Thursday, January 07, 2016

Some Really Bad Meals

Agatha Christie's mysteries, which I've been rereading recently, are filled with references to meals. Sometimes she's specific about scones or steaks or tea sandwiches or breakfast kippers. Sometimes she just mentions that in the course of an investigation a meal is eaten at one or another of the upper-class mansions, middle-class homes, or hotel tea rooms that her characters and detectives frequent. Meals often mark the passage of time, day by day.

The Murder at the Vicarage, the mystery tale where Miss Jane Marple makes her first appearance, centers around life in the modest Vicarage occupied by the narrator, the village Vicar. Miss Marple, who lives next door to the Vicar, fits a stereotype that Christie summarizes: "There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands."(Kindle Locations 509-510).

The Vicar's wife Griselda, much younger than he, feels that she cannot afford the expense of a competent servant, so she employs Mary, a careless and inexperienced young woman. The food that Mary cooks is terrible. The second paragraph of the entire novel, for example begins with the Vicar's complaint: "I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way)..."(Locations 144-145).

Conversation at the table continues, and "Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, ‘Greens’, and thrust a cracked dish at him [a guest] in a truculent manner." And then: "Mary, setting the greens on the table with a bang, proceeded to thrust a dish of singularly moist and unpleasant dumplings under my nose. I said, ‘No, thank you,’ and she deposited the dish with a clatter on the table and left the room." (Locations 148-152)

For dessert, Mary presented "a partially cooked rice pudding. I made a mild protest, but Griselda said that the Japanese always ate half-cooked rice and had marvellous brains in consequence." (Locations 190-191). Another dessert at a later meal in the novel: "Mary’s blancmange ... is so frightfully depressing. It’s like something out of a mortuary.’ (Locations 3096-3097).

Another meal follows not long afterwards: "The menu was ambitious in conception, and Mary seemed to have taken a perverse pleasure in seeing how best she could alternate undercooking and overcooking. Some oysters which Griselda had ordered, and which would seem to be beyond the reach of incompetence, we were, unfortunately, not able to sample as we had nothing in the house to open them with – an omission which was discovered only when the moment for eating them arrived." (Locations 474-477).

Griselda continues to insist that her own efforts are futile, she can't change Mary and doesn't want to replace her explaining: "But as long as Mary can’t cook and has those awful manners – well, we’re safe, nobody else would have her.’" (Locations 1175-1176).

In contrast, the village public dining room is preferred by a potential guest; it had quite acceptable food: "The Blue Boar gives you a first-rate meal of the joint and two-vegetable type." (Location 1576).

What people expect when they think about
Agatha Christie meals: tea and sandwiches!
See "A street food feast, takeaway 
picnic hampers and a spread 
inspired by Agatha Christie"
Christie always manages to surprise readers, including of course her very clever plots and the way the the perpetrators are almost always unexpected. In The Murder at the Vicarage, she also transforms the frequent stereotype of a wife who can't manage the servants and who makes her husband unhappy with his food on a regular basis. You would think Griselda's incompetence would predict that their marriage is doomed. Not so in this case! The 20 year difference in age between the Vicar and his Griselda and her inability to manage the house doesn't have this effect at all: at the end of the book, after identification of the murderer who left a body in their study -- their marriage is stronger than ever, and she is promising to do better at household management by buying how-to books.

Most Agatha Christie food followers mention the usual delicacies: English teas, Devon cream, Sunday roasts, Christmas puddings, fine old port, or the sweets and cocoa loved by Hercule Poirot. I was delighted to find such contrasting -- and negative -- food descriptions in The Murder at the Vicarage.

To see all my posts about Agatha Christie, including my current 2016 binge, click here.

Miss Marple played by Joan Hickson


Johanna GGG said...

I love the description of the blacmange as being like something out of the mortuary - very apt for Agatha Christie.

BTW - thought you might be interested in this post about a tea room just outside melbourne -

Jeanie said...

Love this post to pieces and now I have to dig out The Vicarage!

This line -- I wish I could write like that: "The menu was ambitious in conception, and Mary seemed to have taken a perverse pleasure in seeing how best she could alternate undercooking and overcooking."

So glad Cafe Zola didn't hire Mary in the kitchen!