Friday, February 24, 2006

Food Ideas from Novels

Numerous mystery novels focusing on foods, catering, and restaurants often include recipes. Sometimes these authors even go on to collect them into a recipe book.

However, even when a novel’s primary character isn’t involved in the food industry, you may find the author has woven the foods of an area or era into the story. These contribute to the description and events to create realism. They help to move the story forward or give better expression of the characters.

Whatever the purpose, the food references provide delectable reading for anyone with an interest in culinary topics or who writes a column as I do.

Food Typical of Charleston

I discovered in Patricia Sprinkle’s mystery, Murder in the Charleston Manner, the weaving in of food and its preparation as background gave more of the Southern aura to the story. If the author had wanted, she could have included recipes for these typically Charleston, SC foods in an appendix

Perhaps others don’t pick up on the food and recipe aspect when reading a novel as much as I do. Because I’ve been writing “Country Kitchen” and other food articles for nearly 45 years, my mind seems attuned to these topics in books I read.

In Chapter One, the characters are arriving for dinner. You get the idea this is a ritual. In the next chapter, Sheila, the main character, enjoys tea and chocolate chip cookies with her aunt. Sheila doesn’t like her tea sweetened. (In the South, when you ask for iced tea, unless you specify otherwise, you’ll likely be served a glass of strongly sweetened tea, called Sweet Tea. It’s even mentioned by this name on many restaurant menus.)

Food Midst Mystery

Sheila leaves her aunt’s home in Atlanta to investigate mysterious happenings at the home of her aunt’s childhood friends in Charleston. Much of the character introduction and interaction takes place at the dinner table that evening.

The author describes the hostess’s son-in-law carving the ham to a “delicate thinness.” Sheila takes a serving of green beans “simmered for hours with bits of pork”, so common in Southern cooking.

After dinner, they move to the living room for coffee and more conversation. Then Nell, the housekeeper, appears with a tray of strawberry shortcakes. One of the ladies, Francine, makes a pot of herbal tea. (Her desire for herbal tea eventually plays a role in the murder.)

Various Foods Served

Next day, a leisurely lunch on the upstairs porch consists of chicken salad, fresh strawberries, rolls, and sweet tea. Nell provids unsweetened tea for Sheila. They dip the strawberries in powdered sugar.

Potato puffs and broiled shrimp is another dinner menu. For breakfast one morning Nell serves eggs, bacon, grits, and hot biscuits, along with coffee, and herbal tea.

When Sheila dines at Buddy’s restaurant, she has the house specialty…roast oysters

These are only a few of the foods mentioned throughout the novel. This doesn’t detract from the story; instead it lends authenticity to the setting and characters.

Leftover Pie Dough Treat

Sheila often spends time with Nell in the kitchen as she obtains information and discusses family incidents and history. One of the interesting dishes, described more in detail, that Sheila observes Nell making is created from pie dough, left from a pie covered by crisscrossing paper-thin strips of dough.

Nell rolls the leftover dough flat. Then she sprinkles it with sugar and dots with butter before rolling into a long roll. This she cuts into “pinwheels” and puts in a baking dish. Nell next pours milk over the sweetened dough and sets it in the oven beside the pie to bake.

We don’t learn the exact amounts of ingredients (as typical of many old recipes), but could easily recreate the interesting recipe if one wanted to make it. I’d want to add a bit of cinnamon to the sugar.


(Mary Emma Allen researches and writes about food and recipes from her multigenerational home and during her travels. Visit her web site:; e-mail: )