Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Feed a Hungry Detective

Sylvester Tilghman likes to eat.

That becomes apparent early into my novel Fallen From Grace. Tilghman, sheriff of the small Pennsylvania town of Arahpot, is a bachelor who is never shy about accepting an invitation for a meal as he goes about investigating a couple murders that have shaken the normal tranquility of his town in the autumn of 1897.

His usual targets are his girlfriend, Lydia, and neighbors, the Mariners. But he isn’t inclined to turn down an offer of food or drink from most any of the citizens he encounters on his rounds.

Despite our difference in body structure and time period, I share Syl’s predilection for good eats. Investigating the type of food and menus most likely available in the time period and place was an enjoyable aspect of my research for the novel.

A primary resource was “The Latest And Best Cook Book,” published in 1888 by Hubbard Brothers of Philadelphia. The volume containing more than 800 “valuable” recipes had no single author but was compiled by a “skilled corps of practical experts,” according to the foreword.

The sub-title sums up the content of the volume: “A comprehensive treatment of the subject of cookery; ancient and modern cooking utensils, etc.; with abundant instructions in every branch of the art; soups, fish, poultry, meats, vegetables, salads, bread, cakes, jellies, fruits, pickles, sauces, beverages, candies, sick-room diet, canning, carving, serving meals, marketing, etc., etc.”

Hey, the Food Channel had nothing on Hubbard Brothers.

I guarantee you, it takes a good novel to match the entertainment value of a book like this one. For example:

“Dishes should suit the days of the week also. What can be furnished by one fire or wash-day or ironing-day is not the same as can be furnished conveniently on other days. The man who proposed dumplings for wash-day dessert because they could be boiled in the same kettle with the clothes was on the true line of progress, though his application was not a happy one. The idea is that harmony shall exist.”

The amount of food these people consumed at a single setting is enough to give the average diet-conscious modern person apoplexy. Consider this breakfast suggestion for summer—coarse hominy boiled; strawberries and cream; bread (fresh-baked, of course), butter, coffee and other beverages; broiled chicken, stewed potatoes, dried beef dressed with cream, radishes and muffins.

Or you might substitute oatmeal and milk, fresh currants and sugar, buttered toast, bread, coffee, broiled blue or white fish, stewed potatoes, minced mutton served on toast and shirred eggs.
Considering the lack of conveniences to which we’ve become accustomed, I can feel nothing but pity for the woman required to turn out these meals on a daily basis.

I am confident, though, if Sylvester turns up for another book (as a few readers are already urging) I’ll easily be able to come up with more dining suggestions for Lydia and others to tempt his appetite.

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