Barbeculinary Thoughts

by Helen Currie Foster

I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.

And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunny, when her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.

We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.

We know, and we’re not telling.

Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.

The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.

You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits,[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.

Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.

It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).

Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.

Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:

…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Il. 9:246-259 (Robert Fagles’ translation).

See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.

Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)

Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.

Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.

But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.

Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…

Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.

A lot like writing.

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Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.

Are You Hungry? Food Idiosyncrasies and Local Flavor

by Helen Currie Foster

Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)

Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other speciesor at least played a role in our evolution.   (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)

If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)

Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:

And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.

Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.

A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:

“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …

When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:

“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”

“Salad?”

“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”

Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”

“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”

Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.

Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.

Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.

Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.

Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:

Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.

The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.

Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.

“I always do,” Melrose said.  His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.

Dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas, by WikiTryHardDieHard, CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.

Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.

Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder.  Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.

Okay, what’s for lunch?

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Image of traditional English breakfast by Peter Marks from Pixabay
Image of cup and saucer by M. Maggs from Pixabay
Image of maple trees by diapicard from Pixabay
Images of book covers from Amazon.com

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Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest, GHOST CAT, was released in April 2020.