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Mystery Solved: Why Literature’s Greatest Detectives Are All Obsessed With Food

From Hercule Poirot to Nero Wolfe, what it meant to be a “foodie” in a world of crime

An illustration of Lord Peter Wimsy, Nero Wolfe, and Hercule Poirot

One day, while scrolling through Twitter, a post from Kitchen Arts & Letters caught my eye. The renowned New York City bookstore was selling a “Nancy Drew Cookbook” from the ’70s, written by Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene “herself.” (Keene was the pseudonym of several ghostwriters, male and female, who wrote the beloved mysteries over the years.) As a fan of Nancy Drew, retro recipes, and any intersection of food and literature, I found it too good to pass up.

When it arrived a few days later, I found I had purchased a cookbook that seemed to be written from Nancy’s perspective. Peppered with cooking “clues” and recipe titles like “Captive Biscuits” and “Dancing Puppet Parfait,” the book was a charmingly cheesy interpretation of Nancy Drew as someone who was interested in cooking, even though she doesn’t spend much time dwelling on food in the novels. Thankfully, she never made the horrifying recipes — muffins made with mayonnaise, “peanut butter soup” — featured in the cookbook.

But as fate would have it, the acquisition of this book prompted a family friend to give me two more cookbooks based on fictional detective series, Lord Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L. Sayers and Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout, dragging me deeper into a world of food and mystery.

The Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Sayers between 1923 and 1937, and the Nero Wolfe series, written by Stout between 1934 and 1975, were both popular in their days. And in a departure from Keene’s book, in both their cookbooks, recipes were taken straight from passages in the source material, making clear that a keen interest in food was a fundamental part of both characters. These were men of particular tastes who knew exactly how to order an impeccable dinner, whether at a restaurant or from their personal cooks.

They were not just detectives, but detective gourmands: a detective of stunning intellect who obsesses over food, knows his tastes, and does not compromise them for any reason. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, one of her most famous characters — he appeared in more than 30 novels and stories between 1920 and 1975 — provides another example. Each of these prolific authors used food — and the access their characters had to it — to illustrate their characters’ high status in society, secured by wealth as well as knowledge. “For a classical detective, access to arcane knowledge is the key to solving the crime,” says Marta Usiekniewicz, doctoral candidate of American literature and culture at the University of Warsaw. “Therefore, it only figures that they know as much about food.”

The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Christie’s protagonist in Murder on the Orient Express, among other books, is described as coming from a modest upbringing and gaining social status through his private detective work. Ruled by a sensitive stomach and a need for order, his tastes are fussy and specific, so much so that his meals must be consistently symmetrical, with toast cut into squares and eggs fried to the same size. He loves to dine out, and is often found in elegant dining rooms sipping mid-morning hot chocolate, tisanes, or digestifs beneath his impeccably waxed mustache.

Dorothy Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an English nobleman born with a silver spoon in his mouth. According to Mollie Freier, professor at Northern Michigan University, “Sayers once said that she made Wimsey incredibly wealthy because she herself was not — she could spend his money on fabulous things in the fictions.” In the books, Wimsey continually purchases fine wines and food; he attends shooting breakfasts, luncheons at the club, high teas, and dinners at restaurants and estates.

While Poirot and Wimsey were created in the ’20s, during a time of wealth, their series continued through the ’30s. But the characters’ lavish eating habits do not change, despite the economic downturn. This trope appears again in the Nero Wolfe series, even though Stout’s first book was published in 1934, soon after the crash.

Born in Montenegro, Wolfe comes to America, and, with money earned from detective work, is able to purchase a New York City apartment furnished with a rooftop greenhouse and a personal chef. He prefers never to leave his abode, so he has a partner in crime-solving who does all the legwork for the cases and runs culinary errands. Within his oasis, Wolfe feasts on expensive ingredients like anchovies, duckling, and shad roe, aka the egg sac of the American shad fish — a delicacy only found on the East Coast in the spring. In the Wolfe books, there’s Capon Souvaroff (a castrated male chicken cooked with madeira and truffles) and an annual meal of starlings with sage and polenta.

Most Americans would certainly not have been able to afford such things during the 1930s, as food writer David Leite explains in Dining Through the Decades: 100 Years of American Food. “Popular dishes of the period were inexpensive, one-pot meals,” Leite writes. “City dwellers, on the other hand, were surviving on cheap meals of hot dogs and hamburgers at automats such as Horn & Hardart’s. Bread and soup lines snaked around the block.”

“Detective Gourmands” book. Book looks very old with an illustration of a turkey and a glass of wine on the cover with a bottle of wine.

All three of these characters seem to float outside these cultural shifts. “The escapist element of classic detective fiction is present in all of these authors,” Usiekniewicz says. “They are meant to be fantasies that, at least on the surface, present evil as a singular aberration, while the Depression was a systemic problem. Classic detective fiction of that time rarely dealt with systemic problems.”

That was the appeal to readers as well. In his 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Kenneth Millar, who wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald, argues that “nostalgia for a privileged society” fueled readers’ interest in “the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts.” He continues: “neither wars nor the dissolution of government and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world.” Thus, the detective gourmand continues to dine in old-world luxury.

As these detectives do not want for food, their creators are able to present their dining habits as an intellectual endeavor. “Eating was now not only a physical pleasure, it was also an intellectual research,” Christie writes of Poirot in her 1952 book Mrs McGinty’s Dead. “For in between meals, he spent quite a lot of time searching out and marking down possible sources of new and delicious food.”

In other words, “food is definitely an indicator of social status, but it also highlights the cultural capital of each detective,” Usiekniewicz says. “It is oftentimes used as shorthand for an entire type.”

Wimsey attended Oxford, but he flaunts his social status most clearly when he describes food, whether he’s spouting an ode to Bradenham Ham in Unnatural Death or ordering the perfect meal for a potential suspect in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. He describes this meal as though it were a piece of literature: “Huitres Musgraves…fried in their shells… with little strips of bacon” are followed by tortue vraie, Filet de sole “a hyphen between the prologue and the main theme,” phasion roti with Pommes Byron, followed by a “dry and crisp” salad and souffle glace. (This thoughtfully composed dinner is in fact very close to an actual menu at Claridge’s Hotel in London, whose dining room has attracted the rich and famous since 1812.)

While Poirot and Wimsey are deliberate about the foods they consume, their tastes are narrow: Poirot prefers his native European delicacies, like croissants, omelets, and soft cheeses; he generally frowns on English cooking, and he expresses the utmost horror when he is made to try Chinese food. Wimsey’s tastes are conservatively British, and when he is brought to the Soviet Club (where the Bolsheviks gather) in Clouds of Witness, he proclaims that “Cooking’s beastly, the men don’t shave, and the conversation gets my goat,” making it clear that he is not part of the new, liberal set of revolutionaries.

According to Usiekniewicz, food in the books can be a “means of including or excluding people from a given community,” and in this case, Poirot and Wimsey’s tastes are exclusive.

But Wolfe cultivated a great affinity for foreign foods during his travels, and is described as eating everything: from Brazilian lobster salad to hunkiev beyandi (an Armenian dish featuring lamb kebab and stuffed eggplant). His flaunts expansive knowledge of foreign cuisines, as exemplified when he explains the Hindi or Urdu origin of the word “shish kebab” in The Father Hunt. Wolfe’s appreciation of foreign cultures extends to American cuisine as well. He enjoys dishes of the American South, such as Kentucky burgoo and Creole curds and cream, in Death of a Doxy, and defends American cuisine in a passionate speech to a chef from San Remo in Too Many Cooks.

In his 2010 book Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, Ferdinand Mount compares literary detectives to the figure of the “antique Oracle,” citing their “powers of observation, reasoning and deduction.” He links this brainpower to their relationship with food, writing: “A person who knows about food is regarded as knowing that much more about life… and it is remarkable how often one of the marks of the detective’s supreme intelligence and discernment is his encyclopedic knowledge of food and drink.”

Despite living in a bubble, Wolfe’s tastes seem progressive for the time period: In The Final Deduction, he declares that “all you needed to know about any human society was what they ate.” Stout shows us that Wolfe thinks deeply about food and uses it as a lens to explore and understand other cultures. Similarly, readers can deduce the culture, politics, and worldview of each these detectives — by seeing how they eat.

Mackensie Griffin has a master’s degree in food studies from NYU. She writes about food culture and runs a literary supper club called Table of Contents. Cryssy Cheung is a NYC-based freelance illustrator and art director at Viacom network TV Land.
Editor: Erin DeJesus