Friday Speak Out! Women, Food and Mysteries, Guest Post by Judy Alter

Friday, May 10, 2013
Male chefs and food critics still dominate the food world, but women seem to have taken over culinary mysteries. Nero Wolfe was the first to make food a character in his novels, (see The Nero Wolfe Cook Book [1973]), but the men have fallen behind. Most culinary mysteries are cozies. Are cozies more suited to sipping and munching while you read because the violence and sex is off-screen? Do we tend to include food to soften the horror of a world we hope never to step into personally, the world of mayhem and murder? Does it humanize the protagonist? Are the women who write cozies, because the books are gentler and less hardened, more likely to be cooks and homemakers? Does it matter?

The trend probably started with Virginia Rich’s The Cooking School Murders (1982)—one critic said it’s a good mystery but worth buying for the green tomato pie recipe. Today there are so many I’ll leave a hundred out, but here are some of my favorites: Diane Mott Davidson’s Aspen caterer Goldy Schulz series; Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series; Lucy Burdette’s new series about a Key West food critic; Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series of herbal mysteries; Cleo Coyle’s Coffee House Mysteries.

Some of these include recipes—Davidson sprinkles them through the text; Coyle and others group them at the back. Do readers pay attention to the recipes? I know a man who has cooked some of Goldy Schulz’s recipes with success. Other readers prefer recipes at the back of the book so as not to interrupt the flow of the story. If a culinary mystery offers recipes I want to try, I’ll buy a print copy: recipes are hard to preserve or work from on an e-reader.

A part of me loves food writing (see, for instance, my weekly blog, “Potluck with Judy”: So it’s only natural to me to write about what my characters are eating, what they cook at home, what they order in restaurants. Food speaks volumes about a person. Contrast someone who orders in fast food every night with someone, male or female, who whips up a meal from scratch. For some odd reason, Kelly in my Kelly O’Connell Mysteries is not a cook and feeds her children pizza or takes them out for hamburgers. By book three, she’s learning and has come up with some good dishes. But I had an editor who kept cutting my food descriptions, saying they slowed down the action.

In the Blue Plate Mysteries, I inched a bit closer to culinary mysteries. Kate Chambers owns and operates a café in a small East Texas town, serving what you’d expect—pot roast, meatloaf, chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, down-home food. And it gave me a chance to include recipes at the back of the book. Maybe someday I’ll edge closer to the more sophisticated cooking of Goldy Schulz or White House chef Olivia Paras.

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With Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Judy Alter launches a new cozy mystery series, Blue Plate Café Mysteries. She is also the author of the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and the forthcoming Danger Comes Home. Her fiction and nonfiction about women of the American West has won numerous awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Western Writers of America.

Now retired, she was for years the director of a small academic press. She is the mother of four and the grandmother of seven and lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her Bordoodle, Sophie. Follow her at

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Margo Dill said...

I like the idea of a cozy mystery series set in a cafe--(Love the name, too--The Blue Plate Cafe). This reminds me a bit of WOW!'s friend, Gayle Trent, she has some murder mystery books involving sweets somehow. I always like when mystery series follow a theme and the recipe idea is great!

judyalter said...

Thanks, Margo. The Blue Plate title comes from the blue plate specials so many cafes are famous for but also from the Blue Willow china my mom served on and I use to this day.

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