Monday, June 5, 2017

Around Our Kitchen Table: What Do Our Characters Eat?

Summer is all but upon us, and these days that often means farmers' markets are opening up. (Most of you are probably way ahead of us in chilly Massachusetts.) It's been a delight to watch people rediscover fresh local food.

But some of us grew up with a different food focus: the joys of frozen food, mass-produced bread, TV dinners, and so on. All things designed to save time for the working mother. How can we object to that? Sadly, mothers back then sacrificed flavor and nutrition for speed.

So you can say that we have come full circle, from wholesome local food to commercially prepared fast food for the microwave, and back again.

Last month we discussed here why and how we use food in our books. I think we all agreed that eating together brings us closer to friends and family. But how do we choose those foods for our characters? Based on modern trends? Or based on what we grew up with and remember, consciously or subconsciously? What do our characters eat, and what does it tell the reader about them?

Does your protagonist like to cook? Or just can't be bothered? (Too busy solving crimes, of course.) When she cooks, is it comfort food? Is she trying to impress someone? Does she like to experiment, and fly without a parachute (er, recipe)? Or does she stick to safe familiar dishes? Or would she rather just find a restaurant? We all eat, but what we eat can help us tell a story.


SHEILA: This subject came to mind because I was editing my next book (shameless plug: A Late Frost, Orchard Mystery #11, coming in November), and my main characters have been so busy (getting married and taking a honeymoon) that they haven't had time to cook or even shop, and they're scraping the bottom of the freezer to feed themselves and whoever else drops in to talk about murder. (They do, however, drink a lot of coffee!) At one point Meg threatened to feed new husband Seth a meal made up of frozen ham, cherries and peanut butter, because that was all she could find in the house.

Early on in the series I did create an alternative: I added a local foods restaurant in my fictional town of Granford, so there's always somewhere to go if Meg and Seth need a good and creative meal. My other series characters? They're just not interested in cooking. (Now, why did I do that?) But they do enjoy eating!



LESLIE: My characters all seem to be obsessed with food, although in a future Spice Shop Mystery, we'll discover that one of the Flick Chicks is a secret crackers-and-cheese-for-dinner type. 

My Food Lovers' Village Mysteries each involve a festival, and the recipes let the readers recreate the festival food at home. Treble at the Jam Fest, #4, officially releases this week, and it's set at a jazz festival. There's a gala in the Merc's courtyard and a picnic before an outdoor concert, each featuring food I love. Erin's family gathers every Sunday at the Orchard, the family homestead, for brunch or dinner, and I've tucked in a couple of those recipes as well. Like all amateur sleuths, Erin has a busy life, and I admit, she eats a lot of festival and family leftovers! But in each book, I try to let her cook a good meal at home. In this one, it's enchiladas, a recipe I shared last week.   

And she pops into Le Panier, the French bakery, a little more often than is probably good for her, but the croissants and gossip are too tasty a combination to resist. Some of my local readers have given me heat for inventing a bakery our town doesn't actually have, but you know, I think it's a blessing, because there are no calories on the page!


LUCY: My Key West series character Hayley Snow loves her job as a food critic for the style magazine, Key Zest. She loves tasting all the flavors of the restaurants in the city, and loves telling people her opinions so they can spend their hard-earned dollars well. Here's what she says about this in DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS: 


“The part of my job that feeds my soul is writing about food. Teasing out what makes one meal good, but another magical. Discovering a new chef or a new dish and describing my find to the world—or at least to other food-addled diners who’d go out of their way for something special. For me, the cooking itself was not so much the miracle. It was all about the eating. And then choosing the words that brought that food to life on the page.”

But is she also a fabulous cook, which she learned from her mother, Janet. And by book 8, which I'm working on now, Janet has developed a catering business in Key West--meaning Hayley is often pressed into service. This new book (due out sometime in the summer 2018) takes place at a Cuban–American conference in town. I'm having so much fun deciding what they will serve. Mini Cuban sandwiches? Top secret recipe for flan? Traditional beef stew or ropas Viejas? You'll be seeing all of these recipes over the next several months, as Hayley and Janet make them!




DARYL:  Well, my two current protagonists are studies in contrasts! In my new French Bistro Mystery series, (set in Napa Valley) of course Mimi Rousseau cooks. She fell in love with food when she discovered the five mother sauces of France. In high school, she made her friends taste test everything. At 18, rather than go to college, she moved to San Francisco and became a sous-chef, then a full-fledged chef. She adores food and knows how to create simple as well as difficult dishes. Her favorite foods? Steak au poivre and créme brûlée. She also enjoys a delicious glass of chardonnay or cabernet. 

In my Cookbook Nook Mysteries, however, Jenna Hart, a former advertising executive, never really learned to cook. Her mother did it all. When Jenna moves to Crystal Cove to help her eccentric aunt open a culinary bookshop and cafe, she's game...mostly because she is a foodie. She adores food. She's been to almost every Bobby Flay restaurant. She enjoys a good barbecue. She relishes putting the "idea of a meal" together. In the first book, she starts to learn to cook (with the help of friends) by trying out five-ingredient recipes. By the third book, she graduates to ten-ingredient recipes. If she's honest, she adores fudge and cookies--in particular, wedding cookies. [That recipe is in the first book in the series.]




KRISTA: I was amused when some of the first reviews for my Domestic Diva Mysteries called Sophie Winston a caterer. While Sophie does like to cook and entertain family and friends, she's a professional event planner who hires caterers. Her clients usually tell her what they want to serve or work it out with the caterer. 

Of course, there's another diva in town—Natasha. And Natasha doesn't try to keep up with the trends, she tries to stay ahead of them! That can be problematic for me, but I subscribe to a number of trendy online newsletters about food so I can keep up with Natasha. Her ideas (hot chili pepper brownies) aren't always well received by friends and family, which irritates her no end. Everyone wants to gather around the table in Sophie's homey kitchen for comfort food like mashed potatoes and ribs. Their friend Bernie sometimes brings a special cake or appetizer from his restaurant.

In my real life, I was once an assistant manager of a huge convention hotel and the biggest perk of the job was the food. I was thoroughly spoiled. And that's how it is at the Sugar Maple Inn for Holly Miller. She does very little cooking or baking because the private kitchen has a magic refrigerator. Part of the day's leftovers go into it, so whenever she's hungry, the magic refrigerator holds special surprises, no cooking necessary. One of the other perks of her job is a chocolate croissant, hot tea, and dog and cat treats in bed first thing in the morning five days a week. On the two days when Mr. Huckle is off, she has to go all the way downstairs for her first meal of the day, usually something decadent like Eggs Benedict or pancakes with freshly picked local blackberries. It's a ruff life.

I have a new series coming out called the Pen & Ink Mysteries. By day, Florrie Fox manages Color Me Read bookstore in Georgetown, Washington D.C. By night, she creates her own intricately detailed coloring books for adults, filling the pages with objects that catch her eye. But she also loves to bake. In the first book she bakes muffins, quick bread, and a strawberry cream torte. Luckily for her, there's a romance brewing and the fellow who has his eye on her is the son of a chef. I have a feeling she'll be eating pretty well!



LINDAMy Dinner Club Mysteries are just that -- the Culinary Capers Dinner Club meets monthly, rotating houses and hosts. The host chooses the cookbook (real ones that you can pick up at your local bookstore if you like the sound of their dishes) and the main course, then the others choose a side dish from that book. My protagonist, J.J. Tanner, is the newbie to the group, having joined within the past year. Her good friend persuaded, despite the fact that J.J.'s total involvement with cooking has been enjoying the photos in the many, many cookbooks she buys. What can I say...it's a relatively inexpensive vice.
       Now that the stakes, or steaks, are raised, she has to up her game. She's getting more daring about her choices with each book but she sticks fairly close to the recipe. What she's loving is that the others are actually enjoying what she cooks! She also loves eating and experimenting with new dishes and flavors. Eating out is also high on her list of good things in life.
       I find she challenges me to get more interested in and creative about my own cooking, so that's a very big plus in my life. I guess you could say that J.J. eats with her eyes first.



Click to learn more.
CLEO: When my husband and I created the Coffeehouse Mystery series, back in 2002, we agreed that our amateur sleuth (Clare Cosi) should reflect our own backgrounds, including our love of food. Like Clare, Marc and I grew up in Western Pennsylvania in families that were big on love but short on money. We were thrifty, but we loved to cook and eat! Also like Clare, we moved from our little towns to New York City. 

In the Coffeehouse Mysteries, Clare does her best to juggle the demands of running a busy coffee shop while mothering a quirky young staff of baristas. (It's no wonder she cooks for comfort!) Clare's time in the kitchen also brings back fond memories of her beloved grandmother who taught her to cook--and I can relate to that, having learned from my mom and Aunt Mary, who were born in Italy. 


I'll just add that Marc and I get a big kick out of making food part of our mystery plotting. In our recent release, Dead Cold Brew, Clare’s Cannoli Cream Cupcakes and Mason Jar Cold Brew Coffee each played a part in the murder mystery storyline. Clare even re-creates a dish she inhales at New York's famous 21 Club, where she goes to pursue a lead--no, "The Donald" was not there that night, but we enjoyed taking our readers to that legendary restaurant, including the historic secret room inside it. There are many more foods and drinks featured throughout Dead Cold Brew, which you can see in the recipe guide here


Coffeehouse Mysteries #15 and #16
Food also played an important role in our previous Coffeehouse Mystery, Dead to the Last Drop. At one point in the book, Clare worked with her daughter, Joy, a culinary school graduate, to overhaul an entire menu at the new Washington, D.C., branch of their business. And those recipes reflect some of our favorites, including an easy "cake pan" cheesecake, adapted from a recipe that continually sold out when it was served at a New York graduate school. (Learn more in the recipe guide here.) Like our culinary sleuth, Marc and I truly enjoy researching, cooking, and (especially) eating the foods and drinks we feature in our mysteries, including our new Coffeehouse Mystery (#17), coming next year!



PEG: In my very first series, Gourmet De-Lite, Gigi Fitzgerald has a business providing gourmet diet meals to a select group of clients.  Her theory is that food can be delicious and low calorie at the same time!  She cooks the same way for herself although her culinary world is turned upside down in Iced to Death when her sister Pia, with her penchant for Twinkies and take-out pizza, arrives in town for a visit .

In my Cranberry Cove series, Monica Albertson is helping her brother on his cranberry farm by baking lots of cranberry goodies for the farm store.  She's a whiz at making light-as-a-feather muffins, delectable scones and decadent cookies.  Her cooking tends to be basic--well grilled steaks, homemade soups and roasts.

In my Farmer's Daughter series, Shelby McDonald runs a small boutique farm.  She serves fresh produce grown on the farm in the summer and her own canned and preserved items in the winter.  She's a good cook who can take a basic dish, add a distinct twist to it and take it to a new level.  

I love to cook, too, and I love that I get to write food and recipes into my books! 


We hope you enjoy the food in our books. If you've tried one of our characters' recipes, tell us about it in the comments!

19 comments:

  1. I really enjoy these "around the kitchen tables. It's wonderful how each character has their own way to navigate through preparing a meal. Krista, I love how effortlessly Sophie pulls a meal together but at times I'm in need of Holly's magic fridge. And a new series too, that is awesome.

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    1. LOL, Amy -- I've often told Krista I want to eat at Sophie's house!

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    2. I want the magic fridge, too. :) ~ Daryl

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  2. This discussion of food is making me hungry. I think it's time for breakfast while I wait for the furniture guys and the Best Buy Geeks to show up and do their magic.

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    1. Either you just moved, or your house is going through a needy phase. Good luck -- and yes, these things are best done on a full stomach!

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    2. Wishing you luck with the geeks. Hope they can fix whatever ails your computer. ~ Daryl

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  3. Summer in south Florida means it's too hot for farmer's markets.

    I have tried many of your recipes, both from the books and this web site with great delight and success.
    Many thanks for your efforts.

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    1. Libby, you have been a stalwart fan! Hugs, Daryl

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    2. Thanks so much Libby! We love to know that you out there cooking and reading!

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  4. It's also a cool (record) wet spring here in Ontario, so the farmers market produce is just starting to come out.

    Loved the discussions on how each author approaches their food choices for their characters/series. I have also tried several recipes both from the MLK postings and from your books. Most recent recipe tried would have been from Leslie's Killing Thyme: herby cheesy spread. It was a big hit at the potluck and I will make it again this year.

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    1. We're so glad you're enjoying the recipes! And we don't feed our characters anything we haven't tested ourselves. (Our local farmers' market isn't starting until June 24th!)

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    2. Grace, glad to hear it! I adapted it from a dip my BFF, Lita, creator of Erin's Enchiladas in the new book, made for me. Who knows here she got it? But it's now a hit across the continent!

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    3. Good to know the history of the recipe, Leslie. It was a nice recipe combining different cheeses and the fresh herbs growing on my balcony. And I want to try making Erin's enchiladas one day when I can track down those California & Guajillo peppers.

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  5. Wow loved reading about all of this. So excited for both Daryl and Krista's new series coming out. Had to copy the names of the new releases everyone mentioned so I can go pre-order them too. Now my favorite place to eat would have to be Sugar Maple Inn. Tyler would love to stay there too. Thanks to you all for making my life a happier journey. Betty Tyler on FB

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  6. I love all these series and authors. I also love to cook and bake and totally believe that foid is love! So excited to hear about upcoming books and new series.

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  7. I love reading about food in the books from each of you. I have used several recipes from a couple of y'all's books. I loved getting a little nugget of informations about your new series, Krista! Congratulations! I am looking foward to reading it!

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  8. I love reading the recipes and the good food that comes from the books that you all write. It makes the reader feel especially close to the characters...enhances the whole reading experience. I love many of Clare's recipes in the Coffee House murder mystery series..it totally immerses me into each story....love every ones books..we the reader are spoiled! cmeier2001@live.com

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