Comfort food, p.29
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       Comfort Food, p.29

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “And since it’s fall, we can work in a bit of a harvest theme,” suggested Oliver. “Like a fruit crisp using pears and apples in recognition of Troy’s family.”

  “And I love meat loaf,” said Porter. “We never make any good old-fashionedmeat loaf on this channel.”

  “What’ll be our Spanish touch?” sniffed Carmen. “I want to recognize what matters to me, as well.”

  “If octopus is your family favorite, then just tell us and by all means bring it in,” said Gus. “This show is going to be for everyone.”

  Gus went directly from her meeting to Bar 44 at the Royalton. There, she found Sabrina and Billy eagerly awaiting her arrival. She’d been surprised, as she had spent more time with her daughter and her fiancé, at how simpatico they were, and how Billy seemed able to read Sabrina’s moods quite well. He still looked like a Ken doll, with his conventionally handsome features, but there was clearly much more to him than that. Billy was, in fact, a very sensitive, caring man.

  “We’ve just had a big talk about the food for the wedding,” she told them now. “Lobster, and filet, and shrimp, and even a bit of truffle.”

  “Thank you, Gus,” said Billy. “I’m completely overwhelmed. I know we had a rocky start but I am thrilled to become a part of your family.”

  “Well, that’s good because if the season doesn’t get picked up, I could be looking for a new home,” she said, laughing.

  “You’re always welcome with us,” he said.

  They shared a good bottle of cabernet as Sabrina proudly showed them the dress she had picked out for Aimee, her maid of honor, and the bow ties she planned to force upon Salt and Pepper.

  “I’ve an idea,” Gus said. “Aimee knows we’re doing wedding stuff but why don’t I ask her to join us for dinner?”

  “Perfect,” said Billy. “I completely want to talk to her about an article I read about cassava production in Central Africa. She’s great to talk to.”

  “Blah blah blah,” said Sabrina. “The two of you can be so boring sometimes.”

  Gus held up her hand. “Wait, she’s answering,” she said, before asking Aimee to meet them. There was a long pause on the other end of the line.

  “I’d love to, Mom, but I have plans.”

  “Tell her to turn off her game shows and come on down,” piped up Sabrina, directing her comments toward the phone.

  “Oh?” asked Gus. “What sort of plans?”

  “I’ve met someone,” said Aimee. “And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

  A slew of questions popped into Gus’s brain: she had to know more, more, more. But she stopped herself. She was learning.

  “Okay,” she said. “I can’t wait to hear all about it when you’re ready.”

  It was getting rather late when Carmen returned to the test kitchen at the studio. Oliver was there, putting together some of the dishes for the next episode. He was just straightening up after placing a pan in the oven when Carmen came up and put her arms around him.

  “Hey, you,” she said, leaning in to give him a big smoochy kiss on each cheek. “Want to have some fun?”

  “Hey, Carmen,” he said, picking her arms off him though gazing at her fondly. “That’s enough of that, okay.”

  “I’ve got a new idea,” she said. “Let’s get back together.”

  “We barely dated, and that was years ago, Carmen. You’ve got Alan now. And besides, I’m in love.”

  “Vale, vale,” Carmen said, making a face. “Who is it?”

  “Someone whose last name is Simpson,” he said.

  "Aimee? ”

  “Gus,” corrected Oliver.

  “But she’s older than you!”

  “I know. That’s part of her charm. She knows who she is.”

  Carmen crossed her arms. Now what? In her mind, she’d always consideredOliver her back-pocket guy, the one she could pull out for comfort when life wasn’t working out.

  “She can’t have babies,” she said. “I can do that for you.”

  “Ah, I’m not one for kids,” said Oliver. “They’re a bit chewy.”

  “Everyone wants children, Oliver.”

  “I don’t. I’m good with the nieces and nephews. Uncle Oliver, you know. It’s enough for me.”

  “What if you stop being happy?” she said. “Then what?”

  He shrugged.

  “I’m not happy,” she admitted.

  “Ah,” said Oliver. “We’re really talking about you, not me. Now I get it.”

  “Why am I not happy?”

  “Well, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say you take yourself far too seriously,” he said. “And I strongly suspect your relationship with Alan is pretty much a means to an end. Is that what you really need in your personal life?”

  “Everything is a means to an end, Oliver. I don’t think it’s fair that I’ve had to be on a show with Gus.”

  “It’s not,” said Oliver. “To her.”

  “I just feel thwarted,” said Carmen. “Don’t I work hard?”

  “Do you feel good? That’s what matters.”

  “Have you ever thought about bankrolling a restaurant?” Carmen leaned back on her arms and tilted her head, affecting a pose. “A Carmen Vega restaurant.”

  “I would have loved to. But I just made a huge investment in something else.”

  “You gave it to Gus?” Carmen toyed with an oven mitt that Oliver had taken off his hand.

  “Hell, no, she’d never have taken it anyway,” said Oliver. “I’ve just become the major shareholder in FarmFresh.”

  “Troy’s dinky little company?”

  “Ah, that’s the beauty,” said Oliver. “I don’t think it’s going to be small for too much longer.”

  “Everybody gets what they want except for me.” Carmen threw the oven mitt onto the floor. “I don’t understand, when I’ve sacrificed so much.”

  “Give it time.”

  “Sometimes I do things I’m not proud of, Oliver,” she admitted, tilting her head back to stare at the ceiling. “But I tell myself it’s okay. I just want to get ahead so much.”

  “Life isn’t a straightforward climb up the ladder,” he said, dishing up a bowl of the chicken soup he’d just prepared and handing it to her. “It can take a few slips to really gain perspective.”

  comfort food

  29

  The mood in Gus’s Kitchen as the crew prepped was ebullient; Alan still hadn’t announced the fate of Eat Drink and Be but he’d let Porter know that he was coming to personally be in the “audience” of the second-to-last show.

  “He does remember there isn’t actually a group of fans here, right?” asked Gus. “He’s going to end up on an equipment box wedged in between Salt and Pepper.”

  “I’ll make sure he has a chair,” Porter said drily. “I try to go all out when the boss comes over.”

  Alan Holt arrived with an elegantly attired blonde on his arm, who toweredover him in her heels.

  “This is Melanie,” he said. “She’s a model.”

  “So nice to meet you,” said Gus. “You’ll find the ‘set’ is right down that hall. But do you mind if I have a quick word with Alan?”

  She and Alan stepped into the dining room.

  “What about Carmen?” she asked.

  “What about her?”

  “She’s your girlfriend,” hissed Gus. “Or was. And now you’ve brought another date to our show.”

  Alan stared at her as though she’d lost her mind.

  “Melanie,” he said, “is my girlfriend. For quite a while now. Months.”

  “What?”

  “Melanie, my girlfriend, you just shook her hand.” Alan patted her on the shoulder. “Maybe I do work you too hard.”

  “Are you saying Carmen is not your girlfriend?”

  “It’s an intriguing idea,” Alan said. “But she’s a little volatile, even for me.”

  “Well, everyone’s been tiptoeing around her all season because they think you’re her sugar da
ddy.” Gus’s voice was growing.

  “Where’d they get that idea?”

  “From everything,” said Gus. “You brought her to my show from your house, and then she told Porter you okayed the octopus, and every time someone so much as stresses in her direction, she drops your name.”

  Alan chuckled.

  “I’ve been played, haven’t I?” Gus was not amused.

  “I gotta say, there’s more to that Carmen than I thought,” said Alan. He patted a fuming Gus on the shoulder and walked away.

  “You’ve still got a show to do, my dear. I look forward to it.” And he strolled off to take a seat near Porter.

  “Ten minutes, people,” Porter called out. “If you need to use the facilities, do it now.”

  Gus was so angry she practically jet-propelled herself into the kitchen.

  “Carmen,” she said. “In the library. Alone. Now.”

  “I’m busy,” Carmen replied, wiping the counter with a dry towel. “Tidying.”

  Gus brought her hand down quickly on the towel to stop Carmen’s movements.“Since when,” she asked, “do you do any tidying around here? Let’s go. It’s time to have a talk.”

  The rest of the team stared, then pretended not to be watching, then began making eye contact and mouthing, “What’s going on?” to one another as Carmen was marched out of the room by Gus.

  “Old habits die hard,” mused Aimee, thinking of the times she and Sabrina had been reprimanded for various infractions when they were young.

  “Just stay in the zone, people,” Porter called out, sneaking glances at Alan and his blond guest and wondering just what, exactly, he’d said to Gus to set her off. And the series had been going so well.

  “Sit,” Gus said, as she and Carmen entered the library. Gus remained standing.

  “Alan’s not your boyfriend?”

  “No.” Carmen stared out the window, refusing to look Gus in the eye.

  Gus took a deep breath, held it, and let it out.

  “Carmen,” Gus said slowly, in a calm, clear voice. “I want you to know that I was struck, particularly at the weekend retreat, by your absolute talent in the kitchen. You love food in a way few people do. That’s something we have in common.”

  Carmen sat motionless in the chair, shocked still by what Gus was saying.

  “I think you have a great future ahead, and I genuinely look forward to the day when you have what you want—the solo show, the fame, the restaurant,the cheese slicers bearing your name.”

  “Don’t lie,” said Carmen. “You’ve never wanted me to succeed. You should have seen the look on your face the day I walked into your kitchen. You wanted to scream but you were too proper to do it.”

  “You’re right,” admitted Gus. “But for right now, all we have is this program.We’ve got a few chances left to learn to work together. It’s not for one of us to be successful at the expense of the other.”

  Carmen got up and began to pace, looking at Gus every few seconds. She’d always been an individual, competing by herself, for herself, from the beauty pageants to the Internet cooking program. She’d never considered there could be any other approach. Until now.

  “I’m sorry, Gus.” She looked her cohost full in the face. “Can you forgiveme?”

  “Oh, you mustn’t be all bad, Carmen,” Gus said, gently touching her arm. “Otherwise you wouldn’t look quite so guilty.”

  Gus walked her back into the kitchen, where the rest of the team waited, salivating for an update.

  “I have an announcement to make,” Carmen said when she entered the room. “I want all of you to know that I am not dating Alan, nor have I ever been. I made it up to force all of you to respect me.”

  Troy dropped the pear he was cutting onto the floor. “But you’ve been so . . . difficult,” he said. “Downright mean.”

  “My mother has been stressed out for six months,” shouted Aimee.

  “You lied,” Sabrina said, somewhat shocked.

  “You really do have chutzpah,” said Hannah.

  “Oh, Carmen,” sighed Oliver.

  “And I just want to say that Gus and I talked about it and she’s not a bitch,” Carmen said.

  “What?”

  “No, wait, that came out wrong. Gus, I expected you to be harsh, and I thought I’d beat you to the punch line. But you’ve never treated me anythingother than decently, and I am sorry.”

  “Oh, this is huge,” said Hannah. “I need a Milky Way.”

  Oliver came over and gave Carmen a long hug, then turned and kissed Gus full on the mouth.

  The camera crew burst into applause.

  “Lipstick! Lipstick!” shouted Porter.

  “Okay, everyone, okay,” Gus said, pushing Oliver back gently. “We’re going live in . . . how long, Porter?”

  “Three minutes!”

  “Three minutes,” she repeated. Gus motioned everyone closer to her: Troy, Aimee, Sabrina, Hannah, Oliver, and—when she stayed several steps back—Carmen.

  “Tonight we are going to cook with love,” she said quietly. “Everything’s out in the open now so let’s just forge ahead. This program is about food, and it’s about family, and we just may be a rather dysfunctional lot, but it’s what we have. Let’s make this show hot!”

  And when the red light came on, Gus was as warm and welcoming as she’d ever been.

  “Thanks for tuning in tonight,” she said. “I’m Gus Simpson, and this is Eat Drink and Be.” She picked up an already-baked bun, warm from the oven. “See this? It’s a roll, just like my own grandmother used to make. And when I bite into one of these, it takes me back to being a girl. So on this episode we’ve collected all sorts of comfort foods that are inspired by all the folks on our show.”

  “And I’m Carmen Vega. What are we making tonight, Gus?” For once, Carmen was deferential.

  “Well, you’re going to show us your mother’s delicious gazpacho, aren’t you?”

  “I’d be happy to,” said Carmen. Even though the tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers had all been prepped, she had half-expected that Gus would nix her project. It’s what she would have done if the situation were reversed. I guess, she thought to herself, there’s a reason why Gus is Gus.

  “Two minutes until end of commercial,” called out Porter. “Get ready to do that meat loaf with peach-apricot chutney.”

  “Chutney? Isn’t that kinda weird on meat loaf?” asked Aimee.

  “Oh, I had something like it at Priya’s house and it was delish,” said Hannah.“I told Gus all about it.”

  “I thought you were making chicken soup?” Sabrina said.

  “Oh, I’m doing that, too,” said Hannah.

  “Don’t forget we’ve got veggie chili and easy roasted fall vegetables to round out the menu,” said Oliver.

  “And my dad’s chocolate cake,” said Aimee. “We’ve that, too.”

  After sixty frantic minutes, the group had managed to showcase each of their dishes briefly—there were a lot of “look, here it is already done” moments—and taken a bite out of absolutely everything.

  “Don’t forget to check the Web site for the recipes,” said Carmen. “All of this stuff is easy to make and fun to share.”

  “Remember,” said Gus. “Food is family and family is food.”

  She paused to smile into the camera.

  “My hope is that all of you make a point to savor what’s on your plate. From all of us, have a good night, and, please, eat drink and be.” She took a mouthful of Troy’s pear and apple crisp as Carmen spooned gazpacho from a small cup. Both were delicious.

  “And we’re out,” yelled Porter. “Great job! Next up is Sabrina’s wedding, and then we’ll break. Hopefully we’ll be coming back after that.”

  Alan cleared his throat.

  “About that,” he said. “I’d like to see Porter, Gus, and Carmen in the study, please. If you don’t mind me commandeering the room, of course, Gus.”

  “Not at all,” she said, putting down the bowl in
her hand and reaching for Oliver’s to give it a squeeze before making her way to the library.

  “Okay, gang,” said Alan. “I just want to thank the three of you for a great run. Good job.”

  “That’s it?” asked Porter.

  “Pretty much. And, oh yeah, I’m renewing Eat Drink and Be with Gus Simpson!”

  “And Carmen Vega,” said Carmen.

  “No,” Alan said. “Just Gus is going to be on Eat Drink and Be from now on. It’s always been her show anyway.”

  “¡No lo creo!” cried Carmen, sinking into a chair.

  “Oh, it’s not all over for you, Carmen,” Alan said, putting his arm around her. “I’m giving you your own program.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah, I’m going to run the same episodes on both the CookingChannel and the new Spanish-language channel I’ve just bought into,” he said. “Eat Drink and Be has been a great setup.”

  “I’m not understanding you,” said Carmen.

  “Me neither,” said Gus.

  “It’s obvious,” said Alan. “I had to build up Carmen’s brand by piggy-backingonto Gus. Get her a head start on a new fan base.”

  “Why didn’t you let me in on it?” Gus asked.

  “Tension makes for great television. Remember: it’s business, Gus, business.Besides, I had faith you could handle it. I’ve always been able to depend on you.”

  “Wait a second here,” said Carmen. “You didn’t think I could hold my own?”

  “You had a ten-minute Internet show about yourself, Carmen. I wanted you to learn how to host a show about the viewers.”

  “A Spanish-language channel?”

  “And the CookingChannel,” Alan said. “You’ll be on both. The show will be bilingual, too—it’s one of my best concepts. It’ll be accessible and yet have that European sophistication, like Giada De Laurentiis.”

  “Vale, vale,” said Carmen. “I don’t know whether to be happy or to cry. But finally I have my own show.”

  Gus still had questions.

  “So I’ve never been in danger of losing my job?” she asked.

  “I wouldn’t go that far,” said Alan. “Your ratings were dropping faster than a thermostat in a snowstorm. But with Porter’s guidance, you made it through.”

 
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