Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's Just about the Food

The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is a venerable event: I suspect it's the Gold Standard for food articles. Lazy me -- I haven't systematically read through the collected proceedings of these annual meetings where the best articles from each year since 1981 have been published. On a recent visit to the library, however, I checked out the 1998 volume, Food in the Arts. I was especially interested to read "Food in the Detective Novel" by Joan P. Alcock, and to learn how a professional food historian approaches the subject that I often return to.

"Food in the Detective Novel" begins with a quote from W.H.Auden's famous article on detective fiction, though in fact he says little about food. Alcock acknowledges that the most basic role of food in crime is "in relation to killing the victim," and the second place goes to "the contents of the stomach" for clues to the time of death. She continues:
"In recent years attention has been paid to the food eaten by the investigator, either as part of the story or to add background verisimilitude. This is evident in the historical whodunits, but it may also be a facet of the investigator. The number of cook/chef investigators is increasing." (p. 13)
After this introduction, the article continues with a survey in chronological order by the setting of the detective stories. Inspector Marcus Didius Falco in ancient Rome is her first example: readers hear of the value of peppercorns, the economics of the oil trade, and the lost herb silphium. She continues by tabulating the food references in detective stories set in the middle ages, such as Brother Cadfael "who is more concerned with growing herbs ... than with his stomach, for his herbs have healing powers." (p. 14) She continues with Renaissance-era detective fiction, such as the protocol and place settings for a feast in the work of Kate Sedley. Alcock points out:
"The feast is described in some detail but phrases such as 'I cannot remember at this distance of time more than a tithe of what was consumed that evening,' seem an attempt to avoid accurate description." (p. 15)
The article proceeds with a study of several series of detective novels set in the Mediterranean, including those of Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Questura:
"Chilled wine is sipped slowly while savouring views over Venice.... Prosecco or Fragolino are aperitifs; Soave is served with chicken and artichokes; Dolcetto with pasta fagioli and cotoletta; brandy or grappa with coffee." (p. 17)
A summary of French detectives' food follows -- "If Madame Maigret has a vice, it is drinking her cup of Balthazar coffee, which she takes every morning." Then the classic English detective novel, "mainly by women writers... Food was of little account in their stories." She finds a few meals of interest in the stories of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the less-famous Gladys Mitchell.

Alcock invents another category for the novels of Conan Doyle, Michael Innes, and Rex Stout: "The Abstemious and the Aesthete." I was surprised that she made no mention of Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Too Many Cooks, published 1938, where the subject is a meeting of 15 international master cooks. In it, Nero Wolfe gives a paper on American food; he consents to attend the meeting only because he wants to obtain a secret recipe.

And Alcock goes on to discuss women detectives, such as the work of Amanda Cross and others (somehow, Miss Marple isn't in this category, but in the Classic English category). She lists the foods eaten by each detective, without being distracted by other features of the tales. Only in her conclusion does she apply what I would think of as literary analysis:
"Other books than detective stories incorporate food, but it is obvious that the frisson between murder and food, between intellectual puzzle-solving and creating of dishes is eminently satisfying. ... The dinner party provides opportunities for endless twists in a murder plot, the murderer awaiting an opportunity, the victim calmly eating, unsuspecting of the final fate." (p. 29)
I wish she had been more explicit about how each author made use of the food details that she catalogued.

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