Friday, January 20, 2012

Historical Eating

My Possessed mystery novels are half-historical, and feature a present-day heroine, Pat Montella, whose chief hobby is cooking. It stands to reason that Pat would eventually become fascinated with historical recipes, and that I'd have to delve more into that branch of research for each book.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, Pat learns what goes into elaborate 18th century dinner parties. You have to love an era that believed in two dessert courses. Research for this involved not only studying colonial cookbooks and experimenting with recipes, but eating out at Philadelphia's City Tavern and all of Historic Williamsburg's taverns. One must suffer for one's art.

But it's not all fancy viands. Pat's latest adventure, FEAR ITSELF, takes place partially in 1933. I had to research what immigrant Italian families on the poor side of town ate in the midst of the Great Depression. My parents were my main resources here.

My dad and his brothers' did odd jobs for the macaroni factory down the street and were paid in pasta and Parmesan. Not having meat, their mother varied her tomato sauce each night--sometimes adding onions or lentils or peas, or whatever beans were on sale that week. Once in a while his dad would bring home a chicken for Sunday dinner. One chicken to feed a family of 10.

My mom's family was smaller--only 5--but also poorer. My grandmother would scramble an egg or two in tomato sauce to make a sort of lumpy stew. (My mom used to make this for me for lunch sometimes. With decent sauce and grated cheese, it's actually a great warm meal on a winter's day.) If they could get bologna, my grandmother would fry it with egg to make it go farther. My grandpop eventually got a job at a bakery. I'm guessing he brought home bread, but my mom only recalled the warm donuts.

Just this month, I found a great blog on the subject of eating through history called Four Pounds Flour. Historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman covers topics from importing in the early 19th century to the roots of the Jello shot. Once in a while, she bravely engages in culinary living history, such as eating like a poor 1877 tenement dweller for a week, or her "Drink Like A Colonial American" day.  I highly recommend this blog, especially for all you historical fiction writers out there who spend tons of time researching wardrobe, vehicles, houses, etc., but take food for granted.

Besides, food research is fun.

I think I'll have go have eggs in tomato sauce for lunch. Find the recipe on Miss Maggie's Facebook page.

Mangia,
Elena

1 comment:

Chimera said...

Elena
It feels wonderful to discover you. Yes, I stumbled upon your name in the author events page of the Treddyffrin Library.Where I come from (India) British authors are most popular and I grew up reading tons of Agatha Christie and fell in love with her writing over the years.I am going to reach out to the library to pick your book asap.
I'm currently work on a mystery novel set in 1950s India and felt a tingle reading your blog.

Will keep returning to it.

Regards
Swathi

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