Comfort food, p.10
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       Comfort Food, p.10

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  From the tiniest neighborhood bistro to the pinnacle of Le Bernardin, Oliver Cooper’s most intense love affair was with food. (And, as a consequence,he also maintained a slavish devotion to his personal trainer.)

  His life was just what he’d ordered up: work that paid well and food that tasted good. He’d had the occasional girlfriend, pretty and pleasant, and his family—whom he saw rarely but cared about deeply—was in good health. It was all good. It was better than he expected.

  But the novelty—the appreciation—had lessened. And thus began Oliver’s gradual transition from earnest, hardworking, wide-eyed Midwestern boy to world-weary, multimillionaire Master of the Universe. Oliver could still make chitchat with the cashier at the bodega, could still open the door for an elderly person without making a huge fuss. Those moments helped affirm that he was a good guy, still the same Ollie Cooper who had played kick the can on warm summer nights and rode his bike to school. Back when his hair was thick and full, when baldness seemed like something that only happened to other men. Back when he divided people up between the ones who were kind and the ones who were not.

  But he lost his manners little by little. Cutting off cars as he changed lanes on the Sunday night drive from his country house, his arm—and middle finger—raised in the universal salute. Needling waiters about taking milliseconds too long to bring water, although he eschewed free tap water altogether when sparkling was in fashion. Oliver stopped saying “goodbye” when he finished up a phone call, merely clicked off when he was done sayingwhat he had to say. He neglected to ask “How are you?” when he met one of those pretty girlfriends for dinner, instead talked fluidly and at length about how stressed he was. Busy busy busy. The code word for important.

  He laughed with his parents the Christmas he told them that he had made more in one year than his father had made in a lifetime. He figured they’d be proud. And they were, no doubt. But also embarrassed. He chose to believe he didn’t understand why.

  And so it went for years. Ambitious Oliver morphed into an older, far less interesting man. Only he was the only one who didn’t know it.

  The food in his life was the one thing that remained consistently exciting—from the most expensive black truffle to the freshest apple pie at the bakery around the corner, the scent of cinnamon wafting through the pastry lattice. But everything else was rote. Blasé. Oliver spent long days in his large office, earned generous paychecks, cleverly turned his pennies into dimes, and so on. He had purchased a ticket on an endless rat-race merry-go-round, never even thought about getting off.

  It took a while to notice that his buddies from back home had fallen out of touch, simply sending cards at Christmas. (Or, to be precise, their wives sent the cards, signed Joe and Cindy or Gord and Ricki, and he’d have to think long and hard to remember if he’d met the wife, if he’d asked his assistant to send a wedding gift. Later, he would realize he hadn’t even been invited.) His brothers rarely called, when his nieces and nephews would get in touch to thank him for the belated but extravagant birthday gifts. He dropped a hefty load of guilt and dollars at FAO Schwarz every year.

  “You think we’re all hicks,” said his brother Marcus in a rare phone conversation.“You’ve convinced yourself that living in Manhattan makes you better.”

  “Doesn’t it, though?” Oliver had meant it as a joke.

  “Man, what happened to you?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “When did you become such a pompous ass?”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Let me tell you who you are: Mom’s seventy-fifth birthday and you’re nowhere to be found. You’re the kind of guy who sends his mother the biggestbouquet on her birthday but can’t find the time to visit her more than once a year.”

  “I was busy.”

  “She cried, Oliver.” Marcus was clearly furious. “All night she thought you were going to make a grand gesture and walk through the door.”

  “I said I couldn’t make it.”

  “What were you doing?”

  “Working.”

  “You always said you’d get in, get out, and get on with things.” Marcus sighed. “I’ll tell it to you straight: you act like you’re the king of the hill but you’re a sorry loser, if you ask me.”

  “Screw you.”

  “When was the last time you were nice for no reason? When was the last time you felt happy?”

  “Last night, my friend, as I downed a ’ninety-five pinot with pork belly in maple glaze.” Oliver’s voice was triumphant. “So there you go.”

  His brother was quiet for a long time.

  “I’m glad you have your food. I really am. Because the way I see it, you’ve got nothing else.”

  And like the perfect spice that awakens the tongue and burns the back of the throat—Oliver was jolted by his brother’s words.

  That was the start of it, a dull awareness humming in the back of his mind. He wanted . . . something else. He wanted to be more than just that guy, the one who seemed as though he had it all and yet had nothing. He’d grown up to become someone Marcus and Peter didn’t particularly like. Someone he didn’t particularly like, either.

  He already knew he was happiest when he was around food. Certainly the eating brought him great pleasure, but so did his forays into one of the many gourmet stores in Manhattan, selecting peaches and eggplant and thick tuna steaks. But the realization was more than that. Oliver began to see that he had never expected his work to fulfill him. The entire getting in/getting out scenario was a fine one, a solid plan, but only if he remained aware enough to get out. If only he didn’t become trapped by inertia and beholden to the zeros in his bank account.

  He took a knife basics class, just in the evenings. Then a series of Sundaybrunch lessons. Intro to pastry. Holiday essentials. And then he flew home and cooked his mother and brothers a resplendent turkey dinner, with sausage stuffing, maple-glazed sweet potatoes, and a chutney made with peaches, pears, pineapple, and a dash of curry.

  “I’m quitting my job,” he announced over apple tarte Tatin. “I’ve enrolled in cooking school full-time.”

  “That seems . . . unusual,” replied his father cautiously. “Are you feeling quite right?”

  “Does this mean you’ll work less, dear?” asked his mother, waving at his father to shush.

  “Not necessarily,” Oliver replied. “But I think it means I’ll be happier.”

  “Oh, good,” sighed his mother.

  “Less of a jerk?” asked Marcus.

  “We can only hope,” Oliver said, handing out coffees to go with the dessert.

  It had been only four years since he enrolled in cooking school, but it had changed his schedule, his attitude, and his wardrobe, he thought, glancingnow at the brown loafers he never would have worn in his other life. He’d deep-sixed most of his suits and currently favored a casual look. The last time he’d been in an elevator with boxes was when he had his office carted down to the lobby, his finance buddies unable to hide their pitying looks as he walked down the hall. They thought he’d cracked under the pressure. Oliver knew he’d given away too much of himself already. And so he welcomed, even as he was shocked by, the rigor at the Institute of CulinaryEducation.

  That’s where he met Carmen. He was a semester ahead of her—and several years older—when they ended up working side by side in a dessert class. He’d helped her out when she had a coconut cream disaster, her whisk scraping the metal of the bowl and turning her nice, yellowy cream into a gray-green goo. Together, they poured her mess down the sink, and then he poured half of his mixture into her bowl. It was against the rules, of course, and yet it seemed the right thing to do. Oliver had wanted to be one of the kind ones again.

  And now, four years later, he’d miraculously found himself working for the CookingChannel, starting an entirely new career at the age of thirty-nine.He checked the bright plastic watch on his arm. In his heart, Oliver had parted ways with his old life from the moment he tucked his expensiv
e watch into a box—it was too risky to wear good jewelry when cooking—and started wearing a timepiece that made him smile every time he looked at it. Well, maybe not every time: he was still hugely late for the meeting.

  Curious, frustrated, and bored, Oliver pulled at the tape around the biggestbox of Carmen’s. Why not get a peek at what was so important? He felt bad being so snoopy.

  Inside, carefully cushioned in bubble wrap, were eleven pairs of shoes: flats for cooking and heels for... who the hell knew what?

  He pulled out a pair of glittering gold stilettos, putting one on each hand. “I’m Carmen,” he said in a falsetto, his Spanish accent ridiculous. “Carry up my shoes so I can walk all over you.” He pantomimed walking on the box top with his shoe-hands, then doing a cancan.

  “Get me out of here,” he moaned, bringing his hands up to his head automatically, even though they remained tucked into Carmen’s gold shoes.

  Unexpectedly the doors to the elevator opened.

  “Uh, Oliver?” It was Porter, standing in the hall, taking in the sight of the tall, bald, handsome culinary producer crouched down among boxes, his fingers peeking through the peep-toe in a pair of gold shoes. “You all okay in there?”

  9

  Porter Was less amused 128 minutes later as he crumpled up his seventhpiece of paper in a row.

  “It’s just that I think we need to wow the audience with our next show,” Carmen was saying, repeating her point. “I’d like to see something with squid ink. The menu has to amaze and tantalize.”

  “That’s great for a restaurateur, Carmen, but food television is never about fuss,” said Gus. “It’s about making the spectacular seem easy.”

  “I’ve done a show before—this isn’t my first time,” Carmen replied.

  “I’ve no doubt you’ve been around the block,” Gus said. “But a ten-minuteInternet show? It’s not what we’re doing here.” Gus was not pleased at the back-and-forth over the menus for the upcoming episodes of Eat Drink and Be. Her shows without a cohost had always been easy to plan. And she wasn’t impressed with the idea of presenting fussy dishes: as a mom, she had more respect for her busy peers.

  Also discouraging was that Alan was forcing them to do a mini-season test run: Gus was essentially auditioning for the job she’d held for the last twelve years. It was infuriating. "FlavorBoom was extremely popular,” Carmensaid, her voice icy.

  “With frat boys,” said Gus. “What the hell did you do in ten minutes? Dress up mayonnaise. Make chips and dip. Toss a salad.” Gus was getting cranky but she tried valiantly to keep herself in check. The last thing she wanted to seem was shrewish. She cleared her throat and tried her most professionalvoice. “My point, Carmen, is that the average viewer on the CookingChannelis looking to be entertained and inspired, not overwhelmed. We try to use foods that are easy to find, and that have some sort of familiarityto the viewer.”

  “Novelty keeps people interested,” said Carmen. “And by the way, I don’t do fancy mayonnaise.”

  “I like mayo—well, really aioli, but same idea.” Oliver hadn’t spoken for most of the meeting, uncomfortable about being so late, annoyed with Carmen,intimidated by Gus, worried about Porter’s impression of him. “We could make a fish with aioli.”

  Gus and Carmen each shot him a nasty glance. Oh, brother. He slunk down in his chair a smidge.

  “Ah, he speaks,” Porter said, appraising Oliver. “Look, it’s clear Carmen and Gus have different ideas—and I want the three of you to go shopping together, and then come back and cook. Without cameras, without pressure.See what you can put together in the studio kitchen, learn each other’s styles a little bit.”

  “But we can’t even agree on the basics of a menu,” began Carmen. “My concepts aren’t being respected by some of the women in the room.”

  “Trust me, Carmen,” he said simply, “you’ve got innovation and spice. Gus has sophistication and a proven track record. I’ve had a lot of hit shows and together—whether the two of you like it or not—I’m going to make sure that Eat Drink and Be is my best one yet.”

  “When are we starting with the new show?” asked Oliver.

  “Immediately,” said Porter. “Here is what I really want to do: have a contest.Some lucky viewer will win an hour, on air, with the team of Eat Drink and Be.”

  "What? ” Gus had a sense that everything was spinning out of her controland, frankly, she didn’t like it.

  “We’ll get entries, essays, videos, you name it. All why they should be lucky enough to cook with you two. Carmen’s fans are Internet-based and our viewers would kill to spend time in your kitchen, Gus.”

  “You’re turning my show into a game show, Porter!”

  “It’s my show as well, Gus.” Carmen clapped her hands together. “And I think it’s brilliant.”

  “Good,” said Porter. “We’ve got an ad for the contest ready to go live.”

  Seventy miles away in northern New Jersey, Priya Patel opened her Web browser for the fourth time in fifteen minutes. In the background, as usual, was the hum of the CookingChannel; she liked the noise but she only paid attention to the repeats of Cooking with Gusto! at noon and five. The rest was just filler. Today Gus Simpson was making orange-apricot scones with a sweet glaze made from orange peel, a scraping of zest, and confectioners’ sugar. Yum.

  The only thing better than the repeats were original episodes, and Priya had made a house rule that she was not to be interrupted during a new episodein which Gus appeared. Only for broken arms, she told the family. Nothing else. Not that anyone in her house paid attention. There had been a lot of bustle in Gus’s kitchen during that live episode and Gus seemed a bit strained. Putting on a good face, of course. Priya knew what that was like.

  She’d been dismayed to see ads about an entirely new show—Eat Drink and Be—that was going to replace her beloved Cooking with Gusto! The tempo was nice, very soothing, whereas the live show seemed a bit chaotic.

  Out of concern, Priya had written several emails in recent days, her points bulleted and concise, to explain why this live format wasn’t the best way to showcase Gus Simpson’s talents. Not that anyone from the CookingChannelhad taken the time to reply. She hadn’t expected that they would. Well, maybe she’d had a hope. It was okay to have hopes.

  Instead, Priya had taken to outlining these points late at night to her husband, Raj, who sometimes pretended to be interested and at other times very obviously wanted to go to sleep. She knew she shouldn’t take offense but still it was hard. Unlike Priya, who’d arrived in the United States when she was two, Raj grew up in India and only came to America when he and Priya had become engaged. They’d met, of course, beforehand; her parents were thoughtful in that regard.

  Marriage had been a condition of going to graduate school. And besides, Priya had been more than ready to get out of the house. It had seemed a fair trade at the time. A reasonable request. Now, almost twenty years and three children later, Priya longed to go back in time and undo her decision: remain a virgin and live in her mother’s house all her life. She could have manned the front desk of the Days Inn they operated in north Jersey, smilingat the weary travelers as they came off the thruway.

  “Oh, let me look up your reservation,” she would have said, looking calm in the air-conditioned office. “Let me make your stay a more comfortable one.” And the patrons would have smiled at her and murmured thank-yous and appreciated the bowl of apples she had on the counter, washed and ready to eat. Priya prided herself on her attention to detail.

  Not that anyone understood how hard it was just to keep it all together.

  You should be happy. That’s what her husband said. Look at the nice house we live in. Do you know how much that flat screen cost? You should be happy. That’s what her mother-in-law said when she flew over to visit, each stay getting longer. When I was a bride I couldn’t have hoped for such riches. You should be treating your husband better. You watch too much television. You’re lazy, and grouchy. If my son wasn’
t so kind, he would have traded you in long ago.

  Priya liked to imagine herself on a trading card, her face on the front and her vital statistics on the back. Height: 5’4‘. Weight: MYOB. Age: MYOB. Hobbies: canning fruit, making jam, and watching Gus Simpson on the CookingChannel. (“Those are not very Indian hobbies,” she could see the collectors of the trading cards discussing among themselves as they weighed her against Lakshmis and Mayas and Indiras. “This makes Priya a very rare card indeed. Is she worth more or less?”) Happiness level. That was Priya’s favorite category on her trading card. Happiness level: MYOB.

  She loved that phrase. MYOB. That’s what she told her husband when he asked her what she’d been doing all day, when she’d forgotten to go to the Oak Tree Center Road in Iselin to pick up tomatoes, chilies, and fresh coriander to make a meal. To get methi—fenugreek—and put together tortilla-like thepla. Raj enjoyed that dish. Her teenage daughter did not. Neitherdid her sons, the youngest barely six and gearing up to go to school full-time in the fall.

  He liked macaroni. From a box. Which Priya often made when they were home alone, swearing him to secrecy. That could go on her trading card, too. Bad habits: keeps secrets. And hides out in the bathroom to cry.

  “You must be happy about Kiran going to first grade,” said her mother, who came to visit often. “Then you’ll have time to do all the things you want. Think how clean the house will be.”

  MYOB, thought Priya, sounding out each letter in her mind and smiling. Out loud, she agreed with her mother. It would be a fine thing, she said.

  Now, with Kiran playing upstairs, his belly full of Kraft noodles, Priya opened a new window on her computer screen. The words Win a chance to appear on Eat Drink and Be!! flashed on the screen. See rules to apply, she read, clicking the link.

 
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