Funereal Foods

In the summer, we tend to reach for lighter fare.  Fruits, salads…. detective fiction?  On the surface, murder and mystery is an odd choice for beach reading.  On the other hand, most summer pleasures seem to share the quality of easily accessed satisfaction, and a detective novel’s expected suspenses and inevitable twists can offer just the right combination of novelty and genre convention.

Detective fiction may also  seem to be an odd topic for a food blog, if (like me) you find the prospect of mixing bread with blood somewhat unappetizing.*  But that is just the problem confronted by some of characters of P.D. James’ The Private Patient, in which a Dorset country manor is shaken by an unexpected** murder.  The crime is discovered in the early morning; by early afternoon, the manor’s cooks realize that no one has eaten breakfast or lunch, and begin to fret about what would be appropriate to serve.  They had a meal already prepared for lunch, but decide that it would be too heavy and rich for the shocked manor residents.  They nearly decide on pea soup and soda bread, but like many people shaken by tragedy, they feel adrift and unable to make a definite decision.  Fortunately, the manor’s housekeeper sweeps in to crisply reassure them and school them on appropriate crime scene luncheon.  She tells them:

Pea soup is an excellent idea, hot, nourishing, and comforting.  As you’ve got the stock, it could be quickly made.  Let’s keep the food simple, shall we?  We don’t want it to look like a parish harvest festival.  Serve the soda bread warm and with plenty of butter.  A cheese board would be a good addition to the cold meats — people should have some protein — but don’t overdo it.  Make it look appetising, as you always do.  No one will be hungry, but they’ll need to eat.  And it would be a good idea to put out Kimberley’s excellent home-made lemon curd and apricot jam with the bread.  People in shock often crave something sweet.  And keep the coffee coming, plenty of coffee. (114-5).

As it turns out, she is quite right: the residents find themselves eating after all, even though some of them experience guilt or uneasiness for having such a thing as an appetite.   Throughout the rest of this novel, the narrative periodically returns to the kitchen and the discreet preparations of the cooks, who are very fine chefs but subdue their art to simple, tasty, nourishing plates as recommended.  I am intrigued by this injunction and all the implications it carries: certainly it is wise to feed shocked or grieving bodies with pea soup and simple bread, but as the days go on, it seems as though the residents feel that appetite is an inappropriate condition for other reasons.  The manor’s owner seems impatient that he must be bothered with the frivolous business of eating in these dire circumstances; other residents seem to feel as though appetite is somehow disrespectful to the dead.

These scenes reminded me of past occasions for funereal eating – at wakes, in hospitals, or during an extended emergency – and if I recall, we usually did tend toward foods that were light and simple but with plenty of sugars and fats.  This is one of the reasons I enjoy P.D. James:   her mysteries, like all literary mysteries, will eventually be solved by her clever detective… but she usually does surprise me with unexpected details that serve no narrative purpose but to flesh out the human world of her characters.

*But then, you and I probably haven’t been enjoying any of the numerous food-and-murder series in publication, including but probably not limited to:  Madeleine Bean Catering Mysteries by Jerrilyn Farmer, Tea Shop mysteries by Laura Childs, Goldy Shulz Catering Mysteries by Diane Mott Davidson, or Hannah Swenson Mysteries by Joanna Fluke.  But that may be a topic for another post.

**To the residents – not to the reader!

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