Comfort food, p.2
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       Comfort Food, p.2

           Kate Jacobs

  Then, coffee in hand, she settled herself down on the sturdy white twill (for Gus had strong faith in her guests’ ability to not spill and in the power of Scotchgard if they did). The large kitchen was a space in which Gus keenly felt a sense of home and was where she did all her important thinking, be it coming up with new recipes or sorting out the endlessly complicated lives of her daughters. The wing chair closest to the French doors, long ago dubbed her “thinking spot” by Aimee, was perfectly positioned to lend a view of the flagstone patio. She could enjoy the color of her divine garden come spring—currently a bit of leftover snow and slushiness from a Westchester winter—as well as have full range of her gleaming kitchen. Sitting in this chair provided what she always called the “viewer’s-eye view” because it was how her home appeared on television.

  Hers was a dream kitchen, with a deep blue Aga stove, a marble-topped baking area, those granite counters, a deep and divided white farmer’s sink, the artfully mismatched cabinets designed to look as though they were pieces of furniture added over time (assuming every flea market and antique shop would miraculously contain wood pieces with precisely the same bun feet and crown molding), and a bank of Sub-Zero freezers and refrigerators along one wall. The pièce de résistance? The substantial rectangular island, with eight-burner cooktop and raised backsplash, ample counter space, and breakfast bar to one side (though not immediately in front of the cooktop, of course, where it might ruin the camera shot). The island was the part of her kitchen most familiar to her viewers.

  What a great idea it had been to suggest filming at her home when she began her third CookingChannel program, Cooking with Gusto!, in 1999. It certainly cut down commute time and, much more important, had turned the reno into something she could write off. And Gus, for all her professionalsuccess, was a devotee of socking away money. For a rainy day. For her retirement. Which had always seemed way, way off, on account of the fact that she was so tremendously, eternally, divinely young. A someday worth planning for but nothing that seemed as though it was about to arrive soon. She was too busy.

  In the early years when she first started on television, long before the plump paychecks and the merchandising deals, Gus hosted a half-hour programcalled The Lunch Bunch based on her menu at her gourmet spot The Luncheonette. It filmed in a studio in Manhattan and she took the train home to the small two-bedroom home she shared with Aimee and Sabrina. It was the same compact Westchester bungalow that she had initially moved into with Christopher, after they’d returned from their overseas Peace Corps stint and had given up living in Manhattan, back when they were barely married. When he’d raved about every dinner she burned and she made him brown-bag lunches, with sexy little notes tucked inside. When they were too new at life and marriage to comprehend the bad that could come. Would come.

  The tiny place had been home with their two little girls, and Gus had tried out a variety of careers—taking photographs for the local paper, doing part-time camera work for the local cable station, and making a line of homemade candles—while baking cupcakes for Sabrina and Aimee’s school and carpooling the neighborhood kids. Still enjoying the luxury of figuring out what she wanted to do.

  Christopher’s accident had changed things, of course, spurred her to open The Luncheonette, which attracted the attention of Alan Holt and his cable network. Gus’s little restaurant, in Westchester County, just north of New York City, specialized in quick bites and tea parties and the like. She was close enough to the station that commuters popped in for beverages and snacks before catching a train. The decor—bright and light with distressed off-white tables and comfy Parsons chairs upholstered in a wide red-and-creamstripe—had been spruced up to lure in the soccer moms with time between errands and school’s end. The small but thoughtful selection of gourmet groceries was selected to entice the adventurous home cooks, both the commuter and soccer mom variety.

  It had been a gamble when she opened, a chunk of her late husband’s life insurance money dwindling in a bank account and her two young daughters.It seemed as though running her own business would provide her the type of flexibility she needed with two young girls, and she’d always loved to cook. Loved to experiment with flavors and cuisines and making things look pretty. Her friends, though well meaning, disapproved, encouraging her instead to invest and live off the interest. But there wasn’t really enough to quite do that, and besides, Gus had wanted the risk. She needed the jolt.

  However, taking chances did not translate into being sloppy. No, indeed. And meeting with Alan Holt was a tremendous opportunity she couldn’t afford to screw up. She had, in fact, served him several pastries and more than a few sandwiches, never knowing him as more than a regular customer. Until the day he handed her his card and suggested he wouldn’t be averse to a home-cooked meal over which they could discuss a business proposal. Gus’s fervent hope had been that he was interested in showcasing The Luncheonettein an episode or two.

  She remembered vividly when Alan came for dinner in the spring of 1994, when Aimee and Sabrina were both young teens and she was a harriedsingle mom, still keenly missing Christopher though he’d been gone six years by then. It was as though she’d hit the “hold” button on her life when he died, waiting for something she couldn’t quite place her finger on that might make it somewhat better, and had instead filled up her days with working and organizing her girls. She hadn’t much energy left over, which had been her intention. Just enough to wish for the ability to provide her daughters with the life their father would have wanted for them.

  All Gus had asked the day Alan Holt came for dinner was to be left alone in the kitchen and for her girls to go out and cut some flowers. Somethingbright and cheery they could bring to her so she could do up a vase. Her oldest daughter, Aimee, had promptly walked outside to the back patio and flopped into a wicker chair, arms crossed, while Sabrina slowly wanderedoff through the front door, with a look Gus couldn’t discern between sulking and concentration.

  In fact, Gus had been quite prepared for the girls to come back empty-handedfrom the garden and had put together her own centerpiece hours earlier, working efficiently while her just-turned-into-teenagers slept away a gorgeous sunny Saturday morning. She’d tucked her arrangement onto a shelf above the washing machine, knowing her girls were hardly about to go near anything that seemed like a chore. Her request about gathering flowershad really been a mother’s trick to get the kids out of her way while she seasoned and sampled in the kitchen.

  And then she saw it: seven stones and one feather.

  That’s what Sabrina had placed on the center of the polished rosewood table.

  “What do you think, Mom?” asked the thirteen-year-old, brushing her glossy black bangs out of her eyes as she gestured to a lineup of polished river rocks arranged by size and a random piece of gray fluff that looked, at a distance, more similar to dryer lint than to something that once winged through the sky.

  Gus Simpson had chewed her lip as she pondered her younger daughter’s contribution that day and cast her eyes down the length of her table, covered with her good ivory linen place mats, clean and crisp, her collection of qualitychina—the artistically mismatched pieces of creamware she’d collected at estate sales and flea markets and the occasional full-price purchase at a department store—and the genuine crystal goblets and glasses she’d brought back from Ireland years ago. Red, white, water. They’d cost more than three months’ worth of mortgage when she’d made the splurge and Gus felt both guilty and exhilarated every time she saw them. Every mouthful—even plain old tap water—tasted better, too.

  The Ireland trip had been her last vacation with Christopher, a romantic trip without the girls and filled with night after night in which they turned in early, eager to be alone. They’d laughed as they steered awkwardly around the jaw-droppingly beautiful coast, neither of them quite comfortable drivinga stick shift on the other side of the road. But they’d managed it just fine, thank you very much. This made the accident all the more incompr
ehensible:Christopher had driven the Hutchison Parkway every day. Every single day. And then he made a mistake. That’s what happened when you let your guard down.

  Gus Simpson kept a vigilant watch: she knew that every moment, every detail mattered. Even the table setting.

  The just-polished silver had gleamed as it lay on the linen tablecloth; the sixteen settings had been her great-grandmother’s. Every clan has its own version of mythmaking—the hard winter everyone barely survived, the long and impossible transatlantic voyage from the Old World—and Gus’s family had their own, of course. It was The Quest for Fine Things. And so the silver service (much more ornate than current fashion) had been purchased,at great sacrifice, as a setting a year from Tiffany & Co. and used only for the big three—Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving—in later generations.Sometimes, the story went, a spoon was all that could be afforded, the knives and forks left waiting for a fatter year. And so the set had made its way—though not without causing tension within the family—from mother to oldest daughter to daughter’s daughter and finally to Gus, where the flatwarehad been put to more cutting and eating than ever before. No doubt her grandmothers would have thought it frivolous the way Gus delighted in her good plates and knives, and frowned upon their frequent use. Save, save, save it for later. That had been their motto. Tuck away the good to use only when you really need it. The thing was, Gus always felt as if she really needed it.

  Though the night Alan Holt came to dinner, surely, even her grandmotherswould have approved Gus setting such a grand table, all ready for the gorgeous meal simmering and roasting away in the kitchen. Cream of asparagus soup. Rack of lamb with herb jus. Gently roasted baby potatoes. Fresh, crusty bread she’d made from scratch, using a wet brick in her oven to generate steam (thanks to the advice of Julia Child in a well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2). All followed by a rich, buttery financière with homemade raspberry sorbet.

  She’d wanted the meal to be delicious. Homey. Welcoming. After all, it wasn’t every day that the president of the CookingChannel came over for Sunday dinner and the prospect of a different future hovered.

  “Mom? The table?” her daughter had said.

  Ah, yes, the table. Sabrina’s display had been the one element of discord in a perfectly arranged tableau: it was clearly unacceptable.

  Gus had opened her mouth to tell Sabrina to clean up the mess she’d created. To go upstairs, change out of the clothes she was wearing and put on something decent. To go find her sister and tell her to get ready.

  The words had been all ready to tumble out. Even without seeing herselfshe could feel the frown, her furrowed brow. How many times had Gus criticized Sabrina and Aimee? Change your clothes, turn down that music, tidy up your room, don’t leave wet towels on the floor. She, like all mothers of teenagers, had keenly felt her transformation into a walking cliché, as so many of the little issues that had seemed trivial and fuddy-duddy when she was young had stretched to matters of tremendous importance. A widow with two daughters, no less. Turning lights out when she left a room. Wearinga sweater instead of turning up the heat. Using a coaster on the coffee table. Eating leftovers. It was paying the bills that did it. Changed her perspective.Suddenly everything had mattered.

  Every thing mattered. Even the table setting. She knew it had to be fixed.

  But then she had caught the look of anticipation on her youngest daughter’s face. The wide eyes, the mouth slightly open, just enough to catch the glimmer of her metal braces. Her heart caught in her throat: Gus had assumed the sad little decoration on her table was a way for Sabrina to make clear how little she cared about Gus’s career. But could her daughter have been trying to help? she’d wondered.

  At precisely that moment, Aimee had slouched into the room, alerted, no doubt, by the radar all kids have when they sense—hope—their sibling is about to get in trouble. What is it about family that makes them close ranks to outsiders but attack one another with impunity in private? Thinnerand two inches taller than Sabrina, her light brown bangs dyed pink from Kool-Aid, fifteen-year-old Aimee grinned slyly as she saw her mother frowning at the table.

  “Nice!” Aimee said, catching her sister’s eye, gesturing toward the stone-feathercombo. “Mom’s totally going to throw that away. It’s not perfect. And Gus Simpson doesn’t do anything that’s not perfect. Right, Mom?” Then Aimee shifted all her weight to one hip, as though standing up straight would take too much effort. She waited.

  Sabrina waited.

  Gus hesitated as her mom side duked it out with her career side.

  “I think Sabrina’s arrangement is lovely,” Gus declared. “It’s very modern,very sleek. It stays on the table.”

  Aimee rolled her eyes.

  “Shut up, Aimee, it’s a very karma design,” shouted Sabrina.

  “I think you mean Zen, dear.” Gus smiled, recalling Sabrina’s huge ear-to-ear smile, the silver braces gleaming on her teeth, her sweet blue eyes wide and shining. It was the right choice, even though she’d felt a twist in her stomach when Mr. Holt, the CookingChannel president, had looked questioningly at the table as he sat down. But Gus had made no apologies, aware of Sabrina hanging on her every word, and in fact praised her daughter’s creativity.

  “Part of being a good host is to let everyone feel they’ve played a part,” she’d told him with confidence that spring day long ago.

  Mr. Holt, a divorced father, had nodded thoughtfully. “You’re just the type of person I’m looking for,” he announced. And by the end of cake, Gus Simpson—an unknown gourmet-shop owner without a cookbook to her name—had been asked to host a few episodes on the fledging cable channel.

  Sabrina’s display, it turned out, had been karma after all.

  And voilà! A few years on TV’s CookingChannel and she became an overnight sensation. That was the thing with all that “overnight” business: it typically took a lot of work beforehand.

  And now here she was in 2006, the very heart of food television, The Luncheonette long since sold away. She lived in a stunning manor house in Rye, New York, precisely the style of house that Christopher would have loved: a three-story structure, white with black shutters, with a large formal dining room to the left of the foyer, a conservatory, a small parlor that Gus had converted to her private den, a wood-paneled library, a glassed-in breakfastroom, and a cozy sitting room off the kitchen. Plus all the requisite space for her camera crews. There was a spacious patio immediately through the French doors from the kitchen, and a lush back lawn, edged in flowers, that was crowned with a decorative pond and waterfall that gurgled soothingly when she was out among the rosebushes.

  There were far too many bedrooms in the manor house for a single woman—her children had been practically packing for college when she signed the deed but she forged ahead anyway—and there were definitely not enough bathrooms for a modern home. It was her plan to update the upper floors, though she’d been too busy over the years to do that just yet.

  The house was the proof of her professional success. It appealed to her not only because of its magnificence but also because of its imperfections. It had a history that left it a little worn in places.

  And so Gus had purchased the home when she was developing her most popular program, Cooking with Gusto! It was her third program for the networkand the most well reviewed. Every week she hosted a brilliant chef in the manor house’s amazing kitchen (renovated twice since the program had started), and she and her guest drank good wine and chatted as together they prepared an incredible meal, discussing amusing stories from the world of professional restaurant kitchens and doing their sincere best to convince the viewer at home that she, too, could make the scrumptious dishes they were preparing.

  Gus Simpson had always been a good home cook. But she was no chef and she knew it: she’d been a photography major at Wellesley and possessed a great eye for visuals, and she’d had an idea ripe for its moment with The Luncheonette.Still, her gift—and it was a gift—had always
been about creating an amazing experience. She was a true entertainer: Gus made her guests feel alive—even when her guests were on the other side of a TV screen—and her joie de vivre made every mouthful look and taste refreshing. Gus’s main product was Gus, and she sold herself well: she was mother, daughter, best friend, life of the party. And she was good-looking to boot. Not so gorgeous that a viewer simply couldn’t stand her, but undeniably attractive with her big brown eyes and her wide, toothy smile.

  Gus Simpson was eminently watchable. Her viewers—and therefore her producers—loved her.

  Her friends, her daughters, her colleagues: everyone wanted to be around Gus. And Gus, in turn, had been enchanted by the idea of looking after all of them.

  Yet now it felt as though the spell was lifting.

  So, okay, she didn’t want to plan her own party. Who said she had to have one? Gus began pacing about the kitchen, ticking off a list on her fingersof all the people who would be disappointed if she didn’t put something together, her frustration rising with every step. She was always doing, doing, doing.

  Maybe turning fifty simply meant it was time to shake things up.

  "Knock knock? ” Shuffling open the white French door from her garden patio was Hannah Levine, her dear friend and neighbor. The two of them had shared an easy intimacy over the seven years they’d been friends. It hadn’t been quite that way when they first met, on the very Sunday Gus moved into the manor house during the summer of ’99. Gus had walked over to each of her neighbors’ homes and presented a freshly baked raspberry pie, expressinghow thrilled she was to be in the neighborhood. It was a brilliant touch, of course—pure Gus—and reciprocated by several dinner invitations and the beginning of many warm acquaintanceships. And then there had been Hannah, who lived immediately adjacent in a crisply painted white cottage,converted from what had once been the carriage house to Gus’s stately home. Hannah had come to the door in faded gray pajamas, her medium-lengthred hair pulled back into a low ponytail. Her skin was pale and free of makeup, and she eyed Gus suspiciously through thick black glasses.

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