Scarpetta Cooks

So. I’m struggling through Patricia Cornwell’s latest Scarpetta novel
Red Mist wondering why, as an almost-rehabilitated crime fiction addict, I’m persisting with it. Partly, I understand, it’s because they
are series of novels I have been loyal to since my late teens. I have an
unwritten rule about such things, I stubbornly adhere to objectives well
beyond a reasonable timeframe, even when they are clearly flawed. I also
set myself arbitrary goals.

I need to know about the future of these characters, I need to follow
them to their conclusion, I (stupidly) need to be able to say “I did
it!” Trouble is, I thought that either of the last two novels were the
end of this journey, and, as is so common with success stories that are
milked to within an inch of their lives, they well and truly should have
been. So why do I pummel myself with writing that has wandered from
gripping and engrossing, to flabby and self important? At book 12 she
changed the writing of the Kay Scarpetta character from the first to the
third person and back again at book 18. This signalled the death knell
of the series for me. The characters I had grown so attached to in my
young adulthood, had become unlikeable, even damaged. The narratives
which had been so much about the unfolding mysteries of crime and
violence, and the traces that are left on the human body, had become
secondary, ego driven. Again I ask, “why?” Then I come across this
passage:

As my FBI forensic psychologist husband put it last night while I was cooking dinner in our historic Cambridge home that was built by a
well-known transcendentalist,…
" (For God’s sake woman, take a breath,
get over yourself and hire an editor that isn’t afraid to get the sack
for doing their job! That’s not even the end of the sentence!) and after
laughing my arse off for about 10 minutes, pausing, and laughing for 10
more, I realise she is at the beginning of a passage that answers my
very question. She is cooking. (Here we come to the food bit again, I
eventually get there people, sometimes we just need to do a little dance
first…)

Scarpetta cooks. She is Italian, she drinks wine and whisky, and she
cooks. Well and passionately. Cornwell’s descriptions of the preparation
and eating of food, from a complete meal of pasta or pizza cooked from
scratch, to sandwich and salad fixings or even her gustatory selections
at a restaurant have always transported me. I read that first dozen
books many times over and references to “Hanover tomatoes that tasted of
the sun”, thick slices of sweet Vidalia onion and Tangiers crab cakes
with horseradish are just some of the produce from passages that have
remained with me over the years. These parts of Cornwell’s writing are
always the most honest, the most palpable, the most consistent.
Scarpetta cooks for herself, for her partner or niece or for a party of
loved ones. She can communicate the most in the least amount of words
when she is referring to food. She cooks the way I’d like to write. She
writes about food I want to eat.

So, of course this got me thinking, in this strange, self imposed
journey of discovery, what other books and writers had influenced my
love and interest in food? It didn’t take long for the titles to start
flooding in, and surprisingly few of them were adult books. In fact none
of those I will share now are.

Enid Blyton would have to be a starting point. Who doesn’t remember the
Famous Five, with lashings of ginger beer, jars of potted meat and cucumber sandwiches? For me it was a lesser known series of hers - The
Children of Cherry Tree Farm
. Same sort of adventures, same sunny
picnics, same hard boiled eggs with a screw of salt, but with Bush
Tucker. You heard me. The children in this particular group meet a wild
man in the forest who teaches them about fruits, berries and weeds that
were good to eat, and I delighted in all of it.

Many other children’s books make the list. No, not Roald Dahl’s Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory
, though my copy of that was well worn. I was
more fascinated with the idea of endless cabbage soup in that book than
the sweets and chocolate. No. It was an anthology of short stories
called The Dribblesome Teapots and other Incredible Stories, my
favourite of which was the "Unexpected Banquet" that told of a royal
house, having nothing in the coffers, needing to throw together an
impromptu banquet for visiting dignitaries. The descriptions of
ridiculous combinations of pantry oddments arranged and rearranged for
and whisked away from hungry guests always put a smile on my face.
Another collection of short stories, that I cannot for the life of me
find the name of, had several stories about food, including one about a
King who wishes for never ending ice-cream, and a street parade
featuring a pink blancmange elephant that the crowd take to with parfait
spoons and devour. All nonsense, all happy making. Food can be like
that. A mad celebration.

A book that I was speaking about only recently with one of my favourite
tweeters and food
bloggers
is EB White’s
classic Charlotte’s Web. Oddly (maybe not so much if you know me) the
most delicious parts of the story for me were the telling of the
contents of Wilbur’s slops bucket and Templeton’s glee in being given
first pick of the spoils as reward for his word-finding labours. I read
this book until it fell apart in my hands, and it is one of my earliest
memories of having a book I could read chapter by chapter on my own
under a reading light in my bedroom at night. The first remembered
transition from my mother reading to me, to being able to read on my
own.

And lastly, though I could go on, The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This goes
way back, and I have since bought the Little Golden Book for my own
children. Who didn’t want a steaming bowl or three of carrot soup after
reading this?

Some of my dearest friends on twitter and elsewhere have brought me back
to the love of books by sharing with me what they are reading and what
they think I might like to read. They have taught me to put away a book
that is not giving to me. Like a plate of food, which I am loathe to
waste, the time I choose to invest in reading a book is precious,
especially since I have had children. I am battling the stubborn habit
to stick to something that no longer has value. Unlike the plate of
food, which I will eat up or save for later rather than throw out,
regardless of it’s palatability, the book will now easily go on the
discard pile, maybe “go back to later” if it’s lucky.

All the books of my past that are now lovingly creased and yellowed with
age, I realise now, have probably some connection with food. It may be
small, seemingly insignificant, but it is likely there. I will always
have a subconscious affinity with food and cooking.

These are the passages I read and re-read, and bring me back to the
novel itself after a time. These are the descriptions I savour and
cherish, much like the morsels they describe, to the point where I often
find myself wishing the characters find a new ingredient in the bottom
of the grocery bag they are unpacking, a different picnic item in the
corner of the basket. These moments open my eyes wide and let my
imagination go. They nestle in my mind and feed me. Their memories will
inform me and colour my time in the kitchen and at the family table.

Cornwell has a new Scarpetta book out this year and I will probably buy
it. Especially if she makes fresh pasta.