January 15th, 2013, 11:31 am

Culinary Book of the Week: Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake

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Wendelin Van Draanen, author of the Sammy Keyes mysteries, has mentioned that she dislikes whodunnit yarns that don't provide balance. With the exception of classic Sherlock Holmes, she feels that the reader needs a chance to solve a difficult mystery, NOT a simple one. A good mystery could also use dessert, since most detectives can't think on an empty stomach. I'm not talking about Wendelin Van Draanen, however, but rather Donald J Sobol's ten-year old detective Encyclopedia Brown. RIP Donald Sobol, for you attended my local library and I never saw you.

One can solve an Encyclopedia Brown mystery if he or she is not a child. Collected as short stories with solutions in the back, the cases rely on the reader to know obscure facts or look for logical errors in the narrative. Most kids like myself lacked the patience to look for such fallacies and skipped to the back. The title character solves cases in the summer for fifty cents, clears his name when the local bully frames him for theft and kidnapping (not kidding about this), and helps his police chief father catch murderers and bank robbers.

With such a formula, Sobol's series could run thin on the hungry reader; that's why I found Takes the Cake an immense breather. In between each mystery, some of which feature food immensely, Encyclopedia provides recipes and cooking tips for holiday-themed meals, as well as confrontations with a few culprits. Such expansions are welcome when a goose ends up missing or a thief robs a store of two electric mixers, and we want to know the emotional aftermath.

If you want to merely read a few short stories from this collection, I'd recommend "The Case of the Missing Garlic Bread" and "The Case of the Overstuffed Pinata" for an exercise in logical errors. I can happily say that no story stretches the suspension of disbelief, though you need to know your birds for "The Case of the Missing Watchgoose" and your dates for "The Case of the Fourth of July Artist". I can reread these mysteries with great pleasure and a growling belly.

In addition, the cooking tips are useful; I've learned how to peel an onion in a bowl of water to avoid stinging and to not use dull knives when chopping, for example. Not that I've been able to peel onions recently, but the tip saved one from stinging eyes. There are also at least four brownie recipes that I'd like to try, once I can find a photocopier and a good time to buy ingredients.

If you're going to read the series, be prepared to exercise your brain and suspension of disbelief at times. By the time you get to this book, you will be more than ready for a brownie break.

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