At about the same time I outgrew children’s books, I became addicted to detective novels. In many ways, they’re the adult version of children’s adventure stories – instead of going off on adventures in giant peaches or in boats or behind the wardrobe, there’s a crime to be solved. In the tradition of Huck Finn and Pippi Longstocking, a fictional detective is very often not a decent, responsible citizen; he’s a loner, sealed off with nogoodniks and perps in a shadowy underworld of lawless derring-do, tracking the murderer by trying to think like one. Often a former cop who’s been kicked off the force for breaking the rules and flaunting protocol one too many times, often picking up the pieces of a failed marriage, the detective is courageous and intrepid but flawed, self-destructive, prickly, hard-drinking, at odds with everything.
And almost all fictional detectives know how to eat. Marlowe arms himself for stakeouts with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey, V. I. Warshawski escapes danger and makes a beeline for a Hungarian goulash at the Golden Glow; Kinsey Millhone girds her loins for trouble by slapping together a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. Robert B. Parker’s Spencer eats as grandly as he spouts half-pretentious literary allusions, and I like him for it; I hate his psychotherapist girlfriend, however, because she nibbles at a lettuce leaf and calls it a meal. Smugly self-denying asceticism is a character flaw for me akin to meanness or hypocrisy. Likewise, if I have one criticism of Dick Francis, it’s that his narrators are jockeys who have to make weight and therefore are career anorectics; there’s never enough food in his novels, although his heroes often crave it, which endears them to me.
Growing up, I was raised on homemade bread, cottage cheese, and Graham crackers. I got Trix, Ding-Dongs, and Coke only at my luckier friend’s houses, and our Halloween candy was parceled out to us so slowly it lasted until Christmas (and would have lasted longer had our mother not pirated much of it after we were in bed). I was hardly deprived, but the point is, I wasn’t allowed to eat whatever and whenever I wanted. Writing about food, I discovered very early on, gave me a sense of heady power that was in some ways even better than reading about it. I couldn’t always have what the characters I read about ate, but I could feed my own characters all the things I wasn’t allowed to have.
In my first story, “My Magic Carpet,” written when I was 6, the narrator and her sister go around the world and into outer space on a magic carpet and get home in time for “tea,” as I called it, budding Anglophile that I was. Getting home in time for a big meal was evidently the happiest ending to an adventure story I could come up with.
When I was 13, I wrote a short novel called Life Can’t Be a Penguin that might be pegged these days as a YA thriller. The 13-year-old heroine and her brother go into the remote Arizona desert on the heels of their evil band teacher, a kidnaper and possible murderer. After the scary parts are over, after everything has resolved itself, they end up in a diner and order almost everything on the menu. I remember hungrily listing with the bottomless appetite of pubescence every conceivable thing I myself would have ordered in such a situation – French fries, baked beans, chicken, hamburgers, meat loaf, blueberry pie, ice cream, etc. I wasn’t trying to be funny; I wrote it in vicariously swooning, single-minded earnestness.
I still let my characters have things I generally can’t or wouldn’t eat myself. In my own kitchen, I admit to a preponderance of gluten-free, organic, hormone-free, sustainably caught, free-range, cage-free items, but the characters in my books eat with anachronistic, cheeky, devil-may-care defiance – cheesy, meaty pasta and cheeseburgers with fries, kielbasa and chorizo and as much bacon as they damn well want.
Take a loaf of rye bread, a package of pastrami, a package of sliced Swiss cheese, a jar of mayonnaise, and a jar of mustard. Slap together three thick, hearty sandwiches oozing with mayo and wrap them in wax paper. Put them in a big paper sack with a large bag of potato chips, a small pack of chocolate doughnuts, an apple, and a bottle of rye whiskey. On the way to the address in question, stop for a large Styrofoam cup of strong, black coffee. Add whiskey to it. Drink it and eat the doughnuts as you drive.
In the front seat of your 1974 Chevy Nova, at 11 p.m., without taking your eyes off the suspect’s darkened windows, eat one of the sandwiches, washed down with handfuls of potato chips and sips of whiskey. Repeat at 4 a.m. At 7:45 a.m., eat the last sandwich and the rest of the potato chips and finish whatever’s left of the whiskey. When the suspect appears in his doorway at 8:27 and heads for his 1972 Camaro, throw the apple out the window, put your car in gear, and tail him.