The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook
Considering the quality and quirkiness of books published by Quirk Books, I was expecting something very nice when I was asked to review The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. 1) I love mysteries and detective novels; 2) I love cookbooks and cooking and 3) How weird is the combination – culinary crimes? Killings in the kitchen? The book is a neat blend of both worlds – a cookbook with a murderous twist. It may be too pretty to live in my kitchen with the rest of the dog-eared, scribbled on and greasy-paged cookbooks, but until I decide to sacrifice it, it will make good reading on my fiction shelf. Want to know which are the favourite dishes of some of your favourite mystery writers? Read on.
I’ll say this for Quirk Books, “Seeker of All Things Awesome” – they fit their name. They have published some unusual books – recently; for instance, Jane Austen Cover to Cover (all the cover designs of Jane Austen’s books and spinoffs, for Janeites) and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy (Star Wars in iambic pentameter, for Star Wars/Shakespeare fans). They are unabashed about this. They publish just 25 books per year, and they publish them very prettily indeed – quality paper, covers, binding, contents and editing. They’ve even invented quirky terms (sorry, couldn’t resist) for their books – like “irreference” for their irreverent reference books. For a little publishing house, they have done very well indeed, especially considering that they do publish e-books, but that they also still go the paper route, despite trends to the contrary.
Good production job
The rule for cookbooks, I read somewhere, is that they must have photos of the finished dishes. Photos of the preparation process are good, but it is critical that the final dish is shown, the more luscious and glowing, the better. Having just words and no photos of the food is like having a how-to manual with no illustrations of the “how”.
This book combines the recipes from some of the authors of the Mystery Writers of America (an organization of mystery and crime writers, based in New York), with drool-worthy pictures, as befits a proper cookbook. There was food styling and prop styling and every dish looks good enough to try and good enough to eat. But what about the text? Anthony Bourdain describes food like he describes love or sex – in a breathless gallop. He revels in food porn, he waxes poetic about dishes and spices. But not everyone is a Bourdain, or a Marco Pierre White or Julia Child, with the same skill in writing as they have in cooking. Yet, mysteries, crimes and murders as plots, and food, dining and cooking as subjects or settings do go together, and culinary mysteries has become a sub-genre all of its own. And the writers in this book are as skillful at writing about murders and crime as they are about their recipes.
Why? Now we’re getting Maslowian.
Eating is a basic human drive, and so is survival (avoiding death), and, depending on whom you ask and the circumstances, feeding, mating, fighting, fleeing, socializing and figuring things out. Eating and food-gathering are primal instincts – humans do it everywhere, and it is also a form of socialization. Ask anyone who’s ever had to avoid friends because of a strict diet, how much less they go out. A lot less. People get together. They eat. Figuring things out, curiosity, is another driver. We are all inquisitive to some degree, from the day we are born. Murder and crime, on the other hand, are the antithesis of life and we are driven to find out the reasons why, and to untangle mysteries and figure out whodunit. So I think the link between food and murder is DNA-coded. They go together like flesh and blood and ashes.
But there is also something about food contrasting with the awfulness of murders. Food is comforting, it is nice. Murder is taboo, evil, discomforting. Combine the two and you get a discordance that is so unsettling as to make the mystery better. The contrast increases the tension, like satanist rituals in a cloister. (Here’s a list of movies featuring horrible meals – you were warned.)
A fine – if unconventional – collection of recipes
In this collection there are recipes from breakfast, through main courses, to desserts by more than 80 authors, “all the usual suspects”. (So if you don’t find reference to your favourite mystery writer in this post, you’ll have to go get the book.) Sometimes the recipes are straightforward. Other times they are written in the voice of the author’s main character, like Max Allan’s “Vivian Borne”, and often the authors quote from their own books. There are also text boxes of crime-writing trivia, like the definition of a red herring. The authors are American (and mostly women), so my favourites like Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and Henning Mankell are not included, though these classic authors and the mentions of food in their novels are discussed. The list of contributors includes big names like Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, Ben H. Winters…. Need I go on? You get the picture. The introductions are entertaining, often very droll, sometimes revealing unusual facts about the authors and how they work.
But ultimately it is a recipe book
Some of the recipes are not, shall we say, standard. For instance, in Alastair Burke’s “Ellie Hatcher’s Rum-Soaked Nutella French Toast” the recipe calls for a “three-dimensional object capable of holding liquid while you dip bread into it.” (p. 10). That would be…a bowl? Ben H. Winters’ recipe for a three-egg omelet to be eaten prior to the end of the world calls for “a couple of pats of butter”. How much is a pat? How many is a couple?
Nelson DeMille’s “Male Chauvenist Pigs in the Blanket” is a hoot: “Next put the [hot]dogs in a bowl or something and pour a can of beer over them. Let it sit until the foam goes down, then drain the beer into a glass and drink it”. OK. That’s pretty clear. Then: “Now take the Pillsbury dough and do what it says to make pigs in a blanket”. (p.26)
Not exactly fine dining, that. Laura Lippman’s “Aunt Effie’s Salmon Ball” calls for “1 teaspoon liquid smoke – if you can find it.” I can’t imagine how that would work.
I can recommend Lea Wait’s “Murderously Good Clam Chowdah” – the combo of chicken stock and seafood makes it a traditional delight, though I added in some dry white wine. Twist Phelan’s La Ristra’s Carrot Soup with Thai Red Curry and Apple Pear Chutney was delicious, though I cheated on the chutney. Rather than making it from scratch I used something that is made in South Africa, Mrs. Ball’s Chutney. Linda Fairstein’s “Angel Hair Pasta with Scallops and Shallots” is actually something I make quite often, swopping out clams for scallops, but it was very tasty. Also, for month-end when funds are low, John McEvoy’s “Gone Broke Goulash”. He does say, “This dish is best served with peanut-buttered white bread accompanied by a chilled Dr. Pepper”. Frankly I could not get myself to do that. The thought of all those calories scared me off.
On the subject of calories, these recipes have no calorie counters. Some recipes you can just look at and your arteries clog up, even while you are slavering for them, like Raymond Benson’s “Zillion Calorie Mac and Cheese”. And Angela Zeman’s “Grappa-soaked Cherries” (but what an enjoyable description of almost roasting a duck); and of course most of the dessert section and some of the breakfast items.
The book is rounded off with chapter introductions of what looks like snatches from a murder mystery, by clever editor Kate White, herself a best-selling mystery author. Below are the chapter introductions, with my attempt at padding it out to make a mini-murder-mystery. White’s words are in bold, my words are the rest. Forgive me, Ms. White, I just couldn’t resist the temptation.
More on why food and mysteries go together
Much has been written about this. Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst specializing in mourning, takes the other angle, explaining that the addition of food to the murder scenario would soften the emotional impact of murderous feelings. “It’s an interesting combination, death, food and murder,” “Loss is not that simple, it involves a lot of issues about aggression. Comfort food can momentarily take away feelings that are frightening or have aggression in them. “When it is on a visceral level, that’s when something like a rich food can alleviate the toxicity of that feeling, but it’s only a temporary fix. It sounds like these (culinary mysteries) are using food to counteract something about the fears of rage that are expressed as actual murder.”
(But remember Hannibal Lechter scooping out the brains of the still-alive detective Krendler in Hannibal (Thomas Harris, 1999), and poaching them in a little wine, all civilized? There was nothing comforting about that meal. Nor the horrible banquet with “cruel food”, dishes to make even the greatest gourmand squirm, set up to trap a suspect Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong. Nothing warm and fuzzy about that meal either.)
Mystery writers have their own explanations why murders with food, at dinners, by cooks or in kitchens fit so well into the genre.
“Murder is the deprivation of life,” culinary mystery author Diane Mott Davidson said. “Talking about food is life-affirming.” So the combination creates tension and discomfort.
“Food is a very powerful mnemonic,” culinary mystery author Katherine Hall Page says. “We remember what we eat from childhood, and we have a very positive association with food. Then you pair it with crime, and it provides a twist. You have the comfort of food, then, what’s going on here? It gives an element of surprise, of suspense. Poison only further complicates, of course.” Again, it is the unexpected nastiness of murder coinciding with food that makes the combination exciting.
For Denise Swanson, author of the Scumble River mysteries, food is the comfort-aspect in her books. Readers eager to try “cozy mysteries,” rather than thriller or suspense novels, psychologically take comfort in the inclusion of food in the story, because food is so everyday and normal.
More prosaically, it might just be that mystery readers associate themselves with cooks. “The overwhelming majority of mystery readers are women,” said Natalee Rosenstein, a senior executive editor of the Penguin publishing group. “They see their own lives reflected in these characters. They’re baking cookies for their kids or church benefits and reading about people that do the same thing, so they get that sense of identification.”