Scarpettas winter table, p.1
Scarpetta's Winter Table, p.1Patricia Cornwell
Scarpetta's Winter Table
* * *
The night after Christmas was cold and brittle, and in Dr. Kay Scarpetta's quiet Richmond neighborhood, trees were bare and groaning as they rocked in the wind. A candle burned in every window of her modern stone house, and a generous, fresh wreath of evergreen and holly was centered on the carved front door. Scarpetta had strung tiny white lights in shrubs on either side of the porch and tied big red bows on carriage lamps. She had been cooking since early afternoon, and by now her special people had gathered.
"That's enough moonshine," Scarpetta commented to Pete Marino, who was a captain at the Richmond police department and someone she had worked with for years. "No alcohol poisoning in my house."
Marino didn't listen as he poured two more jiggers of 100 proof Virginia Lightning into the blender. Each guest had his own contribution to the evening, and his was eggnog, as it was every December 26, the biggest letdown day of the year. Scarpetta always insisted that the three of them spend it together:
"You don't have to drink much of it," said Marino. "One or two snorts, and then you move on to the next thing."
"What next thing?" she asked, tapping a long wooden spoon on the side of the pot.
"I don't see any smoked oysters."
"In the pantry."
"Good. Wouldn't be right if you left those out."
"I never do. Doesn't matter who else likes them."
"That's the spirit," Marino said, pleased.
He was big with powerful hands capable of snatching bad people out of flight and pinning them to the ground or slamming them up against the side of a building. His red plaid shirt barely buttoned over his belly, and his thinning gray hair had a mind of its own. Scarpetta stirred the tomato sauce simmering on the stove.
"You got some wine, don't you?" he went on. "I thought I'd be civilized tonight and go with something besides beer. Here, taste this, Doc."
He poured a dollop of first-stage eggnog into a water glass and presented it to her. She sipped and her lips burned. The corn liquor warmed her throat all the way down on its way to heating up her stomach. Thoughts loosened. Much that had been vague and formless sharpened into focus.
"Wow," said the intrepid chief medical examiner of Virginia. "That's it. There will be no argument. Nobody's driving anywhere tonight. In fact, no one's going out of the house."
"I haven't finished mixing up everything, so it will be a lot better when I'm done. Plus it's got to sit for a while. You're safe for a couple hours, long enough to get your pizza going, because don't worry, Doc, ain't no way I'm letting you out of making that since you only bother maybe once a year."
It was true that Scarpetta rarely had time to spend half a day in the kitchen, and although pizza was not a conventional holiday dinner; in her case it was an unforgettable one. Her specialty pie was a unique blend of Italy, Miami, and her own originality. No one who had ever sat at her table had gone away unchanged. Scarpetta cooked with warmth and imagination. The good doctor's concoctions were meant to soothe and heal and make you feel less alone. When she gave you a meal, she gave you herself.
"Where's the eggnog?" Lucy Farinelli called out from the great room.
She was a special agent with ATF and Scarpetta's only niece.
"Hold your horses!" Marino called back.
"I want it now."
"A couple hours!"
"No way my horses can wait that long!"
"No eggnog before its time!" Marino thundered.
"Then I'm going running. All this frustration! OHHHH!"
"Aunt Kay says you can't leave the house!"
Lucy secured her Sig Saur 9mm pistol inside a butt pack, buckling the strap snugly around her waist. She walked into the kitchen and hugged her aunt from behind. Scarpetta smiled as she continued stirring. Lucy made a face at Marino.
"Remember the first time Marino made his eggnog for us?" Lucy reminded them. "Wild Turkey, and lots of it. Red food coloring – for Christmas, of course. Whipped cream and peppermint candy sprinkles on top, served in frosted beer mugs. With those rather disgusting chocolate cupcakes you made." She pointed at Marino. "Green icing, little Christmas trees made out of cocktail toothpicks stuck in the middle of each one – and they were raw in the middle!"
"You're making me ill," Scarpetta exclaimed.
Lucy's laughter was loud and out of control. She held her stomach, hopping around the kitchen on one foot or the other as she howled and her aunt stirred.
"And he glued little red hots on the trees. Like ornaments. Put little stars on top. Like you get in the first grade for perfect attendance!" Lucy could barely talk, her eyes streaming as she laughed and shrieked.
Marino scowled at her.
"Everybody's got to start somewhere," he said.
Marino's Cause-Of-Death Eggnog
This night he was expecting to serve three people, but it was his nature to make more of everything than was either healthy or necessary. One could look at him and deduce his modus operandi with no further evidence than his flushed face and considerable size. He began with a dozen eggs, cracking each with violence. Yokes went into the blender and whites went into a stainless steel mixing bowl. He blended the yokes and folded in a pound of powdered sugar.
Although most of the hoi polloi prefer dark rum or bourbon | in their eggnog, Marino gives business to the Virginia economy and is a patron of a small family-owned distillery that makes moonshine. If you're shopping for first-rate corn liquor, you need to consider a few points. It must be legal, the still regularly inspected by ATE It is important that copper pipes and kettles and filtered water are part of the process and that high-grade corn is used. The good stuff is rather much like combustible, mind-altering vapors. Marino likes his corn liquor in a shot glass now and then, but it is also quite compatible with eggnog and gives it a slightly different character. Marino's eggnog is for outlaws and those who war against them. It will fire you up or shut you down. If you're not used to it, it is not recommended unless you don't plan to move far or quickly from one spot for at least twelve hours.
At this stage, Marino's mixture needs to be held in custody inside the refrigerator until eggy flavors settle down and finally give in to the strong arm of alcohol. At five o'clock, while Lucy was taking her time stretching and dressing for the cold in front of the fire and Scarpetta was adding more fresh oregano to her sauce, Marino removed the blender from the refrigerator. He poured his starter eggnog into the large stainless steel bowl and with a hand mixer beat in two quarts of whipping cream. While Scarpetta wasn't looking, he splashed in four more jiggers of Virginia Lightning. He returned his spirited refreshment to the refrigerator, where it would serve hard time a little longer.
An hour later, Lucy was still running along West End streets and Scarpetta was taking a break, drinking hot cinnamon tea at the kitchen table. Marino whipped egg whites until they were stiff but not dry and blended peaks of them into the bowl. He added the egg mixture, constantly churning with the hand mixer until his brew was frothy. He poured a glass for Scarpetta and himself, liberally sprinkling both with cocoa powder.
"Merry Christmas," he said, touching her glass. "Maybe next year will be better."
"What was wrong with this one?" she wanted to know.
"I can't believe Lucy's out there running in the dark. You know it's dangerous, Doc. It's not like you got streetlights around here, and the sidewalks are all cracked up and pushed up with roots. Not to mention the way most of your neighbors drive. The little hot shot thinks nothing can hurt her."
"And who's talking?"
"Yeah, I'm here, aren't I? A
"I believe Lucy can take care of herself," Scarpetta said.
* * *
Lucy's breathing was frosty blasts in perfect rhythm as she ran along Sulgrave Road in Windsor Farms, the sound of her Nikes light on pavement as she perspired in the night. Colonial lanterns and lit-up windows did not push back the darkness or show her the way, but she had run this route since high school during the many holidays and vacations spent with her aunt. After four miles Lucy was in a meditative state, her mind free to attach itself to whatever it would. This wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Although she seemed cheerful enough, she was not in the best of spirits. Typically, she had spent the holidays avoiding her mother, who had not raised her, really, and had never made Christmas anything but an empty stocking wilted on the hearth. Lucy ran harder, sweat trickling beneath her turtleneck as anger heated her up and propelled her deeper into the black shadows of antebellum trees.
Her mother had sent her another scarf for Christmas, this one navy blue with fringe and once again, her initials monogrammed in a corner.
The monograms made it difficult for Lucy to donate the scarves to thrift shops or the Salvation Army, and, of course, this was her mother's point. Her mother's gifts were always self-centered and controlling. She did not care what Lucy wanted or who she was, and Lucy did not need another scarf for the rest of her life. She did not need another pocketbook or manicure kit or delicate watch with a stretch band. She was a federal agent who shot pistols and MP5's and flew helicopters. She ran obstacle courses, lifted weights, worked arson cases, made arrests, and testified in court.
Her mother, Dorothy, was so different from her sister Kay that Lucy did not see how they could have come from the same parents. Certainly Dorothy's IQ was more than adequate, but she had neither good sense nor judgment. She did not love herself and could not care for anybody else, no matter how hard she tried to fool people. Lucy would never forget her graduation from the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Glynco, Georgia. Aunt Kay and Marino had been there. Lucy's mother had driven halfway there before turning around. She had sped back to Miami as she and her latest lover fought on the car phone.
Lucy kicked up her pace to seven-minute miles, her long strides closing in on her aunt's home. It bothered Lucy that Scarpetta was flying to Miami the following morning to visit her mother and Dorothy. Scarpetta would not return until the weekend, and Lucy would be alone through New Year's. Maybe she could get caught up on some of her cases.
"You sure you don't want to go with me? It's never too late," Scarpetta said, when Lucy walked into the kitchen, breathing hard, cheeks rosy.
"Oh, it's too late, all right," Lucy said, yanking off wool mittens.
"Taste this. Maybe a little more basil?"
Scarpetta dipped the wooden spoon in her special sauce and offered a taste to her niece. Lucy blew on the steaming sauce, touching it to her lips, taking her time as flavors played music on her tongue. She opened a bottle of Evian.
"I wouldn't do another thing to it," Lucy said with a heavy heart.
Her melancholy had intensified the instant she had walked into the house and noticed her Aunt Kay's luggage by the front door. Apparently, Scarpetta had finished packing while Lucy was running.
"It's not too late," said Scarpetta, who knew exactly how her niece was feeling. "You've got another week off. I worry about you being by yourself. This house can be awfully empty sometimes. I should know."
"I'm by myself all the time," Lucy told her.
She opened the refrigerator. She spied Marino's wicked eggnog and looked forward to being overcome by it.
"Being alone during the holidays is different," Scarpetta went on. "And yes, you've done that before, all too often. And never with my blessing."
She stripped more fresh basil from stems, sprinkling the herb into her sauce, stirring as she talked.
"If you refuse to deal with your mother and grandmother, there's not a thing I can do about it," she said. "But you can't hide forever, Lucy. There's always a day of reckoning. Why put it off? Why not see them for what they are and move on?"
"Like you've done?" Lucy said, as anger crept forth from hidden places in her heart.
Scarpetta set down the spoon. She turned around and looked her niece in the eye.
"I should hope you would figure it out long before I did," Scarpetta quietly said. "When I was your age, Lucy, I didn't have anyone to talk to. At least you have me."
Lucy was silent for a moment. She felt bad. So many times in her life she had wished she could take back a rude remark, an unfair accusation, a bruising insult, all directed at the only person who had ever loved her.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Kay," she said.
Scarpetta knew she was and had been before.
"But, well… Why should I go down there and be victimized?" Lucy started in again. "So I can thank her for another goddamn scarf? So she can ask me about my life? She doesn't even know I have a life, and maybe I don't want her to know. And maybe I'm not going down there so I can let her make me feel bad one more time in my life."
Scarpetta resumed cooking.
"You shouldn't let anyone make you feel bad, Lucy," she said. "I agree with you. But don't go off into stubborn isolation, spending morning, noon, and night on your computer or at the range. Share yourself with someone. That's what this time of year is all about. You're in the driver's seat now, not your mother or anyone else. Laugh, tell tales, go to the movies, stay up late. Friends. You must have one out there somewhere."
Lucy smiled. She had more than one, really.
"Invite them over here," Scarpetta offered. "I don't care who. There's plenty of room and plenty to eat."
"Speaking of that," Lucy said, "when are we eating and what's for dessert?"
Heavy footsteps were followed by Marino's rumpled self. He looked sleepy, his shirttail out, shoes off.
"It's 'bout time you got back, Miss ATF," he grumbled to Lucy. "You been holding up the eggnog."
He served it in whiskey tumblers, and they drank a toast to another year together.
Scarpetta's Holiday Pizza
Don't even consider creating this overwhelmingly hearty and delicious pie unless you have plenty of time and are willing to work hard in the spirit of unselfishness. This is a meal that is meant to make others happy. You don't go to all this trouble for yourself, and chances are, when your art is complete, you will probably be too weary to enjoy it unless there are leftovers for the following day, and usually there aren't.
Begin with shopping. Some of what you need requires visits to specialty shops or grocery stores that offer a variety of gourmet produce and imported cheeses. One of the most important ingredients that separates Scarpetta's pizza from all others is the whole milk mozzarella she uses. This comes in balls packaged in brine, and approximately four balls ought to be enough, but that's up to you, depending on how thick you like your cheese and how many pizzas you plan on making. Do not use skim mozzarella! You will also want to pick up half a pound or so of fontina and Parmesan. Flour is very important. Scarpetta has been known to stop at bagel stores and talk proprietors into selling her five or ten pounds of very high gluten flour. She likes her crusts crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. You will need yeast.
As for the filling, you are in charge and can use whatever suits your taste. Scarpetta has her own choices, and for her post-Christmas blast she has a tradition, her own way of saving the best for last. It is a symbol of something better to look forward to, no matter the attitudes of neighbors wheeling out mountains of Christmas trash, making resolutions about exercise and diets, and saying goodbye to relatives they scarcely ever see.
Scarpetta includes the following on her shopping list: green peppers, onions, fresh herbs such as oregano and basil, fresh mushrooms, artichoke hearts, lean ground beef, pepperoni, smoked oysters, Italian sausage, crushed tomatoes (Progresso if you don't have fresh or canned homegrown), olive oil, fr
Chop and lightly cook the vegetables. Drain them in a colander, pressing out all liquid. (The broth can be saved for soup or stew.) Put vegetables in a large bowl and allow to cool. Mix in grated Parmesan and fontina cheeses. Now it's time to start the sauce. It's really very simple. Mix crushed tomatoes with herbs and plenty of pressed garlic and a few drips of olive oil. Allow to simmer. Begin working on dessert.
Scarpetta's Childhood Key Lime Pie
Without fresh limes, don't bother. Scarpetta is a hanging judge on this matter. The key lime tree in the backyard of her childhood home in Miami once bore an abundance of her favorite citrus fruit, and when days were hard and unyielding, Scarpetta would absent herself from the house to be soothed in the sunlight of the yard, where the solitary tree, not much taller than her father, leaned against the chainlink fence.
She would fill her pockets with key limes and gather them in her skirt. Scarpetta made key limeade and pies, and everybody felt just a little bit better. She carried key limes to her neighbors when she was hurting, lonely, and sad. Her family had just the one tree, and Scarpetta thought of it as hers. It began to die when she was in her late teens, and she consulted a number of greenhouses, horticulturists, the Department of Agriculture, and even a plant pathologist at Cornell, where she spent her undergraduate years. There was a citrus canker, she was told. It was wiping out thousands of key lime trees in south Florida.
She doused her tree with micronutrient spray and cleaned out the dead wood. She made certain the roots weren't being damaged by the lawn mower or the trunk wasn't being rotted by standing water. Her tree continued its decline, lesions in the stems, leaves turning yellow and drifting to the grass. Scarpetta's tree died long before she gave up on it. She would not let her mother cut it down.
Scarpetta's Winter Table by Patricia Cornwell / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes