For 29 years now, Katherine Hall Page and Faith Fairchild have worked side-by-side in the kitchen, creating recipes, tasting new dishes, tweaking classic ones and catering some of New England’s most sophisticated dinner parties.
Well, something like that, if you appreciate fiction intertwined with reality.
Page is the author of the 25-title Faith Fairchild “culinary crime” series, the latest of which is “The Body in the Wake” (William Morrow, $26, 240 pages).
Culinary crime novels involve main characters prepping, cooking and sharing multiple meals, usually described in mouthwatering detail. Page’s books go a step further. In the trade, her novels are also known as “cozies,” a sub-genre of crime fiction that leaves violence and gore offstage to better focus on the more intellectual process of solving the mystery. They’re set in small towns where everybody knows – or knows about – everybody else.
Faith (Sibley) Fairchild is Page’s protagonist, a caterer cast as an accidental tourist inadvertently involved in various stews of mayhem. She closed her New York City catering company, Have Faith Catering, when she married minister Tom Fairchild. Now they live in the town of Aleford, Massachusetts, and summer in their cottage on Sanpere Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine.
“Faith was a New Yorker who chafes a bit at being in New England,” Page said. “For Aleford, I combined several towns near Boston. Sanpere Island is really Deer Isle, a fishing village where my parents took us on vacations. My husband and I have a cottage there now. We dig for clams on the beach in front of the house. Each year the summer people descend and the population triples.”
Of course, amateur sleuth Fairchild solves the mystery in “Body in the Wake” as she moves from catering a wedding to helping her many friends cope with their personal dramas. There’s no shortage of afternoon cocktail parties and wine on the deck with hors d’oeuvres.
One stroke that makes Page’s books so popular with home cooks is the inclusion of the recipes Faith prepares in the novels, mostly sourced from Page’s series cookbook “Have Faith in Your Kitchen” (Orchises Press, $20, 140 pages at www.katherine-hall-page.org). Others are recipes she has originated since the cookbook published in 2010.
“Expanding the cookbook with new recipes for a new edition is a possibility,” Page said. “The early mysteries didn’t contain recipes, but readers kept asking for them. I wanted them to be tasty recipes anybody could make and that I like. The recipes are the hardest part of the books because they have to be original. For this one, I started making lobster rolls a year before I started writing the book.”
Page, 71, has an awards resume that speaks to her standing in the mystery community – four Agatha Awards, multiple nominations for Agatha, Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark awards, a Maine Literary Awards finalist honor and a lifetime achievement award from Malice Domestic.
She holds degrees from Wellesley College, Tufts University and Harvard, and worked as a high school teacher and administrator who specialized in helping troubled teens (her four-title young adult series reflects that).
Her psychologist husband of 44 years, Alan Hein, retired from MIT on New Year’s Eve, 2014. They live in Lincoln, Massachusetts, 18 miles west of Boston.
In the series, Faith earned her cooking chops at the fictitious equivalent of the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, but what about Page?
“I grew up with a Norwegian-American mom who was an artist, and the last thing she wanted to do was cook for three kids and a husband,” she said. “But she got dinner on the table every night, with a lot of fish and vegetables that were boiled to death. We thought it was great. My father traveled to New Orleans in the 1950s and came back with the cookbook from Brennan’s restaurant – to my mother’s dismay.”
Page’s husband was “very interested in food and couldn’t believe all the things I had never eaten,” she said. “That changed when we went to Lyon, France (for his sabbatical year). It was a Julia Child moment. I was hooked and began cooking my way through hundreds of recipes. I even made my own baguettes.”
At the same time, “I’d always wanted to write the kind of mystery I like to read, so I did,” she said. “It was the end of the ‘80s and publishers began to realize that women read a lot of mysteries. Writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller were really catching on. I was in a really good place at the right time, because my first book sold immediately.”
“The Body in the Belfry” published in 1991 and promptly won an Agatha for best first mystery novel.
Crab cakes and cookbooks
These days, Page takes advantage of how the New England food scene has changed in the past dozen years, moving from traditional boiled dinners to farm-to-table brightness.
“We’re purists, and if a restaurant doesn’t have ‘farm to table’ in its signage, people will shun it,” she said. “That means we have an enormous number of small farms that have sprouted up. New England skipped nouvelle cuisine and went straight from Indian pudding to farm to table, and always with lots of fish.”
Like her mother – but with an actual cooking skill set – Page makes dinner almost every night. “Simple preparations, nothing elaborate,” she said. “I often make a double something so it’s in the freezer. Food you buy prepared never tastes as good as food you make.”
What’s typical? “I’m known for my crab cakes and Scandinavian fish mousse,” she said. “We make a lot of fish dishes, especially in the summer, (such as) crab-and-lobster risotto. The only thing I don’t cook is Chinese food because we have very good Chinese restaurants in Boson.”
Add her husband’s favorites, among them pork loin stuffed with apples and stone fruits and asparagus linguine.
As for herself, “Other than my late Aunt Ruth’s macaroni and cheese – the most comforting thing in the world – my favorite is a wonderful piece of grilled Atlantic salmon with hollandaise sauce and asparagus or oven-roasted Brussels sprouts.”
Naturally, Page “loves reading old cookbooks, food novels and cooking memoirs for the fun of it, and I have a ton of them,” she said. “What was it that (William Makepeace) Thackeray said? ‘Next to eating a good dinner, every man would like to read about one.’”
So, with all those recipes at her fingertips, what does Page plan to put on the dinner table tonight?
“Actually, we’re meeting friends at an Italian restaurant that makes its own pasta. I hope it’s as good as the menu looks.”
Visit the author at www.katherine-hall-page.org
Chilled pea soup
Note: This soup is best made a day ahead of serving.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 thinly sliced scallions
4 cups frozen peas (or fresh, but cook them a few minutes less)
1 cup water
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Pinch of salt
½ cup crème fraiche
Place the olive oil and scallions in a saucepan over medium heat and stir briefly. Do not brown the scallions.
Add peas and stir. Add water, stock and salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and simmer for 7 minutes. Remove from the stove and let cool for 10 minutes.
Puree in two batches in a blender and pour into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Before serving, add a dollop of crème fraiche. Garnish with mint.
Faith’s famous lobster rolls
2 lobsters, 1-1/2 pounds each (or substitute 1-1/2 pounds of large prawns)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
6 hot dog buns (if split-top buns aren’t available)
2 tablespoons butter
Cook lobsters in a large pot of 2 to 3 inches of rapidly boiling water for 12 minutes. Remove and set aside. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat and cut it into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
For prawns: Add 1 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning and the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon to a large pot of water and bring it to a boil. Carefully place the prawns into the water. Keep the heat on and the lid off. As soon as the prawns turn pink (3 to 5 minutes), pour them into a colander and allow to cool. Remove the shells, devein and slice in half, lengthwise.
Combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a separate bowl. Season to taste, adding more salt, lemon juice and/or pepper. Add the lobster (or prawns) and mix well to coat.
Melt the butter in a frying pan and toast both sides of the buns. Immediately fill with the mixture and serve.
1-1/2 cups grated green cabbage
1-1/2 cups grated red cabbage
1 large carrot, grated
1-1/4 cups mayonnaise
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon half-and-half
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
After grating the cabbage and carrot (or use a food processor), transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir to distribute the ingredients evenly.
In a separate bowl, mix the remaining ingredients and stir well before pouring into the bowl with the cabbage/carrot mixture. Using two rubber spatulas (or similar utensils), fold into the slaw. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until served.
Serves a crowd.
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces.
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons softened butter cut into pieces
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup milk
2-½ cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Grease a 9-inch-square pan (at least 2 inches deep), preferably with butter
Make the topping in a small bowl by mixing the sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt and butter with two knives or a pastry blender. Set aside.
To make the batter, blend the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using an electric mixer or by hand. Add egg, vanilla and milk. Mix well.
Gradually add the flour mixture from the medium bowl into the mixture in the larger one until blended. Fold in the blueberries. The batter will be thick. Spread it on the pan and sprinkle the topping evenly over the batter.
Bake in the center of the oven for 40 to 45 minutes. Check with a toothpick of broom straw. This old-fashioned New England dish is helped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Recipes reprinted by permission of William Morrow Publishers, from the cookbook “Have Faith In Your Kitchen” by Katherine Hall Page