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