Comfort food, p.13
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       Comfort Food, p.13

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “The soup!” cried Hannah. “High-energy vegetable soup. Those ads bought the carriage house.”

  “Did you ever eat that stuff? I’ve always wondered.”

  “All the time. I thought it would have been unethical to promote somethingwithout trying it.” She felt the usual twist in her stomach whenever the topic of her disgrace came up.

  “Oh, Hannah,” said Gus. “That makes everything else that happened even more ridiculous.”

  “I know,” she said. “But I did it for my dad, I guess.”

  “It’s funny, what we do for our parents.”

  “Or what our parents ask us to do for them,” said Hannah. She had rolled over on the bed and grabbed a pillow, pressing it into her abdomen. Sometimes,when the bad feelings came, she tried to squish them down. Occasionallyit worked.

  “I’m frightened.”

  “Of course you are.”

  “I don’t want to ruin your show, Gus,” she said. “What would happen when someone calls the CookingChannel and says, ‘Is that her?’ ”

  “Then we tell them that you’re my very best friend and a wonderful person,” insisted Gus. “We all make mistakes.”

  “You don’t.”

  “Oh, Hannah. You, of all people, know how often I do. I just emphasize the things I do well.”

  Gus regarded the thin woman in the gray tracksuit sitting on her bed, her forehead wrinkled and beaded in a light sweat.

  “Oh, move on over,” she said, scooting onto the bed and lying next to Hannah, not caring if her bob got flattened.

  “Thanks for not hugging me,” Hannah said, a bit sniffly. “I hate being hugged.”

  “Don’t worry about the show,” said Gus. “I’ll put on a Teflon vest so I won’t feel Carmen trying to stick her knives into my back.”

  “Kevlar, not Teflon. For bullets. I know, I had to wear one for a while.”

  “Some fans take tennis very seriously.”

  “Yeah.” Hannah’s eyes were watering. She felt like such a freak sometimes,paralyzed by her fear of others’ judgments. “People are reluctant to forgive when you shatter their illusions,” she said. “I know you know, Gus, having so much expected of you. The truth is that it sucks.”

  “Professional success doesn’t always make life easier,” admitted Gus. “It can bring unexpected complications.”

  “It’s the personal stuff that matters,” said Hannah. “But that seems too easy to be true.”

  Gus well knew that the doubts and insecurities lingered, no matter how many shows she hosted or how many cookbooks she wrote. And no amount of zeros in her bank account could bring Christopher back.

  “I’m going to sneak in a squeeze anyway,” she said, leaning in briefly to hug Hannah. “That one was for me, not you.”

  “They’ll be going crazy downstairs, wondering why you’re up here,” Hannahsaid, blowing her nose. “Porter will be looking at his watch and tapping his clipboard.”

  “I’ll be there. I’m always there.”

  “A persona can be a powerful trap. It can take you over.”

  “I know who I am.”

  “It’s not about knowing. It’s about remembering to be.”

  “So what’s the verdict?” asked Gus.

  Hannah pulled the elastic off her ponytail, then gathered up her red hair and replaced the tie. She always played with her hair when she was nervous, a leftover habit from when she was younger.

  “You are truly and absolutely my only friend, Gus Simpson,” she said. “The rest of the world has abandoned me but not forgiven.”

  “The only person who has to forgive you is you,” said Gus.

  “And maybe the German girl who fell down the stairs at Wimbledon!”

  “Right. I forgot that bit of nasty business.”

  “My whole life is a disaster.” Hannah took a deep breath, then another. “I’d go on that show of yours if you needed me to. But you don’t. I really sufferedwith anxiety after that basketball episode. Please don’t ask me.”

  “I’d never make anyone do anything,” said Gus. “Sabrina and Aimee are proof of that.”

  Gus lay on her bed next to Hannah, her mind drifting back to the past week. To the meetings with Porter, Carmen, and Oliver to finalize the menu for the show that was going to begin in a half hour. To Sabrina’s late-night phone call demanding that she ask Troy to leave the program. She wasn’t asking,Gus had noticed, that she not appear herself. No, indeed. And she thought of Aimee, as well; their one conversation since the disastrous afternoon in the studio had been terse and perfunctory. In short order, it seemed, her carefully constructed world was unraveling, in fits and starts, thanks to the new show.

  Not every decision, Gus knew, turns out to be the right one. It had merely seemed fun to have the basketball menu, to have everyone come and meet the stars. And now, thanks to bad weather, the sudden appearance of Carmen,and a split-second choice, she had managed to rope all her loved ones into a world that was not of their making. Not everyone actually wanted to be on television; they only thought they did.

  The easiest thing, really, would have been to cut them all some slack. A lot of slack. To tell Hannah that she didn’t need to come downstairs, to ask Troy to leave the show so Sabrina felt more comfortable. But that wasn’t what they needed, Gus believed. It was time to shake her little darlings out of their comfort zone.

  “Come downstairs, at least to watch,” she told Hannah, who followed meekly along. Just as she was about to enter the kitchen, Oliver came up to her quickly in the hall.

  “Gus, I need a minute,” he said, a sense of urgency in his voice.

  “Gus!” Porter yelled from the next room. “Get over here.”

  She put up a finger to Oliver. “Hold that thought,” she told him. “We’d better get in front of the camera. You can tell me in the break.”

  Porter was motioning oddly at her, his right hand holding his cell phone near his face and his left plugging his ear to shut out the background noise. He must have noticed her hair was a little scrunched, she thought. She gave it a quick shake and shrugged. It was best to be upbeat.

  “Don’t worry about it,” she half-shouted. “We’re all good, Porter.”

  “Places, everyone!” called out a member of Porter’s camera crew. “We’re live in one minute.”

  She floated into position behind the center island, noting that everyone had been assembled into stations as planned: it was much more organized than last time. Troy was at the sink, washing beans; Sabrina was set up nearby on a corner of the granite counter, a bowl of new potatoes waiting to be diced, a rubber glove covering her left hand (and, more important, her ring). Gus raised an eyebrow when she caught her younger daughter’s eye, then glanced briefly at Aimee to see her slowly and methodically slicing up lemons and oranges for the sangria.

  Hannah, feeling guilty for wanting to back out, sat glumly off-camera, wanting to leave but too loyal to Gus to abandon her without moral support. She waved. Carmen, apparently assuming the gesture was intended for her, waved back.

  Oliver, looking stressed, took up a place at the Aga stove. He’d been working frantically setting up the kitchen, putting together a mise en place of salt, pepper, spices, and olive oil, then arranging the produce, the knives, the bowls. It was his job to make sure the kitchen had every item necessary to create the day’s menu.

  Gus and Carmen stood side by side at the main island, doing last-minute touch-ups of their lipstick. Porter dashed over quickly with a folded piece of paper and extended it toward Gus.

  “Full service,” Carmen said, grabbing it out of his hand and blotting her lips. “Thank you very much, Porter, I’ll be sure to tell Alan.”

  The countdown began and they stowed their items in a hidden shelf in the island. And with the red light, they were live.

  “Hi, everyone,” said Gus. “I’m so glad you could join us today for another live episode of Eat Drink and Be. Our goal is to show you how to celebrate life with food and drink. I’m here wi
th my cohost, Carmen Vega, and our wonderful group of friends and family, and today we’re going to make a wonderful,easy menu with some Spanish influences.” She made a sweeping gesturewith her arm. “In honor of Carmen, of course.”

  “Why, thank you, Gus,” Carmen said, moving ever so slightly closer to Gus so that her hair, piled loosely on top of her head, blocked a bit of Gus from the camera. Gus moved several inches to her right, away from Carmen, and then walked toward the camera as she spoke.

  “So let me fix you a little something,” she said, reaching down to a shelf within the island. “We have a beautiful halibut, very fresh, that we’ve already unwrapped and had Oliver start some prep work.”

  Gus pulled up a platter that was a mass of long tentacles. She continuedsmiling while she sought out the red light, confirming the cameras were still on.

  “Well, my goodness,” Gus said. She looked serenely into the camera. “Imagine assuming you’ve bought a pound of fish and you come home to open the brown paper and you find it’s octopus!” She laughed as though unconcerned. “It’s happened to us all from time to time, I’m sure.”

  Turning to Carmen, she said calmly, “Do you have any thoughts on how we should cook our octopus today, Carmen?”

  “Well, thanks for asking, Gus,” said Carmen. “How about we make a warm octopus salad? In Spanish cuisine, our goal is to elevate the flavors of the seafoodand to be able to taste each part of a dish. Bring out the flavors simply.”

  “Fantastic,” Gus said, sensing Sabrina turning toward them.

  “I’m not touching that,” said Sabrina.

  “I’ve always wanted to eat octopus,” said Troy.

  “Let’s hope we have all the ingredients we need,” said Gus, who could see Porter motioning to her that it was time to cut to break. Thank God, she thought.

  “We’re going to do a quick look in the fridge to find a few things and then we’ll be right back to make Carmen’s salad,” Gus said, still speaking to the camera. “It’s going to be an exciting hour.”

  And they were out.

  Porter took a huge gulp of air and let it out slowly. “You did great, Gus,” he called out.

  “This isn’t Iron Chef,” she replied. “I don’t appreciate being surprised with ingredients.”

  “It’s no big deal,” said Carmen.

  “Oh, don’t think I haven’t noticed that you weren’t the least bit surprised by the appearance of Mr. Octopus,” said Gus. Without turning around, she addressed Oliver, who was behind her at the Aga. “And I imagine you prepped this?”

  “Just a slap of water,” said Oliver. “It was delivered right before the show.”

  Gus did not reply, tapping her teeth together as she considered various forms of murder.

  “Well, we’re back in two minutes, folks,” Porter said. “And remember, I want to make sure we get in several mentions of the contest: one lucky viewer is going to become a participant on Eat Drink and Be. Talk about how exciting that’ll be.”

  “Oh, that’s a treat,” yelled Sabrina. “Maybe we can invite her ex-boyfriendon the show, too.”

  “Just suck it up and quit whining,” snapped Aimee. “Why do you always have to be such a baby?”

  Porter waited a second, assuming Gus would jump in and referee. She said nothing.

  He came close. “You okay?” he asked, his voice low. “I tried to pass a note.”

  Her face was grim. “Don’t you know by now that I’m always okay, Porter?” she said darkly. “I’ve had far worse surprises in my life than a platter of seafood.”

  They moved to a corner of the room, as far away from the crew as possible.

  “You’re doing great,” he said, his producer’s mantra of keeping the talent calm running through his head. “Did you do something new to your hair?”

  “Don’t change the subject,” she said. “What’s the story?”

  “Carmen brought the octopus in and said Alan wanted it to be a surprise.”

  “This is ludicrous,” she said. “Does that seem like Alan to you?”

  “I dunno.” Porter sighed. “He’s been riding everyone hard over ratings. I think he’s a bit desperate.”

  “Why wouldn’t he have called you himself?”

  “I missed a call from him this afternoon and he wasn’t there when I dialed back,” said Porter. “But everyone knows he and Carmen are together. It’s the worst-kept secret at the CookingChannel.”

  “Well, we’ve never worked like this before!”

  “And we’ve never been a live series before, either,” he said. “All the rules are changing.”

  Checking his watch, he tapped her on the hand and led her back to the center island. “It’s time.”

  With a flourish, Gus stretched out her arms and spoke to the cast and crew: “Fake it like you’re having fun, and for God’s sake, smile!”

  Over the course of the next hour on air, Oliver boiled the octopus and then Carmen showed how to clean it. It was a laborious procedure and involved a lot of skilled knife work and the removal of the eye.

  “Oh my God, that’s disgusting,” cried Sabrina, watching over Carmen’s shoulder and then covering and uncovering her eyes with her hands. “It looks like something out of Finding Nemo!”

  Even Aimee, ever the stoic, seemed a bit horrified.

  “What sort of a cooking show is this when we’re all afraid to touch the food?” she whispered to Troy, not completely aware that the microphone picked up every word. “You know, I only like protein that comes wrapped in cellophane, all cut up into anonymous rectangles. I never thought we’d be butchering animals.”

  “Why do I get stuck with the beans?” muttered Troy. “Let me take a cleaver to that thing. I could stand to work out some frustrations.”

  Meanwhile, Gus strolled blithely from station to station, describing what each person was doing and talking directly to the viewer as if to an old friend. She also, by not doing any of the chopping, boiling, slicing, or dicing on her own, managed to convey the impression that she was running the show and that everyone else, Carmen included, was there to assist her.

  Sampling the food turned into a bit of a struggle, with Aimee and Sabrina pointedly sipping sangria while refusing to try a bit of the octopus.Troy, on the other hand, scooped up a forkful and put it in his mouth enthusiastically.

  “It’s chewy,” he began, then swallowed quickly as Carmen glared. “Chewtastic,” he clarified.

  Gus smiled at him fondly.

  “You know, tonight’s menu was a wee bit complicated—not your standard weeknight dinner,” she said to the camera as Porter gave the signal to wrap things up. “But that’s okay. Sometimes it’s fun to try something new, when you have a leisurely Sunday like we had. Next time, though, we’re going to take things a little easier and do some brunch favorites. Who doesn’t love a Sunday brunch? So see you next time, and until then, remember to Eat Drink and Be. Right, Carmen?”

  And Carmen, tired and more than a little glowing with perspiration, gave a wan smile for the camera. The show was over, for one week at least. Gus hadn’t tasted one thing.

  “I don’t recall being consulted about the next menu,” Carmen said, dabbingat her forehead, as the crew began to pack up cords and wires.

  “You weren’t,” said Gus drily.

  13

  The question of Who Washed the dishes and scoured the pots after any of Gus’s cooking shows had never previously been considered by Sabrina, nor by Aimee. Surely there was some sort of crew member whose job it was to take care of such things? And the moments after their first time on television,for the basketball show, were such a heady mix of relief and elation that they’d scarcely paid attention to the clean-up process.

  “Since you’re all sitting around endlessly dissecting the pros and cons of tonight’s show,” Gus said now, “I expect you to make yourself useful. After all, this is my home.”

  “I don’t think that was part of the deal,” said Sabrina.

  “Oh? Have you rea
d the fine print?”

  Sabrina paused, uncertain whether she had signed on to get dishpan hands or not. There had been some paperwork but nothing she had actually bothered to read.

  “But it isn’t fair. Carmen’s already left, and so has Hannah,” she pointed out.

  “I doubt that there’s a ‘Carmen’s gone so I can’t uphold my responsibilities’ clause,” replied Gus. “I’m sure Oliver will be happy to direct all of you.”

  And with that, Gus headed out of the kitchen, ready to leave Oliver, Aimee, Troy, and Sabrina mucking about in the kitchen. Her goal was to go up to her room and take a long, hot bath, the kind where the water is so steamy that every part of the body tingles upon stepping in. But first she wanted a few private words with her producer.

  “Let’s have a brandy in the Henry Higgins,” Gus said to Porter, as she led the way to her wood-paneled study. It was an intimidating room and very masculine; the kind of place she imagined Christopher would have enjoyed, a place to work late after family dinners or to have serious heart-to-hearts when one of the girls was dating a bad boy. Not that he’d ever had that opportunity.

  The walls of the room were lined with books of all shapes and sizes. On one shelf were copies of her own cookbooks, and it was directly in front of them that she sat herself down in a creased but cushiony leather chair.

  Porter’s job for the last twelve years had been to make Gus Simpson look good. Always. And tonight, with the surprise of the octopus, she had been placed in a most uncomfortable position.

  “Alan returned my message.” Porter spoke before Gus said anything. “He left a message saying he thought tonight was very intriguing and he’ll have more to say when the numbers come in.”

  “And it’s all about the ratings.”

  “Of course it’s all about the ratings—that’s what created your empire, my dear,” Porter said, taking a seat in a leather chair opposite her. She recalled Hannah’s encouragement to tap into her frustrations. How many times had she bent herself into a pretzel trying to get everything done? How often had she come through for Alan, for the CookingChannel? Get angry! she heard the Hannah in her head say. Be upset!

 
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