When writing my own stories and reading those written by others, I’m always keen to know what the characters are eating. This has nothing to do with the fact that like many of us in the culinary paradise that is Maine, I’m something of a foodie. What you eat speaks volumes about who you are and where you come from, and that’s why I’m a big fan of food on the page.
At a lunch recess during a fictional murder trial, it tells me something when one lawyer heads to the local deli for chicken salad with tarragon and cranberries while the other snarfs a package of bright orange cheese crackers from the courthouse vending machine.
I’m intrigued when a world-weary PI—who lived most of his adult life surrounded by people who guzzled their coffee black with three sugars—now drinks only herbal tea.
We are what we eat, no?
Take Joe Gale, a man who loves smoked fish. In Cover Story, he’s delighted by the breakfast spread at the inn where he’s staying while covering a murder trial.
Keyed up and ready for action, I was showered and in the breakfast room the next morning at quarter to seven. Bagels of unknown provenance were flanked by local smoked salmon, not thin-sliced lox but moist hot-smoked chunks, which paired nicely with the traditional cream cheese, red onion and capers. I poured myself coffee and settled at a table in front of the window with the morning Bangor paper . . There’s nothing like fish for breakfast. When I finished, I was so full of energy I felt like running around the block a few times on my way to the courthouse.
Neva Pierce, the protagonist in a new series I’m writing, never talks about her own family’s meals. Her silence is as illuminating as her voluble devotion to the traditional Italian food that was standard fare at the love-filled home of her childhood friend, Karen Pastorelli. Now thirty-something adults, they’re still best friends. Sunday dinner at Mama Pastorelli’s has been replaced by Monday night supper at either Karen’s condo or Neva’s place on Peaks Island, but the menu remains the same:
She grabbed one of the matching tote bags Karen lugged up the hill off the 5:35 boat, the one with a loaf of bread sticking out of the top. The evening’s menu was Italian, as it was every week. Since her teenage days as a regular at the Pastorelli family’s table, Neva had sworn by the restorative properties of the exquisite sauce the family called gravy. In tribute to her late mother, Karen still made it regularly. A tight-lidded pot of it was nestled in the bag beneath the bread.
Both Neva and Joe (and food!) play central roles in a short story I wrote last winter called Means, Motive and Opportunity, recently chosen for inclusion in the forthcoming anthology to be published in November, Bloodroot, Best New England Crime Stories. In MM&O, Neva’s defending a woman charged with manslaughter and Joe’s covering the high-profile trial. At the end of a long difficult day they meet for a beer and some nosh. You’ll have to buy the anthology for the gustatory details, but you can be assured Portland’s craft brewing scene also gets a shout out.
Some of my favorite authors do such a good job with food it makes me hungry.
MCWer emeritus Barbara Ross sets her newest Maine Clambake Mystery, Shucked Apart, on the Damariscotta River, where oyster farms are a thriving business. I especially love a scene when Julia and Chris have lunch at an oyster shack where Norembegas, Glidden Points and Pemaquids are on offer. Julia’s an oyster-eating rookie, but the shack’s owner walks her through it:
“‘Eat it from the wide end. Don’t swallow it whole. Chew once or twice to get all the flavors.’ He poured a tiny bit of the sauce on it. ‘This is a mignonette, a simple sauce of vinegar, shallots and pepper that’s meant to balance the briny, creaminess of the oyster. Now go.’”
So I did it. Call me adventurous, call it peer pressure. Whatever. I did exactly as instructed. The briny, fresh flavor of the oyster with a flash of sweetness at the finish flooded my mouth and flew across my tongue. It was delicious.”
Examples of food illustrating character are everywhere you look in crime novels.
Who can forget the peanut butter and pickle sandwiches made by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone? Or the bad Hungarian food urged on her by bossy Rosie, the owner of a tavern down the street from Kinsey’s tiny apartment, not to mention the homemade bread turned out by her landlord Henry, a retired baker?
Does anyone not want to go to Louise Penny’s magical Three Pines, where bistro owners Gabri and Olivier serve up bowls of beef stew and warm baguettes on cold winter evenings, and cafe au lait and fresh croissants every morning?
And how can we forget Spenser, the tough-with-a-side-of-tender PI in Robert B. Parker’s long-running series? He was forever making dinner for his love, Susan Silverman. If this scene from Taming a Sea-Horse doesn’t make your mouth water, nothing will:
The endive and avocado salad was ready to be tossed with dressing, and the cornmeal and onion fritters were formed and ready for the skillet. I was making the salad dressing out of lemon juice and olive oil and honey and mustard and raspberry vinegar when Susan unlocked my front door.
Is there room for another chair at that table?
BLOG READERS: What are your favorite food scenes in crime novels? Examples in the comments are welcome!
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She’s currently working on a series featuring criminal lawyer Neva Pierce, whose passionate defense of her clients leads her deep into the rough-and-tumble world of Downeast crime.