In the Sicilian crime writer Andrea Camilleri’s novels, food plays a central role in the life of his protagonist, Inspector Montalbano. Here is an excerpt from The Snack Thief. Montalbano is at his favourite restaurant by the sea.
‘“What can I serve you today?”
“What’ve you got?”
“For the first course, whatever you like.”
“No first course for me today. I’d rather keep it light.”
“For the main course, I’ve prepared alalonga all’agrodolce and hake in a sauce of anchovies.”…
“Bring me a generous serving of the hake. Ah, and, while I’m waiting, make me a nice plate of seafood antipasto.”
He was overcome by doubt. Was that a light meal? He left the question unanswered and opened the newspaper.’
Montalbano reads the news—murder, economic crisis, political scandal—and then the hake arrives. ‘ One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’ After we readers savour the dish with Montalbano, his deputy (a rival at this stage in the series) arrives and orders spaghetti with clams. When it arrives, he proceeds to sprinkle parmesan cheese over his plate, much to the disgust of Montalbano who thinks: ‘Christ! Even a hyena, which being a hyena, feeds on carrion, would have been sickened to see a dish of pasta with clam sauce covered with Parmesan!’ They then discuss the case.
The relationship between mysteries and delicious food is not a new phenomenon. My first ‘grown up’ books were Enid Blyton’s mysteries. The Five Find-Outers had scrumptious cakes and scones in the village tea shop while discussing clues or ‘glues’ as the youngest member put it. To this day, the mention of a soft boiled egg dipped into a twist of paper containing salt and pepper, and scones with clotted cream, and sandwiches smeared with potted meat or jam, evokes the memory of a hot summer afternoon with the ceiling fan whirring above, while I devoured the book and a jam sandwich (which I found to be too sweet, but nevertheless ate because the description was irresistible).
In good crime fiction, the description of food has flavoured the tension by drawing out the moment when a clue is revealed, evoked the setting (Sicily, Florence, Venice), displayed the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist (parmesan on clam sauce!), and even sometimes contributed to the ‘eureka’ moment.
The skilful use of taste, smell, touch and feel of a dish can transport the reader to an era, a season, a festival and even a locality. In Maurizio de Giovanni’s Viper: No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi set in the Naples of Fascist Italy, the celebration of Easter provides the backdrop to the investigation of a courtesan’s murder. ‘The sound of church bells, silent for days out of respect for Christ dead on the cross, now announced to the world that what was done was done, and great things could now be expected: the Savior would be reborn… The aromas of orange blossom water, cinnamon, vanilla, boiled wheat, and lemons elbowed their way through the rich smells of coffee, grilled fish and the thousand other fried foods that generally reigned supreme… But the smell that dominated came from the ovens, where women brought their pastiere and castielli to be baked, the queens and kings of the impending feast.’ Even if one does not know (and I didn’t) that a pastiere is a rich easter cake baked with ricotta cheese, eggs, cinnamon, orange flower water, lemon zest, sugar, butter, milk and candied fruit, the subsequent descriptions reveal it in its full glory—of how it is made by several characters, and shared, for instance by the housekeeper who takes pity on her mistress who is sobbing from a broken heart, or offered by one of the policemen after they successfully free a doctor-friend from the clutches of fascists.
Some like the Italian crime writer Marco Malvaldi have used a real life cookbook author, Pellegrino Artusi (1820– 1911), as a protagonist in a country house murder set in 1895 San Carlo. In The Art of Killing Well ( drawn from Artusi’s book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), Artusi, who is a guest of the baron, provides a crucial clue to the inspector investigating the death of the butler. Magdalen Nabb, an émigré Englishwoman whose Florence-based mysteries were so well crafted that Georges Simenon wrote her a complimentary letter, created Marshal Guarnaccia of the Florence carabinieri while watching a policeman lunching at a restaurant in that city.
There are three reasons why the symbiotic link between food and crime fiction is not surprising. First, both the consuming of a delicious meal and the solving of a mystery produces a sense of satisfaction, of having savoured and understood something, and expresses the pleasure of being alive (Camilleri said this of his detective, Montalbano). Just as one adds a pinch of sugar or jaggery to balance the acidity of a tomato or tamarind, the sleuth’s savouring of a dish offsets and highlights the demon-like aspects of the crime.
Second, there may be a deeper link between good food and intelligence; recent research reveals that consuming nutritious food (rather than processed food) generates higher IQs among children. Mystery writers like Agatha Christie knew this in the 30s. Remember Hercule Poirot’s cup of rich hot chocolate to get ‘the little grey cells’ moving?
Third, both activities pertain to curiosity, described as a passion for learning (Cicero) and an appetite for knowledge (Kant). We turn the pages of a detective novel because we are curious about who the murderer is. Studies on curiosity show that people will not expose themselves to curiosity-inducing situations if there is only a very slim chance of satisfying that curiosity or there would be a long delay before that information is received. That is not the case in a well-written murder mystery where one is assured of a satisfactory closure at the end of the book. Food, too, involves curiosity—will the Hyderabadi biryani match the one stored in my taste-memory ?—which will be assuaged as soon as I smell the fragrance and see that the rice grains do not wear an oily coat, and partake of the first spoonful.
Food, however, does not play a central role in some other types of murders like in the hard boiled or serial killer genres, and in some geographical locations (Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, among others). For instance, in the Swedish and Scandinavian noir of Jo Nesbø, Arnaldur Indri•ason, and the Dragon Tattoo series, one rarely remembers the food. The gore, yes, but I don’t recall what the protagonists ate (or in Indri•ason’s case, don’t want to remember sheep’s head, turnip mash and blood pudding).
Why is food not so central here? It may not be simply because of the gory nature of the crime (equally vivid descriptions of the viscera await us in the Italian ones). It could be that the Scandinavians follow the traditional model of the English and American mystery writers of ignoring all that will detract from the telling of the mystery. What did Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Nick and Nora Charles eat? I consulted my copy of the The Thin Man, and here is how food and drinks are mentioned: ‘Nora was eating a piece of cold duck with one hand and working on a jigsaw puzzle with the other’, ‘after we had ordered some food…ordered drinks’ and so on. There is generally no mention of what food (usually ham sandwiches from a petrol station) or drink (mugs of bitter coffee) or whether Nora or Sam found it tasty.
At the risk of being accused of stereotyping, could it be because the food of these countries is not as delectable or famed for its culinary transcendence as the Mediterranean one? Or to paraphrase Montesquieu, the relationship between food and crime is adapted to the climate and geography of the setting. Note, I do not say writer, since Leon, who has also published Brunetti’s Cookbook, and Nabb are not Italians. Neither is John Lanchester whose delightfully and diabolically unreliable narrator in The Debt to Pleasure is a modern day Brillat-Savarin, an epicure who ruminates on seasonal recipes, dishes of Normandy, the difference between an artist and a murderer, and the art of picking the right mushrooms for some unmentionable activities.
The weaving of food through the tales of murders in the bazaars and neighbourhoods of present-day Palestine (Martin Rees), Ottoman Turkey (Jason Goodwin), Tsarist Russia (Boris Akunin), southern France (Martin Walker), Barcelona (Alicia Giménez-Bartlett), present-day and ancient Greece (Jeffrey Siger, Anne Zouroudi), present-day Shanghai (Qiu Xiaolong) and ancient Rome (Steven Saylor), among others, constitutes an integral part of creating a pleasurable experience for the reader. It could be because those of us who read these mysteries live in an era of ‘plenty’ relative to the war-torn 20th century’s experience of deprivation. Or because we live in a more interconnected world where the description of drinking a glass of cold Chardonnay in a café outside Shakespeare and Co in Paris or eating steamed crab legs in Shanghai, resonates with our own experience as tourists or denizens in those cities. Whatever the reason, may the relationship between mysteries and food ‘live long and prosper’.