Read an Excerpt
• One •
“We can’t replace one of the chefs,” Mimi George said, her voice piercing the gravy-thick air of the Jewel Inn’s banquet and meeting room. “The Grill-off is in two days.”
Two and a half, but who was counting? We obviously had bigger fish to fry. Or steaks, in this case.
“What if,” I said, jumping in where angels fear to tread, “we say there’s been a mix-up and ask them to submit new recipes? Time is short. But if there’s one thing every chef in Montana can do, it’s conjure up new ways to serve steak.”
“There is no mix-up. Simply put, you people have a thief among you.”
Nothing raises the collective temperature of any group more than being referred to as “you people.” I’d had just about enough of Gib Knox and his demands, but we’d invited his TV show, Food Preneurs, to film the Thirty-Fifth Annual Jewel Bay Summer Food and Art Fair, and its centerpiece, the Grill-off, and we were stuck with him now.
And I didn’t need a meat thermometer to know the other committee members were getting hot, too.
“You wait one minute there, young fella.” Ned Redaway crooked a beefy finger in Knox’s direction. “Don’t go accusing folks you don’t know of being a thief.” Ned had run Red’s, the village watering hole, for close to fifty years, and he didn’t tolerate bullies. He’d once had the hair to match his nickname, though what was left of it had faded to an almost colorless fuzz. At six feet tall and two hundred mostly solid pounds, he was still imposing when riled.
“He may be the best-known chef in the state,” Gib Knox said in a voice as smooth as Belgian chocolate. “He may be your big draw. But he’s a thief.” Six-two or better, a dark-haired man graying handsomely at the temples, the TV host and celebrity chef smiled in smug satisfaction. But we could not let “Nasty Knox” portray the village of Jewel Bay, Montana, to the food-loving world as hicks who couldn’t cook and didn’t know better.
“Hang on,” I said, using my hands as stop signs. “I’m sure we can resolve this without any harsh words or accusations. All we need to say is that two of the three chefs proposed similar dishes. Hucks and morels are a natural combination around here. Since the goal is to give our chefs a chance to demonstrate a beef dish with a local flavor, we’ll ask those two for new recipes.”
“Perfect, Erin.” Stacia Duval, the show’s producer, clapped her hands together. A petite dynamo whose chin-length brown bob boasted red and gold highlights, she practically bounced out of her chair with relief. “But who will tell them? It might be uncomfortable for Mimi.”
“You don’t mean Drew Baker? My chef would do no such thing,” Mimi said in disbelief. She’d gone pale blond for summer, and under her tan, she blanched to a matching shade. Normally, she radiated an eye-of-the-storm calmness—no doubt from years of running the Jewel, one of the village’s favorite restaurants—but she was visibly shaken now.
“What about Drew?” Tara Baker’s heels rapped on the parquet floor as she crossed the room to the long table we’d commandeered for our meeting, her long ash blond hair swinging. As always, she wore black, top to bottom. She and Drew had moved to Jewel Bay six years ago, while I’d been away—he to serve as executive chef of Caldwell’s Eagle Lake Lodge and Guest Ranch, she to be the sales and marketing manager. When they divorced, she stayed at the Lodge and he became chef at the Jewel Inn. A highly acclaimed chef, whose dinner service had become destination dining. The crown jewel of a town that called itself The Food Lovers’ Village. Drew and Knox had worked together years ago in L.A., and when Mimi asked Drew if he could entice Knox and EAT-TV to film an episode here, he’d readily agreed.
“Mr. Knox has accused my chef—” Mimi began.
Tara’s gray eyes widened.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said. Not that I relished the task of playing the heavy, but Stacia was right. Even mellow chefs, like Drew, tend to be strong-minded. I turned to Tara. “Two contestants in the Grill-off happened to think along the same lines. We’ll ask for new recipes and be back on track.”
“Fine, if you want to sweep it under the rug.” Dressed straight out of a Western wear catalog, Knox wore a gray and white tweedy jacket, Western-cut, over blue jeans. His boots were polished but well worn.
“Drew and who else?” Tara said, her tone guarded. “Which other chef?”
The corners of Knox’s full lips twitched. Was he enjoying making us squirm? “That promising young woman from, what is it, Bear Poop Lodge? Such charming names up here.”
“Chef Amber Stone,” Mimi said, biting off the words. “Bear Grass Bed and Breakfast.”
Amber Stone and her sister had taken over a run-down inn north of town, adding a dinner service open to the public. She was the only chef who’d actively sought an invitation to the Grill-off—an admirable sign of motivation.
Tara’s thin, sharp features relaxed. “Well, whatever happened, that’s a good solution. Good to see you, Gib.”
Gib rose. Tara turned her head and a kiss meant for her cheek landed on her ear instead. He scowled briefly. She brushed lips with the cameraman sitting next to him—her boyfriend—then slid into an empty chair, dropping her black quilted leather handbag to the floor. The impact rattled the ice in the water glasses.
The third contestant, Kyle Caldwell, had taken over Drew’s post when Drew and Tara divorced. The Grill-off was always held at the Lodge, and the Lodge chef always participated, as a courtesy. No home-range advantage—all the chefs used propane grills provided by Taylor’s Building Supply. The event took place on the Lodge’s stone patio overlooking Eagle Lake, in front of a hundred and fifty guests or more. Tara smiled at me nervously, no doubt relieved to know that Kyle was not involved in the mix-up, whatever it was.
“That’s settled then,” Stacia said with obvious relief. “Erin will talk to the chefs and get new recipes by—what, five o’clock Friday? That should give us time to make sure everything is in order.”
Both chefs? I hadn’t volunteered to talk to Amber, but obviously someone had to. As the new girl—or rather, the newly returned prodigal daughter—I got the chores no one else wanted.
Stacia surveyed the table efficiently, smiling with relief. “Now the next item on the agenda . . .”
I glanced up at the bull moose rack draped with Mardi Gras beads who oversaw this end of the banquet room. No doubt he’d witnessed far fierier explosions. From this angle, he seemed to be winking.
My attention wandered as Stacia and the cameraman, Pete Lloyd, reviewed the plan for tonight’s filming. Stacia was a doll, whip-smart and organized to the max. She had more planning apps on her phone than I’d known existed, and knew how to use every one. She’d sent a list of requirements in advance, but Pete was a last-minute substitute. We’d dodged a bullet earlier in the week when Stacia got the news that their regular cameraman had a health emergency and couldn’t travel. To avoid cancellation, Tara suggested Pete. He’d left a job filming TV news for a station in Pondera, the largest town in northwest Montana, a year or two ago. Now working freelance, he had all the right credentials and experience.
Not to mention the right connections, as Tara’s current paramour. The grapevine claimed she went through a couple of guys a year, but that this one might actually last. They made an odd pair: Tara’s ensemble—wide-legged pants, heels, and a long, collarless V-necked jacket, a lace-trimmed black camisole beneath—reflected an urban style and an urban hyperactivity that hadn’t worn off despite half a dozen years in the rural West. Pete, on the other hand, seemed as casual as his clothing—baggy olive drab pants and a russet brown long-sleeved twill shirt, cuffs frayed, worn like a jacket over his brown T-shirt. Whatever influence Tara had over him had not yet extended to his wardrobe. Which was probably healthy for a relationship.
“What do you think, Erin?”
Busted. I glanced at the agenda. No clue. “Uh. The wine, right?”
Someone—Pete? Gib?—snickered. Stacia smiled gently. “I was saying we’ll meet at the Lodge at four thirty. Chef Kyle’s making the appetizers, and his pastry chef and your marvelous baker friend, Wendy, are doing the desserts.”
“Right.” The appetizer and dessert segments were being filmed tonight so that Saturday evening, we could focus on the Grill-off. During the day, the crew would film local producers. A winery, a creamery, a custom butcher and sausage maker specializing in wild game, and more—every nook and farm we could think of to showcase the taste of Montana. And on Sunday, they’d film the food and art booths at Summer Fair.
“This way, we’ll get the kinks out before Saturday,” Pete said, his voice thin and raspy. “Sort of a dry run.”
“Dry, my eye,” Ned said. “I’m pouring wine.”
“I’ll need it.” I grabbed my phone and pushed back my chair as the meeting broke. I had intended to slip out early and get busy readying the Merc for the big weekend. Officially the Glacier Mercantile but still called Murphy’s Mercantile by the old-timers, the Merc had been in my family for more than a hundred years. When the major businesses left downtown—aka the village—for the highway thirty years back, the Merc stayed put. My grandfather Murphy soldiered on as a grocery man, despite competition from the new supermarket. But he lost heart after my father was killed fourteen years ago in a still-unsolved hit-and-run, and the business floundered. Finally, my mother Fresca—Francesca Conti Murphy—had rescued it from oblivion, creating a haven of local food and craft. But running the business had kept her from her own passion—cooking up a line of pastas and sauces for wholesale and retail trade. So, earlier this year, I’d come back from Seattle and taken over. This would be my first Summer Fair as a village shopkeeper, and my to-do list was long.
Now, two items longer.
Knox towered over all of us except Ned. “First the cameraman falls on his death bed. Then a recipe thief. Let’s hope this thing isn’t cursed.”
“Hush your mouth,” Stacia said, the first harsh words she’d uttered in all our dealings.
I rubbed the colored stars tattooed inside my wrist, and bit my tongue to keep from cursing Gib Knox.
• Two •
Ned Redaway had aged noticeably since the tragedy that had struck the village earlier this summer, his face thinner, his right leg dragging. I followed him out of the banquet room and through the pine-paneled dining room, beneath the soulful gaze of whitetail deer and elk and a grizzly who looked like he’d snatch your huckleberry pancakes if you weren’t careful. At the Inn’s entrance, I held the heavy glass door for Ned. Outside, he reached for the log railing and lumbered slowly down the steps.
“Girlie,” he said as we crossed the intersection of Hill and Front, my hand at the ready in case he stumbled. “Getting old is hell. Don’t do it.”
The natural response is “beats the alternative,” but after what Ned’s family—and mine—had been through, I forced myself to offer a weak smile.
The village is served by a single narrow street—great for our picturesque quotient, but rotten for traffic and parking. As we reached the opposite side, a big delivery truck swung wide to make the corner. Behind it, the sound of an impatient driver gunning his engine distracted me, and I turned my head a few degrees. Gib Knox at the wheel of a shiny black Porsche SUV. Figures he’d rent the hot stuff. At least it was on EAT TV’s dime, not ours.
If wishes were Porsches, beggars would drive.
Red’s Bar has been around almost as long as Murphy’s Mercantile, its next-door neighbor. Red’s neon beer signs and sticky floors, its nachos and chicken wings and raucous Saturday nights, fit visitors’ image of a small Montana town, but the rest of Jewel Bay catches them by surprise. They’re charmed by the contrasts: cutting-edge galleries next to fly-fishing shops. Hot and cool jazz and deer nipping any unfenced rosebuds. A classic dude ranch and a waterfront state park filled from May to September with RVs and tent campers.
And of course, Drew Baker’s three-star cuisine and Ned Redaway’s burgers and beer. I adore them both, though for my last meal, I might ask for takeout so I could enjoy a few waffle fries with my duck confit.
“I love August. I love Summer Fair.”
“It’s a headache,” Ned said. “Blocks the street. Folks can’t park.”
“Ned Redaway. Are you becoming a curmudgeon?”
He snorted. “Been one all my life. Well, all your life anyway.” He grinned and, for a moment, seemed like his old self. “No, the Fair’s fine. I’m just aping some of our neighbors, yanking your chain.”
For probably all of its thirty-five years, Summer Fair had pushed the buttons of town’s naysayers. The againsters, my mother calls them—folks who are against anything, until it succeeds, when they promptly forget they ever opposed it. I’d encountered that attitude earlier this summer when I spearheaded a new celebration, the Festa di Pasta, to kick off the summer tourist season. In a town where more than half the merchants make their living in the ninety days of summer, then beg Santa for a little icing on the cake, any event that brings people into the village and encourages them to leave their money behind is a good thing.
But while most restaurant owners and shopkeepers agreed, a few griped about “another festival.” Others complained that all the events focused on the village, aka downtown. Well, duh. The highway businesses tend toward the utilitarian—video store, Laundromat and dry cleaner, hardware, auto parts, and the aforementioned supermarket—while the downtown shops tend toward the nonessential. The link between holiday celebrations and new windshield wipers is not always obvious. Happily, most highway businesses join the fun—decorating, selling tickets for concerts at the Playhouse, or hanging posters—recognizing that if we don’t prosper, the whole town suffers.
But what frosts my cake are the folks who refuse to change. Heck, the nature of business is change. If I learned one thing in ten years as an assistant grocery buyer at SavClub, the international warehouse chain headquartered in Seattle, it was that you will never bring in new customers, or increase your profits, if you aren’t willing to change.
And Old Ned, bless him, got that. “Gotta mix it up,” he’d said when I suggested the Festa. “Try new things.” The way it turned out, I wouldn’t have blamed him for changing his mind. But he didn’t.
“There’s always gripers,” he said now. “And what they love to gripe about most is the problem-solvers and idea gals like you Murphys.”
My sister and other village merchants had devised a plan to address complaints about the congestion the street fair caused. The biggest change clustered vendors’ booths in groups of four in the middle of the street. Each vendor would gain a coveted corner spot, and most important, booths would no longer block access to the shops. Foot traffic could flow freely on the street or sidewalks, allowing visitors to pop into the Merc, the Jewel Inn, or Puddle Jumpers children’s shop if a sight or smell caught their eye. The sheriff and fire chief had approved—with just the one road, emergency access was critical.
Win-win always beats whine-whine, in my opinion.
“You know me,” Ned added. “I never mind anything that brings people downtown. Folks always gotta eat and drink.”
I kissed him on the cheek and reached for the worn brass handle of the Merc’s front door. Across the street at Puddle Jumpers, Sally—Queen of the Againsters—swept her sidewalk furiously, the tail of her black-and-tan print blouse bouncing as she moved. She did everything furiously. She believed “they” should sweep her sidewalk, even though as an unincorporated town, Jewel Bay had no “they.” I waved. She glowered and kept on sweeping.
“You gotta feel sorry for that broom. Hey, little sis.” My sister Chiara—say it with a hard C and rhyme it with “tiara”—stood outside the Merc, her five-year-old by the hand.
“Auntie!” Landon cried. “I’m a Jedi Knight.”
I crouched for a closer look. “You certainly are.” Landon split his loyalties between Jedi warriors, Superman, and Hank the Cowdog, head of ranch security. Today, he wore the fighter’s off-white tunic and brown pants, a light saber at his side. Chiara could make anything with her hands, and had fashioned brown boot covers that matched the pants and disguised Landon’s cowboy boots.
“H-U-huckle, B—Auntie, I forget the rest.”
“H-U huckle, B-U buckle, huckleberry pie. H-U-C-K-L-E.” He joined for the end of the rhyme my father had taught me. “B-E-R-R-Y.”
We exchanged high-fives and I rose to hug my sister—a bit like hugging myself in a mirror, as we share the same dark hair and eyes and heart-shaped faces, although I’ve got a couple of inches on her. Now that she was a partner in a co-op gallery, plus artist, wife, and mother, her summers were uber-busy.
“Love the headband,” I said, admiring the stretchy red floral thing worn low over her forehead, hippie-style. She was two years older than me and about a thousand times more adventurous.
“Thanks. Gotta run. I’ve got a million things to do before Friday night.” Her eyes widened and she started to pink up.
“Why? What’s going on Friday?”
Chiara shook her head quickly. “I just mean the weekend’s going to be crazy. Remember, there’s music Friday night and you’re coming with us.”
I nodded. Happily, Jedi Knights are highly evolved and don’t mind their aunts kissing them in public.
The magical smells of basil, garlic, and tomato greeted me inside the Merc. Our retail operation fills the front of the shop, offering a mix of food and drink from nearly two dozen regional growers and producers. In the back, a commercial kitchen gives vendors a space to make their huckleberry chocolates, pickles, jams, and other tasty products. We’d cleaned out the basement a few weeks ago to make room for automated filling and labeling machinery we’d bought from an orchard in central Washington that had upgraded its cannery.
Today, my mother—training myself to call her Fresca is a constant challenge—had the kitchen in high gear, working an extra day to meet demand. She was turning produce from Rainbow Lake Farm into her special Summer Sauce, a big favorite with the summer people. And with me.
Seeing it all in action gave me the happy tingles.
My stomach reminded me I’d skipped my usual breakfast—a latte and a croissant or pain au chocolat from the French bakery next door—to make the Grill-off committee meeting. If I’d chosen to be late instead, could I have avoided getting stuck telling two chefs they needed to submit new recipes at the last minute?
Fat chance. But at least I’d have been properly fortified.
“So, what’s he like?” He, meaning Gib Knox. Tracy, my shop assistant and sole employee, was celebrity-crazy. She still swooned about the day she spotted John Travolta in Jewel Bay Grocery. He’d flashed her that famous grin and winked.
Fresca wanted to know, too, so I perched on a bar stool at the stainless counter separating the kitchen from the sales floor and gave them the scoop.
Tracy’s eyes grew huge and she shook her head in disbelief. Her thick chestnut hair barely moved, but her rainbow beaded earrings swung like a five-year-old at the park.
“Why would Drew copy Amber’s recipe?” Fresca said. We’re the same height—five-six—but she’s slimmer than I. And though we’ve both got intense dark eyes, her face is oval and her complexion olive, while my sister and I have narrow chins and the fair Murphy complexion. On kitchen days, Fresca twists her straight dark hair into a knot at the nape of her long neck, a few strands of silver showing at the temples. No one believed her sixty-one years. “She’s up and coming, but he’s already got it made.”
“Not a clue,” I said. “The chefs e-mailed their recipes directly to Gib and Stacia.”
Tracy sliced a baguette and poured a jar of Fresca’s olive tapenade into a small, handmade terra-cotta bowl etched with a leaf pattern for customers to sample. I helped myself.
“Why did he want to see them in advance? We’ve never let the judge do that,” Fresca said. The question created a rare wrinkle in her forehead.
“We’ve never had a hotshot TV chef before.” Past judges had been local celebrities—a retired four-star general, the former TV news anchor who summers here, an NFL star turned potter. “Gib wants to be sure they meet the show’s standards for quality, and that the average home cook can re-create them. They post all the recipes on their website.”
Fresca sniffed. “In other words, he doesn’t trust us.”
“Trust but verify.” Tracy shrugged her plump shoulders.
“At least we kept him from insisting that Drew be disqualified.” I filched another slice of bread and slathered on a double dose of tapenade.
Tracy looked puzzled. “Aren’t they old friends?”
Being old friends means different things to different people. “They worked together years ago in L.A., but they weren’t close. They both said there was no risk of bias.” If I remembered right, Gib had agreed to host the show only if Drew participated. Quality Assurance, he’d called it. Which made his accusations doubly odd.
No matter. Crisis averted. Now to massage the chefly egos and get those new recipes.
But first, my own shop needed tending. After the Festa, I’d rashly decided to update the dingy courtyard behind the Merc, despite not yet having a plan for how we’d use the space. Our pal Liz had a vision, though, and once she takes on a project, fasten your seatbelts.
Her vision included a fountain being delivered later this week, along with plants, café tables and chairs, and wildlife paintings reproduced on metal—a joint venture between a local artist and a homegrown sign company. My mother had just given me control over the building as well as the retail business, and silly me, I respond with a project spree. Of course, the only perfect time for a remodel is after it’s finished.
I’d promised to make sure the courtyard was empty and clean, so I wrapped one of Fresca’s veggie print aprons over my dress—a cream-and-blue-flowered number—and headed outside.
“Potential” is such an expensive word. But the space did have it. It also had a lot of dirt, leaves, and twigs blown in over the fences that separated our courtyard from Red’s adjacent space and from Back Street, aka Back Alley.
The alley still gave me the shivers. I would never forget finding a friend dead—murdered—on the dusty gravel. That was the real reason for the remodel. Liz insisted we needed to cleanse and renew the courtyard using feng shui, the Chinese philosophy of how energy moves within a space. I grabbed a broom and got the energy, twigs, and trash moving.
We needed change, but feng shui smelled woo-woo to me. Liz’s sketches included a diagram showing what she called the baguas or quadrants. It looked like a game of tic-tac-toe.
Even the terms are contradictory. How can you divide a space into nine parts and call them quadrants? Liz says you can feel when energy is flowing in a space and when it’s blocked. Her example is walking into a house and knowing something’s wrong, then finding out later that the couple who lives there just had a fight. I think we’re picking up on their nonverbal cues, not some intangible feeling in the space.
Listen to yourself. Pick up a broom and you turn into Sally Sourpuss. I’d asked Liz for help because her own home is so inviting. So was my cabin, a historic building her husband, Bob, had relocated to their lakeside property.
Burning daylight, Erin.
I got back to sweeping, and both the space and I felt better in minutes.
Back inside, Tracy was busy assembling our new product, Breakfast in Jewel Bay baskets. Each featured a pair of hand-thrown coffee mugs, Cowboy Roast coffee or herbal tea, and Montana Gold pancake mix with Creamery butter and a choice of huckleberry or chokecherry syrup. We also, finally, had reliable sources for local eggs and sausage. This weekend would be the test run, but after the success of our Lakeside Picnic baskets (“Just Add Water”), my hopes ran high.
Management and staff should balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and Tracy’s knack for display and packaging proved it. And she was catching on to the fine art of encouraging a customer without being pushy. She had a flair for cheap chic, too—today, she sported a long grass green skirt with an oversized white linen shirt and a wide dark brown braided leather belt.
“Love the outfit.”
“Five dollars for the skirt and ten for the shirt at the thrift shop in Pondera.” Pronounced Pon-duh-RAY, the big town thirty miles away.
And seventy-five for the belt at my sister’s gallery. “Oh, look at the baskets!” She’d woven cobalt blue and sunny yellow ribbon through the edges of rattan baskets, then tucked the goodies in a nest of brightly colored crinkled paper—recycled and shredded at Jewel Bay Print & Copy. The baskets were the only item not made in the region, highlighting my constant dilemma: It wasn’t always possible to sell only local wares and use only local supplies. My compromise: At least buy local. That includes SavClub in Pondera. I can’t help it—I love the place.
The front door chime rang and we both looked up.
“Iggy.” Delight filled Tracy’s voice and mine. I didn’t remember a time when Iggy Ring hadn’t been a fixture in the village, a mascot of sorts.
And she’d become a regular in the Merc since Tracy had awed me with an unexpected kitchen talent earlier this summer. Her handmade chocolate truffles not only filled a gap in our product line, but drew customers and fattened our bottom line.
“Hello, girls,” Iggy called, her warbling voice thinned by age. A shade under five feet, her champagne blond hair curled into a flip, she wore tan capris and a black painter’s smock she probably bought in 1957. One spot-on modern addition: leopard print loafers. How old she was, I didn’t know—easily eighty-five, maybe ninety.
Iggy peered into the glass case on the front counter, anticipation brightening her fairy-like face. Tracy did the honors. A tissue in hand, she plucked out one perfect dark chocolate huckleberry truffle, accepted Iggy’s three quarters, and handed over the prize. Iggy closed her eyes and took the first bite.
Following Iggy as she tottered out, I scooted next door to Le Panier. Behind the pine green screen door stood a real French boulangerie and patisserie in one, with all the requisite tastes and aromas. Wendy Taylor Fontaine may not have been born French, but she made up for it with her food.
“Hey, Wendy. Missed breakfast.” Sweet, yeasty scents and the heady aroma of freshly ground coffee beans mixed with the slightly charred bread-and-cheese smell of the panini press. I studied the chalkboard listing today’s specials. “What’s in your cheesy panini?”
“Roasted red peppers, crimini mushrooms, balsamic onions, and basil, three cheeses, eight-grain bread.”
Okay, so panini are Italian, not French. But they’re yummy, so why quibble? “Sold.”
She worked silently, dark ponytail wagging. Le Panier shared a front deck with Chez Max, her husband’s bistro. On festival weekends, when thousands of visitors competed for a place to sit and eat, it hummed.
“You all ready for the street fair? And making your desserts for the TV episode?”
Wendy grunted. When it came to small talk, she was not a believer.
“Given any more thought to creating a scone mix for us? The breakfast baskets are adorable. Pop over and check ’em out.”
A buzzer sounded and she slid my sandwich out of the hot press, wrapped it in white paper, and tucked it into a brown paper bag in a fluid move worthy of a ballet. If a ballerina wore a white chef’s jacket, clown print pants, and cherry red clogs.
The door opened and a gaggle of hungry shoppers entered, exclaiming over the cute French decor and the drool-worthy pastry case. The mouthwatering smell of my fresh panini was a great advertisement.
“See you tonight,” I called on my way out. If Wendy needed help solving any problems with the event or film crew, she’d let me know.
I took advantage of the noon lull to eat at the Merc’s stainless steel counter, keeping an eye on the shop while Tracy ran home to grab a quick lunch and walk Bozo, her rescue Great Dane. The slightly sweet grilled bread was the perfect complement to the melted cheese and tangy vegetables. A little messy for a working lunch, but worth it.
I scrolled through the lists on my iPad, making sure we had what we needed for the weekend. In between bites, I helped a few customers and called a couple of suppliers who hadn’t yet restocked their displays.
Overall, we were in great shape. Still, I’d be trolling the booths at the Fair for potential new vendors. If Food Preneurs intended to turn a Montana BBQ sauce or a line of spiced mustards into a star, I meant to be in the game.
At the Jewel Inn, I waited in the otherwise vacant bar while Chef Drew scrutinized a delivery of custom charcuterie. The same butcher supplied our sausage and cured meats, and we’d never had a problem, but Chef Drew had an exacting set of customers and expectations. He had an unusual arrangement with the Georges, the Inn’s owners: Tony and Mimi handled breakfast and lunch, Tony at the grill and Mimi out front. But the dinner service was all Drew’s. He hired his own staff and had complete control of the menu. A restaurant-within-a-restaurant. An admirable innovation.
At the moment, he was peeved. Not with the sausage—he praised it from spice to taste and texture and back again. But his high color and abrupt gestures, and the barely sheathed sharpness in his tone, unnerved me.
“Mimi said you needed a minute.” About five-nine, average build, in his late forties with brown hair beginning to thin, he sat opposite, poised as if he didn’t intend to sit long. His most striking feature was a pair of hazel eyes with unfairly long lashes, brightened by the contrast with his sparkling whites.
I slid my peace offering—a small box of huckleberry truffles—across the table. “There’s been a mix-up with the recipes for the steak Grill-off. We need you to submit a new recipe. By five o’clock tomorrow.”
Those eyes flared and bore into me. His spine straightened and his shoulders squared. His jaw tensed.
But I was no clumsy busser who’d dropped a tray of glassware or a newly hired prep cook who’d diced the shallots when Chef wanted them brunoise. Not that Drew would have barked at his staff—he had a reputation for solving problems so efficiently that mistakes barely registered on the radar, and were rarely repeated.
In the village hierarchy, we were equals. Plus, he owed me. I had introduced him to the charcutier.
Which didn’t keep him from quizzing me with a touch of sarcasm. “Our recipes are too similar? What does that mean? We both use beef? Season with salt and pepper?”
“Think flavors and combinations. Then rethink them.”
He scowled. “And are we all being subjected to this last-minute nonsense?”
His piercing eyes demanded an answer, and there was no reason not to tell him. “No. Just you and Chef Stone from Bear Grass.”
He pulled back, head tilted. “She thinks I copied her? I’ve eaten her food. It’s good. It’s excellent. But my approach is entirely different.”
“This—concern didn’t come from Chef Stone. It came from the TV crew.”
His hands, scarred and calloused beyond their years, gripped the box of chocolates. I cringed for the tender morsels inside, picturing huckleberry cream oozing out in a most unattractive way. Tracy would never forgive me if I gave Chef Drew Baker a leaking truffle. We never sent imperfections out the door. We ate them.
“You mean,” he said, voice honed on steel like the finest chef’s knife, “it came from Gib Knox.”
I refused the bait. “We—the committee—don’t know what happened, and we don’t blame you. We just think, for the sake of appearances, that you and Chef Stone should each plan another dish.”
He released the box and slapped his palms on the table. His face flushed, blanched, and flushed again. “When Mimi asked me . . .” His Adam’s apple throbbed. Then, to my amazement, his face and shoulders relaxed. “Well, it all makes sense now.”
To him, maybe. But had the storm clouds fully passed?
“Will a Cabernet-cherry sauce do? It’s straight off our menu, but it’s local fruit and flavors, with Monte Verde wine. My reservation book is jammed every night this week, and I don’t have time to create something new to appease Mr. Bigshot TV Chef.”
I’d eaten Chef Drew’s filet with Cabernet-cherry sauce. “Just right.” As long as I steered Chef Amber Stone in a different direction.
He reached for the box of chocolates, but I grabbed them first, lifted the lid, and peered inside. Intact, thank goodness. “I’ll swing by tomorrow to pick up a copy.”
“Fine.” He bit off the word and breezed away, shoving the kitchen door open with one hand. It swung wildly behind him.
Bullet dodged. But what was up with Drew Baker? He’d been tense when I walked in. Why had the similarity in recipes pushed him over the edge?
Should I warn Mimi about Drew’s foul mood? Maybe.
Or give Gib Knox a heads-up?
In my loft office at the Merc, I convinced myself it would be fine to call Chef Amber rather than run out to Bear Grass, a quaint country inn about fifteen miles north of town, on the road to Glacier National Park. (Simply “the Park” to most of us.) We’d only met a few times, but she seemed like a roll-with-the-punches kind of gal.
“Oh,” she said. “I thought—okay. Whatever.”
“No cherries,” I warned, “and no wild mushroom gravy.”
“Piece of cake,” she said. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you down. We need the exposure.”
“That’s the spirit.” In big business or small, the flexible shall go far.
Back on the shop floor, I surveyed Tracy’s display of Breakfast Baskets with satisfaction. Town thrived on its summer regulars—folks with time-shares in lakefront condos, busy families who gather at the grandparents’ place, and urban couples who relish six weeks of summer at their mountain retreats. Our goal was to give them fresh, local food they could really use. Produce, pasta, easy sauces. Add a baguette from Le Panier and make a meal. No odd ingredients left moldering in the fridge, to be tossed out on the last day.
But we also needed tourists who stopped for lunch while passing through, charmed by our unexpected gem of a town. Campers who came to hike or to kayak the Wild Mile, then relaxed with a beer at Red’s and a stroll through town. Visitors in search of a hostess gift, or a taste of Montana to tuck into their suitcases as a reminder of vacation when the daily routine became the daily grind.
So Tracy and I refilled the antique Hoosier’s shelves with jars of jam and jelly, and settled bottles of syrup into its possum belly. Cherry, strawberry, black cap raspberry, wild chokecherry, and of course, the magnificent huckleberry.
Pretending the jars were my five-year-old nephew’s Legos, we created a three-story tower of dilled green beans and a castle of pickadilly guarded by baby gherkins. The outposts were manned by jars of beer-soaked sauerkraut, a specialty of Chef Ray at the Bayside Grille. (Which every townie calls the Grillie.) He’d hired my mother to make the pungent product, the first item we’d run through the new canning equipment.
We can’t beat SavClub for price, but we compete on quality, and we have ’em nailed on local.
“Every time I come in to the Merc, I want to move to Jewel Bay.” Stacia Duval stopped a few feet inside the front door, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. “It’s like Mayberry, with better food.”
“Aunt Bee’s butterscotch pecan pie always looked pretty good to me,” Tracy said.
I suppressed a grin. Tracy never met a dessert she didn’t like. She constantly complained about her hips, though she wasn’t seriously overweight.
“Then don’t talk about it,” Fresca said. “Do it.” She stepped out of the kitchen and, smoothing the garden print apron she wore on cooking days, gave Stacia a hug. The producer had made a quick trip to Jewel Bay earlier in the summer to size us up, and she and Fresca had hit it off big-time. Since her return a few days ago, she’d stopped in every day—for friendship as much as for truffles.
She settled on a counter stool, its red upholstery the same shade as her jeans and nail polish. Her black flats and zebra-striped top were super-cute. “This would be a great place to raise Luke. And I’d love for one of us to get off the road.” Her husband, a sound engineer for a rock band, could live anywhere. “But what could I do for work?”
I got Pellegrinos out of the cooler and a Diet Coke for Tracy. “One option, take over an existing business.” I gestured with the bottle. “Two, figure out what’s missing and start a new business. Make your own job. A tea cottage, or a wine shop. You’d be perfect.”
She sipped the mineral water. “You sell tea and wine. Wouldn’t that compete with the Merc?”
I shook my head. “No. Our mission is local and regional foods. But more specialty shops would enhance the town’s draw. You know the town motto: The Food Lovers’ Village. Think about it. You’re preoccupied right now, but after the weekend, we can brainstorm a business plan. If you’re serious.”
She smiled and nodded. Part of the fun in running a business with high tourist traffic is seeing the pleasure people take in discovering Jewel Bay. And I loved the thought of this delightful woman—as food-obsessed as the rest of us—joining the fun.
The door chimed and Tracy bounded off to greet customers. Fresca returned to saucery. Time for me to ask the question nagging me ever since my talk with Drew.
“Stacia, I thought Food Preneurs agreed to come to Jewel Bay because Gib and Drew knew each other from years back. But when I talked to Drew, I got the sense that there was no love lost between them. Is there something we should know about?”
She pursed her lips, hesitating. “Gib likes to make people uncomfortable sometimes. I’ve seen it before. I suspect he’s just baiting Drew.”
And Drew had risen to it. “Because Gib’s got fame and a TV show, while Drew’s stuck in the hinterlands? Even though the hinterlanders love him?”
She waved a red-tipped hand dismissively. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You know how temperamental chefs can be.” She grinned. “But one bite, and all is forgiven.”
• Three •
Every community needs a secret weapon or two, and Caldwell’s Eagle Lake Lodge and Guest Ranch is ours. A genuine dude ranch a rope’s throw from town, founded by the late Gus Caldwell and now run by his sons, Keith and Ken, with help from other relatives—including Ken’s son, Chef Kyle. Well-tended log cabins, cooperative horses, and feast-worthy food. And half a mile of sparkling lakefront on the twenty-eight-mile-long Eagle Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
The main lodge held the check-in office, kitchen, dining room, and a stone fireplace that makes you want to toast your backside even when it’s eighty degrees out. My childhood best friend, Kyle’s cousin Kim, and I had spent hours on the trails and docks, and I loved the ranch almost as much as I loved the Murphy homestead.
Pete and Stacia had already filmed the historic buildings and grounds, but adding people to the mix adds complications, so we’d kept this first event small. With the Lodge’s regular guests off to Glacier Park for the day, we’d invited locals to share the fun.
I’d planned to arrive a little early—I never miss a chance to watch pros at work—but a last-minute glitch in the Merc’s new inventory system kept me in the shop later than expected. Filming had already started when I rushed in.