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.

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