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Cookbook author Jasmine March's life is like a perfectly prepared béchamel-rich, satisfying, and drenched in butter. But even a great béchamel curdles sometimes. Her husband, Daniel, has taken up with one of his Zone-dieting drama students; Careme, her daughter, is bent on starving herself to death; and Jasmine's fellow foodies have had just about enough of her astronomically caloric recipes. To make matters worse, her publisher is threatening to cancel her contract. And then there's the small matter of the dead ...
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Cookbook author Jasmine March's life is like a perfectly prepared béchamel-rich, satisfying, and drenched in butter. But even a great béchamel curdles sometimes. Her husband, Daniel, has taken up with one of his Zone-dieting drama students; Careme, her daughter, is bent on starving herself to death; and Jasmine's fellow foodies have had just about enough of her astronomically caloric recipes. To make matters worse, her publisher is threatening to cancel her contract. And then there's the small matter of the dead body she finds one morning on her kitchen floor.
Filled with mouth-watering descriptions of Jasmine's creations-venison stew with Madeira and juniper berries, crispy chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and mint-Nina Killham's smart and spirited first novel is good enough to eat.
It was two months ago to the day when it all began to go wrong. When Jasmine woke that morning she'd been dreaming of breakfast. Not cornflakes or melba toast, skim milk and a sorry slice of apple. No, Jasmine was elbow deep in creamy oatmeal slathered with brown sugar and hot cream. Next, a plate of eggs Sardou: poached eggs nestled sweetly in the baby-smooth bottoms of artichokes and napped with a blushing spiced hollandaise sauce. Jasmine stared up at the ceiling, her mouth a swamp of saliva as she mentally mopped the rest of the hollandaise sauce with a crust of crunchy French bread beforetaking a sip of nutty chicory coffee and reaching for a freshly fried beignet so covered with powdered sugar it made her sneeze.
Closing her eyes, she tried to burrow back into the warm scents of hot sugar and caffeine. Her skin flushed pink at the thought of it. But the dream eluded her. Jasmine swung her legs off the bed She gave the heavy fold of her backside a good scratch as she stepped across the room and sat down at her desk. And started to work:
First heat one tablespoon butter in a flameproof casserole. Brown the meat over medium-high (in batches if necessary). Using a slotted spoon transfer the meat to a bowl and set aside. To the casserole now add onion garlic, chili, and paprika ...
Jasmine stopped typing. 'What?'
'We out of yogurt?' Daniel called from the kitchen downstairs.
'Look behind the deviled testicles.'
'The duck testicles.'
Jasmine heard her husband rummage through their extra-large steel-encased refrigerator, then the door slam. She continued. She erased one tablespoon of butter and typed three. As far as she was concerned, the more butter the better. There was no substitute for butter. Fresh, creamy butter. She shuddered at the current trend of blaming all ills on food. Food didn't kill people, for God's sake, people killed people. With their harping, and criticizing, and careful living. Show Jasmine a skinny woman and you'd be showing her mentally deficient being. Weren't neurotics invariably skinny? Wasn't it the scrawny, hungry soul who created the most havoc in the world?
Don't get her started.
Jasmine licked her finger and flipped through her notes: Smoked Chicken with Pureed Spiced Lentils, Hot Ham and Bacon Biscuits, Cassoulet Salad with Garlic Sausages. After three cookbooks, she was finally finding her voice. She had discovered her future lay in rustic, not structure. Oh, she had tried the nouvelle rage. Who could forget her Breast of Chicken on a Bed of Pureed Grapes, her Diced Brie and Kumquat Salsa, her Orange and Chocolate Salad with Grand Marnier Vinaigrette? But her instincts had rightly moved her closer to large portions. She hated the increasing fad of so much visible white plate. She preferred mounds of gorgeous food and puddles of sauces. Jasmine kneaded her heavy flesh and smiled. She had finally found her term. She was going to be a gastrofeminist. She would be Queen of Abundance, Empress of Excess. No apologies of appetite for her, no 'No thank you, I'm full,' no pushing away her plate with a sad but weary smile. Her dishes would fulfill the deepest, most primal urge. Beef stews enriched with chocolate and a hint of cinnamon, apple cakes dripping with Calvados and butter, pork sautéed with shallots, lots of cream, and mustard.
Jasmine smiled with satisfaction. She couldn't imagine a world without cookbooks. A world where a haunch was slapped on the fire and deposited partially grilled, bloody, and smelly on the plate. No sauce, no perfectly planned accompanying vegetable. Oh, a root vegetable perhaps, boiled beyond recognition. And that was only if the cook of the house was familiar with chemistry. No, life without cookbooks was unimaginable. Like Christianity without a Bible.
Jasmine had her mission: to lead the others to the Big One, the most delicious mouthful they'd ever consumed. It was not a vocation for the fragile. Her stomach was heavy with tasting. Her tongue charred from impatience. Her hands shredded from the testing of recipes. All that scrapping and slicing and tearing. And then, of course, there were her wrists, always on the verge of seizing up with stress, so quickly, so immediately did she try to relay her message. But a prophet suffers and suffer she would if it meant one more decent meal on the public's table ...
'You ate it all.'
The moan of a self-impaled man came from the kitchen.
'There might be a spare box behind the semolina.'
Jasmine still remembered the first time she saw a cookbook. Fourteen and in urgent need to rid herself of her virginity, she had just offered it to one seventh-grade boy before finally withdrawing the offer after twenty minutes of his ineffectual groping. As she flounced downstairs from his bedroom, she caught sight of his mother's bookcase filled with brightly colored cookbooks. She sat right down as if struck like a gong and began to read, amazed at the heaven before her.
She read the cookbooks like novels, each recipe a chapter. The list of ingredients was the beginning, the instructions the complications of the story, the presentation the climax, and the optional substitutions, if any, the dénouement. She would then take up her own pen and paper and try to create recipes that had never seen the light or palate before: masterpieces like Potato Chip Salad, Squash Strudel, Baked Mustard Custard. Her problem, she knew from the beginning, was that she lacked regionality. Washington, D.C., was not known for its culinary tradition. She had grown up with no regional cooking and so could not whip up the homey, nostalgic cuisines of her mother's mother's mother. No genetically ingrained cream and flour sauces in her family for fourteen generations. She couldn't even claim a familial authentic New England clam chowder or a southern fried succotash. She was a culinary orphan and as such would have to invent herself.
Never one for baby steps, Jasmine threw herself into beef Wellingtons, bouillabaisses, even Bocuse's signature onion soup with its puff pastry top. Instead of clothes like the other girls, she saved her money to buy truffles, forking over her precious dollars and scurrying home with a fraction of an ounce of the fragrant fungus. Her mother, whose only cooking adventure had been sour cream instead of plain potato chips on her tuna casserole, was nervous. The whole teenage obsession reeked of impropriety, though she couldn't exactly explain why. She couldn't in a million years ask Jasmine to refrain from cooking because she feared she was becoming a vassal to the devil, Instead she began sitting down to dinner every night a bit fearfully, picking through the food like a land mine.
'What's that?' she'd ask suspiciously.
'Ham? Why are you covering the melon with it? Shouldn't you save it for sandwiches?'
Sometimes she said nothing at all, just opened her eyes in stunned gustatory orgasm and stared religiously at her daughter.
'Wow,' she'd finally say.
'Uh-huh,' said her daughter.
Her mother feared it was an oral thing. But for Jasmine it was the discipline. She had found great comfort in the rigid discipline of cooking. It was a food military. There were rules and regulations. Provide a service and clean up after yourself. Do your job well and you're rewarded. Not a job everybody wants but, boy, they sure want somebody to be doing it. Jasmine was a food marine. She was proud of it.
In those days, her heroes had been large men like Paul Bocuse, whose eyes twinkled above the sensuous slab of his ample cheeks, Jasmine herself was becoming a vast young woman. Oh, she was earth itself, flavor and richness and strength. At night she bathed to candles scented with vanilla and creamed palmfuls of olive oil into her rich dark skin, making sure to slide the grease over every patch. In the morning, she was as soft as silk and as fragrant as a Milanese trattoria. She piled her thick hair high on her head, letting the rowdier curls descend coquettishly around her face. She wore billowing white artist smocks and tied red or black bandannas at her throat Her legs held firm from her excess energy. Her full lips burnished with a fuchsia lipstick set off her milk-white teeth ...
'Are we out of OJ?'
Jasmine sighed, cricked shut her laptop, and went down to join her husband.
Daniel sat at the kitchen table, comparing the number of fiber gram on cereal boxes. Every morning he reread, recomputed, refigured the grams of fiber to the grams of salt and fat. He had become obsessed with eliminating. For Daniel eliminating had become tantamount of breathing. Fresh air and a fresh colon, that was his motto. His body was a battlefield between fiber and the raging toxins which hid like Vietcong in the jungle of his intestines. He would be Rambo, ferreting them out, garroting them mercilessly, his weapon of choice Fiber One, which scrubbed the walls of his gut like Ajax.
Jasmine strolled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. 'Manuscript is off to Garrett's today. Six months of testing, retesting, tasting, retasting. I must have eaten enough to feed a small nation
She perused the stacked refrigerator shelves. 'I'm starved.'
After a couple of aborted decisions she finally decided on a large slice of leftover tarte Tatin. She sat on a stool by the counter, too a big slurp of her steaming café au lait, and tucked in.
Daniel raised his eyes,
'Fiber One is the best:
Jasmine shrugged. 'It tastes like sawdust.'
'Maybe, but you never eat it, so what do you care?'
'I'd hate you to spend the best years of your life eating sawdust.'
'Why is this so difficult for you?'
Jasmine's eyes flicked over to him.
'You want Fiber One, I'll get you Fiber One.'
He poured his skim milk over the fiber-deficient cereal and began to crunch. He eyed Jasmine as she followed her last mouthful of tart around the plate with a spoon. She cut off its escape with her other hand and popped it into her impatient mouth. He watched as she sucked the life out of it before swallowing. He turned his eyes away.
When Daniel had first seen Jasmine at the American Café in Georgetown seventeen years ago, he walked right into the wall. It was her way with the tarragon chicken croissant in her hands, her intense concentration, her closed, rapturous eyes, the large salad and double chocolate brownie at her table patiently waiting their turn. After salvaging his tray, he grabbed his veggie sandwich, overflowing with righteous sprouts, and sat as closely to her table as possible. He sipped his Perrier and watched while the vision before him sucked like a Hoover at her straw of Coke. She wetted her finger and dabbed at the flaky remains of her croissant. She took a deep, satisfied sigh and looked up, catching him staring at her, and smiled. He, with a mouthful of cucumber, tomato, avocado, and wholegrain bread, nodded back. She then actually smacked her lips and drew forth her salad. Daniel watched in amazement as she forked her lettuce into her mouth as economically as filling a trash bag with trimmings. Finally, she stopped and began to chew, grinning over at him, her eyes mere slits left in a face enlarged by two busy cheeks. Daniel noticed by now that he was not the only one who gawked. Whole tables chewed silently, breathlessly watching as Jasmine, her salad a mere memory, paused. She sat up straight and rolled her neck around to release any tension. She hiked up her shoulders to her ears one at a time as if getting ready for strenuous exercise. One last roll of her head and a beatific smile for the waitress who swerved by her table to grab her two exhausted plates Jasmine then reached for her dessert and drew it close. She gazed at it, contemplating the melting ice cream flowing down to moisten the side of the decadent chocolate brownie, the thinning line of chocolate sauce which pooled into the white cream before disappearing to the bottom of the plate. She picked up the fork, mumbled something Daniel didn't catch, and began to slide the bites of drenched brownie methodically into her increasingly warm and chocolaty mouth.
She met his eyes as he approached, licking her lips. Without a word he sat down before her. She chewed on her lower lip and said nothing. Daniel reached over and gently removed the fork from her hand.
'I hope you saved some for me,' he said.
She smiled, her teeth brown and white like a Jersey cow.
Within a month he had it all: gourmet cook, maid, and sex slave. Well, maybe not sex slave, but she was certainly enthusiastic. The best thing about it was, it was all her idea. She'd been staying with her mother and was bursting to get out. She extracted him from his group house and set them up in a reasonably priced one-bedroom apartment in Northwest. He could have done without the cheerleading cockroaches who watched him make toast every morning and the bathroom the size of a toupee, but other than that he could absolutely not complain. And the food. Oh, the food. Jesus, the food.
Veal with a crab sauce. A lamb roast studded with so much garlic he couldn't get near his boss for days. Fried calamari with a chili and honey sauce. Duck breast with sautéed peaches. A beef stew with a sauce so good he wanted to rub it all over his body; rich meaty, sweet, and oniony.
One night, after a ragged afternoon at his day job, he walked into the apartment and smelled the breath of angels. Italian angels, sweet and pungent and herby with a splash of white wine, exuding a perfume that curled around his nose like a tickler. He strode to the kitchen to find seafood simmering in the pot over which Jasmine bent, swirling and sprinkling like a witch. Daniel was born again at that moment. Life gained meaning. The future sat up and beckoned. Marriage, a word he had never uttered without a twang of abject fear, became a gripping desire. Love, lust, and an incurable gluttony poured from him in the form of an unintelligible proposal, to which Jasmine sweetly smiled and which she sealed with a garlicky smack on the lips.
Excerpted from How to cook a tart by Nina Killham Copyright © 2002 by Nina Killham
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted April 16, 2008
Posted February 26, 2004
Posted September 6, 2003
Posted August 19, 2003
All in all, I thought the book was well written. I loved the sarcastic humor and the story was one that kept me fairly entertained. Nonetheless, the book was somewhat 'slow' and at times, it took awhile to get to the point. The ending was not at all what I expected.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2003
Posted January 3, 2009
No text was provided for this review.