Mystery Eats

It was a dark and stormy night when I broke out crime novelist Sara Paretsky’s recipe for Chicken Gabriella. Replete with fresh figs and several kinds of booze, it is one of the many tantalizing and entertaining choices in the new Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die for (Quirk Books, $25), a collection of recipes from many of America’s top crime writers, including the relatively newly annointed Gillian Flynn as well as old hands like James Patterson, Laura Lippman, and a host of other authors who may not be as well-known but are no less talented. Actually, the recipe is credited to the “indefatigable Chicago detective” V. I. Warshawski, the steely protagonist of Paretsky’s longtime best-selling series. As we learn in its headnote, the dish was passed on to V. I. by her mother, Gabriella, who died when the detective was sixteen. Gabriella “was a refugee from Umbria living in the shadow of the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast Side [who] recreated as much of her childhood home as she could through the olive tree she planted in her front yard, her music, and her cooking,” she writes. Having been very close to her mother, V. I. cooks often in her honor and makes this particular dish for special occasions.

Chicken Gabriella is, it must be said, utterly delicious on a chilly winter night when the trees outside the window are rattling in the wind, and I suspect it would be just as good on pretty much any day of the year. But it functions as more than just a method for making dinner. Like many of the dishes included here, Paretsky’s recipe offers something not usually found in a cookbook: insight into writing fiction. Only a character with a backstory as clear and detailed as V. I.’s could possibly hold so many readers’ attention over so many books (there are currently sixteen in the series—the first was published in 1982—which has been translated into thirty languages). By putting some of that biography into the headnote—a place traditionally reserved for casual cooking advice from the chef or perhaps a variation on the ingredients—Paretsky instructs us, perhaps unwittingly, not just on how to get a meal on the table, but also on how important that meal is when it comes to creating a fully realized character who, like all of us, has preferences and dislikes in the kitchen, and by implication everywhere else.

The more you read and cook from this eclectic collection, the more inevitable it seems that if you get a group of writers together and ask them to do something—in this case, submit a recipe—somehow they will reveal their authorial habits, methods, and neuroses. Many of these, it seems, revolve around food. We have Cathy Pickens, author of the “Southern Fried Mysteries” series, who tells us in the introduction to her fried-yellow-squash recipe that, when she began writing about the small-town lawyer who figures in all of her books, “I had to make sure she had a place to eat.” Sue Grafton, an eminence in the mystery world, offers up a recipe she invented for Kinsey Millhone, the protagonist of her twenty-two private-eye novels. In spite of having just three ingredients (one of which is bread), Kinsey Millhone’s Famous Peanut Butter & Pickle Sandwich is so specific to the character that the brands of peanut butter and bread-and-butter-pickle chips are called out by name with the admonition “no substitutions or we can’t be responsible for the results.”

A meal made from Thomas De Quincey’s Pasta-less Pasta, a recipe by mystery writer David Morrell.
A meal made from Thomas De Quincey’s Pasta-less Pasta, a recipe by mystery writer David Morrell. Steve Legato

Grafton notes that “Kinsey eats more of these than I do since she’s (almost) entirely fictional and doesn’t gain weight,” which gets at the other quality that makes this book such a fascinating window into the world of mystery writers. Unlike actual chefs—not to mention many authors—whose brand is founded on a very specific identity (regardless of how manufactured it may be), many of these contributors deal in double personalities. Though they share traits with their creations—note the “we” in the peanut-butter-pickle recipe—they write under assumed names and are generally comfortable living in worlds where everything is not as it seems, which is no doubt what makes them successful writers about mysterious goings-on. They accept identity as fluid, and that fact allows them to grasp and then explain many contradictions in detective stories (and in real life) that might otherwise be incomprehensible.

So while most of us are just trying to figure out who we are and stay true to that, within the ranks of mystery writers we have people like Daryl Wood Gerber, the author of the “Cookbook Nook Mystery” series, who also writes the “Cheese Shop Mystery” series under the pen name Avery Aames (latest title: As Gouda as Dead). Not only has she contributed a recipe for Cheddar–Monterey Jack Cheese Sauce with Broccoli (in a regular cookbook, the sauce would no doubt be given second billing, which only adds to the delight here), a dish she feels would suit the alter egos she’s created for each series, but her author’s note says she’s appeared on television’s Murder, She Wrote. Talk about containing multitudes.

Many other details about the writing life are revealed. John McEvoy’s Gone Broke Goulash is a reminder that those of us who live by pen and keyboard don’t always bring in as much cash as we need to eat the way we’d like to. His stew, he writes, is “mighty damn handy when most of a person’s bankroll is found to be sadly diminished.” Then there are the various hints at the daily frustrations of writing and how to get over them by heading to the kitchen. “This recipe is very good to make after a day spent working on something tense and finicky,” Charlaine Harris says of her Very Unsophisticated Supper Dip (which is basically chili). “When I’ve had a hard day writing,” confesses Hallie Ephron in the introduction to her potato-pancake recipe, “grating and cooking them is the ultimate mind cleanser.” Perhaps the purest distillation of this relationship between authors and food comes in the no-nonsense title of a cocktail recipe: the Peter James Vodka Martini Writing Special. It is, according to its creator, a necessity if he’s going to get anything down on the page: “My 6 p.m. tipple . . . acts as my rocket fuel to kick off my evening’s writing.” Cheers!

Indeed, the headnotes in this book are a kind of genre unto themselves, crammed with details and ideas you’d never find anywhere else. The last line of what looks to be a perfectly reasonable salmon recipe delivers a little jolt of terror: “Max fixes his favorite salmon dish as they wonder how a woman could disappear into the pines and never be seen again.” Then there’s Jacqueline Winspear’s recipe for syllabub, “a lemony, creamy, sherry-laden pudding” made with nutmeg, which she has used in her series featuring “World War I nurse turned psychologist-investigator Maisie Dobbs.” After giving a short history of the dessert, she can’t help but include a last bit of truly creepy information: “Nutmeg is considered a poison with no really effective antidote in an overdose situation, so always . . . use sparingly. Unless you want to kill someone.” Walter White, meet Ms. Winspear.

There are other valuable food factoids for budding criminals scattered throughout the book. In an inset devoted to Sherlock Holmes, we learn that “milk is invisible when it dries, but heating the words over a lamp makes the fat in the fluid brown so they may be read.” An interview with D. P. Lyle, author of Forensics: A Guide for Writers, gets into the grim details of autopsies and undigested food as it relates to time of death. “Stomach contents . . . can support a suspect’s alibi—or blow it wide open,” Lyle says. And if you’ve ever wondered where the term red herring came from, you will find the answer here. “Literally speaking, a red herring is a fish that has been smoked until its flesh turns red. It is sometimes referred to as a kipper,” writes Kate White, the book’s editor. “It was once thought that the nonliteral meaning of the term originated from the practice of using kippers to train hounds to follow a scent. But new research suggests that . . . in 1807 the English polemicist William Cobbett . . . used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare, and the words were later adopted to refer to a literary device.” As Philip Larkin might say, “useful to get that learnt.”

And here is one other thing I learned from the Mystery Writers of America, or at least learned to see anew through the prism of mystery stories: Life is full of uncertainties and evil, but sometimes a good meal is enough to get you through even the worst of it. As Leslie Budewitz, author of the “Food Lovers’ Village” mysteries, writes: “In every book, I get to explore food along with the mystery. It’s a natural combination to me. Murder is stressful, and who doesn’t eat when stressed? But more important, murder is unnatural. It damages the threads that tie a community together. The killer must be brought to justice and social order restored. And what does that better than food?”

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).