritz if he made even a minor adjustment in the meals he cooks for Wolfe who yells if his chef uses 3 juniper berries instead of 4. Looking at health predictions now, we’d suspect Wolfe would get heart disease at some point.
    But my culinary wishes are stirred up by Brunetti’s and Montelbano’s great meals. I don’t know how healthy they are, although Salvo’s pesce and pasta may not be bad and Paola Falier is probably health conscious with two teenagers to feed.
    I always want to race out and get Italian food after I read about Brunetti’s or Montelbano’s meals, many of which I have not even heard of in NYC.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Kathy, about both Leon’s and Camilleri’s books. Both make the food sound mouth-watering and completely irresistible! And it’s certainly possible to have that sort of diet and not have it be overly heavy on the fat, salt, calories and the like. As to Wolfe? Yes, he’s definitely – erm – particular about his food. Brenner knows better than to upset his boss without a good reason.

  10. Fascinating as one of the things I enjoy about reading older crime fiction is the changing social attitudes but I’d not really considered the food angle before. I think we need to give Dalziel and Morse a bit of leeway as their habits were formed before the country really got into the swing of healthy eating.

    • That’s a well-taken point about both Dalziel and Morse, Cleo. It is hard to break habits formed over a lifetime. And, honestly, I couldn’t imagine either character being really diet-conscious. It’s just not a part of their makeup, and it likely wouldn’t feel ‘right,’ if that makes sense.

  11. Margot: The world may have different views from the past on food but how to reconcile the greener approach of today with the modern affection for pork belly that can be found in almost every restaurant.

    As for Russel Quant’s mother, Kay, who can forget the famous red sauce of ketchup and heavy cream!

    • That’s quite true, Bill. The dissonance between today’s interest in eating more healthfully, and restauarants’ pork belly offerings, is interesting. We see that sort of distinction especially with fast food places. Perhaps just because there’s a greater interest in healthy eating doesn’t mean everyone shares it…

      And, yes, that red sauce is certainly unforgettable!

  12. Pingback: Writing Links…4/9/18 – Where Genres Collide

  13. Kathy D.

    It seems that the Italian and French detectives eat well, as does Irene Huss because her spouse is a chef. But the British characters don’t seem to eat gourmet meals, not in books I’ve read — a lot of tea and biscuits (which I like) but bland, unappetitizing meals and a lot of take-out. Of course, there are blood sausage and haggis which one has to develop a taste for.

    • Your comment brings up a really interesting point, Kathy. What we consider ‘good’ food is very much a matter of culture. People in different cultures see food and eating in different ways. In fact, I think culture has as much to do with what we think of food as historical period does.

  14. There was a lot of mention of ‘cranky eaters’ in books of the 1930s, as in the Christie you mention: there was obviously a healthy eating movement then too. But these people are always treated with great disdain by the writers, they have Poirot and Hastings’ attitudes! this comes up in Patricia Wentworth’s Where are You Anna?, just into the 1950s. There is a savoury cake tasting of sage, and horrible sandwiches. Miss Silver looks on this proto-hippyish community with great suspicion….

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, Moira, how those authors portrayed people who were, as you say, ‘cranky eaters.’ They’re certainly looked on with suspicion, and sometimes condescension and even amusement. How times have changed, haven’t they? Thanks for mentioning the Wentworth, by the way. Trust you to share a great example of this.

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