“You?” Aimee would say. “Someone thinks you’re working too much?” And she’d laugh in that superior way of hers.
Had it always been like this? She had a memory, more a gut feeling than anything else, of happier days. And certainly her mother, Gus, insisted there had been a time when the two of them were as thick as thieves. Generally, though, Sabrina could only remember arguments and hair pulling and being ignored at school. Even though she’d had a large circle of friends, it bothered her then—and it bothered her now—that Aimee seemed to find it a burden to be around her when other people were present. The simplest thing could set her off on a tear, such as the time Aimee mulched her history paper in the garbage disposal. Queen Isabella of Spain down the drain. That’s what Aimee had said: Queen Isabella of Spain down the drain.
Their mother hadn’t done anything about it, either. Just tried to smooth it over as she always did. Making things just so was very important to Gus. She expected a lot from her girls.
Sabrina quickly unzipped her portfolio case, just to reassure herself that it was all there. That Aimee hadn’t actually thrown away her work or tried to put it in the blender or the oven. She felt around with her fingers, peeled back the cover a few inches. Everything was in its right place. With a few extra pens tucked into a pocket that had been empty the day before and— what was this? A granola bar and a small bag of Cheerios.
From Aimee, of course.
The Secret to delicious Scrambled eggs was to cook them in a saucepan with bubbling butter and stir them constantly with a wooden spoon. Keep the heat medium-low. Resist the temptation to turn up the gas and cook the damn thing in two seconds. Only patience would allow the eggs to come together soft and fluffy and very, very light, Aimee thought to herself as she made little figure eights through the liquidy mixture, careful not to spill on her work clothes. Her plate, with a small dollop of ketchup, stood ready next to the stove, a fork resting on a folded napkin. A slice of bread browned in the stainless toaster.
“Stir, stir, stir,” she said aloud, repeating what her mother, Gus, had always said when she insisted Aimee help out with breakfast. "Stir ...”
“... and you won’t be sorry,” cried out Gus cheerily.
Aimee whirled around, nearly causing the saucepan to fall off the stove.
Oh, funny how it can sneak up on you: the moment of madness. It was one thing to repeat little phrases but now she was actually hearing her mother’s voice
her head. What’s the standard procedure for losing one’s mind, anyway? Do you call in sick? Check yourself into a hospital? Aimee waited a second before she continued to stir, reassured that it was just one of those moments when the background noises come together to sound like something familiar. A fluke.
Then she heard it again. Gus, talking slowly and clearly. Oh, dear God, had Gus died in the night? Was she haunting Aimee? She’d seen that in a movie once, though the parent was trying to convey an important secret that would save the family from a curse.
“Mom, if that’s you, say something else.”
“I’d never dream of using ketchup on eggs!” came Gus’s voice in reply. And then a spurt of laughter. From the bedroom.
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
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
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
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
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.
There was always Gus.
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
. (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
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
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
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 Internet 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.