Sunday, April 17, 2011

Food and Murder: Chris Cavendish Cooks up A PIZZA TO DIE FOR

I've never had a Chicago-style "deep dish pizza." In fact, I had to look it up on Wikipedia to be sure there was such a thing ( Married to a guy raised in New Haven, Connecticut, I know I'd be chased from the kitchen if I even suggested one (New Haven pizzas have thin, crisp crusts and a delicate balance of toppings, never ever thick or deep!).

But oh boy, it sounds good, as pizzeria owner Eleanor Swift grapples with how to make one for a special customer order, and keeps refining it over the course of A PIZZA TO DIE FOR. Author Chris Cavender, a kitchen maven himself, even provides recipes at the back of the book.

Deep-dish pizza
The steady progress toward a good and reliable deep-dish pizza recipe is the only reliable thread of this multiple-murder, delicious detective story whose surprises bubble up every couple of pages. The first one, and a major blow to Eleanor and her staff (which includes her sister Maddy), is the announcement that the little town of Timber Ridge, North Carolina, is about to have a second pizzeria -- literally just down the block from A Slice of Delight. Moreover, the new owner -- a stranger to town -- announces that it will boast "a wood-fired oven and a professional pizza maker who will spin your crust into the air as you watch amazed!" Even Eleanor's most loyal long-time customers will want to sample that, won't they? And the narrow profit margin of the Slice seems about to get scorched.

It's not giving away much to say that one of early disasters (or mixed blessings) here is the murder of the new pizzeria owner ... and Eleanor is quickly tagged as having a motive to kill off the competition.

Cavender's plot is tight and entertaining. As in earlier books in this series -- A Slice of Murder and Pepperoni Pizza Can Be Murder -- Eleanor's detection is accompanied by gentle wrestling with her sister Maddy, and confusion on how to handle romantic possibilities when her husband's recent death is still very much part of her daily awareness; after all, the Slice was their joint business dream.

But life goes on, and around Eleanor, unfortunately, so does death. At least there's something good in the kitchen to nibble, between scenes! Things do get a bit complicated when Maddy catches the "create a pizza" bug, though ... as Eleanor discovers:
I got up my nerve and took the first bite.
"It's interesting," I said. "I've had pineapple and ham on a pizza before, but never combined with spicy sausage, mushrooms, jalapeno peppers, and Tabasco sauce. If you had to give it a name, what would you call it?"
She grinned at me as she said proudly, "I don't know about you, but I kind of like 'the Volcano.' Should we add it to the menu?"
Deep-dish, Volcano, and death on a slice. Now that's a menu for a lot of fun reading!

A PIZZA TO DIE FOR comes out through Kensington Books on April 26.

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