Food cozies are one of the most popular sub-genres of cozy mysteries including themes based on everything from ice cream to grilled cheese to cupcakes, and even a cannabis bakery! Food brings people together. Imaginary food, even more so. Plus, there are often recipes that you can really try.
But how much do the cozies that take place in restaurants, bakeries, and other food establishments reflect the reality of working in the food industry? It’s important to know that this isn’t to point fingers at books that get it wrong but more as a thought experiment about the differences and more importantly, why those differences exist in the first place.
I had the opportunity to talk to two mystery writers who have experience working in the food industry. Misha Popp, author of the delightful Pies before Guys series, started baking for fun before she decided to work at a bakery in Western Massachusetts, which closed after a fire. She returned to working on her own small dessert catering for people in her life. The second book in the series, A Good Day to Pie, came out in February.
Leslie Karst, author behind the Sally Solari Mystery Series, has worn many hats. She worked as a waitress through college, became a lawyer, and later went back to culinary school. She even got to cook for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg which is the topic of her forthcoming memoir, Justice is Served: A Tale of Scallops, the Law, and Cooking for RBG (April 4, 2023).
The Question of Time
One of the biggest fallacies in cozies is how the protagonists and their fellow characters spend their time. Popp said, “[B]akery and restaurant hours are [inhospitable] to not only having any kind of life but to investigating a crime.” Plus, while people are enjoying their free time, Popp explained, you are often working, so finding time to question people is hard.
Simply put, you spend a lot of time at the restaurant or bakery. A baker’s hours start in the middle of the night as bread and other baked goods have to be started for the day’s customers.
“It completely takes over your life and it also really tends to insulate your social circle,” Popp said.
But there’s a reason why cozies gloss over these aspects.
“[N]othing would happen,” Popp explained, and that would be antithetical to the story! No one is going to want to read the main character spending chapter after chapter just chopping up vegetables or waiting on bread proofing without action in between.
While there’s a lot of great things about working in the food industry, Karst said, “the kitchen environment in most places is pretty harsh.” But it’s not just the work itself; it’s the sometimes toxic masculine environments. Oftentimes, there’s a kitchen hierarchy where the busboys are at the bottom.
Plus, unfortunately, there’s endemic substance abuse in the food industry, which cozies usually gloss over, Karst said. These harsh working conditions are not something that comes up often in cozies unless maybe it’s about a rival restaurant doing bad things. But they aren’t typically shown for a good reason.
“You are selling this fantasy of ‘Oh, it’s so nice to work in a bakery and it’s cute and fun all the time.’” Popp said.
Most cozies show the main character owning their own business by themselves or along with close knit friends and family. Popp explained, “you can definitely have a food business on your own but it is intensely difficult because the overhead is so high.” And that’s before our current environment with food and paper inflation.
Many books also show the main character staffing the business themselves. But eventually you will “hit the point where you can’t do the production that you need with one person while serving customers,” Popp noted.
“[M]ost of the culinary mysteries I read don’t deal with the nuts and bolts of the business. Yeah, [they’re] mostly left out. And again, it’s a fine line. You don’t want to do too much,” said Karst. Reading about paperwork or Costco runs may not be what your readers are looking for.
At the end of the day, cozies are about escape and wish fulfillment.
Karst said that she is often asked if she ever wanted to run her own restaurant. “Knowing what I know from having been in cooking school, that’s the last thing I want,” Karst concluded. “Getting to have a fictional one, it’s like playing with dolls when we were little… it’s really fun to get to do it on paper and not have to have any of the real life headaches.”
When asked about any mysteries that show a more realistic behind the scenes of the food industry, Popp recommended the soon to be published thriller You Know Her by Meagan Jennett (April 4, 2023). She wrote that it has “an intensely authentic portrayal of restaurant life.”
Thank you to both Misha Popp and Leslie Karst for their insights into the world of food and cozies!
If you want to read other parts of the series, try What Murder Mysteries Get Wrong about the Law and What Murder Mysteries Get Wrong about Forensic Sciences.