How this Agatha Christie superfan created a recipe for every mystery she ever wrote
Toronto-based writer Karen Pierce talks about her cookbook Recipe for Murder
The famed mystery writer Agatha Christie is often revered for her storytelling, but far less studied is her character's taste for culinary exploration. Canadian superfan Karen Pierce set out to uncover the late author's hidden recipes in Recipes for Murder: 66 Dishes That Celebrate the Mysteries of Agatha Christie.
Pierce is a Toronto writer, food lover and fan of all things mystery. As a devoted reader of Christie since childhood, Pierce noticed a lack of writing around the food mentioned in Christie's novels.
In her cookbook, Pierce has tested and gathered 66 recipes inspired by each one of Christie's novels. Through in-depth culinary investigation, she offers dishes from the '20s to the '60s such as "Fish and Chips at the Seven Dials Club," "Sixpence Blackbird Pie" and more.
The cookbook also includes recommendations for tea pairings and a menu for a Halloween murder mystery party.
Guest host Ali Hassan spoke to Pierce about her love of food and fiction on The Next Chapter.
Your book is, at its core, a recipe book. When did the food in Agatha Christie's mysteries begin to take shape as a subject for you?
I've always been a foodie! I come from a family of people who love food, love to make food and entertain with food. I was looking for an Agatha Christie cookbook and I couldn't find one — there is a French-language one, but that's it. So I thought, "Well okay, what would it look like if there was one — and I just started working on it!"
Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's famous Belgian sleuth, is a gourmand. Maybe that's why I loved him all these years! I thought it was just because of his investigative skills, but maybe food was the reason. Can you paint a picture of his attitude towards food?
A wonderful little scene showing the way he feels about food is in Mrs. McGinty's Dead. The book literally starts with him in a restaurant moaning that he can't eat more than three times a day. He doesn't know what to do with himself when he can only eat three times a day.
He gets dragged into this mystery where he has to go stay at a B&B which is run by an ex-military guy and his wife and they don't know how to cook. They don't know how to do anything and he is just completely beside himself. But by the end of the book, they are very good friends and he's taught her how to make an omelette. He really likes good food and despairs of people not enjoying their food.
Over the years that Christie was writing, one of the big takeaways was the shift in the servant class — and how food was prepared and served in Britain. Can you talk about what changed there?
Certainly when she was a young woman, everybody had servants. In fact, at one point Christie couldn't believe that in the future everyone would have a car, but not a servant. That was just incomprehensible to her. So it begins very much with having cooks and kitchen maids.
In the 1920s and in big hotels, that is how the food is mostly prepared — but as you get to the 1930s and the Second World War years, we've got less and less servants. Now labour-saving devices mean women are doing their own cooking and hiring in help every now and again – that starts to be the theme. Then you get to the end where there's virtually no servants at all and people are eating in diners, kitchenettes and luncheon rooms.
Christie often set her characters abroad as well, and it wasn't just these few countries in Europe. There's also food in her books from the Middle East, the Caribbean, Greece. She even has a recipe for Italian spaghetti and meatballs. How adventurous an eater would you say she was?
Really adventurous! She really liked food a lot and was raised on great food by her parents and all those servants. Apparently, you couldn't put caviar anywhere near her because she would just consume it — and I swear she had lobster for every single celebration she ever did. I got a really funny story from one of her biographies. When she was in Baghdad, I believe, she would get the animal wranglers to milk the buffalo so she could make the cream out of the buffalo and make profiteroles for tea.
Apparently, you couldn't put caviar anywhere near [Christie] because she would just consume it.- Karen Pierce
There are some lovely staple recipes in the book. Orange marmalade, the perfect omelette that Poirot illustrates to a character, fish and chips. What was it like for you to create and test these recipes? I assume you had a test kitchen going for all of these.
Yes, and I had three other friends that I would test so we would make sure that all the recipes worked. Some of them are boiled potatoes, so we could make them work pretty good. Some of the harder puddings and cakes did take a couple of attempts.
There is no pita bread in this book and I have friends that know why. I just never got that one to work — so we have a lovely recipe for hummus instead.
Do you have a favourite recipe or is it too hard to pick one?
It's really hard because they're all my favourite babies, but as I've been reading and reviewing them I've got to say the After the Funeral's whole chicken soup is so interesting. There's no noodles, there's no vegetables — it's a cream of chicken soup and it's just chicken. It's a 1940s recipe with no salt but both myself and the two testers agreed you need to salt it to taste. But wow, what a fabulous chicken soup that is!
Christie wrote 66 detective novels, and you have 66 recipes in your book. In all your years of reading and studying her, what conclusions have you come to about her ability to keep turning out plots and new storylines?
I never actually thought about it until I started reading all these biographies and it's really amazing. She just would be like, "Oh, I guess after I put the laundry in, I think I'll do a little writing and turn out a book." It's really quite amazing, she called herself a housewife who writes books in her spare time.
It's really quite amazing, she called herself a housewife who writes books in her spare time.- Karen Pierce
If you dropped by to visit she would just put down her pen and go visit with you. She didn't have any writing hours, rules or anything —and she wrote 66 books, something like 140 short stories, 30 plays, two autobiographies and six Mary Westmacotts.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.