Comfort food, p.11
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       Comfort Food, p.11

           Kate Jacobs
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  What could it hurt, she told herself, to enter Gus’s little contest? Wouldn’t it be fun to meet her and discuss spices? Priya knew all about Gus’s life—she’d read about it in People magazine years ago—about how she was widowed with two young daughters and scraped together to open up a little food store.

  A sandwich shop, Priya thought, would definitely not be nice. Everyone coming in and demanding different things: no tomato, more lettuce, my bread is stale, why haven’t you gone to the Indian store to get fresh onion? She empathized with Gus, at how hard she must have worked, and took great pleasure in her success.

  Not to mention Gus was very good at throwing parties.

  Years ago, Raj had liked to invite over his friends from the temple. But he’d stopped doing so when Priya told him, repeatedly, how much money she was spending on food. I don’t mind, is what he said, I am happy for everyone to come here and have a good time. But Priya felt it was like being in a sandwich shop, and had subtly tried to dissuade him from the idea.

  “You like to cook,” said her mother, during one of her regular stop-overs.“So I don’t see what your problem is. I think you just watch too much television.”

  On television, the parties were fun. Gus was so welcoming. She knew what it was like to be a short-order cook, to scrub floors even though you had several degrees, to give and give and give. Gus knew what it was like to be a wife and mother and yet she hosted her show with a smile.

  “Take a seat,” Gus had said in an episode of Cooking with Gusto! long ago. “Let me fix you a little something.”

  “Yes, please,” Priya, all alone in her big house, had spoken to the TV screen. “I’d like that very much.”


  “The thing is, part of me feels as though I should try to like Carmen,” said Gus as she knelt in front of a planter, using a narrow hand trowel to stab a hole in the dirt. Once the danger of frost had passed she could plant her herb garden: creeping thyme, dill, sweet basil, hyssop, French tarragon, and bronze fennel. All wonderful flavors and scents to add to her dishes.

  “Part of me feels as though I should be more generous,” she clarified. “It’s what people expect of me. It’s what Alan and Porter want.”

  “I know,” said Hannah. “That’s what’s easier for them. Expectations will crush you.” She sat curled up in a patio chair she’d pulled over a few feet from the outdoor table, examining a box of seedlings she held in her lap.

  “It’s just that I absolutely and completely feel this sense of outrage wheneverI see her. She preens and she’s fussy and wants to spend all this time showing off her cooking chops—” Gus leaned back on her heels, searching for words. “She sucks all the attention out of a room.”

  “Divas always do,” said Hannah. She was dressed in what Gus referred to as her “outside pajamas”—a pair of sweatpants and a blue hooded top. “But you can’t have her knowing that you’re a softie underneath all those crisply ironed shirts of yours.”

  “Porter said something very stupid,” Gus said, gesturing with her garden tool. “He said I have trouble letting things go.”


  “You think I do?”

  Hannah half-shrugged, half-nodded, then brushed back some hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail, smudging a little dirt on her face.

  “Right there,” Gus said, pretending to wipe her own face. “A little bit of mess.”

  “So maybe a little issue letting things go?” laughed Hannah. “I’ll agree with that.”

  “Maybe,” admitted Gus. “And the thing is that I feel guilty about not likingCarmen. I came of age in the seventies, women’s lib and sisterhood, all that. I went to a women’s college.”

  “You’re a true believer,” said Hannah. “But maybe that’s a little naive, no?”

  “I know Carmen is angling for my job,” said Gus. “And then I have this other feeling: shouldn’t I want to help her?”

  “Being female doesn’t mean someone automatically wants to be part of a sisterhood. Maybe you all were so busy getting over the housewife thing that you overlooked that part.”

  “But I believe in mentoring,” Gus said earnestly.

  “Good,” said Hannah. “Find some little girl who wants your help. Though don’t mistake helping someone to mean being ‘the good girl’ when she tries to walk all over you.”

  “She’s barely older than Aimee,” Gus said quietly.

  “Bad girls shall inherit the earth,” said Hannah. “It’s always too late after the fact.”

  “It’s different from what you went through.”

  “Yes, but if I’d been more vocal, or stronger, or simply savvier, I wouldn’t have found myself on the outside looking in,” Hannah replied. “Or, more correctly, on the outside hiding out. You can’t afford to feel guilty about a rival, especially one who hasn’t shown any reason she should be trusted. I’ve written about this type of coworker before,” she added, knowing Gus was aware she’d never actually worked outside her carriage house diningroom.

  “It’s just that maybe I should be more understanding, have more faith in the CookingChannel,” said Gus.

  “Oh, Gus,” implored Hannah. “This woman was thrust on the air with you and now you’re sharing your show. Your show. You have worked at this for years, built a fan base, and now you’re practically handing it all to CarmenVega. That’s not fair. Get angry!”

  Gus hesitated. “No,” she said, a little doubtfully. “I don’t like to feel angry.”

  “Yes! Use your frustration to create focus. Turn your anger outward, not inward.” Hannah stood up. “Listen to me: I know what it’s like to be mad at yourself. And it’s not going to help one bit. You have to play smart.”

  “And that means . . .”

  “Be professional. Be on top of your game,” she said. “But when it’s your turn to serve, hit hard. Damn hard.”

  It was Slightly overcast when the trio of Oliver, Carmen, and Gus met at the farmer’s market in Union Square a few days later, marching silently into the throngs of gourmet yuppies looking for heirloom tomatoes and NYU students in search of a few inexpensive bites of, well, anything. Stalls were set up over a long expanse of concrete, next to a park—really just a collectionof nice trees and park benches—between Broadway and Park Avenue South. Every so often the rumble of a train pulling into the subway station below could be heard, and a steady stream of people flowed up and out of the staircases underground.

  Gus took a deep breath, taking in the wondrous scent of fresh herbs, ran her eyes over the stalls of red and yellow tulips and the tables mounded with ramps, asparagus, sorrel, chives, and mushrooms. Farther along she could make out the crisp spring lettuces, the romaine and spinach and what was known as a merlot, with its wonderful ruffled red edges and bright green ribs. Gus longed to crunch on a few baby carrots, dreamed of giving them a quick blanch and a dab of butter and parsley. Yum!

  She wanted a chance to wander through the crowd, imagining how she’d put together an early spring vegetable soup, and savor a cup of tea as she people-watched the comings and goings of the green market.

  Oliver had come prepared, carrying natural canvas bags in which they could tote away their prized goodies, and he handed them out to Gus and Carmen.

  “Same for everybody,” he said cheerily.

  Gus noted, almost unconsciously, the double takes as the Saturday morning shoppers stared at her group. It was something she’d gotten used to a long time ago, the public persona that was Gus Simpson. There were moments when her other life seemed like a dream she’d once had and this world, this career, was all she’d ever known. Not everyone knew who she was—she wasn’t a movie star, for God’s sake—but enough passersby paid attention to her that it made others look and frown, trying to figure out why her face was so familiar. Was she someone they went to high school with? No, wait, she looked just like . . .

  “Gus Simpson!” she heard a woman squeal behind her. “Isn’t she gorgeous?” Gus inwardly brightened at the
comment and looked hard at Carmen,willing her to hear. Then a horrid thought crossed her mind: what if they were remarking about Carmen’s good looks?

  “So, here we are,” Carmen said, interrupting Gus’s thoughts. “It’s tremendouslycold for late April.”

  Lacking patience or desire to listen to Carmen, Gus did what she did best: she made decisions.

  “Let’s split up, go shopping separately, and meet on a park bench in twenty minutes to compare purchases,” she suggested. Carmen’s cell phone rang but Gus pretended not to notice. She kept talking. “Porter didn’t mean for us to be joined at the hip.”

  “Should we synchronize our watches?” asked Oliver, smiling broadly. He had lines around his mouth when he did so, friendly ones. He was a good smiler, Gus thought. Carmen wandered a few steps away from the group to talk on her phone.

  “You’re not mocking me, are you?” asked Gus.

  “No,” Oliver said simply. He stood there, calm and still smiling. “But I could stick with you and carry your stuff.”

  Was he commenting on her age? (In her head she heard Hannah’s voice: “You’re the only person who’s obsessed with how old you are!”) Or maybe he was the last true gentleman in New York City? Hard to tell.

  It had been a long time since Gus had gone on a field trip, and she felt unprepared and overdressed in a blue cashmere cardigan and a nice pair of heather gray gabardine trousers, her gray trench coat slung over an arm. Oliver, on the other hand, was wearing a ball cap over his bald head and a pair of jeans, a green Henley underneath a leather jacket. Carmen had on a long turquoise tunic dress over leggings, her hair loosely pulled back from her face and clipped with a barrette, her makeup artfully applied to appear natural. Looking effortlessly casual. She was good, Gus had to admit—it was practically impossible to see where the foundation blended into her neck.

  “I’d love to learn your favorite vegetables,” persisted Oliver. “I bet you like asparagus. You know: Gus. Asparagus.”

  “My daughters used to make that joke when they were small.”

  “You’ve got kids,” commented Oliver. “Your house must be busy.”

  Gus threw him a quizzical look. “They’re long out of the house, I’m afraid.”

  “In college then?”

  “No, no, out of school. Working and all that.” Who could stop thinking about her age with this bozo around?

  “Were you a teen mom then?” asked Oliver, before holding up his hand. “I’m sorry; I have a tendency to just speak whatever thought comes into my head.”

  “I was not a teen mom,” Gus said, wordlessly daring him to ask her age.

  “You know, you’re not really like a Gus.”

  “What does that mean?” asked Gus, clearly peeved.

  “It’s just that it’s a very informal name and you’re a very formal sort of person,” he replied. “You’re different that way.”

  Just then Carmen sauntered over to the two of them.

  “Hey, something’s come up,” she said, tucking her cell phone back into her purse. “I’ve got to go.”

  “You can’t just leave,” said Gus, her disapproval apparent. “This is a mandatoryactivity. Porter said so.”

  “It’s quite all right, Gus,” said Carmen. “It’s been cleared with the big guy.”

  Her words took a moment to register.

  “That was Alan.” Gus wasn’t asking a question. “Alan just called you.”

  “I forgot that I’d promised to do this brunch thing with him. You know.” Carmen folded up the canvas bag Oliver had passed out and put it in his hand. “Ask Oliver—he knows how forgetful I am. I’m like a—how do you say it?—absentminded professor.”

  “I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Gus insisted. “We’ve all made a point to come here today, and it doesn’t seem professional that you’re marching off.”

  Gus had a strong belief in rules, in following through and doing what was expected. It was the only way she’d managed to get through life.

  “Look, it’s not personal,” shrugged Carmen. “I have to go. I’ll meet up with you at the studio later.” And she walked away while Gus sputtered. It was like being stood up, only worse: being abandoned in the middle of the date.

  “You’ve still got me,” Oliver said, as though reading her mind. "C’mon, let’s go shopping.”

  “She’s an absolute pain,” Gus said, still staring as though she could see Carmen walking away.

  “How about some spring peas?” Oliver asked in a not-so-subtle attempt to change the subject.

  “I hate peas.”

  “A good chef isn’t allowed to hate a vegetable,” he said, persistently ignoringher dark looks.

  “I’m not a chef, Oliver,” said Gus. “I’m a TV host. I can hate anything I want to. I just can’t do so in public.”

  “Oh, I like a challenge,” he said. “I could get some spring peas and whip up a little dish later that you’ll love.”

  “I won’t try a bite of it,” Gus shot back. But she wasn’t frowning now. She took a deep breath, trying to cleanse all the Carmen dust out of her lungs. Nearby, a young mother was wrangling two girls in pink-and-orange sweaters; one of the girls, the younger, was clearly upset. She felt a sense of déjà vu.

  “I don’t actually like everything,” Oliver said conspiratorially, starting to walk toward the stalls and willing Gus to keep in step. “I object to foie gras for ethical reasons. Even if it tastes delicious.”

  Gus, he could tell, wasn’t paying any attention to him, her eyes glued to the crowds of people.

  “I once had elephant kebobs,” he said.

  She continued to watch the little girls, her heart going out to the mother trying to keep them entertained and occupied. There was no father in sight. He might have been at home. Or maybe he was simply gone.

  Gus knew how that felt.

  “And a soufflé of pureed tiger toes,” said Oliver, running through a list of inappropriate foods in his mind. He hadn’t eaten any such thing, of course. “I like penguin dumplings in sesame sauce.”

  Slowly the culinary producer’s words found their way to Gus’s ears. She turned to him.

  “I’ve always found penguin a little chewy myself,” she said, a tiny whisper of a smile on her pink lips. “That’s why it’s so good for braising.”

  “Do you know what is really a crazy food?” he asked. Gus shook her head.

  “Kumquats. I once saw a television commercial in which a pregnant woman asks a grocery store manager for kumquats,” he said. “And the managerraises his eyebrow and says, ‘Kumquats?’ as though it actually means something illicit.” He laughed at the memory.

  “I was about seven or eight and for years afterward I was convinced kumquats were only for ladies,” he admitted. “I didn’t try one until cooking school.”

  “You thought you could get pregnant from eating kumquats?”

  “Pretty much,” conceded Oliver. “I was a goofy kid.”

  Gus gave Oliver an appraising look, trying to see a goofy kid within the tall, good-looking man in the jeans and leather jacket. He had warm brown eyes, she decided.

  The two of them wandered around the farmer’s market until, as if by some plan, they stared at a selection of leeks and onions mounded high on a table.

  “We could do a spaghetti sauce with ramps,” suggested Oliver. “Somethingearthy and simple.”

  “A leek tart, a little vichyssoise,” Gus said, feeling more in the spirit. After all, they still had to cook something up that afternoon as part of Porter’s “getting to know you” plan.

  “I tend to like traditional things,” she added, walking over to pick up a head of Bibb lettuce, weighing it in her hands.

  “Oliver,” she asked sharply, remembering the beauty queen’s comment from earlier. “Why did Carmen say you’d know how forgetful she is?”

  “We went to culinary school together,” he said flatly, seemingly fascinatedwith the lettuces as he avoided looking at Gus. No dummy, he knew a pers
onal association would not be appreciated by his new boss. “But it’s not like we’re best friends or anything.”

  “I wouldn’t have guessed you to be the same age,” she said.

  “We’re not. I’m much younger,” he said, then winked to show he was kidding.“I’m a second careerist.”

  “Well, so is she, technically. Beauty queen and all that.”

  Oliver nodded. “I used to be on Wall Street. You know, an investment guy.”

  “Didn’t like it?”

  “I was good at it,” he admitted. “But it wasn’t for me.” The last thing he wanted to discuss was his background.

  “So what’s your favorite food trend?” he asked.

  “Oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those! I hate food trends,” replied Gus, albeit pleasantly. “Sunchokes, pomegranate, Meyer lemons, figs, foams— every year something new sweeps the foodies and it’s eaten passionately and then practically abandoned. It’s irresponsible to the palate.”

  “I love Meyer lemons,” insisted Oliver.

  “So do I,” asserted Gus. “But I refuse to be a slave to food fashion.”

  “What’s your motto, then?”

  “Fresh. It’s all about fresh,” said Gus, her eyes beginning to sparkle. She brought an artichoke up to eye level. “What could we do with this?”

  “Hearts with fresh pasta, cream sauce, and a dash of nutmeg,” he said. “Or herbed in a tart with shavings of fontina.”

  “Sounds delish. So here’s the real question: do you love food, Oliver, or do you love cooking?”

  The tall man in the ball cap focused intensely on the slim woman in the soft blue sweater. He thought for a long time.

  “That’s a serious question, Gus Simpson,” he said, drawing out his words.

  “Indeed it is, Mr. Oliver Cooper.”

  “I love food,” he said. “I do love cooking but my heart belongs to the food.”

  “Well, if that’s the case, then you and I shall be good friends,” said Gus. “Though a certain someone else, I suspect, is devoted more to displaying her technique.”

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