Wednesday, December 12, 2012

So Long To Sprouts

Robin and I have just arrived in Hilo, Hawai‘i, where we’ll be for the next six months. The Hawaiian Islands are home to a host of wondrous fruits and vegetables, but the winter veggies we get on the West Coast—broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and th like—are all imported from the Mainland and quite expensive here.

In anticipation of this forced change in eating habits, I prepared a dinner last week before we left, with roasted Brussels sprouts as the main star. Our friend Brian had kindly shared with us some eggs from his hens Brittany and Aretha—whose yolks are a deep orange-yellow and have a rich flavor to match—so I decided to top the sprouts with a couple of his eggs, in the style of a salade Lyonnaise.

Moreover, I also had on hand some prosciutto made by my friend Bob’s son from his own hogs, which could play the part of the traditional bacon in the salad.

a sow at TLC Ranch eyes two hens
who are not Brittany and Aretha

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Guinness, James Joyce, Murder and Suicide

Yes, there is a connection between the items listed in the title to this post. Of course, being a member of a Finnegans Wake reading group, I can assure you that when dealing with James Joyce, everything is always connected with everything else, on levels within levels within levels.

While visiting my folks in Santa Monica a few weeks back, my mom gave me a few of her mystery novels. Among them was The James Joyce Murder, by Amanda Cross. I’d read Cross’ Death in a Tenured Position years ago, but had forgotten than she’d penned a book about Joyce. How fun! Eagerly, I started the novel that first night of my visit.


a photo of my copy of the book

Half way through, I was wondering where the heck the murder was. These days—or so we aspiring mystery writers are told in no uncertain terms by those who deem themselves qualified to give advice to aspiring mystery writers—the murder must occur within the first chapter. And within the first few pages is even better.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mother Tongue

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which chronicles the evolution of English over 1,500 years—from primitive, runic Anglo-Saxon to the global language it has now become. Bryson is always funny and amusing, and this book is chock-full of entertaining factoids. I’m only about one third of the way through it, but I thought I’d share a few choice tidbits with you:

The larynx of Homo sapiens sapiens (aka Cro-Magnon man) was positioned farther down the throat than in any previous hominid, which made well-articulated speech possible for the first time. This physiological change, however—which meant that food and drink must pass over the larynx on the way down the throat—also resulted in us being the only mammal capable of choking. (Curiously, modern humans are not born with the larynx in this lowered position; rather, it descends between the age of 3 and 5 months.)

It is thought by linguists that the Basque language (Euskara) may be the last surviving remnant of the Neolithic languages spoken in Stone Age Europe, which were later displaced by Indo-European tongues.

 cyclist from the Basque team Euskaltel

English underwent countless changes between the time of Chaucer and the present day, many of which I find particularly intriguing. For instance, certain words beginning with the letter n eventually lost their first letter to the preceding indefinite article: e.g., a napron became an apron; a nauger became an auger; and an ekename became a nickname. Similarly, it is thought that Ned came from “mine Edward,” and Nan from “mine Ann.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Aurora’s Gnocchi

The protagonist of my mystery A Matter of Taste belongs to an Italian-American family in the fishing and restaurant business. The story thus, not surprisingly, centers quite a bit around* food. Since I’m not Italian, and my cooking expertise leans more to the French side of the spectrum, I’ve deemed it prudent to conduct research prior to writing some of the food scenes in the book (e.g., when Nonna prepares “Sunday gravy”). And as the sequels involve the same family—and therefore more Italian food—I consider this research to be ongoing.

So when my friend Robert asked if I wanted to come to his house for a gnocchi-making demo by 90-year old Aurora Leveroni, I readily responded “si, certo!

yours truly with Aurora and the finished product
(photo: Robert Orrizzi)

The word “gnoccho” (the singular form) most likely derives from either “nocchio” (a knot of wood) or “nocca” (knuckle). These small dumplings have been eaten on the Italian peninsula since at least the days of the Roman Empire, when they were made of semolina and eggs. [See here .] After the potato was brought to Europe from the New World, the Italians incorporated it into their dumplings, creating what we now think of as the traditional potato gnocchi.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lyon: the Gastronomical Center of the Universe

Lyon is nicknamed the “crossroads of Europe,” and—situated as it is at the foot of the Alps, the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, and the meeting of the Burgundy and Rhône wine regions—the moniker is well-deserved.

afternoon sun along the west bank of the Saône

Originally settled by the Celts, Lyon became a major Roman town, and then managed to survive the collapse of Rome by virtue of its importance as a religious center. It continued to prosper during the Middle Ages, largely because of its location: Anyone traveling between Italy and Paris had to pass through the city.

Monday, October 1, 2012

More Fox Terrriers...and Some Other Critters Too

When I wrote my last post about Asta I had no idea that wire fox terriers would continue to pop up in my life.

Robin and I are in Lyon, France right now, and this Thursday will be traveling up north to the Lorraine region for the wedding of our dear friend Judith. Americans tend to think of poodles when they associate dogs with the French, a cliché that I’ve always thought of as apt. After all, the word for poodle in French—caniche—derives from the Latin for “dog.” Hence, for them the poodle is the essence of dog-ness.

And I have indeed seen various poodles during our trip—two small white ones, in fact, traveled with us on our plane. But the other day I was delighted to see this wire fox terrier at the local marché (outdoor market).


Of course, all French folks know and adore the wire fox terrier Milou (called Snowy, in English) from the Tintin comic books. But he’s Belgian, not French.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Best Not to Eat The Clue

Some of my favorite movies from the grand era of romantic comedies are the Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. I’m not alone in this feeling, as film critic Roger Ebert includes the first of the series it in his list of “great movies”:

William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.... Powell plays the character with a lyrical alcoholic slur that waxes and wanes but never topples either way into inebriation or sobriety. The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant. After Nick and Nora face down an armed intruder in their apartment one night, they read about it in the morning papers. “I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Nick observes. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” says Nora. “It’s not true,” says Nick. “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

(Read Ebert’s delightful full review of The Thin Man here.)

The six Thin Man films are based on the Dashiell Hammett novella (the last he wrote) called The Thin Man, but the movie of the same name follows the book only in bare-bones plot. Whereas Hammett’s work is more of the hard-boiled school of detective stories, the film is light-hearted and full of comedy, and one barely notices that there’s even a murder mystery going on underneath all the beautiful sets and costumes and witty dialogue.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How To Get a Literary Agent—Or Not

Often when I tell folks that I’ve written a mystery novel, the first thing they ask is “are you going to get it published?”

Easier said than done.

Yes, it’s true that nowadays one can self-publish one’s book, and the stigma that used to accompany the practice has mostly vanished (i.e., people rarely talk about “vanity presses” any more). But there is a ton of schlepp that goes along with self-publishing: line and copy editing; choice of fonts, style and size of the book; formatting the manuscript; designing a cover; placing the finished book where it can be purchased; and of course publicity.

If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to find a press willing to publish your book, they will take care of most of the above (publicity is now largely up to the author, even if you have a publisher, these days).

I’m not keen on spending my time on the production end of the actual book; I’d rather just write.

 conducting research
(photo by Robin McDuff)

So I’d much prefer the publisher route. Which means—realistically speaking—acquiring a literary agent willing to represent you and your manuscript.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Speaking of poison (see previous post), the tomato—first brought from South America to Europe in the early 1500s—was long thought to be poisonous and therefore grown only as an ornamental. It is, after all, a member of the deadly nightshade family, which has numerous poisonous members. And anyone who grows them knows how toxic the leaves of the tomato plant are. (In order to avoid the severe rash that would otherwise result, I always immediately wash my arms and hands with warm, soapy water after working with my tomato plants, and then watch with amazement as all that bright yellow-green water flows down the drain.)

 heirlooms from my garden

Enter our hero, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, of Salem, New Jersey:
As the story is told, it was Colonel Johnson who on September 26, 1820 once and for all proved tomatoes non-poisonous and safe for consumption. He stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse and bravely consumed an entire basket of tomatoes without keeling over or suffering any ill effects whatsoever. His grandstanding attracted a crowd of over 2,000 people who were certain he was committing public suicide. The local firemen’s band even played a mournful dirge to add to the perceived morbid display of courage.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cucumber Martinis

These cocktails would feature well in a mystery story, as—to quote Captain Hook—they are a “tempting green,” which color would nicely mask any variety of poisons!


And they taste great, too. Very...well...cucumbery.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gearing Up To Get An Agent! Blogfest

Surfing a bunch of writing blogs the other night after dinner, I kept coming across the acronym GUTGAA. What the heck is that? I wondered. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I quickly found myself at the blog of Deana Barnhart, mastermind and creator of the Gearing Up To Get An Agent! (GUTGAA) blogfest.


Intrigued, I perused her site. Sounds fun! I decided, and signed up for the six-week cyber-fest, which is designed to connect unpublished writers with one another, and with potential agents and small presses.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

No-Frills Mystery

Mystery novels generally fall under what is called “genre” fiction, a type of writing that has special rules. Cozy mysteries, for instance, mostly involve an amateur sleuth (usually a woman), take place in a small town or village, have likeable characters, and don’t contain graphic violence, explicit sex, or profanity. They tend to have several suspects and red herrings, and the sleuth solves the crime based on her brains rather than her brawn. (See the Cozy Mystery website for more on this.)

Rules are a good thing: The reader knows what he or she is going to get in the book, and is never unpleasantly surprised by a grisly death in a romance, a mushy love-scene in a western, or a descriptive passage about how to cook vol-au-vent in a hard-boiled detective novel. The trick for the author, then, is to write an original story within the rules, so that the reader doesn’t notice that there are any rules.

My mom, a big fan of mysteries, gave me a few of hers a few weeks ago. Among the Elizabeth Peters and Dick Francis books she had for me was this one:


Friday, August 31, 2012

Leslie’s Got A Brand New Blog

Welcome to Custard and Clues—a blog dedicated to mystery writing and food.

Those who follow my old blog have no doubt observed that I haven’t posted anything on that site in some time. There are several reasons for this.

First, during the early part of this year I was contributing to a different blog—Fairbanks Dreaming—which details the experiences my partner Robin and I had while spending four months in the coldest city in America.

 fresh snowfall in Fairbanks
(all photos by Leslie unless otherwise noted)

And then when we returned home to Santa Cruz, though I was planning on picking right back up with my old blog, somehow it just didn’t happen.

You see, my interests have been evolving. Sure, I still love food (more on this below). And music (I’ll be singing again with the Cabrillo Chorus this fall). And cycling (I’d like to state here for the record that I think Lance has been made a scapegoat and treated miserably by both the USADA and the press).