LET'S EAT by David P. Wagner
Thanksgiving is next week, so why don't I write about food? It will get us ready for the stuffing, and you can interpret that word any way you wish, since on Turkey Day we are first the stuffers and then the stuffees. But my entry here will not be about the traditional dishes of that day, as much as we love them. My culinary theme here will be more international, and specifically Italian.
I write mysteries that take place in Italy, a country where I spent nine wonderful years. And you can't set your characters down in Italy without writing about food. It just can't be done. In crime fiction both sleuths and suspects have to occasionally stop for a meal or a snack. They're people, after all, and that's what people do. (Have you noticed in British mysteries they're always stopping to drink tea, but nobody ever has to use the loo? Do the Brits have large bladders? But I digress.) So there is always the occasional lunch or dinner in regular mysteries, with the protagonist usually agonizing over suspects and clues, not what to order. Often the setting is a fast food joint and it's unnecessary for the author to go into great detail about a hamburger, burrito, or bangers and mash. In the books I've read recently, everyone seems to be heating up stuff in the microwave. The less written about that food, the better.
Ah, but my characters are in Italy. Italians can get into great arguments over food, and conflict is always good in a book. (“You think your tortelli di zucca in Ferrara are good? We in Mantova throw rocks at Ferraresi tortelli di zucca!”) Food is culture everywhere, but in Italy it is also history, regionalism, and art. Back when I was living in Italy I was forced by my job to lunch often with Italians, a major sacrifice, as you might imagine. Before getting down to business there was an obligatory discussion of food, starting with the menu. If I happened to be in the hinterlands, I was always told of regional specialties, how they were prepared, and how much better they were than that slop they cook in the next town over. Civic pride manifests itself big time in local cooking. So in order to be realistic, the descriptions of restaurant meals in my book include some talk about what's for lunch, just as I remember.
My protagonist Rick Montoya, who works as a translator when he's not sleuthing, is bilingual and dual-national, thanks to a New Mexican father and Roman mother. So he observes what goes on in Italy with an American eye, and vice versa. The cultural differences between regions, which Italians often take for granted, he finds interesting, and it includes those differences related to food. Why does the bread in this town always taste the same? Because its ingredients were set in the municipal statutes in the 18th century. How come they don't put salt in their bread in this other town? It goes back to a protest against the papal salt tax. Why is the breakfast roll known in Rome as a cornetto (for it's shape) called a brioche in Milan? I'll have to look that one up. All this stuff fascinates Rick.
But these books are not travelogues or cookbooks. (But Donna Leon published a Commissario Brunetti cookbook with her protagonist's favorite Venetian dishes, so why not a Rick Montoya cookbook?) The idea is to have a good story with interesting characters. So your humble author is always trying to balance the cultural details, including the food, with plotting and character development. Feedback (pun completely unintentional, I swear) from readers about descriptions of Rick's meals has been mostly positive. They tell me they want to go to Italy after reading my books, and that's good.
Alright, enough about Italian food, back to planning that Thanksgiving dinner. But with the leftovers this year you may want to consider Turkey Tetrazzini, even though the dish was invented in the States, since it was named for an Italian opera singer.
About Murder Most Unfortunate:
Winding up an interpreter job in Bassano del Grappa at a conference on artist Jacopo da Bassano, a famous native son, Rick Montoya looks forward to exploring the town. And it would be fun to look into the history of two long-missing paintings by Jacopo, a topic that caused the only dust-up among the normally staid group of international scholars attending the seminar.
Bassano has much to offer to Rick the tourist, starting with its famous covered bridge, an ancient castle, and several picturesque walled towns within striking distance. He also plans to savor a local cuisine that combines the best of Venice with dishes from the Po Valley and the surrounding mountains.
These plans come to a sudden halt when one of the seminar's professors turns up dead. Rick is once again drawn into a murder investigation, this time with a pair of local cops who personify the best and the worst of the Italian police force.
At the same time he's willingly pulled into a relationship with Betta Innocenti, the daughter of a local gallery owner, who is equally intrigued by the lost paintings. They quickly realize that the very people who might know the story are also the main suspects in the murder – and that someone not above resorting to violence is watching their every move.
David P. Wagner, a retired foreign service officer, is also the author of Cold Tuscan Stone and Death in the Dolomites, both Rick Montoya Italian Mysteries. While in the diplomatic service he spent nine years in Italy where he learned to love all things Italian, many of which appear in his writing. He and his wife live in Colorado.