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Reflections on Hercule Poirot and Food

Agatha Christie stories aren’t best known for making you think about food choices, but recently, one of them did that for me. It happened when I read the Hercule Poirot short story, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”

The story begins with Poirot joining a friend named Mr. Bonnington for dinner. After their waitress, Molly, took their order, Mr. Bonnington noted: “Good girl, that…. Was quite a beauty once – artists used to paint her. She knows about food, too – and that’s a great deal more important. Women are very unsound on food as a rule. There’s many a woman if she goes out with a fellow she fancies – won’t even notice what she eats. She’ll just order the first thing she sees.” (p. 855 in the collected short stories)

Then after a little conversation, Molly returned with their food, and she noted that she knew what Mr. Bonnington liked because he was a regular.

Poirot asked, “Do people then always like the same things? Do not they like a change sometimes?”

And Molly replied, “Not gentlemen, sir. Ladies like variety – gentlemen always like the same thing.” (p. 856)

I would have liked to have a conversation with Mr. Bonnington, Hercule Poirot, and Molly about these matters, but since I can’t, I wanted to share my thoughts here.

Do women ignore food on dates?

When I read Mr. Bonnington’s comments about women, I had to laugh. I felt like this was Agatha Christie’s way of poking fun at the way some men think about women.

I was also surprised by the comment because in my experience – and I don’t think I’m alone – instead of ignoring my food while on dates, I was far too obsessed with my meal choices.

Part of it was the cost. If the guy was paying for the meal, I often wondered if he’d have any expectations of me based on the purchase.

Would it get him a hug? A kiss? If a kiss, what kind?

For a meal that cost $25, it might not be a big deal, but $50 or $75? That could change things. Not that a dinner should be transactional, but I couldn’t help wondering.

And of course, if I was paying for my meal, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to overspend.

My bigger issue, though, was how much food to order, and what kind. I have to admit that I often ate before going on dates because I didn’t want to be too hungry. Women are supposed to be dainty eaters, right? We’re supposed to buy salads and maybe grilled chicken or fish, hold the potatoes or fries?

Now I’m the one poking fun, but I do think there’s some truth in those societal expectations. Or at least, there’s truth in how it impacts women. I know I’m not the only one who tried to order lightly so as not to give the impression that I ate a lot.

Given that, I feel I can safely disagree with Mr. Bonnington’s comments about women ignoring their food if they’re having dinner with a “fellow she fancies.”

(Side note – since I haven’t gone on dates with women, I don’t know if same-gender couples have the same food issues, or how men think about food on dates, but it would be interesting to know.)

Does gender influence a desire for variety in food?

Then there’s the question about variety. Do women always like variety in food? Do men always like their meals to be the same?

Again, I think Christie was having fun here, although she also used it as a plot device. In the story, the fact that a murdered man always ate the same things at the restaurant helped Poirot find the murderer.

Happily, most of us don’t need to use people’s food choices to solve murders, but this still caught my attention, especially because the two people I’ve known who say they need a lot of variety in their food are women.

I also remember reading about a man (I don’t remember his name) who ate the same thing, at least for breakfast, every day for decades.

Of course, this means nothing except that those are their individual preferences. I’d also add that being able to choose variety is a privilege since many people simply need to eat what’s available, and that might be the same thing most of the time.

If you can have variety, it’s helpful because it means you’re getting different nutrients. But perhaps you can have too much of a good thing.

It seems like it would be exhausting to feel the need for something new every day. It takes time and energy to make different meals all the time instead of making a big batch of one or two things and eating the leftovers for a week.

For myself, I remember having Cheerios and juice for breakfast every day for about a decade. Most of the time these were dry Cheerios, due to milk allergies and lack of good milk alternatives in the 1990s. Occasionally I had them with early types of soy milk, or sometimes goat’s milk (very much an acquired taste).

This only changed when I started eating more mindfully and discovered I liked trying new foods.

Even now, though, in order for me to have variety, I need to plan for it. My snack foods are usually the same – fruit, nuts, fake cheese and crackers, carrot sticks, celery and sunflower seed butter, sometimes popcorn – but I deliberately make my meals more diverse.

If I didn’t plan for this, I suspect I’d be happy much of the time to eat the same things almost every day, like I did in my teen and young adult years.

So – I think the verdict is out about whether gender influences a desire for variety, but it’s interesting to note individual preferences.

What’s your take?

What about you?

Going back to the date question, did you ever find that you ignored food when you were on a date or did you worry too much about what you ordered?

And if you need a lot of variety in what you eat, I’d be curious to know if you’ve found ways around the problem of coming up with new things all the time. Or if you don’t find it a problem. And have you always wanted that much variety?

Or if you’re someone who can eat the same thing for a long time, do you ever get tired of it? Do you push yourself to try something new at times?

And as a side note, if you haven’t read any Agatha Christie stories, I recommend them. I find them especially good for travel reading, but any time really works. And there’s a reason she’s “the most widely published author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.” (from “About the Author”) – she’s very good.

On that note, happy reading, and happy eating!

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