As in the creation of mosaics, in writing it's details that help make up a fuller picture.

Consider the type of food characters are shown preparing, being served, or eating. Even casual references tell something about their culinary tastes and, with historical fiction in particular, their station in life.

But not always! For although our protagonist John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, is one of the richest men in Constantinople, his food preferences have remained simple. Thus he is occasionally seen eating boiled eggs or bread and cheese, although from time to time we permit him his two favourites: grilled swordfish, sometimes purchased from a street vendor and so eaten from a skewer outdoors, and the sweet honey cakes his elderly servant Peter makes for him.

We've also utilised food in more extended sequences to throw light on the nature of a given character or to provide a touch of pathos or humour to the narrative.

For example, in Seven For A Secret, Peter tells John the story of the miracle of the melons, in which Zachariah, who claims to have been born without the use of his legs, was sitting in his usual begging spot when the axle of a too heavily laden cart snapped, tipping the cart over. As a result, an avalanche of melons rushed directly at the unfortunate beggar.

John observes he does not think the incident would pose much danger, to which Peter points out the shock engendered by seeing them all rolling at you at once if you were unable to escape.
It was at that point the miracle occurred, for Zachariah leapt up and ran to safety. The less gullible but kindly John replies he would never have thought produce could be a convenient means of divine intervention.

The accident also provided a new occupation for the now mobile Zachariah: juggling fist-sized
melons with his feet. The produce involved is then offered for sale to passersby as supposedly having curative powers akin to those by which he was cured of his lifelong affliction, although naturally they cost more than ordinary melons.

Peter goes on to relate the tale of what he calls the glass manna. In brief, another beggar scavenging for food near the Great Palace discovers baskets of fish, bread, and fruit, all of them made of glass
-- the reader knows these faux comestibles were manufactured for an imperial banquet and how they came to be outside -- and was profoundly thankful to have done so.

Naturally, John asks why the beggar reacted thus given he could not eat what he found, Peter's answer being the various items were so unusual and so beautifully made the beggar was able to sell them individually to those who dealt in such wares. Thus the glass food fed the beggar far longer than the same amount of real food would have done.

In our presentation of Theodora we've given her a nasty sense of humour.

Take Theodora's outdoor banquet in Five For Silver. Poet Crinagoras has been invited to attend and recite his creations. In speaking to Anatolius, a friend of John's, about the culinary exotica he expects, he predicts at the very least it will include pigeons' wings fricassed in wine, honey-sauced lamb, exquisite sweetmeats, rich sauces, and wines so wonderful guests would think Bacchus himself was in charge of the imperial cellars.

As it turns out, he and other guests are horrified to say the least when served only bread and water by attendants displaying obvious signs of suffering from the plague then raging in Constantinople, and badly frightened by the arrival of a cart full of half dead victims, its driver the holy fool notorious for earlier dancing with the corpse of a woman.

However, as so often happens in novels of detection, things are not quite what they seem.

Another unusual banquet occurs in Four For A Boy, the prequel to the series. This event is hosted by an actual historical figure, City Prefect Theodotus, who was nicknamed The Gourd due to his badly misshapen head. His guests eat their meal readily enough, although complaining to each other about the suckling pigs having been boiled too long, the fish not smoked enough, and the fruit soaked in wine being overripe.

Suddenly their host announces he has a very special culinary treat for them. Imagine their surprise when, uncovering salvers set before them, his guests find they have been served with half a large baked gourd apiece. He reminds them it is commonly said of gourds they are inedible, bitter, and tough, and then orders the crowd to eat. As perforce they must, underlining their widespread fear of their host. Guest of honour and future empress Theodora naturally finds the situation highly amusing.

Well, I may not have been very amusing but I hope at least I've provided some food for thought!




Series info:

Tweet noms:    @marymaywrite  and for Eric @groggytales


The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John, Lord Chamberlain, detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's One For Sorrow, the first full-length novel about their protagonist. The eleventh in the series, Murder in Megara, will be published in October 2015. The Guardian Stones, set in rural Shropshire during World War Two and written as by Eric Reed, will appear in January 2016. Both novels are from Poisoned Pen Press.

Blurb for Murder In Megara:

John, former Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, has been exiled from Constantinople to a rustic estate John has long-owned in Greece, not far from where he grew up. But exile proves no escape from mystery and mayhem. The residents of nearby Megara make it plain John and his family are unwelcome intruders. His overseer proves corrupt. What of the other staff—and his neighbors?

Before long, John finds himself accused of blasphemy and murder. Now a powerless outsider, he’s on his own, investigating and annoyingly hampered by the ruthless and antagonistic City Defender who serves Megara as both law enforcer and judge. Plus there’s that corrupt estate overseer, a shady pig farmer, a servant’s unwelcome suitor, a wealthy merchant who spends part of his time as a cave-dwelling hermit, and the criminals and cutthroats populating such a seedy port as Megara.

Complicating matters further are two childhood friends whose lives have taken very different paths, plus the stepfather John hated. John realizes that in Megara, the solution to murder does not lie in the dark alleys where previous investigations have taken him, but in a far more dangerous place—his own past. Can he find his way out of the labyrinth of lies and danger into which he has been thrust before disaster strikes and exile turns into execution?


GBPool said…
Very interesting post. Too often food is put into a story so many times the book reads like a dining guide to local restaurants. When there is a reason for the entry it keeps the story flowing.

In the opening of my second Gin Caulfield book, Hedge Bet, Gin is rummaging around the frozen food section of an all-night mini-mart. She is no longer a private detective and she's hungry... but not really for food. She wants to get back in the action and she does. That hunger goes away once she's on a case. So food does play a role in the story. It just doesn't dominate the plot.

These stories of yours have that same role. They act as a character to move the plot along. Good writing.

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