Comfort food, p.5
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       Comfort Food, p.5

           Kate Jacobs
 

  Spoon in hand, Aimee left the eggs and walked apprehensively, heart beating, into her bedroom. And that’s when she saw Gus. In a turquoise linen shirt and khaki pants, her signature navy spatula in hand.

  On the TV.

  Gus was on television, cooking breakfast for the hosts of the Today show, who were eating and laughing.

  “So aren’t you the longest-running host on the CookingChannel?” asked Matt Lauer with a grin, knowing the answer already, thanks to his research department.

  Gus smiled wanly.

  “Yes, I just read that you’re considered the grande dame of food televisionwith all those young upstarts coming around,” piped in Ann Curry before changing topics. “This crème brûlée French toast is amazing. Are we putting the recipe on our Web site? Fantastic.”

  And the chatter went on and on and on; Aimee held the remote in her hand, finger on the power button, but didn’t press. Like everyone else, she found the host of Cooking with Gusto! engaging. Watchable. Likable. Unlike everyone else, Gus Simpson was her mother. It was, well, weird. Always had been. Though you had to admire her.

  With no professional culinary education, Gus had managed to turn an interest in food and a knack for timing into a mega career. She could cook, she could throw a damn good party, and she never tired of talking, thought Aimee. Between Gus and Sabrina, it was always rather impossible to get in a word at the Simpson household.

  “You’re so different than I remember,” her mother’s longtime producer, Porter Watson, had said to her at Gus’s holiday party in December, just over two months ago now. The two of them had waded through a standard, awkwardnice-to-see-you commentary at the punch bowl and arrived, thanks to an offhand line about charity, at a discussion of Aimee’s work at the UN. Porter seemed genuinely intrigued and said so.

  “I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken until now,” Aimee replied quietly.

  He’d looked at her with seriousness, as though he wanted to reply, when Gus motioned him over. She was standing partway up the staircase, admiringSabrina’s sage-and-cherry ribbon garlands on the banisters. “It’s a far cry from seven stones on a table,” Gus laughed. Alan Holt’s first dinner meeting with Gus, and Sabrina’s pitiful little centerpiece, was a well-worn anecdote. Gus had raised her glass and her partygoers did the same.

  Then it was time for toasts and cake—always cake!—and Aimee had slipped out onto the patio and the garden beyond, cold just as a Westchester December should be, to huddle until making her exit wouldn’t seem rude. From time to time she would glance toward a window, quickly so she didn’t even have to admit to herself she was looking, hoping to catch sight of her mother looking for her.

  The volume on the television grew louder as the Today show cut to commercial, jolting her back to her own breakfast in the kitchen. Aimee went back to look at her eggs. Not quite the perfection she’d hoped for. She scraped the rubbery mess into the garbage, rinsed off her plate and put it into the dishwasher, and took a bite of the dry, cold toast, then tossed that into the bin as well before leaving for the day.

  Sabrina Stepped Out Of the cab on Forty-ninth Street and Sixth and right into a puddle of melting snow. Thank God the fashion world had gotten over the open-toed-shoes-in-winter thing, she thought, grateful for her tall brown leather boots and her warm cashmere coat. She stepped up onto the curb, shifted her portfolio from one hand to the other while she pulled on her gloves, and then hustled eastward from Sixth to Rock Center. Her potential new client—and a steaming cup of mocha—was waiting for her at the Dean & DeLuca gourmet food shop and Sabrina was eager to see both of them. There was a crowd of onlookers standing in front of the Today show studio just ahead of the shop and she gave a quick look to assess jaywalking into the street, but a slew of black town cars and yellow cabs were clogging things up. Argh! Resigned to fighting through the crowd, Sabrina picked her way through the tourists who were gushing and cooing about whichever celebrity was being interviewed.

  “I love her!”

  “She’s so real, you know?”

  “I just wish she’d come to my house and make dinner!”

  At that last comment Sabrina swiveled her black head involuntarily toward the glass-fronted studio and felt her stomach drop.

  Through the window. On the monitors. Smiling and laughing and playingto the crowd. Just as she always did. Just as Sabrina was about to meet this client, the first one she’d set up on her very own. There she was.

  Gus.

  There was always Gus.

  4

  Carmen Vega scratched her arms—and her legs—and stared at her mini-television in the carefully refurbished galley kitchen of her overpriced Tribeca studio. What she saw on screen almost made her forget how much her skin itched. Because there, in her spot—the one her publicist had worked so hard to land, to coincide with the article in the New York Times that heralded her emergence as a full-fledged Foodie Queen—was Gus Simpson.It was simply infuriating! Gus Simpson was everywhere, with her own brand of knives, her own brand of spices, her mega-selling cookbooks, and all those Cooking with Gusto! episodes that ran daily on the CookingChannel— not to mention additional repeats of her 1990s programs The Lunch Bunch and Entertaining Eats. (Why on earth anyone watched those episodes of Simpson in colored jeans and brocaded vests was beyond Carmen. Nothing ever looks as bad as a bygone trend.)

  There was even talk that Gus had been approached to start her own magazine. Carmen already had a name for her own magazine and had even bought an online address, if only someone was willing to fund it. Being Miss Spain 1999 might intrigue some of her fans but it did not necessarily cause investors to pony up, unfortunately. She simply hadn’t been able to raise enough money. (Though, much to her annoyance, she’d been asked out on several dates by those same investors, male and female alike.) What botheredCarmen the most was that, despite her beauty pageant background, she had a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Gus Simpson did not.

  All Gus was doing on the TV was making a breakfast every person in America already knew how to make, and yet there was Matt Lauer, yakking it up as though he’d never seen an egg.

  Damn, a person just couldn’t get away from that woman! Carmen had heard, through the culinary grapevine, about Gus being demanding. Which was believable—all the celebrity chefs she’d ever met were far worse than the beauty pageant contestants she’d once known. At least the beauty queens relaxed a bit when the lights went down and the double-stick tape was peeled off their boobs.

  Chefs, on the other hand, never put away their knives.

  And the thought of having something sharp really appealed right about now: Carmen wiggled, desperate to reach that place on her back that itched more than anywhere else.

  “Don’t scratch!” her publicist had BlackBerryed the night before. “Chicken pox can leave scars. Think of your face!”

  Who gets chicken pox the night before they’re supposed to go on the Today show? Carmen Vega, that’s who, she thought glumly, rubbing her back against the edge of the concrete countertop for a little scratch without letting her eyes leave the television.

  If Carmen wanted her magazine, a line of saucepans, and a far fatter bank account, she was going to have to raise her profile. And getting sick before a big TV appearance wasn’t going to cut it. She’d wanted to go on anyway—a generous slather of foundation might have done the trick—but her publicist wouldn’t risk becoming persona non grata if the Today show hosts caught the virus.

  Carmen hadn’t even known that adults could get chicken pox, and so wasn’t highly alarmed when, two weeks ago, she saw several children with scabby little spots during her afternoon stint as a guest teacher in a second-gradeclassroom. It had been yet another stunt that was the creative brain-childof her increasingly too expensive publicist, and the event had attracted a handful of reporters. It had even garnered her a few meetings with interestedexecutives. But most of the commentary, as usual, came from the ubiquitousfoodie-bloggers-turned-journalists. The Interne
t bloggers were Carmen’s mainstay, pumping up her career, coming to her cooking demonstrations in malls, and posting their meet-and-greets on YouTube. And she loved them for it. The Internet fans had made her career by watching her and then talkingabout how they felt while watching her. It was very postmodern.

  And they loved to talk about how she looked as much as what she cooked.

  “You’re so beautiful!” Eventually, someone would say it. Carmen was one of those lucky few who get more than their fair share of good genes: her olive skin was smooth and glowing, her figure trim, her legs shapely, her black hair glossy and thick, her brown eyes wide and rimmed with dark lashes. But so what? She knew she wasn’t as good-looking as her mother and older sister Marisol, who lived quiet lives back home in Seville. But Carmen had the gumption to use those family genes to her professional advantage, first in the world of pageants and briefly as a model. Her original plan had been to get to Hollywood. By the time she flubbed her shot at the Miss Universe title—a wardrobe malfunction with her halter top during the swimsuit competition meant she quickly became one of the more well-known runners-up—led to a role in a blockbuster film spoofing herself, and a tabloid-heavy courtship with the bleached-blond singer from a popular boy band. By early 2002, the crooner was on to a new piece of arm candy, Carmen hadn’t landed any additional acting work, and even a fender bender in Beverly Hills hadn’t attracted even one paparazzo. Her more-than-fifteen-minutes were all used up: Miss Spain had become Miss Lame.

  That’s why Carmen, bored, frustrated, and more than a little freaked out, locked herself in her rented guesthouse to hide. To figure out her next move. Sleeping in until noon, with no plans for her afternoons, she made dish after dish that reminded her of home: paella, gazpacho, and fried fish. At night she lay on her sofa and drank glass after glass of wine, full from her cooking and overwhelmed with self-pity, the CookingChannel playing on the television for background noise. Lulled into fitful sleep by the sound of Gus Simpson planning parties on television.

  Finally, one day, chopping up vegetables with a mild hangover, the pieces came together in a coherent idea: Carmen wanted a career in front of the cameras and she loved to cook. The next day she awoke before midday for the first time in months and used her cell phone to call for admissions applicationsto culinary schools all across the country. Carmen Vega was going to cook her way to stardom.

  Four years later, she had a steady income as a spokesperson for the top importer of black Spanish empeltres olives, and her live ten-minute Internetshow, FlavorBoom, was garnering attention. Carmen was on her way to crossing from cult hit to mainstream star.

  Though, to be honest, a lot of her fans were as interested in her favorite brand of lip gloss as much as her lip-smacking recipes. And, keeping the universe in balance, she had also attracted a dedicated following of Carmenhaters.Every so often she deigned to check in on the latest ramblings on CarmenVegaSucks.com, the online home of an anonymous blogger who savaged FlavorBoom with regularity. She told herself it didn’t bother her, though she called her mother after each new update, unable to express her anger as succinctly in English as she could in Spanish.

  Reflexively, Carmen reached for the phone—one eye still on Gus Simpsoncooking on the Today show—and dialed the number she knew so well.

  "¿Mamá? Tengo otro día malo ...”

  OvercOOked instant rice, dry pork chops, canned yellow beans, and wilted iceberg lettuce.

  That’s what Gus said whenever an interviewer asked how she got into cooking. She recited the dinner menu her mother had cooked most often, typically more than once a week. Sometimes with apple sauce from a jar, sometimes without seasoning at all.

  Her mother and father would sit across from each other, Gus in the middle.Pass the salt, pass the pepper. No one talked as they chewed, slowly, swallowing hard to get down each bite.

  “Don’t believe it when you hear that the fifties and early sixties were all about Suzy Homemaker.” Gus repeated the same words to Al Roker that she’d said many times before: “Just like now, a lot of those folks couldn’t boil water and hadn’t a clue how to make a proper meal. My mother was one of them.”

  And then Gus launched into her condensed but well-practiced anecdote of using her library card to take out cookbooks, of saving up her allowance to finally buy a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for her very own, and of spending her Saturday and Sunday afternoons experimentingand forcing the neighborhood kids to eat her concoctions.

  “I just wanted to eat something that tasted good!” she concluded with a laugh.

  “Well, this brunch is fantastic,” said Ann Curry. “Thanks to Gus Simpson,host of Cooking with Gusto!, for sharing these great recipes! We’ll see all of you tomorrow.”

  “And we’re out,” called out a voice offstage. One of the producers walked onto the set.

  “Thanks so much for filling in last minute, Gus,” he said. “We were so shocked to find out Carmen Vega has the chicken pox. But you really saved our bacon, pun intended.”

  With a light touch on her arm, he steered her off set, laughing, as though the two of them were coconspirators, saving the Today show from dead air. (Which, after years in television, Gus knew wouldn’t have actually happened.)

  “Oh, I’m just delighted—delighted,” she repeated, a smile pasted on her face as he walked her to a dressing room. Carmen Vega! The young Internet Foodie Queen? Whom Gus had been replacing was one fact, she realized now, that had been conspicuously left out when she had been called as an emergency guest. In fact, she was so thrilled to get the call, she hadn’t even thought to ask who had dropped out. The reality was that she hadn’t done morning television in almost a year, as the breakfast shows had become more focused on the cheftestants of Top Chef and the latest cook with a gimmick. And now Gus understood: she’d morphed, seemingly overnight, from sexy fun guru of entertaining to the reliable old stalwart when they needed someone who would show up. Not someone who was ... exciting. Not a beauty queen.

  And, for God’s sake, what had Gus done? She’d gone on the air and scrambled eggs.

  “I could have at least done an omelette,” she said to no one in particular.

  Maybe they were right.

  She sat down in front of a mirror and wiped off the heavy TV makeup from her face, dabbing on a little moisturizer and reapplying a neutral lipstick and a swipe of mascara. She glanced down at her blouse quickly, checking to make sure she hadn’t rubbed any foundation on her. Then she stood, smoothing out her flat-fronted pants as she did so. “I look just like Gus Simpson,” she sighed, noting her golden-brownish hair pinned loosely at the back of her head, the few tendrils of hair pulled loose to soften the look, the flowing style of her clothing, the chunky necklace with a pendant that fell just above her breasts. She was always comfortably elegant. A viewer, a producer: everybody knew what they were getting when they ordered up Gus. Maybe it really was time to think about a makeover. Take a page from Carmen Vega’s book.

  A quick check of her watch revealed it was just 10:20 AM. Perhaps she wouldn’t head back to Westchester immediately, would stroll over the few blocks from the NBC studios to Saks and poke around, buy something fresh.

  Gus zipped up her handbag and switched on her cell phone to check in. Her first call was to Porter.

  “Hey, Gus. Did you get my message? ” He’d been producing her programs ever since her first stint on The Lunch Bunch. “Look, since you’re in the city, I was wondering if you could come by? Marketing has just brought in the results from a new focus group, and, well, I think we should just put our heads together.”

  “Oh, Porter, it’s bad, isn’t it?” Gus was worried. “I know the ratings weren’t as strong last fall but—”

  “Let’s talk face-to-face. See you when you get here.” And he was gone.

  There went her quiet day of shopping.

  upsetting the apple cart

  5

  It had been Hannah’s idea for Gus to call Troy and ask hi
s advice. He was young and smart and he knew how to think on his feet. And Gus needed the help. She hadn’t been completely surprised by the news from her producer—that ratings were down again and the focus groups were favoring live shows over taped programs like Cooking with Gusto! What she hadn’t expected to hear was that her season was going to be cut short or, possibly, pulled completely to make way for a mid-season replacement. Just like that. Twelve years on the CookingChannel and suddenly, just like anyone else, she was being told to put up or shut up.

  “I’ll call Alan and get this straightened out,” she told Porter, with confidence.“He may be the president but you and I have been with him since the beginning. There’s been some mistake.”

  Porter had sat there quietly as Gus borrowed his office phone to place the call. She watched as he tapped his dark-skinned fingers on the desk, pointedlyavoiding her gaze. Giving her privacy even though she was mere feet away.

  Alan, she’d been told slowly and repeatedly by his administrative assistant,was in a meeting. A meeting that was going to last all week, apparently.Gus held on to the handset long after the assistant had clicked off.

  Business can seem so very personal, when you’re all friends sitting around a table toasting the latest success. But, in the end, business is just that. It’s business.

  Gus Simpson could have her show canceled just like anyone else. And it hurt.

  Porter, after breaking off a piece of good Swiss chocolate from the stash in his desk and encouraging Gus to nibble, had stripped the situation bare: the Today show appearance had been a fluke. Carmen Vega had chicken pox and Rachael Ray, their first choice of replacement, was shooting the world’s first all-cooking movie up in Albany. Gus had been close enough to their studio to make it on time. And she was a solid. Dependable. Enough said.

  Not to mention, Porter explained, but he’d heard that all the well-known cooking personalities were retooling their programs on all the cable channels:Nigella Lawson was doing a thirteen-episode series devoted to the barbecue,that most un-English of meals, and while wearing designer tankinis, no less. Gus’s longtime rival, the incomparable Barefoot Contessa, was turningher program into a musical, sharing recipes set to lyric and score.

 
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