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A GREAT, BIG, FAT AMOUNT OF TROUBLE
GLADYS GATSBY STOOD AT THE COUNTER with the spout of her father’s heavy blowtorch poised over the ceramic cup. Her finger hovered over the trigger button that was supposed to turn her plain little custards into crunchy, tasty treats. That’s when she heard a car door slam outside.
She froze for a second, but then checked the clock. It was 5:16—still a good forty-four minutes before her parents were due home from work, and they were never early. It’s probably just the neighbors, she told herself, and turned back to her project.
Gladys knew her torch wasn’t the right kind for making desserts—it was a lot bigger than the one pictured in her cookbook, for starters, plus there was that huge DANGER: EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE label on its side. But she never abandoned a cooking experiment just because her parents didn’t have the right kitchen equipment. Just last week she’d rolled out pie dough with the stick of a broken umbrella, and it had turned out great.
Still, she thought as she repositioned the torch’s nozzle, it would’ve been nice if they’d given me the minitorch I wanted for my eleventh birthday instead of that stupid tablet computer.
But they hadn’t, so she was stuck with this old clunker from the garage. Oh well, she thought, and crossing her toes for luck inside her sneakers (her hands were kind of full), she took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.
Several things happened at once.
With a pop, a blue flame quite a few inches longer than she’d expected shot out of the blowtorch, passing clear over the far edge of the first custard cup.
With a whoosh, the wintery wind outside changed direction and began to blow in through the kitchen window, setting the gauzy blue-and-white curtains aflutter.
And with a jingle and a grinding noise and finally a click, someone turned a key in the Gatsbys’ front door.
A moment later, she heard her parents’ footsteps in the hall.
“Gladdy!” her dad called. “We’ve got pizza!”
Fudge! Gladys thought. She tried to release the trigger on the blowtorch, but to her horror, the spout kept shooting flame. She pumped it desperately with her finger, but that only seemed to make the flame bigger.
Their footsteps were getting louder.
Gripping the torch firmly, Gladys did her best to direct the now-enormous flame off the countertop and back over her cluster of custards. The tops turned brown from the heat almost immediately. She pumped the trigger again and, miraculously, this time heard a click as it released against her finger. The long blue flame started to retreat back into the torch’s nozzle.
But then, at the exact moment her mom and dad stepped into the kitchen—the exact moment that Gladys was about to spin around and explain that she had the situation perfectly under control—the fluttering kitchen curtains crossed paths with the dying blowtorch flame and promptly caught on fire.
The flames couldn’t have traveled up the blue-and-white fabric faster if it had been soaked in gasoline. Gladys staggered backward, and in an instant her whole secret cooking life flashed before her eyes.
She saw herself as a little kid, playing chef by mixing things in the giant ceramic bowl her parents had received as a housewarming present and never used.
She saw herself reading her first cookbook at the age of eight, and riding home from her first solo trip to Mr. Eng’s Gourmet Grocery, her bike basket stuffed with ingredients for pasta primavera.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. She saw herself stewing tomatoes and steaming mussels, tossing spring salads and grilling steaks, rolling her own sushi and whipping her own whipped cream. She saw herself opening windows to air out the smell of her cooking and taking out trash bags full of eggshells and vegetable peels. She saw herself stashing leftovers in the rusty old fridge in the garage that no one else used anymore judging from the contents (two dented soda cans and a dried-up tube of superglue).
It was during one of those garage trips that she had first noticed the blowtorch, neglected in the corner . . .
The sound of the smoke alarm shocked Gladys back to the present. Her dad’s briefcase clattered to the floor as he grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the window. Her mom’s hair flew out of its bun as she ripped the fire extinguisher from the wall. White powder filled the air all around them as she sprayed the kitchen, and Gladys knew one thing for sure: Today would not be remembered as the day she proved what a great cook she was and earned more kitchen privileges. No, today would forever be the day Gladys Gatsby set the house on fire . . . and, if her family survived, the day she got into a great, big, fat amount of trouble.
GLADYS GETS GRILLED
TEN MINUTES LATER, GLADYS SAT ON the living room sofa, staring down at her sneakers. They’d been tomato red earlier, but were now more of a salmon color, thanks to the white extinguisher powder smudged across the canvas.
Gladys didn’t normally get into trouble, so she didn’t know a lot about punishments other than what she’d read in books. Would she be grounded? Assigned to do backbreaking chores? Forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs?
She snuck a glance at her parents, who stood a few feet away, talking quietly. Her mom’s stockings were ripped, and wisps of her dark brown hair stuck out at crazy angles. Her dad’s glasses balanced awkwardly on his beaky nose, and a streak of soot darkened one arm of his dress shirt. Neither of them looked very happy.
Not wanting to catch their attention, Gladys quickly shifted her gaze to the Christmas tree in the corner. Its lights blinked on and off, illuminating the ornaments her aunt Lydia had sent her over the years. Her favorite one—a hot pepper with her name engraved on it—blazed to life, then fell back into darkness.
Gladys jumped. Her stomach began to churn queasily, like it did after eating the greasy takeout her parents brought home most nights from Sticky Burger or Fred’s Fried Fowl.
“Yes?” she said as bravely as she could.
Her father knelt down beside the sofa. “Let’s start at the beginning,” he said. “Can you explain to us what, exactly, you were doing in the kitchen?”
Gladys told the truth. “I was making crème brûlée.”
“Crumb broo-lay?” Gladys’s dad looked up at his wife quizzically, but she just shrugged. “What is crumb broo-lay?”
Gladys sighed. If a dish wasn’t on the menu at one of the fast-food joints in town, her parents didn’t know it existed. “It’s a dessert,” she explained. “A custard with a crust of burnt sugar on top. Brûlée means burnt in French.”
“So now we have curtains brûlée, huh?” Gladys’s dad laughed at his little joke. But her mom didn’t seem to think it was funny as she stepped forward to take over the interrogation. She had white extinguisher powder on her face, and her red lipstick was smeared. The combination made her look like a clown—a scary clown.
“Gladys,” Clown-Mom said, moving her hands to her hips, “who taught you how to make this crumb . . . thing?”
Gladys took a deep breath. “I taught myself,” she said. “I’ve seen chefs do it on TV, and I found the recipe in one of my cookbooks, so—”
“So you thought you’d just drag your father’s blowtorch out of the garage and take a crack at it?”
“No!” Gladys cried. “I mean, I didn’t just . . . decide to do it and go get the blowtorch. I planned it really carefully. Normally I’m a very good cook.”
“Normally?” Her mom raised one powder-dusted eyebrow.
Gladys’s dad jumped back in. “Gladdy,” he said, “is this the first time you’ve been cooking on your own?”
The churning sensation in Gladys’s stomach gave way to a sinking one as she shook her head.
“But why didn’t you let us help?” her dad said. “We could have cooked this crumb thing together.”
Gladys thought back to the few times she had tried to cook with her parents. It had always been a disaster.
If Gladys let her mom buy the supplies for a recipe, she would come home with the low-fat and sugar-free versions of every ingredient, insisting that they tasted the same as the regular ones.
But at least she looked at the recipe. Gladys’s dad didn’t believe in recipes, so if Gladys left him alone for even one minute, he’d start throwing in random stuff, saying that experimenting always made a dish taste better.
Worst of all, even if they managed to cobble together a decent mixture of ingredients, Gladys’s parents refused to use the oven or the stovetop—not when they could just nuke things in the microwave.
“You can’t bake cookies in a microwave!” Gladys had cried during their last, most catastrophic family cooking project. “It says right here: ‘Bake for eight to ten minutes at 350 degrees in the oven’!”
“Oh, it all works the same way,” her mom had said as Gladys’s dad scooped spoonfuls of dough directly onto the glass carousel.
Why did Gladys even bother? It wasn’t like the cookies could have been saved at that point anyway. They were already full of light margarine instead of butter, zero-calorie sweetener instead of sugar, and four times as much baking soda as the recipe called for, which her dad said would make them “extra light and fluffy.”
So when the cookies had swelled to the size of grapefruits and exploded, Gladys wasn’t surprised. But her parents were baffled.
“See, this is why I hate to cook,” her mom had complained as she scraped burnt dough off the inside of the microwave door. “You put in all this effort, and it never comes out right!”
That had been almost a year ago, and since then Gladys had only dared to cook while her parents were at work.
But now her father was looking at her curiously, waiting to find out why she never asked them for help. Gladys couldn’t tell him to his face that they were terrible cooks—not after what she’d just done to the kitchen.
“Well, you guys never really seem to . . . enjoy cooking,” Gladys said carefully. “So I thought that it would be better for everyone if I just did it on my own.”
“And burned down the house in the process?” her mom snapped.
“That was just an accident!” Gladys knew her parents had a right to be upset, but she also felt like they were the ones who had forced her to do all the sneaking around in the first place. Now, like a forgotten pot heating on the back burner, her anger was boiling over. “I’ve made 142 other recipes from twelve different cookbooks,” she cried, “and they all turned out fine!”
Gladys could tell as it was coming out of her mouth that this was the wrong thing to say, but she couldn’t stop herself. Now both of her parents were staring at her like she was an alien.
“Did you say one hundred . . . and forty . . . two?” her dad gasped.
An alien who cooked. A lot.
Gladys’s dad’s eyes were now as round as the measuring cups he never used, and her mom actually stood up and backed a step away from her, as if her cooking disease might be contagious.
“How—how did you do this?” she stuttered. “When did you do this?”
“I just messed around after school sometimes,” Gladys said, trying too late to sound like it was no big deal. “And during vacations, I guess.” It was winter break now, and so far Gladys had taken advantage of every minute her parents spent at work. She’d memorized their schedules, making sure to scour the kitchen and sneak her leftovers out to the garage fridge well before they got home each day. If only they hadn’t chosen tonight to leave their offices early and surprise her.
Gladys’s mom was pacing the room. “You know, we’ve tried to support your interests, Gladys,” she said, her voice rising. “We gave you cookbooks, which you promised were just for reading. We subscribed to that Planet Food channel, which you promised was just for watching. We’ve even tried to organize family cooking projects from time to time . . . and this is how you repay us? By putting yourself in danger behind our backs?”
She sank into the cushion next to Gladys on the sofa and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “It’s just that, well . . . we worry about you, honey,” she said in a softer voice. “When I was your age, I was on the swim team, and your dad played basketball, and we both had lots of friends. But you only seem to want to stay home and”—she glanced in the direction of the kitchen—“cook, I guess. What about making friends? What about having fun?”
“Cooking is fun . . .” Gladys started, but her dad shook his head.
“Your mom’s right,” he said, “and we’re going to have to set some new rules around here. First of all, your allowance is suspended until the fire damage is all paid off.”
Gladys nodded. That seemed fair.
“And we think that it’s time for you to explore some new hobbies. So, I’m sorry, but the cooking is going to have to stop.”
“S-stop?” Gladys wasn’t sure what her father was saying.
“Yes,” her mom agreed. “No more cooking, no more cookbooks, and no more cooking TV shows for the next six months.”
“Six months?!” Gladys couldn’t believe it. That took her right up to the end of sixth grade. What was she supposed to do every day after school?
Her mom seemed to read her mind. “So after Christmas,” she said, “you can start doing some more . . . normal activities for a kid your age. You can hang out with other kids—”
“And play more computer games—”
“And . . . go to the mall!”
“Why would I want to go to the mall?”
“Gladdy, we’re serious,” her dad said, and the grim expression on his face meant that he was telling the truth.
“Well, what am I supposed to eat?” Gladys asked.
Her parents exchanged a confused look. “What do you mean?” her mom asked. “You’ll eat what we always eat.”
Gladys thought of the bland, floppy vegetables her parents brought home from Palace of Wong, the falling-apart sandwiches they got at Sticky Burger, and the goopy, undercooked crusts of the pizzas from Pathetti’s Pies.
“But the food we eat is gross,” she said. “It tastes awful and makes me feel sick. That’s why I like to cook my own food.”
The room was uncomfortably silent for a moment, then Gladys’s dad cleared his throat. “Well, maybe your mom and I will try to cook more often,” he said.
“You will?” Gladys gasped.
“We will?” her mom gasped.
Gladys’s dad turned to his wife. “Look, if an eleven-year-old can do it, how hard can it be?”
“It’s really not that hard if you just follow a recipe!” Gladys exclaimed. “And if you let me teach you both some basic knife skills, we can—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” her mom said. “You will not be doing anything with knives. In fact, if any cooking happens—and I’m not saying it will—then you’ll have no part in it. Understood?”
Gladys didn’t want to agree, but she didn’t seem to have any other options. “Okay,” she mumbled. But, she added in her head, there’s no way I’m eating only your awful food for six whole months. Her parents might be able to ban her from the kitchen, but they couldn’t stop her from cooking up some kind of survival plan.
“Good, that’s settled,” her dad said, pushing himself up from the sofa. “Now, let’s go nuke some of that pizza. I’m starving!”
Gladys made a mental note to aim for the microwave the next time she set the kitchen on fire.
THE SECRET COOKBOOK
GLADYS TOSSED AND TURNED SO MUCH in bed that night that the half-raw pizza dough in her stomach probably got flipped a hundred times. The harder she tried to fall asleep, the more she thought about the events of the day—and the years of cooking that had led up to it.
It had all started with a visit from her aunt Lydia.
Aunt Lydia was Gladys’s mom’s sister, but the two were as different as mushrooms and milk shakes. Aunt Lydia lived in Paris, while Gladys’s mom hated big cities. Aunt Lydia’s trunks burst with colorful scarves, while Gladys’s mom’s closet held row after row of dark business suits. But most importantly, Aunt Lydia loved great food, while Gladys’s mom—and dad—felt exactly the opposite.
The summer when Gladys turned seven, Aunt Lydia had visited from France. Every day she and Gladys took walks together around East Dumpsford, the Long Island suburb where the Gatsbys lived.
“This town is nothing like Paris,” Aunt Lydia sniffed as they made their way down the main street one day. “All the houses here look the same, and instead of a lovely Eiffel Tower, you have that stinky landfill. But maybe things will look prettier to us if we eat something good while we explore.”
Indeed, Aunt Lydia’s mood often seemed to improve when she was eating—and she always had some kind of strange, delicious snack in her purse. On any given day she might offer her niece a dried persimmon dipped in chocolate, a lavender-flavored sandwich cookie, or a pretzel coated with a green powder called wasabi that made Gladys’s eyes water. But Gladys loved the weird snacks, and as they walked through town she tried to point out more places where her aunt could find food.
“That’s where we get dinner on Mondays,” she told her as they strolled past the Pathetti’s sign, with its flashing pizza pies inside each giant P. “And we eat Fred’s on Tuesdays.” She pointed up at the glowing chicken bucket that rotated outside of Fred’s Fried Fowl. “And Wednesday night is Sticky’s night!” she said as they passed under the huge plastic hamburger that dripped neon pink sauce high above the Sticky Burger drive-thru. “Do you eat at restaurants a lot in Paris?”
“Oh, Gladys!” Aunt Lydia burst out. Her scarves flapped in the breeze as she pulled her niece around to face her. “Those are notrestaurants,” she said, pointing back at the strip of fast-food joints with a shiver of disgust. But then, slowly, a smile spread across her wasabi-dusted lips. “How would you like to see what a real restaurant looks like?”
Fifteen minutes later, they were at the East Dumpsford train station, Aunt Lydia punching buttons on a machine to buy them two tickets to New York City. The city was only an hour away, and Gladys’s dad took the train there and back every day for work, but Gladys had never been. She clutched her aunt’s hand tightly as they boarded the silver train, then she watched as Middle Dumpsford, West Dumpsford, and Far Dumpsford whipped by outside her window. Eventually the train dipped into a dark tunnel, and then all at once they were pulling into Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan.
“I did a little college here before I moved to France, you know,” Aunt Lydia told Gladys as they rode the enormous escalator up to the street, “and I bet I can still remember all the best places to eat!”
Their first destination was an Ethiopian restaurant on Tenth Avenue, where the tables looked like colorful baskets and wailing songs played over the speaker system. Their food came out on a huge round plate, and instead of using forks or spoons, they scooped spicy bites of pureed beans and chunks of meaty stew into their mouths using their fingers and a spongy bread called injera. Gladys had never eaten anything like it.
Next, Aunt Lydia took Gladys on the subway to a crowded kosher restaurant on the Lower East Side. There they shared a table with a pair of bushy-bearded men and slurped chicken soup from steaming bowls. Gladys’s favorite part was the giant spongy ball—a matzo ball, her aunt called it—that bobbed up and down in her broth.
After walking around a bit more, they finally rode a bus to Chinatown, where they sat on duct-taped chairs in the window of a tiny eatery and feasted on dumplings filled with tender pork and crunchy scallions. Gladys didn’t understand how the dough surrounding the dumplings could feel both soft and crispy in her mouth at the same time, but that didn’t stop her from finishing an entire plate.
“Now that,” said Aunt Lydia each time she led a full-tummied Gladys back out onto the bustling streets of Manhattan, “was a restaurant!”
And Gladys had to agree. The food she was eating with her aunt tasted nothing like what her parents picked up for dinner in East Dumpsford. She wasn’t sure she could ever enjoy a Sticky Burger again.
Walking home from the train station that night, Gladys asked her aunt how the cooks in New York City got their food to taste so good.
“Is it magic?” she wondered out loud.
Aunt Lydia let out a throaty laugh. “No, my sweet Gladiola,” she said, using one of the flowery nicknames she’d given her niece. “I suppose it’s part science and part art.” Then she explained as best she could how the right amount of heat, for the right amount of time, combined with just the right amount of this spice or that sauce, could make the right ingredients taste incredible.
“I wish that I could teach you more about cooking,” she continued as they turned into the Gatsbys’ driveway, “but your parents seem dead set against my using the kitchen at all. And while I’m a guest in their house, I don’t want to break their rules.”
So instead of cooking, Aunt Lydia and Gladys continued with their walks around East Dumpsford. One day, near the end of the summer, they came upon a dusty-looking shop that they had never noticed before.
“Mr. Eng’s Gourmet Grocery,” Aunt Lydia read from the faded sign in the window. “Well, shall we have a look?” Gladys nodded, and her aunt pushed open the rickety wooden door. A little bell chimed overhead—and suddenly, they were in a different world.
The aroma from the wall of spices hit Gladys first, tickling her nose with sharp, exotic scents she had never smelled before. To her left stood a refrigerator full of cheeses: wheels and wedges in shades of red and yellow and blue. And toward the back of the store there were piles of purple potatoes, yellow tomatoes, and orange peppers; a bin full of tiny, spiny pink fruits; and a stack of great green squashes with necks curved like swans.
“My goodness,” Aunt Lydia murmured. “I didn’t think that a place like this could exist in East Dumpsford!” With every word she spoke, she inched closer to the cheese refrigerator, as if she were a magnet that belonged on its door.
Gladys wandered over to the spice wall and picked up a jar filled with little striped seeds. CUMIN, the label said. She gave the jar a shake, and the seeds responded with a satisfying, maraca-like rattle.
“Would you like to try some?”
Gladys whirled around and found herself staring up at a tall, slender man with bushy eyebrows and inky-black hair shot with gray. His eyes were kind behind his wire-rimmed glasses, crinkling in the corners as he smiled down at her.
“I haven’t seen you in here before. I’m Mr. Eng, of course.” As he spoke, the man reached down and gently took the jar of cumin out of Gladys’s hands. Then, motioning for her to hold out her palm, he unscrewed the top and tapped a few seeds onto it. As she crunched on them, she found that they tasted rich like nuts, sharp like licorice, and even a little bit fiery.
“Do you have a spice grinder at home?” Mr. Eng asked.
Gladys shook her head no.
“Well, we’d better start with something more basic than cumin, then.” His eyes roved over the hundreds of glass jars stacked up against the wall. “Here,” he said, pulling down a jar of red-brown powder. The label said EXTRA-FANCY VIETNAMESE CINNAMON. “It’s already ground, so you don’t have to do a thing but sprinkle it on top of any sweet dish. Pancakes, oatmeal, and of course cakes and pies. Let’s go get you a bag.” His long legs carried him swiftly toward the checkout counter, and Gladys scurried after him.
“But I don’t have any money,” she said.
Mr. Eng chuckled softly. “Haven’t you ever heard of free samples?” He pulled a small plastic bag out of a drawer behind the counter and scooped some cinnamon into it. “This one’s on the house.”
And so Gladys went home that day with her first ingredient. If it wasn’t for Aunt Lydia, she probably would have just tucked the bag away in a drawer, letting it make her pajamas smell nice. But instead, she couldn’t stop thinking about cooking with it. Could she use the cinnamon—or other spices from the wall at Mr. Eng’s—to recreate the kinds of foods she and her aunt had eaten together in the city? If so, how?
The answer came in the mail a few weeks after Aunt Lydia’s return to Paris.
At first glance, the package appeared to contain a famous children’s book: the one with the Eiffel Tower and two straight lines of girls on the cover. But when Gladys peeked inside, she saw that the jacket had been swapped.
It was a cookbook.
Then, deeper in the package she found a smaller book with blank pages and an inscription inside the cover. Here is a journal for recording all of the lovely things you eat and cook, it said in tiny letters. The cooking can be our secret.
Excerpted from "All Four Stars"
Copyright © 2015 Tara Dairman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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