Comfort food, p.1
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       Comfort Food, p.1

           Kate Jacobs
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Comfort Food

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  bread and butter

  1 - FEBRUARY 2006

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  upsetting the apple cart

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  oil and Water

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  too many cooks

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  hot potato

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  spilled milk

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  peas in a pod

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  comfort food

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  the icing on the cake

  32 - APRIL 2008



  The Friday Night Knitting Club


  Publishers Since 1838

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3,

  Canada (a division of Pearson Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand,

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  24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen Jacobs

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or

  electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted

  materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Jacobs, Kate, date.

  Comfort food / Kate Jacobs.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-4406-3065-1

  1. Woman cooks—Fiction. 2. Cookery—Fiction. 3. Television programs—Fiction. I. Title.




  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  bread and butter



  Gus Simpson adored birthday cake.

  Chocolate, coconut, lemon, strawberry, vanilla—she had a particular fondness for the classics. Even though she experimented with new flavors and frostings, drizzling with syrups and artfully arranging hibiscus petals, Gus more often took the retro route with piped-on flowers or a flash of candy sprinkles across the iced top. Because birthday cake was really about nostalgia,she knew, about reaching in and using the senses to remember one perfect childhood moment.

  After twelve years as a host on the CookingChannel—and with three successful shows to her credit—Gus had made many desserts in her kitchen studios, from her creamy white chocolate mousse to her luscious peach torte, her gooey caramel apple cobbler and her decadent bourbon pecan pie. A “home cook” without culinary school training, she aimed to be warmly elegant without veering into the homespun: she strived to make her dishes feel complete without being complicated.

  Still, birthday cake was something altogether different: one sweet slice fed the spirit as much as the stomach. And Gus relished that perfect triumph.

  She loved celebrating so much that she threw birthday parties for her grown daughters, Aimee and Sabrina, for her neighbor and good friend Hannah, for her executive producer (and CookingChannel veep) Porter, and for her longtime culinary assistant who’d recently retired and moved to California.

  But Gus didn’t stop there. She always made a big ta-da for the nation’s anniversary, which wasn’t so out of the ordinary for an American, and for December 25, which, again, wasn’t all that unusual for someone who’d been raised Catholic. Then she also made a fuss for saints Valentine and Pat-rick,for Lincoln, for Julia Child (culinary genius; August 15), Henry Fowle Durant (founder of her alma mater, Wellesley; February 22), and Isabella Mary Beeton (author of the famous Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management; March 12). No matter that those guests of honor were quite unavailableto attend, being dead and all.

  Some hostesses love parties because they relish being the center of attention.Gus, on the other hand, found her greatest pleasure in creating a party world with a place for everyone and where she believed everyone would be made to feel special.

  “Let me fix a little something,” Gus said to her daughters, their friends, her colleagues, her viewers. She truly loved the idea of taking care, of nurturingand nourishing. Especially those guests who found it hard to make their way in the crowd: Gus always looked out for those ones the most.

  There was only one birthday that Gus was getting tired of organizing. Tired, really, of celebrating at all. Her own. Because in short order—March 25—Augusta Adelaide Simpson was turning fifty.

  The problem, of course, was that she didn’t feel as old as all that. No, she felt more like a twenty-five-year-old (ignoring, as she often did, the logistical problem that her older daughter, Aimee, was twenty-seven and her younger, Sabrina, was twenty-five). And, as such, she found herself completely caught off-guard—genuinely surprised to add up the years—to find that she’d arrived at the half-century mark.

  A half-century of Gus.

  “You’ll want to use the best sherry you can afford when making a vinaigrette,” she had said on a recent show, before realizing the sherry was almost as old as she was.

  “I could be bottled up and put on the shelf,” she’d said, laughing.

  But a nagging dread had snuck up on her, and she resented it. Forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight, even forty-nine—all those parties had been smashing.When she blew out her candles on last year’s cake—a carrot ginger with cinnamon cream cheese icing—and her producer, Porter, had shouted out, “Next year’s the big one!” she had laughed along with the crowd. And she felt fine about it. She really, really did. No, really. She did. She hadn’t scheduled a session of Botox, hadn’
t begun wearing scarves to hide her neck. Fifty, she told herself, was no big deal. Until she woke up one morning and realized she hadn’t done a thing to plan. She, who never missed a chance to have a party. And that’s when she realized that she didn’t want to do anythingabout celebrating, either.

  The problem, she reflected one morning while washing her tawny brown hair with color-enhancing shampoo, developed somewhere between working on the show schedule for the upcoming year and learning that the CookingChannelwas slashing the budget and ordering fewer episodes than usual.

  “All the cable channels are losing market share,” Porter had explained. “We just have to ride it out.” He’d been in the TV business a long time, longer than Gus, and was enviably successful, a black man in the very white world of food TV. There were rumblings he was even going to be named head of programming. Gus’s trust in Porter was absolute.

  Then the CookingChannel had hired a style consultant who informed Gus that “after a certain age” some ladies do well to add a few pounds to smooth out the face. (“You’re wonderfully slender but it wouldn’t hurt to fill in the lines, you know,” the stylist had said, not unkindly. “Good lighting can only work for so long.”) Finally, she’d met Sabrina for dinner one night and admired the couple at the table across from them, a gorgeous black-hairedyoung woman in a bubble-gum-pink dress accompanied by a frowningolder woman, her butterscotch hair in a medium-length swingy bob and clad in an oatmeal linen pantsuit. She was startled to realize the wall across from her was mirrored and the grumpy-faced diner was herself. “Are you okay, Mom?” Sabrina had said, signaling the waiter for more water. “You look as though you’re a little ill.”

  Gus wasn’t young anymore.

  At first she’d tucked this awareness away with her white shoes after Labor Day. But the truth refused to stay hidden, revealing itself when she spotted a wrinkle she’d never noticed or heard a crackle in her knees when she bent over to pull out a saucepan. Or when her longtime sous chef announced, in what seemed like out-of-the-blue fashion, that she was retiring. Which meant she’d reached retirement age. Alarming when you considered that it meant twelve long years had gone by since Gus had had her first CookingChannelshow, The Lunch Bunch, in 1994. That the young mom who’d twisted her shimmering butterscotch locks into a loose updo, tendrils escaping,had eschewed aprons, and whipped up easy, delicious dishes now, was a parent of girls with jobs and lives and kitchens of their own. Girls who had, sort of, become women.

  They weren’t really grown-up. Not in the real sense. After all, she’d had two children by the time she was Sabrina’s age—and that was in addition to a husband, and a year of adventure in the Peace Corps. Aimee and Sabrina, on the other hand, were far from self-sufficient. Aimee seemed never to have anyone serious in her life, and Sabrina changed boyfriends with the seasons. It was funny, really, how today’s twelve-year-olds were far more sophisticated than any middle schoolers Gus remembered, and yet the twenty-five-year-oldsexisted in a state of suspended adolescence. She spent more time worryingabout them now than she probably ever had.

  So it was easy enough to pop along with the day-to-day of life and not really think about aging in a personal way. But then small things—a word from a stranger, a glance in the mirror—startled her fantasy image. Suddenly,reluctantly, one fact became clear.

  Gus Simpson was going to be fifty.

  Not, in and of itself, a remarkable event. It happened to other people every day. Surely. But Gus had blithely assumed getting older wouldn’t quite happen to her. After all, she was slim (if not exactly a devotee of exercise), had a thriving career, a chunk of money in the bank (well managed by David Fazio, a top financial adviser Alan Holt had recommended years ago), a closet bursting with pricey clothes—Gus’s signature look was a comfortablyelegant collarless silk duster, layered over a smooth shell, with wide-leggedsilk georgette trousers—and a convertible in her garage, dammit. She listened to Top 40. She used a digital camera. She had an incredibly tiny cell phone. She knew how to send text messages. She still dressed up at Halloween to give out candy. Wasn’t all that enough to keep maturity at bay?

  Turning forty-nine had had a jaunty ring to it; fifty felt like she ought to buy a pair of orthopedic shoes.

  “It’s quite impossible to figure out how to act these days,” she told her producer, Porter, who had several years on her. “My mother had settled into being a grandmother at this age. But today some women are still having babies at fifty—babies, Porter!”

  “Do you want a baby, Gus?” he’d asked, joking.

  “No! What I want is to figure out this disconnect between a number on a piece of paper and how I feel inside,” said Gus. “Do you know that the women from thirtysomething are now fiftysomething? And they’re still young. What about Michelle Pfeiffer? Meryl Streep? Jane Seymour? Oprah? They say fifty is the new thirty.”

  “So it should be no problem then,” reasoned Porter. “You look great.”

  “And yet it is an issue,” admitted Gus. “I have wrinkles. Real wrinkles, not those little crinkles I used to moan about when I turned forty. Porter, I think fondly about turning forty! I mean, I just can’t stop wondering, How did I get here?”

  “Where did the time go?”

  “Yes, really. Where did the time go?” asked Gus. “And when do I get to hit ’pause’? ”

  And so, she reasoned to herself, it had been natural to fall behind on planning her birthday party. It had been easy to just put it off. Any other year she’d have begun organizing her birthday party immediately after Thanksgiving, deciding first on her cake flavor, arranging the food, sending formal invitations in the mail. (No, Gus Simpson simply did not appreciate the informality of E-vite, thank you very much. The little details were what made guests feel most welcome, she knew.) She could have picked one item or concept—a pomegranate, an orchid, the color puce—and built the entire festivities around it as a theme. Her ability to decorate and entertain was so innate that she simply assumed anyone could throw parsley on a dish and make it look better than a haphazard explosion of green.

  But not this time; not this year. Suddenly it felt like too much effort: Gus Simpson, one of the most popular entertaining gurus on television, didn’t want to throw a party. In fact, she’d have preferred canceling her birthday altogether.

  She poured a stream of rich hazelnut-scented coffee from her large French press into an oversized blue-and-white-striped pottery mug. With care she carried her drink to the speckled gray-and-black granite breakfast bar, perching herself on the counter-height navy chair. Gus took a sip, just a little almost-slurp (since no one else was around) so as not to burn her tongue, and flipped through the New York Times, trying to jolly herself out of her gloomy mood. But her natural habit—it was Monday, which meant the weekly Media section, and she loved to follow her industry—led her to a large article above the fold of the paper.

  “The New Faces of Food TV,” Gus read to herself, feeling a whoosh of anxiety in her chest. “Food is the new fashion and the latest crop of program hosts look as delicious as their culinary creations.”

  Gus tapped her teeth against each other as she always did when she was tense and scanned the large photo with all the up-and-coming hotshots in cooking television: there was that young surfer chef who always wore shorts and looked barely old enough to be in college, the young Midwesternhousewife who only made dishes that took up to six ingredients, and the young Miss Spain who had turned a gig promoting her country’s olives into an Internet cult following on YouTube. From there, Gus read how Miss Spain had created her own ten-minute Web show, FlavorBoom, which was also downloadable to TiVo, and had edited a small cookbook that had just come out at the holidays a few weeks before. It had already been a top seller online. The story continued on page two of the section, where there was a glamour shot of the gorgeous, black-haired Miss Spain in her crown and far too much mascara, with a large caption underneath: “Carmen Vega: From Beauty Queen to Foodie Queen.”

  “I bet she ca
n’t even cook,” Gus announced to her coffee mug, quite ready to close the paper in disgust. But then a familiar line caught her attention,and she found herself scanning the words carefully.

  “Imagine there are only a certain set of ingredients and that’s all there is to use,” says Gus Simpson, the CookingChannel’s ubiquitous program host and star of the well-known Cooking with Gusto! in a recent interview in Every Day with Rachael Ray. “But we don’t all create the same thing. So it’s not really about what you put in a dish—it’s about how you make that meal taste. It’s not about how you make it but about how eating it makes you feel. Cooking, like life, stays interesting when you keep the experience fresh.”

  And fresh new hosts seem to be how cable is hoping to hold on to viewers, as ratings continue to decline on all channels ...

  Blah, blah, blah went the article. On and on about these exciting new voices in the world of food television, all seemingly sanctioned, via the clever use of already reported quotes, by none other than Gus Simpson. Oh, how she hated that! Being interviewed for one article—which had been published over a year ago—and then finding those same words popping up in every other journalist’s food story.

  The lesson she’d learned: Don’t ever say anything, cutesy or cutting, that you don’t want to hear parroted back to you for the rest of your life.

  Gus thought about crumpling up the paper and tossing it in the bin, but there was no one around to see her dramatics and she always felt that grand behavior wasn’t really worth the energy when there was no one to witness it. Television had trained her well. Instead, she sighed and left her spot at the breakfast bar for more comfortable surroundings. She shooed her white cat, Salt, out of an overstuffed wing chair in the bay window and watched her pad her way over to lie in a ray of sun with Pepper, who was black and had a somewhat pungent attitude.


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