Daily Archives: December 29, 2015

‘Puh-men-uh’ Cheese, Please

pimento_cheese_by_laurie_sterbensIt’s late at night and you’re snuggled up in bed with a good book, hoping to fall asleep after a few more pages, when the character goes into a restaurant and orders something delicious, or worse, goes to her kitchen and bakes. So then you’re laying there in bed, all comfy and cozy but thinking, mmm, cookies sound good. You try to keep reading, but before you know it you’re out of bed, ransacking the kitchen and WHO ATE ALL THE OREOS, DAMN IT?

Snack danger lurks in all types of fiction, but the cruelest genre by far is the culinary cozy, a sub-sub-genre of mystery fiction in which the amateur sleuth may be a caterer, a coffee shop owner, or owner of a bakery. Authors of culinary cozies don’t just tempt you with descriptions of delicious foods; they often include recipes. Not only do you have to get out of bed—they expect you to cook!

The most recent book that set me off chasing a craving was Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette. The main character, food critic Hayley Snow, orders pimento cheese as an appetizer in a Key West restaurant. Being from the South (located somehow thousands of miles north of Key West), I do know a little something about pimento cheese. As a  child I consumed gobs of the gelatinous orange store-bought concoction known as puh-men-uh-cheese, on Wonder Bread or similar. It seemed a fine thing at the time, but then I grew up, married a New Yorker who wouldn’t understand, and forgot all about puh-men-uh-cheese.

That is, until friend’s party a couple of years ago, where she served up a big bowl of what she referred to as pimento cheese. This was not the pimento cheese of my childhood. This was freshly shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, the tart bite of chopped pickles, held together with good mayonnaise, not that sweet salad dressing stuff. Served with celery sticks and/or crackers, it’s an easy appetizer to throw together in your food processor to serve at a party (or when your latest read demands a salty, cheesy snack). You can find that recipe, from NPR, here.

Lucy Burdette, aka bestselling mystery author Roberta Isleib, shared “Lucy Burdette’s Pimento Cheese Two Ways” on mysteryloverskitchen.com. She graciously answers a lot of questions here.

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Q&A with Author Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib

LucyBurdette

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib, is the author of the bestselling Key West Food Critic mystery series. The latest in the series, Killer Takeout, is due out in April. Catch her weekly blogs with other food-loving mystery writers at MysteryLoversKitchen.com and another group of crime fiction writers at JungleRedWriters.com.

What/who inspired you to write your first mystery?

I call this my mid-life crisis! I was playing lots of bad golf and trying to figure out how to “use” the wasted hours. Somehow that worked out to be writing a mystery about a neurotic golfer. It helped that I’d always read and loved mysteries, and that I love watching characters grow and change (like the psychologist I am.)

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

I truly had no idea what I was doing when I began to write. I did have some strengths: I’d always read mysteries and I was a clinical psychologist—very handy when it comes to creating characters. But I don’t think I realized how difficult the getting-published path would be. Luckily, I enjoy research—and so I read books about writing and publishing, and took whatever classes I could find, and joined a writers’ group, and gradually began to make some connections in my field. Doggedness counts, so does a willingness to take constructive feedback. You didn’t ask for advice, but I’ll offer some, just in case. These are all things I learned through trial and error:

  • Read a lot, making sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing. Fans of each genre have expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, and not allowing a gimmick (in this case, food) to take the place of a good story.
  • Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your book signing.
  • And finally, never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend–whether you are a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

What/who inspired you to write about a food critic?

The short answer is that my editor at NAL was looking for a proposal about a series starring a food critic. When I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Detroit in the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine consisted of adding a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup to the dish in question. Oh, we had ethnic dining options too: Heat up a can of slimy lo mein noodles and flaccid vegetables and sprinkle with crunchy faux-noodle topping.

Killer Takeout-1With that background, you might wonder about my qualifications to write about a food critic character. Basically, I love to eat. And I love to eat good food–not fussy, just delicious. My husband teases that “Isleib” (my family name) means “is stomach” in German. His other fictionalized translation for my name is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

We love flawed main characters. Your food critic, Hayley Snow, is romantically challenged. She’s got some self-sabotoging habits and has some family issues. Do you find inspiration in your background as a psychologist for creating your characters?

From the very beginning, I wanted to use my training in clinical psychology by including reasonable psychologists in my novels. The challenge was to dream up characters who could use the principles of psychology to help solve mysteries without imploding with self-importance, stumbling over personal issues, or crossing ethical boundaries. I wanted to do it right. But I also wanted to encourage my characters to get into therapy!

Hayley Snow, the star of the food critic mysteries, struggles against psychoanalyzing her life, just as Cassie, my neurotic golfer, did. But both her psychologist friend Eric and her tarot-card-reading friend Lorenzo help her puzzle out people’s motivations, including her own. Thinking about the life arcs of my characters is the most fun part of the book for me.

How do you choose the quotes at the beginning of your chapters?

Thanks for asking—I really enjoy including these! In the beginning, I searched the Internet for quotes about food and begged friends to tell me their favorites. Now the more I read foodie memoirs and novels, the easier it is to find them. I keep a running list of great quotes as I come across them—as a result they’ve gotten more unusual and less familiar. Sometimes I fit them into the chapters as I go along, but always I choose a quote for each chapter before I sent the draft to my editor.

How do you choose the recipes that you include in the books?

Both Hayley and her mother are amazing cooks. So many of the recipes come from imagining what they’d whip up at home. Others are based on delicious food we’ve had in Key West restaurants. I blog every Thursday with a new recipe at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, so I always have options!

When you’re eating out in Key West, who gets to pick where and what you eat — you or Hayley? (That’s an interesting situation: you, Roberta, as Lucy, eating for Hayley. You’re eating for three!)

That makes my head spin! We have to try new places because Hayley can’t always write about the same restaurants. But of course, once we find something consistently, we go back over and over. (My mouth is watering as I think about the yellow snapper in Thai curry sauce at Seven Fish restaurant.)

In the An Appetite for Murder, Hayley writes a column about Key Lime pie. Where is the best Key Lime pie?

Hayley Snow would say the best pie comes out of the home kitchen. But it won’t hurt a visitor to do some research herself!

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