Comfort food, p.16
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       Comfort Food, p.16

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  Carmen giggled. “I like it!”

  “Typically my theme isn’t sex,” Gus said. “Though I’m not opposed. Just not quite onboard.”

  “But think about this whole SaTroy thing going on,” said Porter. “It’s perfect,Oliver. Make pancakes, but call them ‘sexy pancakes,’ or whatever.”

  “I was really thinking more along the lines of little breakfast bites,” said Gus. “You know, breakfast as appies.”

  “Great idea,” said Porter. “But let’s go with the sex. Er, romance. Soften it up and say it’s all about romance.”

  They’d agreed to no more surprise ingredients, either, though Gus wasn’t entirely reassured, and settled on a menu of pancakes with fruit compote and fresh whipped cream, Spanish omelet, and a wonderful blood-orange mimosa. It pleased her to have an episode that was going to be all about the classics, and she’d felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. She was even resigned to Porter’s contest, and agreed to announce the randomly chosen winner on the air: Priya Patel of New Jersey.

  The truth was that Gus enjoyed being on the air, and tonight’s show was no exception.

  “Places, everyone, places,” she shouted, as though directing a high school musical. Troy had arrived wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with “Farm-Freshfor schools!” on the front and back; Aimee was in black on black; Carmenwas in a V-necked blouse that was just a little too low-cut, as always; and Oliver wore a navy chef’s coat. (Just how many cooking outfits did this man own? she wondered.) Gus, for her part, wore a long tunic-style cardigan over a fitted tee and a pair of dark-washed jeans.

  Gus never dressed down on the air but, after a visit to the Web site Porter had told her about, she’d been rather flattered by a plea to “see Gus’s ass.” It had frankly been rather a long time since anyone had made such a request. So while she was, of course, wearing a rather substantial sweater, it was still the thought that counted. She did feel hot. And it was fun.

  So far the show was their most successful, helped along by the fact that Sabrina was conspicuously absent. Hannah, just like last time, was perched on an equipment box behind the crew. A popping sound grabbed Gus’s attention.

  “Bring out more potato chips, Oliver,” Carmen shouted, as she ripped into a bag and began crunching. “Just one for me,” she told the camera. “The rest are for my twist on a wonderful tradition in my country, the Spanish omelet, or what we call tortilla de patatas. Okay, one more.” Carmen pointed at her full mouth and Gus took up her cue.

  “Okay, avoid a flavored potato chip—no barbecue,” she said. “Just a good, plain chip, such as kettle-cooked. You’ll want to crush them down,” she was saying, as a bang made her jump. She threw a world-weary look to the camera.

  “Open the bag first,” she said, before gesturing to Troy, who had exploded a bag of chips on the counter.

  “Oops,” he said, in a fake whisper. “Sorry.”

  “Then mix the eggs and the chips together,” Carmen said, cutting in, but not in an unfriendly way as she usually did.

  “Let them soak for several minutes,” said Gus. “And then ask the big bald man in your kitchen to heat up some oil in a sauté pan.”

  “We’ll start cooking during the break, and you can see how it’s all comingtogether when we’re back,” said Carmen. “You won’t want to miss a minuteof our sexy Sunday night brunch.”

  “Perfect, you guys!” yelled Porter. “It’s great to see you working together.”

  Most of the next segments were filled with only minor issues, and were far less chaotic than the previous episodes of Eat Drink and Be.

  Aimee accidentally poured salt into the simple fruit sauce instead of sugar within the first fifteen minutes of the program, and then managed to do the same thing again immediately and ruin a second batch.

  “Don’t worry about it,” Oliver told her. “We’ve all sweetened with salt from time to time.”

  “This tastes disgusting,” she said, after dipping in her spoon.

  “Normally we don’t say that part on air, dear,” Gus said, grinning at the camera. “See why I love to cook for my family and not with my family?” She walked around the island as though coming closer to the viewer. “But we’re going to make the lightest, fluffiest pancakes, and if we don’t have any fruit syrup today, then we’ll just use good old maple syrup.”

  “Go for Grade A dark amber,” said Oliver. “It’s rich and velvety.”

  “And very, very good for dipping apples in,” Troy said, pointing to his FarmFresh shirt.

  Gus handed Carmen some eggs. “Separate those out,” she told her, “because when I make pancakes, I always fluff the whites separately. Then I fold them in when the batter is mixed . . .”

  “And that’s how you keep them high and light,” said Carmen. “Very nice, Gus.”

  “While we get those on the griddle, and sip our blood-orange mimosas, we’re going to get ready for a special treat,” said Gus. “Just because it’s breakfastdoesn’t mean we can’t have dessert.” She saw Porter motioning to her. “And I mean a sexy dessert.”

  Behind the cameras, Porter put a friendly arm around Hannah. He simplywanted to share a bit of good. “This is it, kiddo,” he said. “We’re finally getting it right.”

  Hannah, who hated to be squished, hugged, or generally touched, pretendedshe had to tie her shoe and squirmed away.

  “Everyone ready for an espresso sundae?” asked Oliver.

  “I put the kettle on a while ago,” said Aimee. Although Gus had her own espresso maker—and she assumed most viewers had coffeemakers—she also wanted to show them how to make the simple dessert in a matter of minutesusing instant packets. The kettle was Aimee’s second big responsibilityof the night, and after mucking up the fruit sauce, she aimed to get it right. Her mother’s plan was to serve one delicate scoop of vanilla gelato in a wineglass, then drizzle it with piping hot espresso that had been lightly sweetened. With sugar this time.

  Aimee, Oliver, Carmen, and Troy crowded around the island, watching Gus scoop out the gelato as though they’d never had ice cream before. There were only four minutes left in the show, just enough time to finish and spoon up, and the entire cast could barely fit in the shot. The cameraman panned out, enough to get everyone in the scene, but the rest of the kitchen was blocked from view. Porter nodded to let him know it was fine, wrinkling his nose at a strange smell as he did so.

  “I love ice cream and fruit!” Troy shouted, catching Porter’s attention. It was energizing to see the typically subdued guy so riled up. He knew Troy’s growing fan base would love it; his goal was to get clips of Eat Drink and Be posted to YouTube.

  “But today we’re having it with espresso,” Gus reminded everyone. “So let’s get our instant mix and some boiling water from the kettle—” She turned to the counter and realized the kettle hadn’t been plugged in.

  “Aimee, I thought you started the kettle?” Gus said, a rising panic in her throat. How would they finish out the dish? How could she make another mistake?

  “I did,” said Aimee, clearly annoyed.

  “Shouldn’t it have whistled by now?”

  The other members of the group began turning around, looking for the kettle. Carmen was the first to spot it.

  “Oh my God, she put it on the stove,” she screamed, everyone moving at once. “And it’s on fire!”

  Flames and sparks were coming up from the white plastic; Aimee had put an electric kettle on the Aga stove. The cameraman, now that the group was jumping around, could finally get a full view of the kitchen. He’d wonderedif he’d gone a little out of focus. Now he could tell that the room was filling with smoke.

  “We’re burning up!” screamed Carmen. She grabbed a box of baking soda from the cabinet and threw it on the flames, causing them to flare higher, redder. Oliver, dish towel in hand, pulled her back and ended up settingthe cloth on fire.

  “Drop it, drop it!” Troy pushed Oliver’s hand down to make him release the towel and began jumping on it with his feet.<
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  It had been about fifteen seconds since Gus had asked for the kettle, and now her kitchen was filled with yelling and commotion and camera people pushing their way in to get a close-up.

  “We’re still live,” Porter yelled, hoping to be heard over the din. “We’re still on the air.”

  And then, without a thought other than protecting her friend, Hannah—who had written an article on kitchen fires not more than two years ago—ran into the melee and reached under Gus’s sink to find the fire extinguisher she’d put there herself after turning in the piece.

  The kettle was beginning to melt and the flames were high enough to scorch the ceiling.

  “Stand back,” shouted the thin woman in a red hoodie as she sprayed the Aga with white goo. “Get out of the way.”

  She let off a second surge from the extinguisher for good measure, a camerain her face as she did so. Hannah gave a blow of air out her mouth, trying to calm down.

  “We almost burned down,” Carmen cried. “Thank you, Hannah.”

  Hannah had an instant of happiness—she loved to be a help—before her dawning awareness of the cameras all around the kitchen. “I didn’t recognizeyou until now,” Troy said. “I was such a huge fan.”

  Her eye caught Gus’s and they knew: Hannah Joy Levine, the disgraced former tennis star who’d been kicked out of the sport fifteen years ago for throwing matches, had just been rediscovered in Gus Simpson’s kitchen. Damn.

  16

  In no time at all, the message boards on the CookingChannel Web site were overrun with viewers trying to suss out if the girl in the hoodie really was Hannah Joy Levine, one-time Wimbledon champion forever banned from tennis.

  It was the first question Alan asked when he called, barely two minutes after they went off the air. Not a “Hey, you all okay?” or even a “Don’t worry about the damage” for Gus. Nope. He moved right in to the big question: How come no one had told him Hannah Joy Levine worked on his camera crew?

  “She’s doesn’t work for us, Alan.”

  “It’ll be great to have her on the air.”

  “Uh, she still doesn’t work for us.”

  “I don’t get it,” Alan said, his voice breaking up slightly over the phone. He was probably in his car. “Surely she hasn’t been hiding out in Gus Simpson’s cupboards for over a decade?”

  “No, they’re neighbors.”

  “Well, having Hannah Joy Levine on Gus’s last show would have been a huge help when the ratings were in the toilet.”

  “I’ll be sure to pass along your message of concern,” Porter said, giving Gus the a-okay sign.

  “Well, whatever,” Alan said to Porter. “This is like finding Amelia Ear-hart.Al Capone’s vault. Following up with the kids from Diff’rent Strokes. It’s beautiful.”

  “No, no one had smoke inhalation.” Porter faked a chuckle as though he was reassuring his boss.

  Alan ignored Porter’s running patter. “The important thing is how we’re going to play it. Get that Hannah signed to something, then start running promos about our new mystery guest on Eat Drink and Be. Is she or isn’t she you-know-who? I’m just going to sit back and count the ratings.”

  Hannah appeared shaken when Porter expressed Alan’s personal “invitation” to be on the air and looked plaintively at Gus.

  “This is turning into a freaking circus,” Carmen yelled before Gus could speak, slamming pots around for effect. “No, no, no! I am not having one more person on this damn show. Alan promised me he’d put me on television,and instead I’ve got half a show and a team of idiots who don’t know what they’re doing!”

  “Oh, I don’t think so, my dear,” said Gus. “I’m the one who’s been stuck with the idiot. They’ve clearly brought you to me because you couldn’t hold your own program.” She lowered her voice and spoke slowly. “No one with any sense would make octopus in their very first episode of a new series.”

  “I don’t care about middle of the road,” said Carmen. “I want to be creative.”

  “There’s creative, and then there’s experimental,” said Gus. “Open a restaurantand experiment all you want, but not on my show. We’re lucky any viewers came back after putting on that octopus salad.”

  “Well, if they did watch tonight, then they picked a heck of a night,” shouted Carmen. “We nearly had a fantastic episode—for once you weren’t messing it up! But then your frowny little daughter ruined it with her fire starter routine.”

  She ran over to Aimee and grabbed her by the collar, half-dragging her toward Porter for several steps before Aimee shook Carmen’s hands off her blouse and, with a well-placed kick, swiped Carmen’s feet out from under her.

  “I want her off the show,” Carmen demanded, having landed on her butt. “Now!”

  She was strong for such a slight woman, Aimee thought, trying to catch her breath. The neckline of her shirt was torn.

  “Absolutely not,” said Gus, knowing full well that Aimee would have been thrilled to be off the air. “You sit down,” she said to Aimee, hustling her into one of the wing chairs in the bay window. She wasn’t about to let the beauty queen take on her kid, thank you very much.

  “If you touch my daughter again, I will boil you in oil,” she said quietly, her face very close to Carmen’s. “And don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s Spanish olive oil.”

  “Get the hell away from me, you zorra!” Carmen began to cry and scream at the same time. “Get out, get out!”

  Gus began talking to no one in particular. “I had a nice show,” she said, addressing the room at large. “I worked hard. I kept long hours. For twelve years. And how do I get repaid? With a Carmen Vega. A silly prima donna who can dish it out but who can’t take it.”

  “Get out!” hissed Carmen.

  “No,” Gus said, pretending to be calm though her red ears gave her away. “Because not only is this my kitchen—and believe me, every viewer knows it’s my kitchen, Carmen—we’re all still actually in my house. The one I own. The one where I am going to kick your sore little butt to the curb. Unless Aimee wants to do it, of course. Dear?”

  Speechless for once, Aimee sat in her chair, watching her mother with wide eyes.

  “You don’t have to fight,” piped up Hannah. “I don’t want to be on TV. Really. It was an accident.”

  “Oh, no it wasn’t,” Carmen said, still on the floor. “Gus had Aimee do that on purpose.”

  “You think I tried to burn down my own kitchen intentionally?” Gus shouted “You know what you are? Crazy. Unbalanced. Unhinged.”

  “I think we all just need to go home and get some rest,” Oliver suggested pointedly, holding Carmen by the shoulders. He was at least a foot taller than she was and it didn’t require much exertion on his part to keep Carmen still.

  “Let go,” she wailed.

  “Look, let’s all cool it,” said Oliver. “We’ve just had a bit of a crazy night, that’s all. By tomorrow it’ll all be behind us.”

  But Monday found the entire PR staff of the CookingChannel working in overdrive, trying to dance around the issue of Hannah’s sudden appearance on the show.

  She and Gus sat in their chairs in the bay window, Salt and Pepper in laps, and watched a clean-up crew that Porter had sent over tidy up the stove and ceiling.

  “It’s out there,” said Hannah. “Me.”

  Is it liberating when what you’ve dreaded most comes to pass? Does it make you feel as though all the agita and bad sleep was silly somehow? A wasted effort? No, Hannah thought, it doesn’t. It made her feel as though she’d been punished for dropping her vigilance. She’d spent all night watchingthe news on her computer and on her two televisions in her dining room office, braced for the past to be dredged up again.

  “Sometimes suffering is just suffering,” she told Gus. “It doesn’t make you stronger. It doesn’t build character. It only hurts.”

  “I know,” Gus said, and Hannah felt like hugging her friend, though she didn’t, of course.

  They sipp
ed their coffee as the workmen scrubbed the white ceiling, clearing off all the dark smudges and leaving it spotless again. No trace of the ugly. All cleaned up.

  Hannah wondered if her father watched the CookingChannel, if he would get back in touch with her, would send her a letter or email. Though it seemed unlikely, and not just because he didn’t have her email address.

  Porter pushed the PR team to reframe Aimee’s blaze as part of a very special episode on fire safety.

  “That’s insane,” Gus told Porter when he called her at home to tell her not to answer her phone if media called. “We nearly blew up my kitchen!”

  “If the public buys it, then that’s what we’re selling,” he said. “Look, we’re getting calls from everywhere: one night of a burning kettle has gotten Eat Drink and Be noticed by everything from Entertainment Tonight to CNN. Not to mention it’s the number one clip on YouTube.”

  “Yippee,” said Gus. “Must be a slow news day. I’m so glad all my years as a television host have led me here. My reputation is going to be ruined.”

  “Oh, no, Gus, you don’t get it,” said Porter. “This is going to boost your cool factor in a big way.”

  “Do I need to be cooler?”

  “We all need to be cooler. It’s the new publicity. You and Carmen and all the rest are becoming famous just for being stupid.”

  Gus was speechless.

  “Look, you’ve been booked on Regis and Kelly to talk about the importanceof fire extinguishers in kitchens,” explained Porter. “The two of you are going to go out there—happy to be together, I might add—and be upbeat. And whenever anyone asks if the woman who put out the fire was Hannah Joy Levine, I want both of you to just smile like the Mona Lisa.”

  By the end of the week, Carmen and Gus had done morning shows and late-nightchatfests and been forced to write heavily sanitized “behind-the-scenes” blogs for the CookingChannel Web site. (Carmen is certainly unique, Gus wrote, as Hannah munched on licorice twists and edited over her shoulder.)

 
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