FOOD AND A GATHERING PLACE

by Helen Currie Foster

A critical tool for mystery writers is creation of a gathering place. We watch desperate clients rush straight to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street lodgings––often the first place where we meet his client, learn what the client hopes Holmes will do, and encounter Watson, Lestrade, and various witnesses. A gathering place gives us––and the sleuth, whether amateur or professional––a place to meet characters, assess the social structure, and see investigation  in action. Sometimes it’s the crime scene itself.

A gathering place can provide the writer an opportunity to comply with one of the key rules (or guidelines) of the original 1930 Detection Club: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules We may not always meet or learn of the criminal at a gathering place, but it can provide a useful location for the author to make that first mention.

And we’re humans, so we appreciate gathering places that involve food and drink! We learn so much there, about our protagonist and key characters.

When we first meet Bruno, chief of police in a small town in the French Dordogne, the author immediately shows us the contents of Bruno’s police van, including: “one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas…Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready…” Martin Walker, Bruno, Chief of Police (Book 1 of the series). Hmm: a resourceful and picnic-prepared detective.

Bruno routinely uses a couple of gathering places involving food, first and foremost his own farm above the Vézère River, in country humans have cherished for over 30,000 years. We learn of Bruno’s garden, his hunting, and the dishes he makes for guests. In the latest book, To Kill a Troubadour, Bruno demonstrates his omelet techniques and also carries six jars of his venison pâté to a village feast. (Martin Walker now has a cookbook.) But Bruno visits other gathering places, including his favorite bakery (Fauquet’s) where he buys his morning croissants—one of which he always feeds his puppy. The garden, the venison, the eggs, the wine opener, the bakery, the puppy, the croissants—they’re part of Bruno, and key to the setting.

Inspector Jules Maigret? His setting is typically Paris, where the Brasserie Dauphine delivers late-night sandwiches and beer to his office at the Quai des Orfèvres when he interviews a defendant. He and his colleagues must eat during investigations, of course—at the office and elsewhere. In Maigret Bides His Time he dines at the Clou Doré, a luxurious restaurant owned by a man Maigret suspects of jewel thefts. The waiter: “I recommend the paella this evening… To go with it, a dry Tavel, unless you prefer a Pouilly Fumé.” During the meal, Maigret “seemed to be concerned only with the food and the deliciously fruity wine.” But we readers know otherwise: he’s absorbing atmosphere, clues, little “tells.” In each book, Maigret finds a bar, a brasserie, a restaurant, which can serve as the gathering place where he assembles information that ultimately leads to a solution. Food and drink help create this distinctively French setting.

I do feel it’s unlikely that Four Corners policewoman Bernadette Manuelito would try Bruno’s venison pâté, and I’m not sure her husband, Jim Chee, would either. So far as I recall neither has visited France. They live and work in Navajo and Hopi land, in the series begun by Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In The Wailing Wind, Jim Chee and his former boss, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, “got a table at the Navajo Inn, ordered coffee. Chee would eat a hamburger with fries as always.” Leaphorn says, “I always have an enchilada.” In Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings, “Bernie asked Chee to order her usual, a hamburger and a Coke.” She can tolerate pepperoni pizza, but abjures salad. https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Wings-Leaphorn-Manuelito-Novel/dp/0062821733/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1663609808&sr=8-2

The Hillerman setting is not the Navajo Inn, not a particular bar, not a particular bakery. It’s the entire Four Corners, a vast arena of mountains and mesas sacred to Navajo and Hopi memory, with enormous views and laconic characters, careful in their speech, who drive miles to find gas or food. A garden of tender green peas? No. When he hikes into the mountains on a case, Jim Chee packs a bologna sandwich—not venison pâté. Food is essential, food is basic, and eating is often a solitary experience, while Bernadette Manuelito or Jim Chee are out in an arroyo, tracking a killer. The landscape feels too large for a single gathering place—although Jim Chee’s trailer, Captain Largo’s or Leaphead’s offices, or Bernadette’s mother’s house see occasional gatherings.

Coke and hamburger versus venison pâté or paella (French version) and Tavel? Famous cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Cooking is a language… through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Also known—by mystery readers–as setting.

For her Richard Jury series Martha Grimes takes us to various venues in London and elsewhere, such as Brown’s Hotel (The Dirty Duck), and the Members Room at Borings (the club to which Jury’s friend Melrose Plant belongs) (The Old Wine Shades). She uses pub names as her titles, and the pub can serve as a gathering place, as it does in The Old Wine Shades. Another repeat gathering place is Melrose’s stately country home, Ardry End, which is subject to invasion by Agatha, his aunt-by-marriage, who greedily demolishes all the “fairy cakes” made by Melrose’s excellent cook, Martha. https://www.christinascucina.com/butterfly-cupcakes-british-butterfly-cakes/

Martha knows that when he breakfasts at Ardry End, Richard Jury lusts after her mushrooms: “Jury spooned eggs and a small pile of mushrooms onto his plate, then forked up sausages (a largish number), speared a tomato and sat down.” Shortly thereafter Martha reappears with “a steaming silver dish… ‘Mushrooms! I knew you’d be wanting more o’ my mushrooms!’” And he did. There’s something intimate about watching favorite characters have breakfast—possibly the most individually designed meal we eat. Right?

Grimes invents the Jack and Hammer Pub as the gathering place where Melrose meets his eclectic (nutty) village friends. At the Jack and Hammer we meet the cast of characters Grimes rotates through this series, and watch the friends (and Melrose) try to puzzle out the solution to the murder Richard Jury must solve. We learn the talents and deficits of these friends, their secret loves, and what they order from the bar.

Reading what characters eat and drink enriches our feeling of presence in a book. It pulls our own senses and memories into what we’re reading. We can taste the paella, taste the hamburger, remember our favorite burger joint, our favorite restaurant. We begin to participate in the mystery’s setting. Bernie bites her hamburger; Maigret takes a sip; so do we.

Our reactions to food live in our memory, linked to our senses of smell—and taste. “Smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavors can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognized without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognized.” https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders#:~:text=The%20taste%20buds%20of%20the,without%20the%20sense%20of%20smell.

Proust was right about food and memory: “Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.” https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/#:~:text=Smells%20are%20handled%20by%20the,related%20to%20emotion%20and%20memory

And why shouldn’t this be so? At least partly, cooking defines us as human. Humans apparently mastered fire and began cooking at least 500,000 years ago; possibly our human ancestors began cooking as much as 1.8 million years ago. No wonder food and memory are entwined in our brains. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-for-thought-was-cooking-a-pivotal-step-in-human-evolution/;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/#:~:text=Our%20human%20ancestors%20who%20began,more%20fuel%20for%20our%20brains;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121026-human-cooking-evolution-raw-food-health-science

On that note, I’ve just finished the draft of Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted. The central gathering place? The Beer Barn, an iconic Texas Hill Country dancehall and roadhouse. Food? Critical. Luis’s enchiladas and Conroy’s barbecue? They call!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as Hill Country Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the Series,

was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

Music to Our Ears!

by Helen Currie Foster

On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!

We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”

Dixie and Helen

Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.

For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.

Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…

At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.

We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!

The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent

Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”

Moreover, it’s not retirees pushing this trend: “And while you might think it’s nostalgic Boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show it’s millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.” https://www.themanual.com/culture/why-vinyl-is-coming-back/

Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.

Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)

Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.

Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.

Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M

The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.

Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016

And it may be for that reason that music stays in our brains longer than many other memories. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00005#:~:text=Our%20brains%20possess%20a%20remarkable,might%20know%20it%20by%20heart.

You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.

So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…

https://www.samstownpointatx.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-cExlWpQTc

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.

Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.

blog reference
book

How to Paint a Horse?

by Helen Currie Foster

Like many of you I’m fascinated by prehistory, always hoping for a chance to clamber up (or down) to visit incredible cave paintings. My first mystery, Ghost Cave, was inspired by climbing to cave shelters where the Devil’s River meets the Rio Grande. Ghost Cave’s cover? The famous White Shaman images. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Helen+Currie+Foster+ghost+cave&crid=24J6S4P7832FF&sprefix=helen+currie+foster+ghost+cave%2Caps%2C129&ref=nb_sb_noss

In the Dordogne, in southern France, I heard the echo of the iron cover banging into place to close the entrance to the Pech Merle cave to prevent damage from outside air. Down the clanging iron stairs we went, along chilly stone tunnels, and then—the horses! Oh, the spotted horses, so real you could almost hear them breathe. They’ve been carbon-dated to 25,000 BCE. I’ve waited in line to see the famous Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies, also in the Dordogne, and hiked, shivering, to see the pictures deep in the Pyrenees cave at Niaux. I long to visit them all. Sometimes my companions balk.

Confronted by such artistry, such deft depictions, simultaneously spare and rich, like Chinese scroll landscapes or Picasso’s early drawings, haven’t you wondered about the artists? Why were they so deep in these dark, perilous caves? What was their life—or death—outside?

Today, with climatic violence the new normal, and new discoveries daily about human prehistory (including 23 and Me’s calculation of our personal percentages of Neanderthal ancestry), I’m more and more curious every day about our long-ago ancestors. The real question, of course: what is it to be human?

Welcome to  “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” a tome by two Brits—David Graeber, the late professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. “The Dawn of Everything”? Sounds ferociously ambitious—overarching, maybe overreaching. But my best friend from high school—Dr. Megan Biesele, distinguished anthropologist—said “let’s read and discuss.” Easy for her to say: the tome is 526 pages long, with 83 pages of notes and a 62-page bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Everything-New-History-Humanity/dp/0374157359

Graeber and Wengrow boldly challenge our “received understanding” of an original state of innocence and equality, followed by the invention of agriculture and higher population levels and creation of cities leading inevitably to the rise of hierarchy and inequality. They employ often hilarious section headings. Example: “How the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull.” (At 21.) (For a shorter version, see their Fall 202 article: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/democracy/hiding-plain-sight.)

“The Dawn” asserts that the ideas of individual liberty and political equality we cherish today weren’t an outgrowth of the European enlightenment, but inspired by Native American critiques of their European invaders. The relevant heading: “In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” (At 37.) One French evangelist sent to the Algonkian Mi’kmaq wrote, “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” This missionary was irritated that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert they were richer than the French, who had more possessions, because they themselves had “ease, comfort and time.” Such records by missionary priests were compiled in 71 volumes of Jesuit Relations (1633-1673). 

I’d never heard of the Wendat tribe’s philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, reportedly a highly skillful debater, who during the 1690’s was invited to participate in a sort of salon, where he shared his devastating moral and intellectual critique of European society. Kandiaronk sounds amazing: one priest described him as “always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.” His arguments were included in Dialogues (1703), published by an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce. Kandiaronk held that European-style punitive law, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, wasn’t required by innate human corruption but by a society that encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Nor had I heard that Kandiaronk’s critiques were adopted by French Enlightenment figures during the 1700’s. I hadn’t realized that substantial origins of the French “enlightenment” were…North American. 

 “The Dawn” discusses the Huron concept called Ondinnonk, a secret desire of the soul manifested by a dream: “Hurons believe that our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed…They believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams…Accordingly when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and the happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death…” Apparently tribe members spent time communally trying to decipher the meaning of others’ dreams and, sometimes, trying to help each other realize their dreams. (At 23-4, 454-5, 486, 608 n74.) 

After this startling introduction to an unknown genius (I mean, I’d have loved to learn about Kandiaronk back in 10th grade…or any grade, really—and apparently his ideas can be found: https://books.google.com/books/about/Native_American_Speakers_of_the_Eastern.html?id=Fu1yAAAAMAAJ), Graeber and Wengrow provide extensive examples of our incorrect assumptions. They argue that the notion that humans inevitably moved from hunting and foraging to static agricultural lives (with inevitable hierarchy and inequality) isn’t borne out by current archeology. They point to many cultures which rejected “big ag,” opting instead to keep hunting and foraging, making occasional gardens, and spending winters in river lowlands, moving to highlands in the summer with their flocks. (This made me think of the French Pyrenees, where the “transhumance” –taking livestock to the hills—still happens.) They argue that cities weren’t inevitably hierarchical, and that many arose with populations that—even if they had kings—made their decisions collectively, not hierarchically.

“The Dawn” is unsettling. Are we “stuck” today in ideas that are not in fact “inevitable” aspects of human social organizations? Are we less creative, socially speaking, than our forebears? Well, I’ve only made it to page 486. I’ll let you know how this turns out. If I’m intellectually “stuck,” I hope not to stay that way.

But back to the caves and the art on those seeping limestone walls. My strong impression is that we frequently underestimate those who traveled before us. We assume that the ways of today’s world manifests “progress” over our past. Surely that’s true: we did manage at least temporarily to get rid of smallpox…one small victory. But apparently there’s a great deal we’ve lost, forgotten, or never known…I mean, what is the meaning of the White Shaman picture? Did the artists ride the spotted horses painted in Pech Merle? Or just admire the herds from a distance?

“The Dawn of Everything” offers fodder for that most delightful and enduring attribute of our species: curiosity. I’m still chewing on these ideas. One topic is the surprising variety of ways that societies treat—or eschew—wealth. Another that nags at me is the Wendat condemnation of our punitive habits. Dialogues reported that rather than punish culprits, “the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control.” Wow. Just one of the things I’ll be thinking about…

Meanwhile, a delightful book, beautifully written, which offers windows onto the 21st century culture of Kandiaronk’s relatives is the best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=kimmerer+braiding+sweetgrass&crid=J2LA9POFHIJK&sprefix=kimmerer%2Caps%2C244&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_8

I found Braiding Sweetgrass so touching, especially the chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude, describing the children in the Onondaga Nation school reciting the traditional Haudenosaunee “Thanksgiving Address,” the Words That Come Before All Else. Most sections of this Address end, “Now our minds are one.” Maybe this is a living example of a communal tradition that molds a society. I recommend this book.

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. She remains fascinated by human prehistory and how, uninvited, our pasts keep crashing the party. Her latest is Book 7, Ghost Daughter. “An appealing sleuth headlines a solid thriller with panache” —Kirkus Reviews

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.

***

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.