Dining with the Detectives

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Many years ago I owned a book called “Dining with Sherlock Holmes“. Although I’ve  been a Sherlockian since my teens, I had not paid much attention to the role of dining and food in the stories until I stumbled on this book. I can’t say I ever cooked anything from it, but I enjoyed the obscure food references such as this one from “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”:

“…to my very great astonishment, a quite Epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humble lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pâté de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles.”

Each year the Food and Words Festival celebrates the connections between writing and eating, and this year Barbara Sweeney spoke about foodie detectives such as Commissario Montalbano, as well as the role food plays in illustrating the detective’s character. The lonely Chandleresque detective rarely seems to eat; women detectives like Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski are often snatching a meal on the run.

The intersection between crime and food in 1900s Sydney is less clear. In Taken at Night Detective Blair grabs a pie from a stall. He also fancies the oyster saloons, of which there were many in Sydney at the time.  The women, of course, drank a lot of tea, sometimes in Quong Tart’s Dining Rooms or at the Hotel Australia; but a late supper with a glass of wine was not out of the question.

[Woman eating in a restaurant]
Woman in a restaurant, c 1909


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Quong Tart outside one of his establishments, Society of Australian Genealogists PR 6/26/14

Sadly for the tea merchant and restauranteur Mei Quong Tart, the tea rooms in the Queen Victoria Markets which made him famous were also the scene of a strange and savage crime. He was in his office on 19 August 1902, when he was visited by a man who told him he was a detective and that he had come to warn Mr. Tart of an intended attack upon him. Mr Tart did not believe him, and attempted to telephone the police, but before he could do so the man struck him on the head with an iron bar before escaping with some cash. The news spread across New South Wales, and his recovery from the injuries was marked by a testimonial dinner later that year. Sadly he died the following year.

At the other end of the spectrum, prisoners in Darlinghurst Gaol had to work to earn their meat ration and their evening meal might be a dish of corn hominy. Men imprisoned for debt could have their meals delivered to them from a nearby restaurant, if they could afford it (which seems unlikely).

Jacqui Newling’s book Eat Your History has much more information on colonial dining, and a recipe for Quong Tart’s scones!


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