FOOD IS NOT the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Her youth and middle age were spent in a time of nationalism, jingoism and rationing: two World Wars, an economic Depression and almost a decade of rationing after each World War. ‘I can still remember the enchantment of the things there were to buy. Food, for instance. Little cardboard platters of roast chicken, eggs and bacon, a wedding cake, a leg of lamb, apples and oranges, fish, trifle, plum pudding.’ All this for her dolls’ house. This is Agatha Christie reminiscing about a time of plenty during her childhood in an upper-middle-class home in the pre-World War I years (she was born in September 1890).
Yet, it is through food that she conveys a character’s nationality. The Belgian Hercule Poirot was a gourmand, the English Miss Marple was not. What her characters ate, their liking or dislike of a dish or a drink and how they thought about food’s purpose in their lives were connected to their nationality in two ways. The first was her attempt to write about Englishness, of a way of life that was fast disappearing in the tumultuous aftermath of two World Wars. Breakfast, tea and the Sunday mid-day dinner are synonymous with an English way of life. In At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), the manager tells one of the guests that he could have the English breakfast.
‘Eggs and bacon?’
‘As you say—but a good deal more than that if you want it. Kippers, kidneys and bacon, cold grouse, York ham, Oxford marmalade.’
‘I must remember to get all that… don’t get that sort of a thing any more at home.’
Humfries smiled. ‘Most gentlemen only ask for eggs and bacon. They’ve—well, they’ve got out of the way of thinking about the things there used to be.’
‘Yes, yes… I remember when I was a child. … Sideboards groaning with hot dishes. Yes, it was a luxurious way of life.’
That it was, but by the 1960s, the English upper-middle class’ luxurious way of life was eroding rapidly. The tea tray brought by the maid, the subdued chink of tea things as the tray is deposited on the table outside the bedroom, the rustle of a print dress, then the soft knock and the entry of Mary to draw the curtain (The Body in the Library, 1942). These elements were no longer as normal in that class’ morning routine.
At the same time, Englishness and the food traits associated with other nationalities are also teased in a lighthearted way. Who can forget Poirot’s anguish at the thought of having to eat Maureen’s cooking in (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, 1952). He finally teaches her how to make an omelette, which is praised in another book (Cat among the Pigeons, 1959) by a young girl whose mother is friends with Maureen.
‘Aunt Maureen makes smashing omelettes.’
‘She makes smashing omelettes.’ Poirot’s voice was happy. ‘Then Hercule Poirot has not lived in vain,’ he said.
Poirot rages against the English breakfast, particularly the eggs. Why? ‘It is really unsupportable,’ he complains in The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (1923) ‘that every hen lays an egg of a different size.’ Or in Murder on the Links (1923) where he is offended by absence of symmetry in the toast. ‘Is it of any shape remotely pleasing to the eye?’ Non. As for tea, he called it ‘your English poison’. But his fondness for tisane is teased by Hastings who says it smelt vile to the English nose.
Anne Hart in Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot describes his routine: A tray of early morning coffee, toilette, breakfast, mid-morning cup of chocolate, lunch at 12.30, followed by well-sugared coffee and supplemented during the day with tisanes and sirops and more chocolate. He much prefers coffee and warm rolls for breakfast and, to please his sweet tooth, a brioche.
Contrast Poirot’s breakfast with that of Miss Marple, a quintessentially English upper-middle-class lady (modelled on Christie’s grandmother) and brought up with Victorian values. For her, food was not something to be mulled on or experienced as a pleasurable thing. One ate to exist. Except breakfast, of course, At Bertram’s Hotel.
‘Miss Marple ordered her breakfast. Tea, poached eggs, fresh rolls. So adept was the chambermaid that she did not even mention cereals or orange juice. Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big pot-bellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey, and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelled of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!) There was also an apple, a pear, and a banana. Miss Marple inserted a knife gingerly but with confidence. She was not disappointed. Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs!’ It took her back to 1909.
It is not surprising that Christie chose food to evoke a nationality. English rural gentry dishes emerged as the national cuisine in the 18th century as a reaction to the French influenced menus favoured by the Whig party leaders, says Rachel Laudan in Cuisine and Empire. Cookbooks written in this period spoke of dishes an English housewife might produce. ‘Roast beef, not the game or the richly sauced dishes of the aristocrats, nor the rabbit and pig of the cottager, was the centrepiece of English cuisine.’ The more affordable port became the preferred drink in place of claret from Bordeaux.
While the English breakfast at the hotel evokes memories of a bygone Golden Age for Miss Marple, it also makes her suspicious of the hotel staff because she knows one can’t go back in time. Agatha Christie knew that too, that the Englishness of her childhood that she associated with these foods (Sunday roast, cherry tart, rock buns) and rituals (elevenses, tea) could not return. In Agatha Christie’s childhood, Sunday midday dinner was served: ‘An enormous joint, cherry tart and cream, a vast piece of cheese and finally dessert.’ She loved cream and could drink cups of it.
Contrast Poirot’s breakfast with that of Miss Marple, a quintessentially English upper-middle-class lady. For her, food was not something to be mulled on or experienced as a pleasurable thing. One ate to exist
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We often assume that the author will sneak in food she doesn’t like and make it a murder weapon or give the murderer tastes that are the pet hates of the author. She writes in An Autobiography:
‘I don’t like cocktail parties, any kind of drink except in cooking, marmalade, oysters, lukewarm food, the feet of birds, or indeed the feel of a bird altogether. Final and fiercest dislike: the taste and smell of hot milk.
I like sunshine, apples… silence, sleeping, dreaming, eating, the smell of coffee.’
It is tempting to attribute Poirot’s taste for coffee to Agatha Christie’s tastes. Or dislikes—the fact that oysters were served with strychnine in one story.
Miss Marple is offered a cup of hot milk by her hostess to help her sleep, but in fact, it contains poison (Nemesis). In Murder Is Easy, (1938), the murderer tries to poison Bridget by putting it in the tea. But poison (Taxine) is also put in coffee (which Christie likes) in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953).
As a child, Agatha Christie loved having a cup of cocoa for her elevenses, which may have something to do with Poirot’s fondness of a cup of thick rich chocolate. Something Hastings ‘would not have drunk for a hundred pounds’ and calls it the thick brown mess, which Poirot sips and sighs with contentment (The Chocolate Box). Sirop de cassis (blackcurrant sirop) was Poirot’s favourite social drink. He even offers it to Inspector Japp in The Capture of Cerberus.
Though Agatha Christie did write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding—a set of short stories grouped in two main courses, a selection of entrees and a sorbet, with Christie as the self-described chef, her interest in food doesn’t extend to describing the dishes eaten during lunch and dinner. She is more like Miss Marple than Hercule Poirot in her attitude to food. We can’t even be sure that someone who enjoys good food and has a hearty appetite, and can be trusted. Think of Sir Eustace in the Man in the Brown Suit, a hedonist and a murderer. Even on the delectable Orient Express where one dreams of dining on a cordon bleu chef’s dishes, the dishes mentioned are meagre—eggs, delicate cream cheese, chicken cooked without sauces, cereal and boiled fish!
In almost all her books, the poison is introduced through a drink or in a pie or a salad. Once the murder happens, food becomes fraught with its association with bad omens. A feeling she is familiar with, having endured the privations of two World Wars. When Max, her husband, returned home from the war in 1945, they ‘ate burnt kippers and were happy’. ‘What a wonderful evening it was!’ she writes in her autobiography.