Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thought for food

Little says as much about cultural differences as contrasting attitudes toward food. To crime writers from North America or from Europe's colder countries, food is an indicator of squalor, an objective correlative of bachelor solitude, or a sign of eccentricity.

Get closer to the Mediterranean, and food is life. Here's an example from The Terra-Cotta Dog, Andrea Camilleri's second novel about Inspector Salvo Montalbano. A sympathetic journalist friend rescues the hapless Montalbano from the ordeal of a press conference that follows the mysterious arrest of a mobster named Tano:

And just to make things even harder, there were the adoring eyes of Corporal Anna Ferrara, staring at him from the crowd.

Niccolò Zito, newsman from the Free Channel and a true friend, tried to rescue him from the quicksand in which he was drowning.

"Inspector, with your permission," said Zito. "You said you met Tano on your way back from Fiacca, where you'd been invited to eat a
tabisca with friends. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"What is a
tabisca?"

They'd eaten
tabisca many times together. Zito was simply tossing him a life preserver. Montalbano seized it. Suddenly confident and precise, the inspector went into a detailed description of that extraordinary, multiflavored Italian pizza.
And there the chapter ends.

No authors combine food and crime with greater zest than Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Jean-Claude Izzo. And few crime writers can have been as committed men of the left as these three. Izzo wrote with great sympathy of Marseilles' Arab population, and he worked for Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace movement. Vázquez Montalbán was active in anti-Franco movements. Camilleri joined the Italian Communist Party, and his books are filled with funny, bitter denunciations of Italian politicians and their service to the Mafia.

This must seem especially exotic to American crime-fiction readers, for whom the words food and mystery are likely to evoke thoughts of cozies with recipes, and for whom commitment of any kind is likely to seem antithetical to anything so hedonistic as good food.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Very perceptive post indeed, Peter. Being of the left while acquiring wealth and enjoying the good life is, of course, regarded with suspicion also in Britain, hence the terms Champagne Socialist, Bollinger Bolshevik and the like, akin to the American Limousine Liberal. I remember John Mortimer being called a Champagne Socialist in some article many years ago -- he joined the Communist Party at Harrow and continued as a man of the moderate left all his adult life, though, heavens above, he was a bon viveur and he certainly had the money to support the style. What I thought was often missed in the use of the term was that, if hypocrisy is implied, the issue is not the acquisition of wealth as such, but rather the manner in which the wealth is acquired. I don't think there are really Champagne Socialists of that sort around these days, and it would be much more difficult to be so. Those in Britain who, having acquired great riches, decide it's time to acquire power through politics, face first the problem of deciding through which party to pursue it, Conservative or 'New Labour', and as Labour since the advent of Blair has periodically popped up to the right of the Conservatives, who are still wholly Thatcherite no matter what they say, there is little room at the top for anyone of even the moderate left, regardless of their favourite tipple.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

About the only two American crime novelists who devote much energy to food are Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais. Spenser is always cooking, sometimes too much so. Elvis Cole likes to diddle about the kitchen, and Crais does a nice job of integrating kitchen tasks into the scenes.

I'm sure there are others, but those two jump to mind.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

In the novel "Goldfinger" Ian Fleming's James Bond takes a break from tracking arch-criminal Auric Goldfinger across Europe to have a picnic with Tilly Masterson, the sister of a girl Goldfinger killed.

Bond gives the girl precise instructions on the food and wine he wants for lunch.

Fleming had his character eat very well on the job, although Fleming's favorite meal, and subsequently, Bond's, was scrambled eggs.

Fleming joked in a magazine piece that a good copyeditor (you'll like this, Peter) caught the fact that Bond had scrampled eggs a half-dozen times during the course of one of his thrillers.

Fleming admitted that this was bad tradecraft, noting that all an agent had to do was ask if a man had been in the restaurant eating scrampled eggs.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Simona said...

Great post, Peter. I love both quotes from The Terra-Cotta Dog (this and the one from yesterday), which I have read three times (plus I saw the movie).

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Phillip, it may be of interest that none of the three fictional detectives -- Camilleri's Montalbano, Vázquez Montalbán's Pepe Carvalho, Izzo's Fabio Montale -- is depicted as especially ostentatious or wealthy, and the food they enjoy is not especially expensive, rare or elaborately prepared. There is no identity of good food with money, such as we have in North America. Good food need not equal fine dining for them.

The enjoyment of good food is for these characters and their authors a way of living quite apart from wealth, ostentation or political convictions. Vázquez Montalbán was thrown in jail for supporting a miner's strike, but he was also a lover of and writer about fine food.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the great food lover among American fictional detectives is Nero Wolfe, but he gets an asterisk in this discussion. Rex Stout has been praised for combining the hard-boiled tradition with that of the eccentric detective. The love of fine food is one the chief emblems of Nero Wolfe's eccentricity; food retains an association with wealth and eccentricity that it lacks in the three authors I mention here. Stout, of course, was active politically in leftish causes -- but moderate ones, I think.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I do like that bit of copy editing, and I am pleased that Fleming recognized it.

I don't know what kind of a biography Fleming gave Bond, and I don't know if scrambled eggs were widely eaten in Britain. But Bond's love of that humble dish is an interesting contrast to his aristocratic dining and drinking preferences.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words, Simona. Few are as qualified as you are to comment on crime fiction, food and Andrea Camilleri. (Simona's Briciole blog includes a feature called Novel Food, which invites readers to submit recipes based on food references in their reading. She is especially strong on Camilleri in this respect.) It is taking rereadings to make me realize how good the early Montalbano novels are.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

True, and another good point, Peter. I was rather more taken by the political aspect than riches alone, but I'm a devout man when it comes to the Montalbano series, so I know he's not a wealthy man, and the simplicity of the dishes he relishes is striking. It's that simplicity and lack of expense that causes me to enjoy his gustatory exploits more than those of Nero Wolfe. But something of which you've reminded me here is that I have not yet managed to get my paws on any of Montalban's novels and I really must remedy that soon, while I'm still capable of sucking in oxygen, the eyes are unmisted, the taste buds not too blunted.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Buenos Aires Quintet might be a good place to start with Vázquez Montalbán. I've been pleased in my recent reading of Camilleri to be able to recognize which Vázquez Montalbán novels Montalbano was reading.

Another interesting bit of food handling in crime fiction is Jason Goodwin's. Once or twice in each novel, his protagonist, Yashim, will prepare a simple dish, beautifully described in great detail. And Goodwin is British. (Of course, it may help that Yashim is Turkish and that the books are set amid a decaying mid-nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire -- far from the land of bangers and mash, in other words.) Goodwin's Web site has a page devoted to Ottoman cuisine, so I know he takes the subject seriously.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I remember -- though I wasn't too keen on Yashim's recipes. Pierre Magnan's Laviolette enjoys his nosebags, of course, and there are some very tempting ones in Death in the Truffle Wood. I recall in particular a goat cheese, onion and truffle tart. We're back to the Med there, of course. I can't think of a single equivalent in the more northerly European climes, though I have to think there are one or two lurking in the recesses.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, I can practically smell the onions as Yashin slices them. Oddly enough, I don't remember food preparation in Death in the Truffle Wood, though I very much enjoyed the book. Perhaps that's because I'm not much of a cheese eater. I do have general recollections of hearty country fare in Magnan's books.

I'm sure some fictional Nordic detective relishes midday repasts of lutefisk and aquavit, but he probably regards himself as a bit eccentric for doing so.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Peter,

Wonderfully astute observation. My gut instinct is to say we Yanks don't know much about food, but on the other hand, the rise of the Food Channel and various other cable programs in recent years might give this the lie.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, that's an equally astute comment. We Yanks (You Yanks, really, but my comment encompasses all northern North Americans) may know more about food than we used to, but we have never integrated it into our lives the way our friends around the Mediterranean have.

The Starbucks phenomenon is similar. As outrageous as Starbucks' prices are, as chilling as its paternalistic, top-down corporatist policies are, as annoying as is its tone of moral superiority and as ridiculous as its employees sound when they mispronounce the pretentious Italian names of Starbucks' products, the company has made a difference in Americans' coffee-swilling habits. Even Dunkin' Donuts and your local supermarket serve lattes these days.

A related matter: James Ellroy is reading at the Central Library in Philadelphia next week. In addition to hearing a fine writer, we could see one of the last examples of Philadelphia's library system in action.

September 15, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, thanks for the reminder of the importance of food in Camilleri's Montalbano novels. These mouthwatering passages have inspired a girlfriend and me to try some of the recipes, some of which may be found at http://www.vigata.org/cucina/ricette.shtml (in Italian) but some, like one of Salvo's favorites, pasta 'ncasciata, is available online in English. We got a kick out of reading that Adelina manages to whip up pasta 'ncasciata in between making the bed and doing the laundry; it took us 4 solid hours to get that dish oven-ready!

Also in Italian are videos of 8 Salvo-type meal preparations at: www.montalbano.tv/Ricette

Camilleri/Montalbano is a bit of a cottage industry in Italy and all sorts of spin-off publications, including cookbooks like the recent "I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri" trade on the popularity of the books and TV shows.

I'm glad you've added Montalbano to your "pantheon." High praise indeed!

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, you should try the Novel Food and Briciole links if you don't know them already. And thanks for those Montalbano links. If I ever find my way back into a kitchen, I might try some of those recipes. Who knows how long it takes Adelina to prepare pasta 'ncasciata? Does Camilleri not say so because he’s never prepared the dish himself? Or does he simply wish to preserve an aura of mystery?

I always liked Camilleri, but what really impressed my at first was the increasing tenderness of the more recent novels, particularly in Salvo’s feelings for Livia. It is only on rereading that I realize how good the earlier books were and how well they hold together.

September 15, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, I believe we used the Briciole site in conjunction with info at vigata.org to make the pasta 'ncasciata.

I think the apparent ease of Adelina's kitchen magic is one of Salvo's conceits. One of the reasons he won't marry Livia (other than the genre convention of top-notch detectives being incapable of commitment that I think I mentioned previously) is that he already has the perfect "wife" in Adelina (and naturally Livia and Adelina can't stand each other). While Salvo solves crimes, Adelina cleans, cooks, buys new underwear to replace worn pairs of socks/briefs that Salvo has left on the bed in a kind of code, etc. He comes home and -- hey presto! -- all is in order and a tasty treat awaits in the oven (never dried out) or fridge. I don't mean this in a mean-spirited way, I think it's one of Camilleri's humorous touches.

Have you noticed how Adelina's culinary expertise is sometimes juxtaposed against Livia's so-so cooking? I remember one time, when Salvo was recuperating from a gunshot wound I believe, that Livia made a tasty potato-based dish and Salvo, very hesitant at first, gobbled it up. I think these little domestic vignettes serve to strengthen the bond between Salvo and Livia, who means so much more to him than just the possibility of a live-in maid/cook. The latter being one stereotype of the Italian mamma that Camilleri is clearly familiar with.

Speaking of Camilleri/Montalbano food stories, one of the (as-yet untranslated) short stories, "Gli arancini di Montalbano" ("Montalbano's stuffed rice balls" doesn't cut it, does it...) begins with Montalbano regretfully turning down an invitation to spend New Year's Eve with Adelina and her family and the opportunity to scarf down these delights. Does he have to work? No, he has to spend New Year's Eve with Livia in Paris. Darn! In the TV episode, Luca Zingaretti perfectly captures Salvo's dismay at having to turn down arancini in favor of a romantic weekend with Livia.

I think if it weren't for those long walks out along the jetty, Salvo would weigh 300 pounds.

September 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not thought of Adelina's cooking as an impediment to Montalbano's marrying Livia. The Terra-Cotta Dog has some good bits about Adelina's domestic telepathy, and I'd known about her kitchen magic and Montalbano's reliance on it for a long time, of course.

Livia does no cooking in The Terra-Cotta Dog, but Camilleri contrasts Montalbano's and Livia's reactions to the female half of a couple they are staying with. Livia likes the woman, who is her age and also from Genoa, but:

"Montalbano took a bit less of a liking to Giulia, owing to the shamefully overcooked pasta, a beef stew conceived by an obviously deranged mind, and dishwater coffee of a sort that even airline crews wouldn't foist on anyone."

Montalbano's relationship with Livia is the most intriguing I can think of in the crime-fiction world.

September 16, 2009  
Anonymous John Purssey said...

My perception is not that Adelina's cooking is an impediment to Montalbano's marrying Livia, even though in one of the books it is stated that he finds Livia's cooking to be bland.
The Snack Thief and The Voice of The Violin portray that Salvo and Livia are comfortable enough (despite Livia's tears) in their current arrangement.
I have read only the early books, but the TV series has Livia's character dropping out almost completely (contrast this with Ingrid) so that in Equal Time Livia's only mention is at the end when Salvo and Francois leave to collect her from the airport. I am interested to know if this reflects the books or is something to do with Katharina Bohm's contracts.

Certainly, Salvo's self-centredness and the importance of food is reflected in his initial reaction to the retirement of restaurateur Calogero owing to his heart condition. "What am I going to do?" he asks, before hugging Calogero and bidding him well for the future. Fortunately Mimi, who he introduced to his future wife Bebe at Calogero's, comes to the rescues and informs him of another good restaurant.

October 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. Salvo's journey to despair and back when he loses Calogero's then finds a new restaurant is one of great joy both for Salvo and the readers. That is a nice observation about Salvo's self-centeredness. That's exactly what he is, but he is such and engaging character that I never thought of him in those terms.

I've read the books out of order, so I may not have the firmest sense of characters' shifting roles, but Livia certainly is a prominent feature in the later novels. In fact, it was the increasing tenderness of Salvo and Livia's relationahip in the newer books that first got me into Camilleri in a big way. I've always thought of Ingrid as a figure from the earlier books.

Livia gets a mention on the cover of The Wings of the Sphinx, the next book to be published in English, so she'll likely at least be on Salvo's mind, whatever her role in the novel turns out to be.

October 15, 2009  

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