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When a few years ago I came across ‘Blood on the table’, a collection of essays about food in crime fiction, I was amazed. Two of my favourite topics in a single book?
I ordered the book immediately and impatiently awaited its arrival, wondering about its contents. How much was there to say about food and crime, beyond talking about poison? Quite a lot, as it turned out. The essays were a real treat and talked about things like detectives’ eating habits, gender and food and food and politics.
This got me thinking about the culinary aspect of storytelling and how it often made a difference, more so than remembered and forgotten story details.
Looking back, I realised that most stories that have stayed with me are somehow related to food.
The Sopranos (David Chase)
I’d never heard about ziti before, but ever since watching The Sopranos, I’ve been wanting to make this beloved family dish. I even ordered The Sopranos Family Cookbook and thought it to be a brilliant idea to prolong the life of a story.
What I love about The Sopranos is how engrained the culinary aspect is into the main narrative. Sunday meals with the family signal status and serve as a source of information. Tony and his henchmen tend to meet in restaurants. While they have the tendency to turn them into crime scenes, the restaurants are also a place of friendship, partnership and power display. Tony’s mounting unpaid bills frequently test the borders between his friendships and the business.
Throughout the series, food plays different roles: a trigger of a childhood trauma, a means of comfort, a tool of seduction and grief. Ziti become a source of jealousy when Janice insists that her love interest, Bobby, eat up his late wife’s frozen ziti, and make space in his freezer and his life.
There’s much more to say about food in The Sopranos, but let’s leave it here for now.
Famous Five (Enid Blython)
I read every single Famous Five story in our small-town library and loved it. There was mystery, friendship and plenty of good food shared on elaborate picnics. That was the first time I heard of ginger beer: I was surprised that kids abroad were allowed to drink beer. Only years later I found out that it’s a soft drink.
Every time I read a Famous Five book, I craved ham sandwiches and pie and all the other delicacies from their feasts. Their diet must have been memorable, because it’s all I can remember about it thirty years later.
Martin Krpan (Fran Levstik)
This classic Slovenian tale revolves around smuggling salt. It’s the kind of story you read differently as a child or as an adult: the salt becomes a symbol of identity and resistance. The protagonist, Martin Krpan, known for his physical strength, is summoned by the Habsburg emperor as the last hope to defeat a brutal warrior, Brdavs, who is causing havoc in Vienna. He defeats the brute, but refuses to marry the Emperor’s daughter, who is offered as the reward.
‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ he says. ‘All I really want is to keep on trading salt and not get busted for it.’
A bit of a strange request, I give you that, which reflected the sentiment of the times: a finger to the authorities, even if out of spite and to your own disadvantage.
The emperor gives Martin a special permit to smuggle salt and some gold. He goes back to his cottage and that is that.
Still can’t see a pinch of salt without thinking of this story.
Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)
For me, David Suchet will always be the only true embodiment of Hercule Poirot. Many of my food associations regarding this famous Belgian detective might originate from his portrayal. Except tisane. Poirot’s love for the hot beverage is well-documented in the books as well as on the screen.
I imagine he’d have it in floral china cups, hot water poured over fresh mint, sipping it while still hot, his thoughts busy solving the latest crime.
The Simpsons (Matt Groening)
Doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. Though there’s plenty of interesting food stuff going around on The Simpsons, doughnuts are what stick out for me. It sometimes seems to me that they’re the sole source of joy at Homer’s work.
One of the Treehouse of Horror episodes starts with Homer stealing a giant doughnut. He tears it out of the hands of a giant advertisement guy, which incidentally sends all the ads off on a rampage against Springfield.
No surprise then that I wrote a few food stories myself. They were supposed to be my fun and indulgent project to mentally escape the pandemic but became much more than that. ‘Add Cyanide to Taste’ won an award and found excited readers who not only liked the stories but wanted me to write more.
Perhaps I’m not completely alone in my passion for culinary noir? I hope not, because I’ve decided to write new stories. More on that very soon.