Friday, October 2, 2015

How Much Food is Too Much?

“…I pounded some lamb steaks I'd bought for lamb cutlets. Dipped them in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs. When they were what Julia Child calls nicely coated I put them aside and peeled four potatoes. I cut them into little egg-shaped oblongs, which took awhile, and started them cooking in a little oil, rolling them around to get them brown all over. I also started the cutlets in another pan. When the potatoes were evenly browned I covered them, turned down the heat and left them to cook through. When the cutlets had browned, I poured off the fat, added some Chablis and some fresh mint, covered them and let them cook… I took the lamb cutlets out of the pan and cooked down the wine. I shut off the heat, put in a lump of unsalted butter, swirled it through the wine essence and poured it over the cutlets."

The crime novel this recipe came from was not something of Diane Mott Davidson's, not even a cozy. It was Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker, and it won the Edgar best novel award for 1977. It looks like a perfectly good recipe, if you don't mind fried food. I wouldn't do that to a good piece of lamb, myself, but that's neither here nor there. The question is, what place, if any, does a cooking recipe have in a crime novel?

I'm thinking, it depends on the novel. For a noir novel the recipe would have to be something doomed and despairing. Beans out of a can, maybe, or a dreadful stew of some kind. Stewed road kill. For a detective story, if your detective cooks, like Spencer, you can describe something quite delicious. If your detective doesn't cook, maybe you want to draw the cloak of charity over his or her activities in the kitchen. I once put a recipe in a Mother Grey book that I got out of a Polly Pigtails comic book long ago, involving crushed potato chips, tuna fish, and canned mushroom soup; Mother Grey doesn't cook. (Notice how I used the Oxford comma in that sentence, where Robert B. Parker didn't. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1977, and fashions in punctuation have changed.)

I can see by the covers and the titles that a lot of cozy mysteries include food, with recipes, presumably, though I blush to confess that I don't read them. Would you put a recipe in a classic thriller or mystery in the modern day, or would it stop the action? Rex Stout's stories about Nero Wolfe always featured marvelous food, but not detailed recipes for preparing it. Menus, rather. That would be one way to go. Or send your protagonist to a great restaurant and have him order what you would like to have yourself, if only you had the money. Readers like sensuous treats. Sometimes they even like to go on vicarious alcoholic binges. What do you think about it? Food or no food with your crime? (Maybe fava beans and a nice Chianti.)

© 2015 Kate Gallison

1 comment:

  1. Once I might have put recipes in my crime novel. Now, no. By the way, that tuna dish - I used to cook it all the time - easy, tasty, quick! Thanks for reminding me - I'm off to Pioneer to get the ingredients.. tjstraw