‘Why don’t you write one?’ My mother suggested. ‘Sit down for a few months at your desk, and give us a really nice, juicy thriller. That, darling, is the only sort of thing I want to read.’
It was Kingsley Amis who confessed in later life that the only books he wanted to read began ‘A shot rang out.’ My mother, Jocasta Innes, took the same line. God knows she had read – and written – enough books herself to fill a mobile library. Her Pauper’s Cookbook, written when she was living low on the hog in a seaside apartment, became a culinary bible that has never been out of print. Paint Magic revealed the secrets of the professionals and sold a million copies, and she followed it with a slew of books on paint effects and stencilling, on running a home or foraging for junk, on historic Scandinavian décor, or making hams and parsnip wine. Whatever she turned her eye on became transformed.
But what she really liked was a good, juicy crime novel. She liked cosies, and she liked forensics. She liked an interesting detective, she liked traditional crime stories. They teetered by her bed in thick piles, and she read five, six, or even ten a week, reading late into the night. Her judgement of mysteries was as good as her eye for color, or her nose for a good dish. She appreciated a conundrum but, like most of us, what she really wanted was to read about interesting people, in interesting places. The last book she recommended to me was Murder at the Savoy, by the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. ‘It’s very interesting about Sweden,’ she insisted. ‘And I like Martin Beck. He gets things wrong.’
She was right. In six months I wrote a novel which I called The Janissary Tree. I drew on the only body of knowledge I really possessed, as a historian of the Ottoman Empire, setting the story in Ottoman Istanbul. It was a city, and a time, I knew really well – well enough to allow my imagination a free rein, to invent characters who were true to the period and the place, and to conjure up the sort of crisis that Istanbul could have suffered in 1836. I knew it not only from history, or what you might call the roll-call of events, but from travelers’ accounts, paintings, drawings, and from the food, a subject I enjoy writing about as much as my mother did.
You uncover a place in the scent of a dish, more absolutely than in a thousand words. Yashim’s work in the kitchen making pilafs and dolmas evokes his city better than any amount of description. Think about your own travels: even now a whiff of spice (or the smell of drains) can carry you straight back, like Proust’s notorious madeleine.
My Ottoman investigator Yashim has, by now, rescued the empire from a crazed modernizer; joined in the search for the Holy Grail; rediscovered Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror; thwarted murder in the harem; and, in The Baklava Club, he tackles a diplomatic killer. Along the way he has worked hard in the kitchen, making stuffed mussels and even a stuffed mackerel, a buttery pilaf and any number of delicious dolma. He uses sumac, cumin, coriander and oregano, not to mention sheep’s cheese and pistachio nuts. He has served up an Ottoman picnic with a gypsy salad, and cooked spicy lamb shanks, chicken with pomegranate, a Greek fish stew, and the ultimate baked eggs.
I like it that readers can follow the recipes as Yashim produces them – and my inbox tells me they do. A lot of them have suggested they’d like to see a Yashim cookbook (eh, FSG?) full of the scent and flavor of Istanbul, one of the culinary capitals of the world. For my part, I enjoy the cookery in the novels because they create a certain kind of space for the reader: they change the pace, slip down a gear, make a break from the chase or the tension of not knowing. Sometimes, too, Yashim gets his best ideas while he’s slicing an eggplant or threading a skewer with morsels of lamb.
Food for him is an extension of friendship. Cooking’s an oasis; his kitchen is the bridge of a ship as it rides the storm outside. There are many pains and trials in his life, but eating badly isn’t going to be one of them.
That’s one lesson I learned from my mother, who died last year. Her kitchen, like Yashim’s, was the good safe place. It was where she thought, wrote, talked. I think of her at a crowded table, bottles of wine half-empty, air blue with smoke and argument and laughter, doors banging, dogs rushing in and out: and through it all the smell of some infinitely delicious dish, prepared almost invisibly, that will suddenly appear like magic, or a resolution.
Jason Goodwin is the Edgar Award–winning author of the Investigator Yashim series. The first four books—The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, and An Evil Eye—have been published to international acclaim, and The Baklava Club was published in 2014. Goodwin studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and is the author of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, among other award-winning nonfiction. He lives with his wife and children in England.