Food, Glorious Food, and a Cuppa Tea too

posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken

I have been thinking about food lately. Heck, I think about food all the time--often what I should eat, what I should not eat (that chocolate cupcake at the baby shower yesterday comes to mind), or (again, the cupcake) what I should not have eaten. In this new year, the four of us who live here are all doing something about food and our waistlines. Daughter number one is in a wedding this summer and is "doing" low carbs. Daughter number two is swearing off pork and beef. Husband The Diabetic is very, very fond of donuts, so his eating a salad a day is a major triumph for both of us. Me, I'm just trying to eat sanely (and forget that cupcake) and healthily. You can imagine what it's like to prepare a meal for this bunch.

Thinking about food, I had an idea. I decided we should have a Tea Cup_of_tea at the library as part of the local Winter Carnival. Not just any tea, of course. We are having a Culinary Mystery Tea. The "price" of admission is a finger food to share, made from a recipe in a culinary mystery.

The field is wide open. I just put up a book display of mysteries with recipes, and even I was surprised how many culinary series there are to choose from. The germ of the idea came from popular mystery author Katherine Hall Page's books. My favorite Faith Fairchild is THE BODY IN THE BONFIRE, although my favorite recipe comes from THE BODY IN THE SNOWDRIFT Snowdrift (winner of an Agatha for Best Mystery Novel). I have already announced that I have dibs on Aunt Glad's Brownies for the tea. Another long running and "hot" series is written by Diane Mott Davidson, who graduated from Wellesley as did Katherine. Her Goldy Bear titles have lots of yummy-sounding recipes.

Other culinary mysteries with recipes are written by Joanne Pence (Angie Amalfi is her chef), Nancy Fairbanks (her sleuth Carolyn Blue is a food columnist), Shirley Jump (gift basket purveyor Carolyn Woodrow), and those are just the ones in my personal collection. (There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I deliberately "lost" another library's copy of THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE by Shirley Jump because I couldn't part with the luscious recipes. I paid for the book, so it's mine...mine...mine now!) Even Jimmie Ruth Evans' Trailer Park Mysteries have recipes (Hi, Dean!)

Food and mystery fiction seem to go together well. After all, everybody has to eat sometime, and while we're making things up, the food might as well be wonderful, no? Unless, of course, it's poisoned, in which case it should be a bland egg dish like the one in Dorothy Sayers' recipe-less STRONG POISON.

Sometimes non-culinary mystery books throw in a recipe or two for a change. Joan Hess is one of my buy-it-right-now authors; she writes a lot about comfort food in the Maggody series, with Arly Hanks stopping by her mother Ruby Bee's diner for supper. Joan put a recipe for cheese grits in one of the books. I actually tried them out, and I have to admit that they sounded better than they tasted to this Yankee born and bred. I expect I did something wrong.

On the other hand, I occasionally read in a mystery about a food that I would "die" to taste. I was so taken by the description of baked French toast in a Margaret Maron book (I think it was HIGH COUNTRY FALL) that I e-mailed Margaret asking for the recipe. She replied that she might could put it on her website, but I didn't wait for it. I Googled and found several versions, one of which I made forBaked_toast Christmas morning a year or so ago. I still salivate when I think about it, but it was soooooo rich and calorie-laden that it's really a special occasion thing.

Jo Grossman and Robert Weibezahl had another twist on food and mysteries. They co-authored A TASTE OF MURDER and A SECOND HELPING OF MURDER several years ago. They canvassed the mystery community for favorite recipes and the results read like a "Who's Who of Crime Fiction." I have had a wonderful time tracking down the hundreds of authors to get their pages autographed, but just reading the titles is fun. The late Al Blanchard offered "James Callahan's Murderous Meatloaf" and I somehow never got his signature on it. Second_helping Everyone from Marcia Muller to Twist Phalen, from Donald Westlake to Kate Grilley have recipes in these books. I'm going to loan the library my MURDER cookbooks for the duration, but I'm also going to use a recipe from the second book, "The Agony of The Leaves" by Meg Chittenden, with a very detailed recipe, "How to Brew a Perfect Cup of Tea."

We'll have door prizes, other surprises (like Sheila Connolly, whose apple-related series debuts this spring) and perhaps a fire in the reading room fireplace. If you're in the neighborhood of Lincoln, Massachusetts, on the afternoon of Sunday February 3d, come on down. We'll be glad to pour you a cuppa tea.

The recipe for "Lizzie's Sugar and Spice Cookies" is reprinted with permission from Katherine Hall Pages' THE BODY IN THE CAST:

3/4 cup unsalted butter 1 cup sugar
1 egg slightly beaten
3/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups flour
sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cloves
3/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon sale
sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cream the butter, sugar, egg, and molasses together thoroughly. Sift the flour, baking soda, spices, and salt together. Add to the butter mixture and stir. Roll the dough into balls, 1 inch in diameter, and roll the balls in sugar. Set approximately 2 inches apart on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 12 minutes. Let cool on brown paper or racks. Makes approximately 4 dozen. For an elegant tea cookie, make 1/2-inch-diameter balls and reduce the cooking time to 9 minutes. Makes approximately 8 dozen.

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