Today we gather to remember the meals that heralded death in a new series that will continue sporadically until I run out of stories. This isn’t a novel theme in the blog, and trying out Sweet Omelet again was a thought, but I think that particular dish may be laid to rest. Instead Agatha Christie will be supplying marmalade from A Pocket Full of Rye.
If food and eating is an author’s tool for turning ink into flesh then using food to murder someone must be too tantalizing a plot for any mystery writer to pass up. Here is the author’s key when trying to find one more secretive way of killing a character and disposing of the weapon. In one single dish both the victim and the killer can be humanized… or dehumanized. Because how horrifying to realize the poisoner nourishes the body whose life they are simultaneously taking. Here is a character that must take perverse pleasure in this knowledge. But, which dish will accomplish this?
While investigating, Miss. Marple and Inspector Neele run through the possibilities that were bitter enough to cover up the bitter taxine. But of course, what better way than to use an iconic British breakfast staple to help add character to the foreign born Mr. Rex Fortescue, formerly Fontescu.
In C. Anne Wilson’s book, The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today Together with a Collection of Recipes for Marmalades and Marmalade Cookery (another deliciously long subtitle) we learn that marmalade isn’t so much an English native as a 16th century adoption from Classical Greece and/or Rome. Even that was nothing the Fortescue family would recognize being instead a solid quince brick served for dessert. By the late 18th century oranges were commonly included, but still for the final course since marmalade was considered a health food aiding digestion. It was the Scottish who turned orange marmalade into a spread served at breakfast still as a health food to warm the belly and accompany their dram of whiskey and cup of ale. Sadly for England, not even their beaten style marmalade beat out Scotland’s chip style marmalade in popularity.
Interestingly, there is a legend that someone attempted to murder Peter de Luna (Anti-pope Benedict XIII) with poisoned marmalade while imprisoned in July 1418. In the legend, arsenic was used to ill-effect. Poor marmalade, what did it ever do to deserve this role?
The Book of Marmalade includes many historical recipes, modern recipes, variations and savory uses that sound good. Christie doesn’t say what type of marmalade Mr. Fortescue ate, and I now know that many variations were available, but I stuck with conventional orange for this go around.
Now, some might be saying “isn’t this the third recipe to include marmalade of some sort?” To that I say, so what. I like marmalade and I like how accomplished I can feel after only 3 hours. This is the best kind of 3 hours because they require multi-tasking. As the oranges simmer I can watch TV, write, check email, take the dog on a walk, play with the cat… The amount of time actively spent on this is 15 minutes or so. Getting the marmalade from pot to jar was the hardest part, followed closely by cleaning up the sticky spill.
It’s all worth it to see that cheerful 24 ounce jar every morning and really, few foods are as comforting as a slice of toast spread with marmalade. Which if I’m going to die by poisoning, it might as well be in something that makes me happy.
Again, I only made half the recipe. This time, I have included those amounts because it makes a lot.
1 ½ pounds oranges
3 pounds sugar (I used 5 cups)
Juice of 1 lemon
5 cups water
In a large pot soak oranges in hot water for 3 minutes. Remove oranges to cutting board, pour out water. Remove peel from oranges and slice finely. Squeeze out juice into pot. Cut up pulp. Place seeds in muslin bag/cheesecloth. (This is supposed to be where a lot of the oranges pectin is stored. My oranges were seedless so I used the seeds from the lemons.) Put everything back into the pot. Simmer until the peel is very tender, around 2 hours. Press out pectin from seeds using two spoons or hand held juicer. Discard bag. Stir in lemon juice and sugar. Boil until thickened (setting point is reached), 15-25 minutes. Ladle into jars. Mixture continues to thicken as it cools.