Dishing with Mary Higgins Clark

The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Elisa Ung

Once upon a time, I thought everything about food could be learned from a Mary Higgins Clark suspense novel.

It started with the lavish dinner of watercress salad, lamb loin chops and “piping hot” asparagus “under a delicate hollandaise” that Dr. Edgar Highley, the villain in Clark ‘s early novel “The Cradle Will Fall,” prepared for himself as he recalled all the women he had murdered.

Then there were the swanky Washington, D.C., parties in another early book, “Stillwatch,” with buffets of caviar and sturgeon, Virginia ham and “hot biscuits.” And the steak sandwiches that characters were always ordering from the Manhattan Irish pub Neary’s.

But the most lasting lesson I learned from Clark ‘s heroines: Linguine with white clam sauce and crusty bread can ease all troubles — even when your witness-protection cover may have been blown or your multiple-personality sister might have stabbed her English professor.

To this day, every time I see or eat watercress, I drop through a rabbit hole and am suddenly a teenager under the covers with a paperback at some wee hour of the morning, alternately wondering “Who did it?” and “What the heck is watercress?”

With today’s release of the 86-year-old best-selling powerhouse’s latest, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” I invited Clark to lunch to solve a few mysteries that have lingered in my head for years.

Why are her characters always eating English muffins? How do some only rate a dinner of pasta with marinara sauce, while others get lobster? Why does she bestow cooking talents on some of her most unsympathetic types?
And why, in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” does the character Claire Bonner spend all four days of her vacation at The Breakers in Palm Beach ordering chardonnay, two large stone crabs and seafood chowder, specifically served “very hot”?

Well, you might be able to guess Clark ‘s biggest restaurant pet peeve. Seconds into our lunch, she lamented that inadequately heated food “happens all the time, and I don’t even ask people to heat it anymore – this is the way it is.”

We sat at her favorite corner table at Aldo & Gianni in Montvale, otherwise known as the restaurant where the mistress in Clark ‘s “The Lost Years” dines the night that her biblical scholar lover is murdered. Clark eats there “at least” once a week: She enjoys the dishes, “and what I love is, they’re hot. They do not come out lukewarm. This food, watch out, your first bite!”

Clark chose her usual seat — “I think I have Mafia in me. You always have your back against the wall” – and asked for a glass of chardonnay, a house salad and a half-order of penne with marinara, “nice and simple,” as she often prefers to eat.

How could I not order linguine with white clam sauce? Of course, it’s her other regular Aldo & Gianni dish. Clark joked with the waiter: “It better be nice and hot, because I said how good it is.”

She has used food as an important way to define characters like the chilling Dr. Highley. “I didn’t want him married, I didn’t want him with a girlfriend … I said, ‘He’s got to have something that he has a passion for.’ ” A friend of hers suggested that a love of food could drive home “how cold-hearted he is.” Instead of being uneasy about his deadly work, “he’s cooking extravagant, gourmet kinds of food.”

But while she was tickled that I gleaned so much about food from her books, she hadn’t recognized how often her characters ate items like watercress. “Of course, what you tend to do is not realize you’ve used it before,” she said.

“You tend to think of what you ate last that you enjoyed. I’m a pasta lover. I think I could eat it every night.” English muffins are her daily breakfast, she enjoys all shellfish, while asparagus and lamb chops are regular dinners. Her characters also share favorites like brie, pineapple and any kind of soup, including gazpacho (which a couple in the new book tuck into after having a pivotal discussion about his long-ago affair).
Why are so many woes drowned in chardonnay, Chianti, bloody marys and Chivas Regal? “Those are mine,” she says. “Not all together.” And why is sherbet a frequent dessert? It’s one of the few sweets she enjoys.
It all goes to the lesson that she learned in an early writing course: “Write about what you know.” It’s why Bergen County, her home of more than half a century, shows up so often in her books, and why many characters eat simply.

Clark grew up with financial hardships: Her father owned an Irish pub but died when she was young; her mother “was not in any sense a sophisticated cook, and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” Raised on canned spaghetti and 5-cent deli cod cakes, she cooked simple meals like roast chicken for her five children, whom she raised alone after her husband died. She remembers taking them out for pizza and 50-cent pasta every Friday in Park Ridge.

Now, she has a personal chef and lavishes authoritative praise on the cod cakes at the Four Seasons. She says she dines regularly at Esty Street in Park Ridge, Aldo’s in Wyckoff and Savini in Allendale (where she is partial to the popular fireplace room, as were her characters in “The Lost Years”).

“I like a restaurant that has a friendly feel to it, even if it’s a more formal one,” she said: one reason why Neary’s has shown up in every book for the last two decades.

Owner Jimmy Neary, a Demarest resident who often personally appears in the scenes, says the references bring in customers from all over the world. He and other restaurateurs who know Clark call her a gracious, unassuming customer.

When our plates of pasta arrived, steam rose toward the ceiling. After my first bite, Clark smiled at my shocked expression: “Too hot?” At first. But the heaps of pasta and big chunks of garlic were ultimately the big hug Clark likes to give her heroines. “Very often,” she said, “food is comfort.”