Like a fudge souffle, life can collapse. You think you have it all together--fine melted chocolate, clouds of egg white, hints of sugar and vanilla--and then bam. There's a reason things fall apart, my husband would say. But of course Tom would say that. He's a cop.
On the home front, things were not good. My kitchen was trashed, my catering business faced nasty competition, and my fourteen-year-old son Arch desperately missed our former boarder, twenty-year-old Julian Teller. For his part, Tom was embroiled in a feud with a new assistant district attorney who would plea-bargain Hermann Göring down to disturbing the peace. These days, I felt increasingly frantic--for work, for cooking space, for perspective.
Given such a litany of problems, life had brightened somewhat when my old cooking teacher, Chef André Hibbard, had offered me a one-day gig helping to cater a fashion shoot. My clients--the ones I still had--would have scoffed. Catering to models? You must be desperate.
Maybe I was. Desperate, that is. And maybe my clients would have been right to ridicule me, I reflected, as I pulled my van into the dirt lot at the edge of Sandbottom Creek. Across the water stood the Merciful Migrations cabin, where the first week of the photo shoot would take place. My clients would have cried: Where are you going to hide your butter and cheese? I didn't know.
The cloudless, stone-washed-denim sky overhead and remote-but-picturesque cabin seemed to echo: You're darn right, you don't know. I ignored a shudder of self-doubt, jumped out of my van, and breathed in air crisp with the high country's mid-August hint of fall. It was only ten a.m. Usually I didn't arrive two hours before a lunch, especially when the food already had been prepared. But show me a remote historic home and I'll show you a dysfunctional cooking area. Plus, I was worried about my old friend André. This was his first off-site catered meal since he'd retired four years ago, and he was a basket case.
I opened the van's side door and heaved up the box containing the Savory Florentine Cheesecakes I'd made for the buffet. I expertly slammed the door with my foot, crossed the rushing water, and carefully climbed the stone steps to the cabin. On the deck, I took another deep breath, rebalanced my load, then pushed through the massive wooden door.
Workers bustled about a brightly lit, log-lined, high-beamed great room. I rested my box on a bench and stood for a few minutes, ignored by the swirl of activity. Frowning, I found it challenging to comprehend my surroundings. Two workers called to each other about where to move the scrim, which I finally deduced was a mounted swath of fabric designed to diffuse the photographer's light. The two men moved on to clamping movable eight-foot-square wood screens--flats, I soon learned--into place. The flats formed a three-sided frame for "the set." Meanwhile, other folks rushed to and fro laden with hair dryers, notebooks, makeup trays, tripods, and camera equipment. Hoisting my box, I tried to figure out where André might be.
As I moved along, the models were easy to spot. Muscular young men and impossibly slender women, all with arrestingly sculpted faces, leaned against the log walls or slumped in the few stripped-bark bentwood chairs. The models' expressions were frozen in first-day-of-school apprehension. And no wonder: They were about to undergo the cattle call for the famed Prince & Grogan Christmas catalog. Prince & Grogan was an upscale Denver department store. Auditioning to model Santa-print pajamas for their ads had to be anxiety-creating.
I plowed a crooked path to what I hoped was the kitchen entrance. As I feared, the dark, cramped cooking space featured plywood glued along the one wall not covered by cupboards. Above the plywood, a dusty lamp hung to illuminate the battered sink. Next to the sink, buckled linoleum counters abutted a gas oven that didn't look much newer than a covered wagon's camp stove. In the center of the uneven wood floor, short, paunchy, white-haired André Hibbard surveyed the room with open dissatisfaction. As usual, my old friend and mentor, who had made a rare compromise when he'd immigrated, anglicizing his name from Hébert to Hibbard, sported a pristine white chef's jacket that hugged his potbelly. His black pants were knife-creased; his black shoes were shiny and spotless. When he saw me, his rosebud mouth puckered into a frown.
"Thank goodness." His plum-colored cheeks shook; the silvery curls lining his neck trembled. "Are these people pigs, that I have to work in this trough? I may need money, but I have standards!"
I put down my box, gave him a quick hug, and sniffed a trace of his spicy cologne. "André! You're never happy. But I'm here, and I brought the nonmeat entrée you requested. Main-dish cheesecakes made with Gruyre and spinach."
He tsked while I checked the ancient oven's illegible thermostat. "The oven is hot. Whose recipe is it?"
"Julian Teller's. Now training to become a vegetarian chef." I lifted the cakes from the box and slid them into the oven to reheat. "Now, put me to work."
I helped André pour out the tangy sauces that would accompany the delicate spring rolls he'd stuffed with fat steamed shrimp, sprigs of cilantro, and lemongrass. Then we stirred chopped pears into the red-wine vinaigrette, counted cornbread biscuits, Parker House Rolls, and sourdough baguettes, and discussed the layout of the buffet. Prince & Grogan was the client of record. But the fashion photography studio, Ian's Images, was running the show.
"Ian Hood does fashion photography for money," André announced as he checked his menu, "and nature photography for fun. You know this?"
In André's scratched, overloaded, red cooking equipment box--one I knew well from our days at his restaurant--I pushed aside his garlic press and salamander, and nabbed the old-fashioned scoop he used to make butter balls. "I know his pictures of elk. You can't live in Aspen Meadow and miss them."
André pursed his lips again and handed me the tub of chilled butter. "The helpers are day-contractors working for Prince & Grogan."
The word contractor, unfortunately, instantly brought my trashed kitchen to mind. Forget it for now--you have work to do. I scraped the butter into dense, creamy balls. I wrapped the breads in foil while André counted his platters. Because the cabin kitchen was not a commercially-approved space, he had done the bulk of the food preparation at his condo. While he gave me the background on the shoot, we used disposable thermometers to do the obligatory off-site food-service tests for temperature. Was the heated food hot enough? The chilled offerings cold enough? Yes. Finally, we checked the colorful arrangements of fruit and bowls of salad, and tucked the rolls into napkin-lined baskets.
When the cheesecakes emerged, golden brown and puffed, they filled the small kitchen with a heavenly aroma. André checked their temperature and asked me to take them out to the buffet. I stocked the first tray, lifted it up to my shoulder, and nudged through the kitchen door. When I entered the great room, a loudly barked order made me jump.
"Take off your shirt!"
I banged the tray onto the ruby-veined marble shelf that a note in André's familiar sloping hand had labeled Buffet. The shelf, cantilevered out of the massive log walls, creaked ominously. The tray of cheesecakes slid sideways.
I grabbed the first springform pan to keep it from tipping. This was not what I was expecting. Because the noise outside the kitchen had abated, I'd thought the room was empty and that the models' auditions had been moved elsewhere. I was obviously wrong. But my immediate worry was the cheesecakes, now threatening to toboggan downward. If they landed on the floor, I would be assigned to cook a new main dish. This would not be fun.
With great care, I slid the steaming concoctions safely onto the counter. Arguing voices erupted from the far corner of the great room. I grabbed the leaning breadbasket. The floor's oak planks reverberated as someone stamped and hollered that the stylist was supposed to bring out the gold chains right now! I swallowed and stared at the disarray on the tray.
To make room on the counter, I skidded the cheesecakes down the marble. The enticing scents of tangy melted Gruyre and Parmesan swirled with hot scallions and cream cheese spiraled upward. The thick tortes' golden-brown topping looked gorgeous, fit for the centerfold of Gourmet.
Best to avoid thoughts of gorgeous, I reminded myself as I placed a crystal bowl of endive and radicchio on the marble. Truth to tell, for this booking I'd been a bit apprehensive in the appearance department. Foodie magazines these days eagerly screamed a new trend: Today's caterer should offer pretty servers in addition to beautiful food! Submit head shots along with menus!
I pushed the butter balls onto the counter, keenly aware of my unfashionably curly blond hair and plump thirty-three-year-old body beneath a white shirt, loose black skirt, and white apron. I hadn't submitted a photo.
Of course, neither had André, who was now fuming at a kitchen intruder. I sighed and moved the plate of juicy honeydew melon and luscious fat raspberries onto the counter. With one hand still gripping the tray, I inhaled uncertainly, then parted the cloth folds of the breadbasket. The tower of butter-flecked rolls, moist cornbread biscuits, and sourdough-thyme baguettes had not toppled, thank goodness. Self-doubt again reared its head. Will the fashion folks eat this?
"And while you're at it, take off your pants!" the same female voice barked.
"For sportswear?" a man squealed in dismay.
I turned and peered past the bentwood chairs and sleigh-bed frames the workers had piled higgledy-piggledy in the dusty, sun-steeped space. By the far bank of windows, a solitary, beautiful young man stood in front of a trio of judges. The judges--two women and a man, all of whom I knew--perched on a slatted bench. None of them looked happy.
Nearest was Hanna Klapper--dark-haired, wide-faced, fiftyish, recently and unhappily divorced. Hanna was familiar to me from my stint as a volunteer at Aspen Meadow's Homestead Museum. With her authoritarian voice and exacting ways, Hanna had designed exhibits installed by trembling docents, yours truly included. She had demanded that we put on surgical gloves before moving woven baskets or antique Indian pots even two inches. If we forgot, or, God forbid, dropped an item, she'd kick us out faster than you could say Buffalo Bill's bloodstained holster. According to André, Hanna had been appointed as the new artistic director at Prince & Grogan. I was amazed to see that she had shed her gingham-smock-and-sensible-shoes wardrobe for an elegant black silk shirt, tie, and pants. Her mahogany-colored hair, formerly pulled into a severe bun, was now shaped into a fashionably angled pageboy. This wasn't just a new job. It was a metamorphosis.
Hanna opened and closed her fists as she chided the male model. The gorgeous fellow, whose hair might have been a tad too black to be real, argued back. I wondered how Hanna's exhibits on Cattle-Rustling Meets Cowboy Cooking and Gunslingers: Their Gripes and Their Girls had prepared her for ordering models to strip. In any event, I certainly wouldn't want her judging my body.
The woman next to her on the bench was a bit younger. Leah Smythe, small-boned and delicate-featured, wore her blond-streaked black hair in a shaggy pixie cut. She had jumped up and was now holding out her hands in a pleading gesture to the model. Andréehad confided to me that Leah was the big cheese here today, the woman with the power: the casting director for Ian's Images. Leah also owned the cabin. When Ian's Images was not engaged in a shoot, Leah allowed Merciful Migrations to use the space for elk-tracking, fund-raising, and salt-lick distribution.
The beautiful young man who wouldn't take off his shirt looked as if he could use a lick of salt, especially on the side of a glass of tequila. My heart went out to him.
The man seated next to Hanna and Leah, photographer Ian Hood, had a handsome, fine-boned face, wavy salt-and-pepper hair, and a trim beard. Ian's photos of trotting elk, grazing elk, big-buck elk, and mom-and-baby elk graced the libraries, grocery stores, post offices, banks, and schools of Aspen Meadow and Blue Spruce. My best friend, Marla Korman--the other ex-wife of my ex-husband--had sent Ian a dozen elk burgers when he'd criticized her fund-raising abilities. He hadn't spoken to her since.
"Do you want this job or not?" Hanna brusquely asked the model. Seeming to take no notice, Ian squinted through the lens of a camera.
No, as a matter of fact, my inner voice replied. I don't want this job. No matter how much I tried to deny it, my heart was as blue as the gas flame on André's old restaurant stovetop. Quit fretting, I scolded myself as I counted out glasses and lined them up.
I sneaked another peek at the male model still being appraised by Ian, Hanna, and Leah. He was in his mid-twenties, indisputably from the Greek-god category of guys. His ultradark curly hair, olive complexion, and perfectly shaped aquiline features complemented wide shoulders above an expansive chest, only slightly paunchy waist, and long legs. But his handsome face was pinched in frustration. Worse, his tall, elegant body--clothed in fashionably wrinkled beige clothing--didn't seem too steady on its feet. Hands on hips, Hanna looked intensely annoyed. Leah sadly shook her head. Ian gestured angrily and squawked something along the lines of You have to be able to compete. If you can't compete, get out of the business.
"I hate competing," I muttered under my breath.
Apollo-in-khaki put his hands behind his head and scowled. He snarled, "We're having a few problems. So what? I'm the best guy for this job, and you know it."
I smiled in spite of myself. A few problems?
"Didn't your agent tell you about the cruise section?" asked Leah Smythe, in a pleading tone. Ian Hood popped a flash, then stared quizzically at the camera, a Polaroid. When nothing happened, he lifted the apparatus and thwacked it loudly against the bench. I gasped.
"Spit out the picture!" Ian yelled at the camera, then lofted it back to his eye. Another flash sparked; no photograph emerged.
From the cabin's far door, footsteps and the clank of tools announced one of the workers who'd set up the scrim. Tall and gangly, this fellow traipsed into the great room hauling a load of bulging canvas bags. He writhed to get loose of his load, then dropped the sacks and thoughtfully rubbed a beard so uneven and scruffy it looked pasted on his ultrapale skin. After a moment, he picked up a framed picture and centered it on the wall. I broke out in a sweat and turned back to the buffet.
Please, I prayed, no hammering. Unfortunately, the crack of metal hitting log wall conjured up my commercial kitchen--retrofitted into our old house--as it was being destroyed by our general contractor, Gerald Eliot. One of the reasons I'd been interested in catering here at the cabin was that, apparently, Merciful Migrations had hired Gerald to do some remodeling, then fired him before paying him a cent. I wish I'd been that smart. I'd told André I didn't mind dealing with models; it was remodelers who'd made my life a living hell.
As the hammer banged methodically, I pictured Gerald Eliot, his yellow mane spilling to his shoulders, his muscled arms broadly gesturing, blithely promising he could easily install a new bay window--my ex-husband had destroyed the original--over my sink. Won't take more than three days, Eliot had vowed at the beginning of August, with a wide grin.
The pounding reverberated in my skull. Eliot had brandished his power saw, destroyed the window's casing and surrounding wall, then accidentally ripped through an adjoining cupboard. The entire cabinet, along with its load of dishes and glasses, had crashed to the floor. Just an additional day of work to fix that, he'd observed with a shrug. No extra charge. Start first thing tomorrow.
I groaned, checked my watch, and turned my attention back to the tray. Swiftly, I plugged in the electric warmer and moved the cheesecakes on top. I was here; I was working. I would even be paid. And I needed the money. Before Gerald Eliot had sliced into our kitchen wall, the new catering outfit in town had cut my business by thirty percent. And unfortunately, on Day One of the two days Gerald Eliot had actually worked for me, he'd pocketed the full seven-hundred-dollar down payment on the new window installation. On Day Two, he'd covered the gaping hole he'd made with plastic sheets, hopped into his pickup truck, and roared away.
I straightened the row of spring rolls bulging with pink shrimp. Focus. At least at this cabin there's a kitchen--although it wasn't in very good shape, either.
"What else?" I asked André cheerfully when I strode back into his domain. He was fingering the plywood on the wall beside the oven.
"Drinks, serving utensils, and ice." He looked up from the wall, his wide blue eyes merry. "Guess what I just found out? They fired Gerald Eliot for sleeping with a model!" I sighed; André loved gossip. It was one of the reasons he'd despised retirement.
I swung back out to the buffet with my newly loaded tray. Sleeping with a model, eh? At least he was getting some sleep. This was not the case with my friends the Burrs, whose house was to be the site for the second part of this fashion shoot. Neither one of them was getting much sleep at all these days, thanks--once again--to good old Gerald Eliot.
In April, Cameron and Barbara Burr had been convinced the sun room Gerald Eliot was adding onto their house would be completed by August. That was when Ian's Images was scheduled to set up the P & G catalog's outdoor shots, using as a backdrop the Burrs's spectacular view of the Continental Divide's snow-capped peaks. Gerald Eliot had already been working on the sun room for eleven months--admittedly, off and on--but what was left to be done?
Ah, but the windows had been delayed; for some reason, the drywall couldn't go up until the windows were in; Eliot had had a cash flow problem; he'd sailed off to his next job. Mountain breezes swirling through the house at night had forced Barbara Burr into the hospital--with pneumonia. Cameron Burr had moved into their guest house. The last I'd heard, Barbara's pulmonologist had put her on a ventilator.
Maybe when the P & G catalog was done, all of Gerald Eliot's former clients could have lunch and form a chiseled-by-a-contractor support group. But not today. Today, I was catering with André, watching models undress, taking food to malnourished, depressed Cameron Burr, trying to think of new ways to make money, worrying about my husband's conflicts with an arrogant prosecutor, and calling down to Lutheran Hospital to see if Barbara Burr had died.
I admired the beautiful dishes on the buffet. That was enough for one day, wasn't it? Don't ask.
Savory Florentine Cheesecake
2 cups dry bread crumbs, preferably made from homemade brioche bread8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened1/4 cup whipping cream1/2 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard4 eggs1 1/4 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese (about 4 ounces)1/4 cup freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese1/4 teaspoon paprika1/8 teaspoon cayenne1/4 cup chopped scallions
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine the bread crumbs and melted butterand press on the bottom and sides of a buttered 9-inch springform pan. Bake for8 to 12 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
Cook the spinach according to package directions, place in a strainer, and press out all the liquid. In a large bowl, beat together the cream cheese, cream, salt, and mustard until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Add the spinach, grated cheeses, paprika, cayenne, and scallions. Beat on low speed until well combined.
Pour the mixture into the prepared crust and bake for approximately 1 hour and5 minutes, or until the filling is set and browned. Cool for 15 minutes on awire rack. Serve with sliced fresh fruit and a green salad with vinaigrettedressing.
Makes 12 servings.
From the Paperback edition.