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Cooking Up A Mystery

by Barbara Pearson Arau
author of Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dinah

I’ve been writing since I can remember, from barely-one-act plays in our garage featuring a cast of heavily bribed neighborhood kids, to awkward but heartfelt Mother’s Day poems lovingly penned in turquoise crayon. I’ve been cooking practically as long; I can remember baking cakes in tiny tins, using leftover batter from my mother’s real ones and even, when I was about twelve, trekking alone to free cooking classes sponsored by our local library.

I never dreamed I’d one day put the two activities together. Although writing and cooking were second nature to me — I was used to banging out magazine and newspaper features and I cooked for family and friends all the time – writing a book was stuck somewhere in the back of my mind for years. But as I was a devoted reader of both mystery novels and food writing, I guess it was only natural that when I began my book I’d try to combine the two.

Initially, my book almost didn’t get anywhere. My first mistake was in announcing that I was writing a mystery. That immediately took care of several years of not writing a mystery. The more one talks about work in progress, I discovered, the more one doesn’t do the actual work. My friends began to suggest that the real mystery was whether I’d finish it or not.

Strictly speaking, that’s not really true. It’s true that I began my novel years ago and then stashed it in a closet, but when I actually sat down to either toss it out or complete it, it only took me three months. Three hard months of solid everyday writing, including weekends. Three months of writing, rewriting, editing, polishing, moaning, groaning and nearly giving up. Three months of severely limited social engagements, very few phone conversations, a short temper and not much sleep.

And then to my huge surprise, I found I had written a whole book. Not only was it a mystery but it talked a lot about food and even included some recipes. From a memory bank, long locked away, flashes of food descriptions from other books must have flashed before me as I wrote, like the wonderful early dining scene in Anna Karenina when Anna’s food-loving brother feasts on three dozen oysters, clear soup, roast beef, capons and sweets.

I remembered, too, how I’d often feel something was missing when a book stated flatly that a family went in to dinner and then failed to describe the meal. And how I’d occasionally try out recipes I’d come across in my reading, like those of Nora Ephron in her delightful Heartburn or from one of Mary Lasswell’s hilarious classics, Suds in Your Eye and High Times. Then there were other food-inspired favorites: Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, the late Virginia Rich’s Nantucket mysteries, Ruth Reichl’s wonderful cooking memoirs, chef Anthony Bourdain’s outrageous culinary adventures.

When I made my protagonist, Dinah, a cooking columnist on sabbatical to write a cookbook, I knew I’d have to come up with some recipes of my own. Worse, for some insane reason I’ve completely forgotten, I restricted her to time-saving recipes. I tried to work these recipes into the narrative in a way that wouldn’t interfere too much but would sustain the reader’s interest. One of my biggest compliments so far was when a friend called and said, “I got so hungry that I had to pause and make a grilled cheese sandwich before I could go on reading.”

Besides Dinah’s cooking, I added descriptions of meals she ate in restaurants or at a friend’s. Because I set the novel in the Florida Keys, I was able to include fresh seafood and locally grown vegetables. To keep Dinah slim, I had her find a bicycle in the shed and do a lot of pedaling.

My next Dinah, which I’m hoping won’t languish in a closet, is set in Sarasota, Florida. Dinah is working on another cookbook, so I’ve begun filing away new, easy-to-prepare recipes that I hope are also delicious. One of them is below:

Dinah’s Chinese Pasta Salad

5-6 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 cloves garlic 2 tablespoons sugar
8-10 scallions ½ lb. green beans (blanched)
½ cup soy sauce toasted sesame seeds or almonds (optional)
¼ cup vinegar pepper & salt
1 lb. thin spaghetti

Cook and drain spaghetti, rinse with cold water and drizzle on a little sesame oil. Set aside.

Add vegetable oil to pan. Add minced garlic and white part of scallions (chopped). Stir over high heat 30 seconds.

Turn off heat and add soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, pepper & salt. Pour over spaghetti. Stir in green beans, almonds and green part of scallions (chopped).

Refrigerate and serve cold.

© 2002 by Barbara Pearson Arua

One Response to “Cooking Up A Mystery”

  1. Shirley May says:

    I enjoyed your article.

    You said – ‘I remembered, too, how I’d often feel something was missing when a book stated flatly that a family went in to dinner and then failed to describe the meal’.

    In writing my memoirs the meal table is an important aspect as discipline often prevailed. I found myself chasing peas around the plate, carrots would glare back at me, the mouth watering bread and butter pubbing remained an aroma as I watched the cream melt while other family members devoured with heavenly sweet with immense pleasure.
    I am in the process of writing, rewriting, editing, polishing, moaning, groaning my memoirs, Conversations with Teddy but I’m determined not to give up.

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