“Bad Taste Leads to Crime”

Katherine Hall Page, author of the Faith Fairchild culinary mystery series, writes about the pairing of food and fiction, using the Baron De Mareste’s nineteenth-century observation: Le mauvais goût mène au crime (“Bad taste leads to crime”) as a touchstone. We are what we eat and certainly what we read. Learn how Katherine puts the two together, incorporating food into her mysteries.

I’ve always interpreted the Baron’s pronouncement as a possible motive for murder, joining the traditional list: greed, revenge, insanity, passion. Not perhaps in the literal sense, although a number of years ago in Massachusetts we had “The Ziti Case” in which a husband snapped when his wife burned the casserole and he killed her. I interpret De Mareste’s remark as another example of the way food and crime go together so well, dating back to the tasty potions Cleopatra prepared for her enemies, and those skillful Borgias some centuries later.

Faith Sibley Fairchild, my amateur sleuth, is a caterer. She is currently making her appearance in The Body in the Gazebo, the nineteenth in the series. Born and raised in New York City, she started the successful company Have Faith in Your Kitchen in Manhattan, moving it to “Aleford,” a fictitious small suburb west of Boston, when she married the local minister. All these years later she is still not a fan of New England boiled dinners, but has grown to love the region’s other dishes—chowders, crumbles, baked beans, Johnny cakes—and the availability of heirloom apples, cranberries, maple syrup, and seafood, especially Maine lobster. Since food is an ongoing theme, it seemed natural to me to start including recipes in the books. I recently published them in my cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, adding a number of author’s notes about food-related subjects such as reading cookbooks for pleasure and artists as cooks (Andy Warhol was well known for whipping up a Thanksgiving feast each year; Grant Wood for his strawberry shortcake).

Cooking and writing mysteries are virtually identical activities, differing only in terms of place—the kitchen or other food preparation locale versus a room of one’s own with a way to get words on some form of paper. A recipe has a list of ingredients and directions, which we follow in a series of steps toward the end result: a hopefully edible concoction. Writing a mystery takes the same path. I provide a list of clues—some more obvious than others—and the readers follow the steps my sleuth takes as she proceeds to the denouement revealing a hopefully believable concoction: the murderer. Cookery and crime solving—both put pieces together and try to avoid half-baked results.

In a recipe it’s essential to provide accurate measurements, and in a mystery this is also true for clues. It’s important to play fair with the reader—not introducing the evil twin at the end who hasn’t made a prior appearance—but the writer can strew a few red herrings (“red herrings”—yet another example of the delicious link between crime and gastronomy).

I love to cook and I love to read about food—cookbooks, food memoirs, and of course classic mystery writers like Nero Wolfe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Georges Simenon, Virginia Rich, Nan and Ivan Lyons, who so delectably combine the two. These are a few of the writers who inspire me, aside from Agatha Christie. She set the bar for me so far as mysteries are concerned, but perhaps there could have been a few more tasty morsels aside from the crumpets for tea.

The Body in the Gazebo moves among five locales: “Aleford,”Boston, Hilton Head,Charleston, South Carolina, and Martha’s Vineyard. As the plot progressed, I was able to slip in references to many of my favorites: a Low Country boil, shrimp with Timm’s Mill grits, a New England rum cake, and, as the book moves from the present to a crime that occurred during the summer of 1929, a description of a Gatsby-like party.

People tell me they get hungry when they read my books, and I can think of no greater compliment. Bon appétit!

Here’s one of the recipes from The Body in the Gazebo:

Baked Chicken with Red Wine, Sage, and Root Vegetables

  • 2 1/2 pounds cut-up bone-in chicken
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound parsnips
  • 1/2 pound carrots
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 2 tablespoons chiffonade-cut fresh sage leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup dry red wine

Faith’s family likes dark meat, so she uses four whole chicken legs.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Rinse the chicken and pat it dry with a paper towel.

Drizzle the oil in a casserole large enough to hold the chicken and vegetables. Faith prefers the oval ones fromFrance, but Pyrex is just fine, too.

Place the chicken pieces in the casserole.

Peel the parsnips, scrub (or peel) the carrots, and cut both into inch-long chunks.

Peel the onion and cut it into eighths.

Arrange the assorted vegetables around the chicken.

Sprinkle the sage on top of the chicken and vegetables along with the salt and pepper.

Pour the wine evenly over the casserole.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.

Uncover, baste with a bulb baster or a spoon, and bake for another 45 minutes, basting occasionally. The chicken should be nicely browned. Let the dish rest for 5 minutes.

Serves 4 amply. Be sure to spoon some of the liquid on top of the chicken and vegetables when serving.

What is nice about this dish is that it omits browning the chicken, which you would do in a more traditional coq au vin. It takes less time to prepare. This may also be easily transformed into a heart-wise version by using a salt substitute and taking the skin off the chicken. You can vary the vegetables—turnips are good also. Faith usually serves it with new potatoes, or other potato varieties cut small, that have been steamed and sautéed in a tablespoon of butter and tablespoon of olive oil with more sage or other seasonings.


The first 5 people to respond to this post will receive a copy of Katherine’s new book Body in the Gazebo along with her cookbook Have Faith in Your Kitchen!

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  10. Or,in case you opt for simplicity, just make use of
    a whole pineapple along with a coconut or two as
    your centerpiece. When pounding the chicken, use the flat end of the meat mallet or, in case you do donrrrt you have one, a wooden rolling pin.
    A very sophisticated, delicious main course to offer during a supper party
    is duck.

  11. elizabeth towns says:

    I am intrigued by the way cooking is weaved into the story line. Trying recipe above this weekend!

  12. Thank you for the entry in your giveaway. I’m a reader, not a blogger, but enjoy so many of them. I’m a huge fan of Katherine’s books, and would love to read The Body in the Gazebo. I enjoy spreading the word about good books I read, and have in the past. Have a blessed day!

  13. Shelly Franz says:

    I’ve been a long time fan of both Katherine and Faith. I’ve enjoyed seeing Faith’s family grow and change, and love, love, love the recipes. Excellent article!

  14. Great! I could review it on my cookbook blog! :))

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