Mystery in the pantry

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on February 28, 2014

P for Peanut Butter: For detective Kinsey Millhone, it’s always peanut butter anddill pickle sandwich not PBJs.   -  Shutterstock


Not all detectives are first-rate gourmets. But they do get hungry and curious about sandwiches and cakes, takeaways and tacos

It was a battle between common sense and curiosity — and for the longest time common sense won. But after years spent dodging bullets alongside Kinsey Millhone as she worked her way through the alphabet, my resolve crumbled. And somewhere around R for Ricochet or S for Silence, I gave in to that imprudent emotion so notoriously bad for cats. And boldly brought out the bread, peanut butter and dill pickle.

For all of you who haven’t yet encountered Sue Grafton’s delightful alphabet mystery series, Kinsey Millhone is a tough fictional detective based in smoggy, greedy California. She has a wisecrack for every occasion, a single indestructible black dress that sees her through funerals and formal dinners, a small gun — and a grand passion for peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Early in the series you realise that — barring the occasional Big Mac or meal at the local tavern, where bossy Rosie serves up dishes involving a calf’s thymus gland — Kinsey survives on peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.

The problem is that I like my peanut butter with strawberry jam and my pickles with cheese. But if Kinsey can head-butt psychos, the least I can do is experiment with sandwich fillings. So with some trepidation, I slather peanut butter onto white bread, then place the sliced dill pickle, top it with another slice of bread — and after the slightest of hesitation, bite… and then shrug. The PB and P sandwich is not vile, but it’s not an experiment I’ll repeat, except if I’m very hungry and being chased by a tattooed villain with squinty eyes.

Clearly, Kinsey belongs firmly to that group of sleuths who are too busy tackling nasties and weirdoes to potter around the kitchen. These fictional characters skip meals and come home to bare fridges — which is tough both for them and their foodie readers. Edinburgh policeman John Rebus (from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series) barely gets around to brushing his teeth, so it’s hardly surprising that he lives on cans of Irn Bru and greasy sausage rolls. Swedish policeman Kurt Wallander (by Henning Mankell) lurches along on endless cups of coffee, cellophane-flavoured sandwiches and waves of depression.

Thank God, then, for LA cop Harry Bosch. Although he is the quintessential lonely, haunted detective, he knows his city and is an expert on 24-hour diners, the pancakes at Du-Par’s and wonderful Mexican food trucks. Which explains why these evocative novels by Michael Connelly, always make me hungry for guacamole, carne asada (grilled, sliced beef) and shrimp tacos. In The Black Ice, for example, Bosch “stopped at a mariscos truck parked on Alvorado and ordered two shrimp tacos. They were served on corn tortillas, Baja-style, and Bosch savored the heavy cilantro in the salsa”.

Similarly, Nottingham policeman Charlie Resnick, the protagonist in the famous police procedural series by John Harvey, is a sandwich aficionado. He believes that every sandwich is a work of creative improvisation — like a dazzling snatch of jazz. And in Rough Treatment, he explains that sandwiches are much more than “neat slices of wholemeal bread pressed around cheese rectangles or turkey breast, augmentations of tasteless salad and a smear of low-calorie mayonnaise. For Resnick, they were more satisfying on every level: two major ingredients whose flavours were contrasting but complementary, sharp and soft, sweet and sour, a mustard or chutney to bind them, but with the taste all its own, finally a fruit, unforced tomato, thin slices of Cox or Granny Smith.”

In Lonely Hearts, the first Resnick book, the policeman puts together a sandwich with “tuna fish and egg mayonnaise with some small slices of pickled gherkin and a crumbling of blue cheese”. And this is just the first of a parade of creations that have transformed my approach to the sandwich. For example: “Four slices of fresh garlic salami overlapping across rye bread, a pickled cucumber sliced narrowly along its length, goat’s cheese that he crumbled between his fingers, a single, thinly cut shallot; finally, the second slice of bread he drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil before setting it on top and pressing the sandwich closed, encouraging some of the oil to seep down before he sliced the whole thing in two.” Or an order he places at a deli for, “a chicken breast and Jarlsberg cheese with French mustard and tomato on rye with caraway.”

But readers cannot live on sandwiches alone. So it’s a relief that — even if detectives and bounty hunters are too preoccupied with exploding cars — they have kind neighbours and anxious mothers to occasionally cook for them. Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter based in New Jersey (by Janet Evanovich), subsists on Tastykakes, doughnuts and fried chicken. But ever so often she goes home for meatloaf, mashed potato and lectures about marriage and respectability. “My mother didn’t mind playing dirty if she thought the cause worthy,” Stephanie remarks. “She knew she had me locked in with the pineapple cake. A Plum would suffer a lot of abuse for a good dessert.” And Mrs Plum’s Pineapple upside-down cake tops the dessert charts.

Of course, not all detectives are casual about food. There is a whole tribe of gourmet gumshoes out there — who slice and dice with the best and are even the subject of dedicated cookbooks. But we’ll get down to them next time. For the moment, take a deep breath and reach out for the peanut butter and dill pickle.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

(Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

Pineapple upside-down cake


1/2 cup or 8 tbsp butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 can or about 600gm sliced pineapple

6 maraschino cherries

A few whole pecans or walnuts

1 cup flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp salt

3 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

5 tbsp pineapple juice

1 tsp vanilla extract


1 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Add butter to a 9-inch round baking pan and place inside the warm oven until it melts. Remove from oven and sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the butter. Add 6 pineapple slices and place a cherry inside each one. Fill in the nooks and crannies with whole pecans or walnuts.

2 In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Using a handmixer, in a metal or glass bowl, beat egg whites at high speed until fluffy. Set aside.

3 In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with sugar at medium speed until creamy. Add pineapple juice and vanilla extract, and beat well. Add the flour mix to the yolk mixture, and beat well. Fold in the egg whites with a rubber spatula. Pour cake mix over the fruit, and smoothen with the spatula.

4 Bake for 40 minutes or until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a blunt knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake. Invert carefully onto a plate.

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Published on February 28, 2014
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