One of the things I’ve noticed about books is that food is pretty much ubiquitous when it comes to books; cultures, historical novels, science fiction/fantasy, mysteries. I enjoy reading historical (occasionally hysterical) mysteries, and learned more about food in different eras than I ever did in college while majoring in History. For example- most people don’t know that carrots used to be purple, but orange carrots became more popular, so that’s what we’re used to seeing at the grocery store. I didn’t find actual purple carrots until I went to the Farmer’s Market at Copley Square here in Boston, MA, where they were offering *rainbow* carrots- orange, yellow, purple, white, and I just had to try them! I discovered that orange carrots are the sweetest, probably explaining their popularity, and purple carrots made for a prettier display even if they weren’t as sweet.
I learned about marrows in Agatha Christie mysteries, but didn’t really think about what they actually were until a few years ago. One of the reasons I finally decided to learn what they were is thanks to David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series where marrows were also mentioned, causing me to use precious work time when I worked for B&N in Hadley, MA to look them up in a food encyclopedia. Marrows are members of the cucumber family, Europe’s equivalent to squash as squash existed only in the New World. One of the things that really irritated me about A Vote for Murder was that he had a character eating pumpkin seeds, which wouldn’t arrive in Europe for at least 1,000 years. Now, I love his books, but, if he’s going to set his books in Ancient Rome, he needs to do a little more research.
Lindsay Davis, on the other hand, is much more elaborate in her research of food popular in Ancient Rome. Her protagonist, Marcus Didius Falco, ends up traveling all over for Vespasian, from Britain to Egypt, where there’s quite a difference in what the natives eat. In Britain, mussels and eels are common foodstuffs whereas Egypt has dates, melons, at one point, herb called Silphium, thought to have been extinct by the time Vespasian became Caesar. At one point, Vespasian gifts Falco with a turbot, a fish restricted to the Caesar’s household. I’ve found Falco to be a well-fleshed character, character being the operative word, and Davis’ ability to bring him to life is remarkable. Falco notices everything, especially the kinds of food they eat as they travel.
End of part one, foodstuff in historical mysteries.