“I Got Some Cooking to Do”
“I got some cooking to do.”
— Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
“Food counts, I’ll bear that out. In times of trouble, eat well, don’t skimp. Look after yourself. Don’t live out of the microwave. Use love and care.”
— George Webb in The Light of Day by Graham Swift
Used to be, when you finished a mystery, you’d close the book, settle back into your armchair with a contented sigh and savor the moment. But these days, judging by the number of crime novels that come with a recipe or two tacked into the last pages, you’re evidently supposed to jump up and head for the kitchen.
Now, I’m really not sure how a recipe for Cheesy Shrimp Puffs or Dutch German Chocolate Chip Cookies complements the gripping tale of a crime-busting poodle groomer bringing a serial killer librarian to justice, but these culinary afterthoughts are all the latest rage. A quick scan through the mystery section of your local bookstore will quickly bear this out. There are so many of these “recipe mysteries” out there that they often warrant their own display. In fact, there is now a sub-section in the mystery section of our Barn O’ Novels dedicated to “Cozies.”)
But right from the start there’s been a curious link between food (and drink) and crime fiction. You could even get all Biblical and pin it on Eve (the original femme fatale serving dangerous food). It’s not that big a stretch to see the forbidden apple as the MacGuffin, the Garden of Eden as the first-Ever Locked Room and the Big Guy as the first Great Detective (though, honestly, with only two suspects he didn’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to crack the case).
But speaking of Ol’ Deerstalker Cap, it’s worth noting that one of his earliest adventures, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (1892), revolved around a roast Christmas goose (and its stuffing). And even earlier than that, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic crime stories was “The Casque of Amontillado” (1846), wherein the narrator/murderer uses a cask of a rare and valuable sherry to lure his former friend to a secluded wine cellar ñ and his doom.
But the most obvious association between food and felony was made in the Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance (1934), which introduced Nero Wolfe, the world’s premiere foodie detective, whose entire life seemed to mostly revolve around food and beer, mostly prepared by his long-suffering personal chef, Fritz. Throughout his long career, Wolfe’s appetite for food, drink and justice never flagged. The hard cover edition of the fifth novel, Too Many Cooks (1938) cemented that link, with Wolfe at one point lecturing fifteen of the world’s greatest chefs on American cooking, and even boasted recipes in the margins, while the pivotal banquet has been cited by Nora Ephron and others as the “best meal in English literature.”
Since then, we’ve been inundated with sleuths who aren’t afraid to chow down — or cook up a storm. Virginia Rich, at the time the food editor at Sunset Magazine, is often cited as the creator of the modern ‘culinary mystery’ sub genre, writing three culinary mysteries in the eighties featuring amateur sleuth/cooking school teacher Eugenia Potter.
Not that the affection for sustenance is limited to traditional or cozy sleuths. Sure, Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swenson, owner and proprietor of a bakery and Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldie Schulz, caterer, know which end of a spatula to use, but so do such tough guys as the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, certainly nobody’s idea of a cream puff. His personal code of personal autonomy (don’t get him started) included being able to cook his own meals, thankyouverymuch. 1970s TV eye heavyweight Frank Cannon also clearly loved his food, and Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s Spanish gumshoe Pepe Carvahlo may have been the only private eye since Nero Wolfe to have his own personal cook. The love of food and cooking also infuses Graham Swift’s bittersweet The Light of Day (2003), featuring morose British sleuth George Webb who discovers, after years of “fuelling up on canteen grub” that he has a flair for cooking. And we should mention Hardbroiled (2003), edited by Michael Bracken, a collection of tough private eye stories in which food plays an important role.
But the ultimate confirmation of the food/crime analogy is the mystery-themed cookbook, a notion that has proven infinitely attractive to both readers and publishers over the years.
In fact, the real mystery is why it took until 1973 to convince Stout to compile The Nero Wolfe Cookbook. Let’s face it — no collection of crime cookbooks would be incomplete without this one. Attractively designed and handsomely illustrated with period pics of the Big Apple, it showcased over 200 recipes from Fritz’ personal collection (all presumably approved by Wolfe, of course). And the Great Man himself stirred in a few himself. Who knew there were so many ways to prepare shad roe?
Not that Nero Wolfe is the only gumshoe to find himself on the culinary bookshelf. Here are a few others well worth sharpening your knives:
- The Nero Wolfe Cookbook | Buy this book
(1973, by Rex Stout, Rex & the editors of Viking Press; revised 1996)
The 1973 first edition in the one collectors will go for, and the 1987 edition is a classic, but go for the beautifully illustrated and revised 1996 edition of Nero Wolfe’s favorite recipes, culled from the canon, with plenty of period photos and quotes from the books. Come for the “eggs au buerre” but stay for the squirrel stew. noir
- The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking | Buy this book
(1973, by Carolyn Keene)
The Whistling Bagpipe Crunchies? Hidden Staircase Biscuits? Old Clock Ice Cream Pie? You must be browsing through this early detective cookbook classic. Simple but fun recipes for younger cooks, with occasional tips from Nancy herself, featuring such yummies as Detective Burgers, Brass Bound Trunk Candy and afore-mentioned Whistling Bagpipe Crunchies. Becoming a good cook is “no mystery,” Nancy says. You just “add your own special touch.” Reprinted as recently as 2005. The Hardy Boys, meanwhile, got a “Detectives Handbook.”
- Madame Maigret’s Recipes | Buy this book
(1975, by Robert J. Courtine)
For those humans savoring something a little more continental, may we suggest this one by Robert J. Courtine, with a doreword by Simenon himself? As Inspector Maigret fans know, Madame Maigret is an excellent cook and this classical French cookbook is de rigeur, and comes complete with plenty of beverage suggestions as well. Julia Child is all fine and dandy, but how many murder cases did SHE solve? Huh? HUH? Bon appetit.
- The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook
(1981, by Elizabeth Bond Ryan & William J. Eakins)
This should do it for fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ urbane, upper class detective and sophisticed cuisine, though us commoners may be wondering where the recipes for Spotted Dick are.
- Plots and Pans: Recipes and Antidotes from the Mystery Writers of America | Buy this book
(1989, by Nancy Webb & Francis Webb; illustrated by Gahan Wilson)
- Dining With Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook | Buy this book
(1990, by Julia Rosenblatt & Frederic Sonnenschmidt)
Naturally, there are several dozen Holmes-themed cookbooks but this one, featuring complete menus taken from the canon, is still one of the most intriguing, thanks to its reverence, superb research and attention to detail. Rosenblatt, with the aid of Sonnenschmidt, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America, planned and put on several Sherlockian dinners over the years.
- Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes
(1994, by Raold Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake)
Snozzcumbers? Mudburgers? Scrambled Dregs? Hair Toffee? Candy-Coated Pencils for Sucking in Class ? All your favorite Dahl yummies are here, culled from such slyly subversive works as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, guaranteed fun to make (and eat) for the whole gang. You know what they say — the family that cooks Stink Bugs’ Eggs together stays together.
- The Murder She Wrote Cookbook
(1996; by Tom Culver & Nancy Goodman Iland)
Slightly less star-studded than some TV-tie-in cookbooks, perhaps, and more democratic in spirit is this one, containing more than 350 recipes from not just the cast but also the crew, plus several of the 4,000,000 guest stars who appeared on the long-running show. Who knew Best Boys could cook? And that gaffer cooks a mean fried chicken! Mind you, given Cabot Cove’s high mortality rate, you may want to hire a tester before consuming these recipes yourself.
- The Cop Cookbook | Buy this book
(1997, by Greta Garner-Hewitt, Ken Beck & Jim Clark)
TV tie-in cookbooks are a dime a dozen, although there aren’t that many devoted to crime shows. One enjoyable exception is this deliciously cheesy collection. Subtitled “Arresting Recipes from the World’s Favorite Cops, Good Guys and Private Eyes,” it features over 300 recipes by assorted actors who play police officers and detectives in film and on television, as well as a few real life ringers. Thespian contributors include Clint Eastwood, Peter Falk, Tom Selleck, Dennis Franz, Tommy Lee Jones, Francis McDormand, Jack Webb, James Garner (who just happens to be Greta’s dad) and a cast of thousands. Recipes include CHIPS Party Patrol Mix, Rockford’s Trailer Dressing and Danno’s Lamb Shanks (from Hawaii Five-O, of course). The deck is stacked with numerous black and white stills from assorted shows, and a portion of the proceeds go to The National Peace Officers Memorial Service Fund to aid families of officers killed in the line of duty. Cook ’em, Danno.
- The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook: Favorite Recipes of The Great Detective & Dr. Watson | Buy this book
(1997, by William Bonnel)
Another Holmes cookbook worth investigating. It takes a more lighthearted, less scholarly approach than Rosenblatt and Sonnenschmidt’s Dining With Sherlock Holmes, stretching to recipes for foods that Holmes simply “might” have eaten, such as “Bohemian Scandal Pickled Eggs.” but it’s still great fun, and its cred is intact, thanks to the inclusion of several Sidney Paget pen and ink illustrations from The Strand.
- Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers
(1999, by Sneaky Pie Brown)
No less whimsical, although purpotedly for adults. Evidently cats don’t just solve mysteries now — they also cook and write. About evenly divided into recipes for humans and four-legged animals, and leavened with anecdotes and off the cuff cooking tips, although the lack of any decent mice recipes may be disappointing for feline readers.
- A Taste of Murder: Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers | Buy this book
(1999, by Jo Grossman & Robert Weibezahl)
This rather quirky entry features classics contributions from Sue Grafton (“Kinsey Millhone’s Peanut Butter and Pickle Sandwich”) and Robert B. Parker (Susan Silverman’s “How to Boil Water”), but there are also some more complex recipes from Donald Westlake, Liza Cody (“Bacon Buttie”), Lilian Jackson Braun, Anne Perry, Tony Hillerman, Carol O’Connell, Parnell Hall and Anthony Bourdain (“How to Cook Pasta without Getting Whacked”). WARNING: This product may contain puns.
- The Cat Who Cookbook
(2000, by Julie Murphy & Sally Abney Stempinski)
No Sneaky Pete here, but at least Koko and YumYum didn’t presume to write this one, which features recipes culled from the popular series by Lillian Braun. Also included is a special section on cooking for kitties. But once again a shocking lack of mouse recipes!
- Food To Die For
(2001, by Patricia Cornwell and Marlene Brown)
Speaking of long-running, here are recipes taken from (or inspired by) her ever-popular series featuring forensic specialist Kay Scarpetta, including Miami-Style Chili with Beer (from All That Remains) and Jack Daniel’s Chocolate-Pecan Pie (The Body Farm). Just wash all the knives carefully, just in case, and be careful what you take out of the fridge. Kay does seem to bring her work home, after all…
- Chet Gecko’s Detective Handbook (and Cookbook) | Buy this book
(2005, by Bruce Hale)
If the Snozzcumbers in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes don’t deter you, up the ante with this collection for “private eyes and snack lovers.” Even younger kitchen-savvy sleuths will go buggy over this Handbook (and Cookbook) which serves up numerous tips on surveillance and disguises for would-be sleuths, plus such mouth-watering yummies as Tick Taco Salad, Sweet Potato-Bug Pie and Blowfly Banana Muffins, as recommended by Hale’s wisecracking lizard gumshoe.
- Delish: The J. W. Jackson Recipes | Buy this book
(2006; Philip R. Craig and Shirley Prada Craig)
Reluctant, unlicensed private eye Jeff Jackson, the star of twenty-six novels by Philip R. Craig, would much rather — or cook — than run around Martha’s Vineyard trying to solve murders. In fact, it’s the good food and good friends that kept fans coming back for more than twenty years, and some of the more recent books in the series included three recipes, so it was a no-brainer that a cookbook would eventually surface. Co-written with his wife, Shirley, Delish presents 250 Vineyard recipes collected over almost fifty years of their marriage.
- A Second Helping of Murder: More Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers | Buy this book
(2007, by Robert Weibezahl & Grossman
This much-expected sequel to Weibezahl and Grossman’s pun-and-fun-filled A Taste of Murder (1999) features more than 130 recipes from an entirely new rogue’s gallery of mystery authors, including Dick Francis, Robert Barnard, Alexander McCall Smith, Linda Barnes and George Pelecanos. One bone to pick, though: the sub-title, though, is a bit of a misnomer, since it really is a stretch to call such “contributors” as Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, David Dodge, and Roald Dahl “contemporary.
- Mma Ramotswe’s Cookbook | Buy this book
(2009, by Stuart Brown)
The No. 1 choice for fans of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Brew yourself a nice cup of red bush tea and start planning tonight’s dinner menu. This amply illustrated culinary tour offers an intriguing glimpse into Botswana’s traditions and culture, with recipes for traditional stew, fat cakes (doughnuts) jams and other African delicacies, with the proceeds from the book’s sales shared among several African charities. Now you, too, can become traditionally built, and all for a good cause. Series creator Alexander McCall Smith brings a foreword to the feast.
- Brunetti’s Cookbook
(2010, by Roberto Pinaro and Donna Leon)
Want Italian? From one of the mystery genre’s most renowned foodie detectives comes this yummy tome, featuring recipes featured in Leon’s beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, compiled by the mystery writer’s best friend, Roberta Pinaro, with plenty of scrumptious color photographs, excerpts from the novels and several “culinary stories” and essays by Leon. But of course the soul of any cookbook is its recipes and this one collects a mouth-watering assortment of over ninety Venetian dishes. I mean: “Veal Fillets with Fennel Seeds, Garlic, Rosemary and Bacon.” If you’re not licking your lips over that one, you might be dead.
- Have Faith in Your Kitchen | Buy this book
(2010, by Katherine Hall Page)
They just keep coming. This collection rounds up recipes culled from the popular Faith Sibley Fairchild foodie mysteries by Page. The Agatha-winning author dishes up some juicy background on the her caterer/chef/amateur snoop, and the role food plays in her life. If the groan-inducing title doesn’t convince you that the author’s skillet is in the right place, then the recipes for such fare as “Smothered Pork Chops” or the exquisite but oh-so-simple “Salad with Warm Cheese Toasts” (goat cheese, my friends, goat cheese!) just might.
- Bone-a-Fied Delicious | Buy this book
It’s subtitled “The Official Official Cookbook of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery Series,” while on Amazon it’s billed as “Delicious Recipes from Zinnia’s Finest Chefs.” Either way, it was a ring-bound, limited-edition collection of over 700 recipes, compiled by fans of Carolyn Haines of her cozy P.I., and featuring illustrations and running commentary by the characters from the series, with all proceeds going to the Good Fortune Farm Refuge, a non-profit which rescues and rehomes animals.
- The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook | Buy this book | Kindle it!
(2015, Kate White, editor)
“Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For” by the likes of Lee Child, Max Allan and Barbara Collins,Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Bill Pronzini, David Housewright, Sara Paretsky, Gillian Flynn, Sue Grafton, Richard Castle, Twist Phelan, James Patterson, Jacqueline Winspear, Louise Penny and Scott Turow.
- The Cozy Cookbook | Buy this book | Kindle it!
(2015, by Laura Childs, Cleo Coyle, Avery Aames, B.B. Haywood, Julie Hyzy et al)
Definitely not for the hard-boiled yeggs out there, although this trade paperback featuring “more than 100 recipes from today’s bestselling mystery authors” will definitely please any cozy fan. Adding to the fun are accompanying puzzles, snippets, excerpts and asides. Cooking can be mnurder, but it doesn’t have to be.
Perhaps it’s no surprise detectives care about their food. In world where evil is alive and well, and what passes for justice is too often random, food may be the one tiny piece of our helter skelter world we can put right; a place where we can be kind to others. And ourselves.
- A Guy’s Gotta Eat
- The Nero Wolfe Cookbook
A review by David Partridge (November 2020, Daily Telegraph)