Comfort food, p.17
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       Comfort Food, p.17

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  They’d even been informed, by Alan via Porter, that the two of them were expected to be judges on the current episode of CookingChannel’s Kitchen Kingdom, in which two restaurateurs squared off to create competingmeals with one unusual ingredient and win the crown of Royal Chef.

  It was not one of Gus’s favorites on the CookingChannel roster, a fact that she had previously kept discreetly to herself.

  “I assume,” she said to Porter, “that the secret ingredient will be octopus?” She even managed to look amused.

  “I can put in a special request with the producer there,” said Porter.

  “No thanks,” she replied. “I’ve been using enough of my considerable energy to ward off Carmen’s evil. It’ll be a while before I can enjoy octopus in the same way again.”

  On Kitchen Kingdom, the two hosts of Eat Drink and Be were seated side by side, glued at the hip as they had been for over a week. The two sat grimly next to each other until either one spotted a camera moving to the judges’ table and banged the other on the knee. Then, in unison, they would look up and flash toothy grins, mouthing words at each other as though engaged in scintillatingculinary conversation. In reality, they were literally not speaking.

  Jeffrey Steingarten, the food critic from the New York Times, rounded out the judging panel, and he quite openly stared at their silent “talking.” A pair of odd ducks, he’d called them, which embarrassed and irritated Gus. She told him she was saving her voice for when she was on-screen.

  The previous week’s winner of Kitchen Kingdom, who owned a restaurant in Chicago, was paired against a popular Spanish chef, Karlos Arguinaño.

  “Don’t you vote against him just because he’s from Spain,” hissed Carmenwhen it came time to write down their scores, covering the mike clipped to her dress.

  “What you don’t realize, Carmen, is that I’d be quite happy to eat your food if I never had to see or speak to you,” said Gus. “Just because I don’t like you—and I don’t—doesn’t mean I don’t like your food.”

  But the public la-di-da act was draining: she was more unhappy about Carmen’s presence than ever. Carmen had made it quite clear she was not going to make working together easy. Sabrina continued to be evasive. And Aimee was mortified by the nonstop emails she was receiving from old high school classmates who saw the clip online. Gus was mad and fretted that everyone she cared about was mad at her. Only Troy, who’d seen a huge increase in hits to the FarmFresh Web site, was remotely happy. And he was still pining for Sabrina; she could hear it in his voice when he refused to talk about it with her.

  She took to crying in the shower, where it felt safer to sob, and stayed up late at night, baking chocolate cake and oatmeal bars and chewy cookies, when she couldn’t fall asleep. Salt and Pepper enjoyed the late night company,and Hannah came over dutifully every morning to eat her midnight productions.

  Overtired and cranky, Gus found herself wishing that some teen starletwould drive over a paparazzo’s foot or that a movie star—anyone would do—would wear a loose-fitting shirt to jumpstart another baby bulge countdown.Anything so that the celebrity journalists had something else to write about instead of her and Carmen and their great, great show together. It was ridiculous. Kelly Ripa had even told them they were a super example of girl power.

  “Girl power?” Gus had said. “How interesting.”

  “Gus isn’t actually a girl anymore,” Carmen had interjected, with saccharinesweetness.

  Every interview had been like that with Carmen. It was exhausting.

  “Why is everyone making a big deal about this fire thing?” she asked later in the week, as she dragged herself into the CookingChannel studios to shoot some promotional commercials. Alan had started advertising Eat Drink and Be heavily during other programming, and had even bought spots on other cable channels.

  “Because it’s funny when no real damage was done,” said Oliver. “And then there’s the fact that Carmen’s pretty and you’re hot.”

  “Ha ha ha,” Gus said, before calling out to Porter. “Why doesn’t Mr. Clean over here have to do any of the interviews?”

  “Don’t worry, we’ll exploit him when the time comes,” replied Porter. “But right now the fans want you and Carmen. Well, and Hannah, but that’s another situation.”

  “She’s not going to do it, Porter,” said Gus, who had already phoned Alan to try to convince him.

  “Smart cookie,” Carmen said through gritted teeth as she put on a well-practicedfake smile for the camera.

  “We all love to watch great television,” Porter was saying to Alan in his office later that day. “But we also find ourselves rubbernecking when we see a roadside accident. And Eat Drink and Be is turning into just that.”

  “Switching up the menu was an interesting tactic,” Alan said, as though it hadn’t been his idea. “It forced Gus to break out of her shell.”

  “She was excellent,” said Porter. “Sharp, like in the old days. I liked that.”

  “When she’s on, she’s on. I’m rooting for her even when she doesn’t know it.”

  “And we couldn’t have scripted anything better than the kettle fire,” added Porter.

  “The media frenzy has been good for the network,” agreed Alan.

  “But I don’t want this to become about stunts, intentional or not. We’ve got to find our rhythm. And Carmen and Gus . . .” Porter let his words trail off.

  “We’re heading for a seven-car pileup, am I right?”

  “The team needs to learn to work together,” said Porter. “Or else the last episode of our little mini-season is going to end up as a food fight. Literally.”

  Although the full team of Eat Drink and Be typically didn’t see one another in a professional capacity between episodes, Porter called a special Mondaynight meeting of the entire crowd. Carmen, Oliver, Troy, Sabrina, and Aimee sat around a long table while Hannah, who was being wooed, in a purely work-related way, by Alan with gift baskets of Tootsie Rolls, was there via conference call as she sat next to Gus in her library.

  “Great news, everyone,” said Porter. He sat near the phone to address everyone at once. “Alan has invited all of you to attend an all-expense-paid weekend retreat together. It’s going to be wonderful!”

  None of the participants on Eat Drink and Be looked happy in the least.

  Aimee silently raised her hand like a schoolgirl. Porter waved her off before she could speak.

  “Let me be clear: attendance is mandatory,” he said. “Just be happy I talked him out of taking you camping.”

  hot potato

  17

  The cool blue lake glistened as the minivan carrying Oliver, Carmen,Sabrina, Aimee, and Troy made its way up the winding drive through miles of treed green woods to the impressively large resort overlooking the water. It had been a long trip up the Hudson Valley on this hot, humid May holiday weekend, delayed by all the Friday traffic getting out of the city, and mostly silent except for the buzz of the air conditioner.

  Carmen, upon weighing her options between sitting in the back with the riffraff and placing herself next to the driver, chose the latter. Aimee, acting on an unspoken plea from Sabrina, positioned herself next to Troy in the back of the van. She’d been through many boyfriends and breakups and make-ups and regretful mornings-after with her little sister. It hadn’t been necessary for Sabrina to explain what had really taken place on Octopus Night, and it didn’t matter. She didn’t have a thing against Troy, either. It’s just that this was her job, Aimee told herself. Holding her sister together with paper clips.

  Oliver, lounging next to Sabrina in the first row, made a few attempts at chitchat—“Hey, it’s not like we’re being sent to prison” was among his least successful conversation starters as he read from a brochure detailing activities from water sports to volleyball to croquet on the great lawn—but the overall mood in the car was so dour that it seemed impossible to get anyone talking.

  So they fairly flew out of the van when it finally pul
led up outside the lobby, Aimee and Sabrina coming together like a pair of magnets. Porter was there already, as was Gus, who had been brought in a car from her Westchesterhome.

  “Okay, team,” said Porter. “Let’s get you into your rooms and get going.”

  The good news—if there was any good news, Gus thought, following the porter with her bags—was that everyone had their own accommodations. She’d been rather anxious that she and Carmen would be forced into one room. Or worse, each given half of a king-size bed, tussling over the covers and fighting over whether the window should be open or closed. Bringing up such a scenario was how Gus had tried to convince Hannah that she ought to come along. Hannah, thoughtfully chewing her way through a pack of original Hubba Bubba, had been unmoved.

  The most annoying thing about unpacking is realizing what’s been left behind. Carmen was, after years of travel, expert at rolling her clothes so they didn’t wrinkle and zipping up her toiletries in plastic bags to avoid spills. And yet, she thought as she crouched down to open her suitcase on the floor, she invariably did something wrong. Forgot her toothbrush, left behind her perfume, neglected to bring the skirt that went with her suit jacket. There was always something. She rooted around inside the case, glancing with annoyance at Porter’s packing list that he’d emailed to everyonedays before.

  Attention, Eat Drink and Be-ers!

  Be sure to bring:

  Jeans

  Sweaters

  Loose-fitting pants (think sweats)

  T-shirts

  Swimsuits!!!!

  Don’t forget sneakers!

  p.s. Dinner has a dress code

  The weekend was destined to be a fiasco. Carmen was sure of that. She grabbed her panties and bras and carried them over to a dresser drawer, placing a towel on the bare wood before she put them down. She’d been doing that ever since she left home, still a teenager, to model. Her mother had supplied her with plenty of hand towels to line dresser drawers, uncertain about the cleanliness (or lack thereof) Carmen would encounter in the great wide world. The towel habit stuck, all through the beauty pageants and runwaywork and the blip on the screen that was her Hollywood debut. She’d always tried to do what her mother would have wanted. Mostly. The romance with the boy-band singer had not won the approval of her loved ones back home.

  Home. It had been years since she’d spent more than a few weeks in Seville, something she supposed she hadn’t realized at sixteen, packing up her coletero hair scrunchies, hoop earrings, and Panama Jack boots, confidentof the nonstop adventures that lay before her. “So this is it,” she’d said to her older sister all those years ago as she sat on her suitcase to zip it closed, feeling courageous and proud and more than a little self-satisfied. Wasn’t she special? Wasn’t she unique?

  She was braver at sixteen than she was now, Carmen realized. Back in the day, she’d had little concept of the unpleasantness that life could bring. Had only envisioned the triumph and perfect thrill of it all. Never knowing enough to be scared.

  With one swift movement she had pulled the comforter off the bed and rolled it up into a ball, tossing it in the bottom of her closet. No matter how upscale the hotel, she never slept under a comforter, which, unlike the sheets, was unlikely to be washed daily. One of the many tricks she’d learned along the way. Like stopping the deli man before he put twenty slices of ham on a sandwich. Americans were strange that way. Just one was fine for her; she liked to taste the bread.

  She curled up on top of the white sheets and regarded her half-unpacked luggage. “I want to go home,” she said, though there was no one there to hear her. “I miss . . .”

  She didn’t bother to finish her sentence.

  Carmen was more homesick now than she’d ever been in her life. She’d gotten over the ridiculously shocking price of tomatoes in the grocery store and the way the coffee shops poured giant cups; she’d adjusted to the streets seeming dark at night, thanks in part to the fact that streets in Spain had more lights. No, it was more than that. She had a greater appreciation for what she’d given up to follow her dreams, had a secret envy of her sister Marisol, who lived so close to her parents.

  “Tu vida es tan glamurosa, cariño,” her mother said when she came home for the occasional Christmas or birthday. It was easy for them to believe hers was a glamorous life, but it didn’t feel all that glittery. Oh, sometimes it had been surreal, during the most dressy of events, but mostly it had been hard work and many late nights staring out the window—after a date, after a nightclub, after a long photo shoot—and wondering what everyone was doing back home in Seville.

  These were the parties she had missed over the years: every Nochevieja for the past seven years, her niece Maria’s baptism and then later her prim-eracomunión, the wedding of her best friend from childhood, her aunt and uncle’s bodas de plata celebrating twenty-five years of marriage. Not to mentionthe endless Saturday afternoon lunches with the entire family, savoring calamares, gazpacho, pescaito frito, flounder seviche, solomillo al queso, a fillet in blue cheese sauce, and arroz con leche.

  Everyone understood how busy her schedule was; no one criticized her for not being able to come home often.

  She’d made it home for her grandmother’s funeral, though.

  It was all rather backwards.

  Her sister Marisol had made fun of Carmen when she revealed, over light, flaky tortas de aceite and several generous glasses of Jerez, that she thought Marisol was the lucky one.

  “You get to be with the family,” Carmen said, as Marisol laughed and laughed, amused by her jet-setting little sister.

  “You wouldn’t give up your life for anything in the world,” her sister scoffed. “There’s nothing fancy here.”

  No one understood. Fancy doesn’t fill you up. It doesn’t nourish the soul. She had remained silent then because that was easier than arguing. Than to make her sister or her mother see. Because Carmen had traded everything—her family, her friends, her culture—for some so-called great career. That she’d already had to reinvent more than once, down on her luck after failing to make it in Hollywood.

  Her only option was to succeed on this damn cooking show or it had all been for nothing. All the years away, all the missed birthdays, all the lonely nights. In truth, she knew that it was never going to be worth it. Even as she joked with her family about the kettle fire clip they’d watched on YouTube, and she replied to the emails from old friends. They all acted as though her life was simply grand and were invested, in their own ways, in her success. Privately, she knew she had lost far too much and made too many sacrifices, and there were moments, more often now than ever, when she wished she’d never packed her bags at sixteen and left home. But it wasn’t as though she could just go back. Returning had to be on her terms or it would seem a failure. To her. To everyone. And besides, the family had learned to function well without her presence.

  Hers had been an uneven bargain that cost her far more than she realized.

  She called down to the lobby for Oliver’s room number.

  “Come on over for a drink,” she told him. “I need your shoulder.”

  Dinner was rather pleasant, since Porter had allowed Gus, Aimee, and Sabrina to sit at their own table, and he kept counsel with Oliver, Carmen, and Troy at his own.

  “I just want to go to bed,” Sabrina said as everyone marched out of the dining room and turned toward the elevators.

  “Hey, gang!” said a short, red-haired man standing in the lobby. Gus assumed, for half a second, that he was a fan recognizing the Eat Drink and Be cast, until she noticed the clipboard he held and the determined way that Porter beelined for him.

  “Is this our camp counselor?” Oliver spoke in a low voice, close to her ear, so only she could hear.

  “Guess so,” replied Gus. “This could be the worst Memorial Day ever.”

  Although the redhead wore a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt, his face appeared flushed and pink, and he puffed as though he’d just been exercising.For no reason that Gu
s could see, he began clapping as the group formed a semicircle around him.

  “Good show,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Welcome, everyone.”

  The “gang” stared.

  “Welcome to what, exactly?” asked Aimee. You could always count on Aimee, thought Gus.

  “Welcome to a very special team-building weekend.” The man grinned broadly, showing a little too much gum line.

  “Very special?” Troy looked wary.

  "C’mon, gang, grab a seat,” the man said, motioning to a collection of chairs in the lobby. “I just want to give you some idea of what’s coming up tomorrow and send you off to bed.”

  “Who, exactly, are you?” Gus was polite but firm.

  “Right, right, first things first.” He held up his arms as though trying to quiet a stadium of raucous concertgoers. “I’m Gary Rose, but you can call me Gare.”

  “Call you Gare?” Aimee was unimpressed. “Why would we need to shorten a name that has only two syllables?”

  “Who are you, again?” Gus, again, on point.

  “Are you the contest winner?” asked Troy.

  “No, that was Priya Patel of New Jersey,” replied Oliver. “Gus announced it on the last show. Unless you’re Priya?”

  “No, still just Gare. I’m here to facilitate our coming together as a team,” he said, enunciating every syllable in the word “facilitate” to add extra emphasis.

  “How very special,” murmured Sabrina, sharing a glance with her sister. They always got along better when they had a common enemy.

  “Anyway, here’s the schedule for the weekend,” Gary said, “and, boy oh boy, do we have a lot of fun things planned.”

  “We?” asked Carmen. “Is there another like you around here?”

  Gary Rose chuckled heartily, beads of sweat flying off his pink forehead. “Good one,” he said, looking at his clipboard. “Carmen. Okay, gang, so Team Sports are tomorrow at seven AM.”

  “I don’t do mornings,” said Sabrina.

  “Another good one,” said Gary. “But it’s not optional.” He began handing out stacks of papers. “Don’t hate me but we have a little homework tonight.”

 
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