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Way back in the dawn of time, I worked for a couple of years for the cookbook company of Beard, Glazer, Wolf (James, Milton, and Burt) as a typist at first, then a fact-checker and copy editor. It was interesting work and introduced me to a greater appreciation for food and cooking. I had always been good at cooking eggs—both boiled and scrambled—but after a short time with the firm I was whipping up omelets, and happily basting, poaching, and baking. I still couldn’t afford much more than eggs, but at least there was some variety in my life.

Jump ahead four decades and I am still a bit of a foodie. All of my books, and most of my short stories, feature a well-researched meal or two. Food, like music, art, or fashion, both entertains and reveals.

In the field of crime fiction, food is often the instrument used to murder as a vehicle to administer poison (“omelettes” and arsenic in Sayers’ Strong Poison) or trigger an allergic reaction (CSI—pick one), or in the more gruesome stories, a means of directly dispatching a victim (Hannibal Lecter). Many stories come complete with recipes—cozies especially—though I haven’t found a Thomas Harris cookbook—yet.

Food can also reveal character. Nero Wolfe is a gourmand, eating for pleasure rather than sustenance. His entire relationship with food is fraught and yet tells us so much about him. He is something of a snob, possessed of a palate but not a creator—a consumer rather than an artist—and wealthy enough to maintain a personal chef. Parker’s Spenser, on the other hand, is capable of cooking a gourmet meal for Susan, but is just as happy eating a hot dog or a donut or two. He’s a guy—a guy’s guy—secure enough in his own identity that he cooks to impress his beloved, despite the fact that she barely eats. How different he is from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, who can barely open a can and heat the contents on a hot plate. Food is a distraction from his obsessions—liquor, music, murder, and more liquor.

Food can also be a vocation, as in the often-bawdy hilarious adventures of undercover food critic, Monsieur Pamplemousse, the creation of Michael Bond (who also gave the world Paddington Bear). The moment we know of his relationship to food, we also know that he is comfortable investigating under an assumed guise, has an eye—nose, and palate—for detail, is not easily fooled, and is capable of coldly making difficult decisions.

Food also tells us about community—family or other. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti makes his way home across Venice every day when possible for a leisurely main meal and nap. He is attracted not only by his wife’s cooking, but by the opportunity to share time with his family. We see a very different side of this detective, a warm-hearted, loving father and husband who needs this daily infusion of food and family in order to face the soul-destroying criminality of the rich and powerful and the bureaucracy that panders to them.

But most of all, food denotes place. Food, from production to preparation to consumption involves all the senses. Scent alone can act as a catalyst for memory or invoke the unknown or exotic. Taste, appearance, and texture round out the picture. Place is where they all come into play.

One of the many great pleasures of reading Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian procedurals, is joining Inspector Montalbano for lunch at Trattoria San Calogero. You know you are in Italy, and more precisely, in Sicily, with the focus on fish and shellfish—fried, stuffed, roasted or grilled. Or join Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police and amateur chef, in the South of France where the countryside itself yields mouth-watering wines and foods.

These days the most interesting place for food in New York is Queens. Manhattan and Brooklyn rents are too expensive to allow for a no-frills, mom and pop, six table and takeout, restaurant—reminiscent of home to a recent immigrant and a flavorsome surprise to the adventurous New Yorker. There may be plenty of good places to eat in the other boroughs, but the authenticity and diversity of what you will find in Queens is unmatched.

A walk through Queens (a long walk, as Queens is the largest of the five boroughs) brings you by restaurants and food stores selling delectables from all over the globe. Care to compare Ecuadorian and Peruvian empanadas? You will find multiples of either, varying in style from the Pacific coast to the Andean mountains to the upper reaches of the Amazon. They are all different and they’re all available in Queens. Have a hankering for fufu, or pusilj, or mishkaki? Queens has it.

It was this extraordinary diversity that drew me to the “forgotten borough.” In Tower of Babel my protagonist and a street preacher meet for breakfast at a diner. Those words conjure up an All-American restaurant with leatherette booths and Formica-covered tables and counters where the locals choose from a menu that goes on for eight plastic-coated pages. And that is precisely what my characters find, only in Queens the locals are conversing in three different languages and there are two dozen hot sauces available from Jamaica, Ethiopia, Thailand, or Pakistan.

The South Korean community stretches from Flushing—where it abuts the largest Chinese community in New York City—into Nassau County far to the east. There are sections of Northern Boulevard where every sign on every business is in Korean lettering. If you look closely, you might find the English translation in smaller letters beneath.

And there are blocks where every ground level business reflects a different country of origin. The Greek souvlaki place— that also serves pizza—is next door to the laundromat run by a Rumanian woman who speaks no English but understands the word “quarters”, which is next door to the Korean nail salon, which is next door to the Jamaican-run hair salon, specializing in weaves and cornrows, which is next door to a Halal butcher from…and so on. On the second floor of any one of these buildings, you are as likely to find a Japanese dentist, as a palm reader, as an SAT tutor (Queens is the launching pad for strivers).

I love the fact that Ted Molloy, my tarnished hero, has so many choices on where to get his breakfast sandwich that he can allow the weather to decide for him. (It’s raining, so he opts for the Honduran bodega on the corner and orders two chorizo baleadas.)

Tower of Babel is not a book about food. It’s a love story with murder, peopled with corrupt politicians, gangsters, greedy real estate developers, survivors, failures, and those just getting by. It’s a very New York story. When I first described the book to one of my beta readers, his response was, “So you’re now writing non-fiction.”

But there’s a taste of something in every scene, from the Irish pub that serves a dim sum brunch, to the Vietnamese place where Ted and Kenzie first bond over bun cha and pho bo.

Food is place. No doubt about it. But I think a reader enjoys the descriptions of various dishes—a bit of food porn. A gastronomic adventure—without the calories. And the writer certainly enjoys doing the research.

It has been a tough year for so many, but I would like to give a shout-out to all the restaurants workers, who have risked so much to continue serving the rest of us. Now that restrictions are lifting, we can see a new normal on the horizon. Please continue to support your local eateries—they’ve struggled through a perilous time—and prepare now for the rapidly approaching future when we can all enjoy the camaraderie, the comfort, and the taste sensations awaiting us.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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