Professional foodie Samantha Barnes has a simple Christmas list: a quiet holiday at home with her dog and a certain handsome harbor master; no embarrassing viral videos; and no finding dead bodies. Unfortunately she’s got family visiting, she’s spending a lot of time in front of the camera, and she’s just stumbled over the lifeless body of the town’s Santa Claus.
Plus, Sam’s plans for Christmas Eve are getting complicated. There’s the great eggnog debate among her very opinionated guests. There’s the “all edible” Christmas tree to decorate. And there’s her Feast of the Five Fishes prepare. Nonetheless, Sam finds herself once again in the role of sleuth. She needs to find out who slayed this Santa—but can she pull off a perfect feast and nab a killer?
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"They want to call it Santa's Seashore Selebration," Jenny said, spearing a succulent morsel of lamb tagine from my plate and plopping it into her mouth. "Mmmm, yummy," she said, reaching over again.
I smacked her hand away. "Keep your mitts off my tagine," I said. "You've already eaten your own entire"-
I glanced at the menu again-"Marhaba Meat Extravaganza."
This was true. Jenny had polished off a generous sampling of the barbequed kufta meatballs, a lamb and beef gyro, and three grilled baby lamb chops. Which hadn't surprised me. Jenny Snow Singleton, whom I'd known since we were Minnows together in swimming lessons, is a confirmed meat eater. She was loving the Marhaba, a tiny Middle Eastern restaurant with a menu designed to please everyone from the dedicated omnivore to the most devoted vegetarian.
"That's not fair, Sam," Jenny protested loudly. "You had some of everything on my plate."
"I'm supposed to have some of everything on your plate," I said, lowering my voice to just above a whisper. "I'm the restaurant reviewer."
For the past six months or so, I'd been critiquing restaurants for the Cape Cod Clarion. Not that I did much actual critiquing. If I tried a place and it was truly not very good, I simply didn't review it. I wanted no part of trashing someone else's dream. But if a place had promise, was doing its business honestly and with passion, I was happy to tell the world (or at least our little corner of Cape Cod) about it.
Truth be told, I wasn't sure how much longer I'd be able to get away with this gig. A large part of reviewing restaurants depends on the anonymity essential to an honest review. Anonymity, however, has never been my strong suit. First of all, I stand well over six feet tall, so I'm kind of hard to miss. Second, I have an awkward history of going viral online.
Through no fault of my own, I might add. Was it my fault that someone posted online a very unfortunate video they'd taken with their cell phone of me, Samantha Barnes, up-and-coming New York chef, mixing it up with my rather volatile chef husband in a kind of chefs' fencing match? (Which I won, I might add. My knife skills were always better than his. Which is why he is now missing the tip of his pinky finger.) Once that video hit YouTube, I almost instantaneously became Samantha Barnes, ex-chef.
So when I found I'd inherited my Aunt Ida's house on the Cape, I reluctantly retreated home to Fair Harbor, where my old friend and now publisher of the Clarion, Krista Baker, gave me a job writing restaurant reviews. And, much against my better judgment, I had allowed Krista to talk me into a series of video food features for the Clarion's online edition, starring yours truly as "the Cape Cod Foodie." The good news is that they've been something of a hit. The bad news is that they've been something of a hit.
So, though I still wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was making ends meet as the Cape Cod Foodie and the Clarion's restaurant reviewer.
And now Jenny was blowing whatever cover I had left by arguing with me. Loudly.
I looked in mute appeal to my other fellow diners, Helene Greenberg and Miles Tanner, willing them to distract Jenny from my falling-off-the-bone, meltingly delicious lamb and to keep her voice down. Miles, an old high school buddy and dedicated organic farmer, was too busy spooning the sinfully rich yogurt labneh over his falafel to notice, but Helene, my sixtysomething next door neighbor and the town librarian, jumped in, bless her heart.
"So tell me about this Santa seashore celebration," Helene said, as she dipped a piece of pita into her eggplant baba ghanoush with one beringed hand.
Jenny grinned at her. "'Celebration' with an s," she said.
Helene shuddered. Librarians as a rule don't like cute misspellings. "I'm assuming that the celebrating"-she pronounced it "ssssselebrating"-"is mainly about buying stuff?"
Helene has no illusions about people's motivations. That's what happens after twenty-five years as a legal psychologist with the Manhattan DA's office.
"Well, sure," Jenny said. "I mean, according to the select board, the whole point this year is to bring in some extra tourist dollars during the off-season. You know how usually we just have Santa come through town on a fire truck and throw candy canes to the kids? Well, this year, there's going to be a Santa Trolley to take people around to all the stores, and everybody gets a wish list to fill out and give to their significant others. And the kids, of course, get to tell Santa what they want."
Miles dabbed some rogue yogurt off his beard. "But there's other fun stuff, too," he said defensively. Miles is the optimist yin to Helene's pessimist yang. "I'm personally looking forward to the pancake breakfast hosted by Mrs. Claus . . ."
"Archaic and sexist," Helene muttered to herself.
"And the 5K Santa Stroll, where all you have to do to qualify is wear a Santa hat. You don't even have to run, just walk. And the best Santa lookalike wins."
Miles stroked his bushy beard and beamed at his considerable paunch. "I'm gonna win," he said with all the complacent pride of the five-year-old he still was deep inside. "I have the whole outfit. I've been playing Santa for my sister's kids like forever."
This, I knew, was no exaggeration. Miles's sister had been popping out kids at a rate of one every two years for the past ten years and showed no sign of slowing down.
"So why aren't you playing the town's Santa?" I asked.
"Apparently the role had been filled," Miles responded with great dignity, "by Caleb Mayo, the latest member of the Fair Harbor select board."
"Santa is always played by someone from the select board," Jenny explained. "They rotate. Last year it was Monique Holden. She was terrific. Very jolly. That's going to be a tough act for Caleb Mayo to follow. On the other hand, he'll be the first Santa to arrive at Town Cove by boat."
"I like that," I said, imagining a red-suited Father Christmas chugging in at the helm of a fishing boat to the delighted cheers of the Fair Harbor citizenry.
"Ah, I'm not sure you will, actually," Jenny said, her blue eyes dancing with mischief. I groaned. Jenny in a mischievous mood is not someone I trust.
"The boat is going to be the Harbor Patrol's Grady-White," she continued. The Grady-White is the Harbor Patrol's main powerboat. I know this because my gentleman friend, as my Aunt Ida would have called him, is Jason Captiva, the town's harbormaster.
"Why wouldn't I like that?"
"Well, the Grady-White is going to be piloted by Jason," Jenny said, and left a significant pause.
I stepped right into her trap. "That's fine. How is that a problem?"
"It will be piloted by Jason wearing an elf costume," Jenny said gleefully. "An elf costume with red-striped stockings and curly-toed shoes!"
Jason in an elf costume. That would not be fine. That would be something I could never unsee. Jason was hot to death, but even he could not pull off red-striped stockings and curly-toed shoes.
I was so stunned, I didn't even notice Jenny snatching another huge forkful of tagine off my plate.
"Sam, Sam, sweetheart, is that you?"
What I sort of wanted to say was, Who did you think was going to answer my phone that you called? Because I'm snarky that way. But I love my mother, most of the time anyway, so I didn't.
Instead, I said, "Hi, Mom. Yeah, it's me."
"Hi, sweetheart. Hold on a minute while I put you on speaker. Your dad is here, too." I'm not sure if my mother knows that she can actually put her phone on speaker before she calls, thus minimizing the chance that she will press the wrong button and cut the call off completely. This happens often. But not this time, miraculously.
My father's voice came booming in my ear. "Sam! How are you? Is everything okay?" This greeting is also par for the course. As is the shouting.
"I'm fine, Dad. Everything's okay. No need to shout, I can hear you fine."
"Excellent," he shouted. Sigh.
"So, what's new?" I asked. Actually, it had only been a few weeks since I'd been down to Florida to visit them over Thanksgiving, so I doubted anything much was new. There's almost never anything new going on in Cedar Grove, Florida.
"Much the same," my father said glumly.
"Same old, same old," my mother said gloomily.
What was this I was hearing? Boredom, perhaps? Had they grown tired of endless sunshine, health food, yoga, and aerobics at the senior citizens center? I hoped so. I really did. My parents, Robert and Veronica Barnes, were not to my mind senior citizens. It had been only two years since my father had had a mild heart attack and they'd taken early retirement from the Clarion, where they'd been the editor in chief and senior journalist, respectively. These were people who were used to an environment that challenged them both physically and mentally.
"Anyway," my father continued, "we were talking and we decided that we really didn't enjoy spending Christmas down here last year, so we thought maybe we'd come up to the Cape over the holidays."
This was more like it! The Florida honeymoon was wearing off. This was a good first step.
"That's a great idea!" I said. "You can make your standing rib roast for Christmas dinner! And you and I can go shopping, Mom."
I knew the roast beef plan would seal the deal with my dad. After his heart attack, my mother had gone on a total health kick, tossing out his favorite meal of meat loaf and mashed potatoes in favor of a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables. So far, the menu still included chicken and fish but was beginning to veer perilously close, in my dad's opinion, to vegetarian.
I couldn't really blame him for his dismay. Plant-based cooking can be out of this world, but you've got to have the knack and the right ingredients-good olive oil, the best produce, tons of lentils and chickpeas, lots of freshly ground spices, great handfuls of fresh herbs. (Tip: Avoid generic vegetarian cookbooks and look instead for solid introductory Italian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cookbooks like Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi's Ottolenghi Simple, and Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice.)
That is not what my mother did. What my mother did was present my father and me with a prepackaged tofu turkey for Thanksgiving. This was not good. In fact, I was pretty sure it was the threat of two tofu turkeys in the space of a month that had inspired my father's sudden urge to come up to the Cape for Christmas. Because my father has exactly one meal that he cooks every year and that meal is a juicy prime rib roast for Christmas dinner.
"Well, I'm not sure about the roast beef," my mother said. We'll see about that, Mom. "But the shopping sounds like fun. And we can be there for your birthday, too."
My birthday. Uh-oh. My birthday falls on the worst possible day of the year-January 1. All my adult life I have woken up on my birthday with a hangover. And it was only as an adult that I realized that for all of my childhood my parents had probably also woken up on my birthday with a hangover. Oh well. It looked like this year we'd be hungover together. Doesn't that sound like fun, Sam?
"Where are you going to stay?" I asked. "You know, Tina Eldredge has turned their family's big house into a bed and breakfast."
Over the past twenty years or so, a number of retired couples had turned their family's rambling summer houses (known as big houses) into B and Bs. After the necessary renovations, they were as charming as they were expensive.
"That sounds a little pricey," my father said doubtfully.
This was another downside to my parent's retirement-my smart, intellectually curious father had turned his brain power toward clipping coupons and saying things like "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves," instead of "I think I'll write an editorial about overbuilding near the marshes."
"We thought we'd stay with you," my mother said.
"With me?" I squeaked.
"Sure," my dad said. "In Aunt Ida's house."
There were two reasons why I didn't think this was a good idea. The first was Aunt Ida's house itself. When I'd moved in last spring, it had been barely habitable except for a small studio ell that Aunt Ida had added when it became clear that maintaining the rest of the rambling old place was too much for her. Little by little, Miles had helped me spackle and paint, but despite our best efforts it was not exactly ready for prime time.
The second reason for my hesitation was the certainty that a couple of weeks with the 'rents as roomies would put the final kibosh on my very confusing relationship with Jason (which would already be at significant risk from the elf costume).
So what I wanted to say was, Don't come. Don't come because I have mice in the wainscoting and am uneasy about sharing my space with you while I try to understand the man in my life.
But what I said was, "Sounds great." And then I added the fateful words: "What could go wrong?"
You'd think you'd learn, Sam.
In an attempt to distract myself from the challenges of putting my parents up in a house where hot water for your shower is pretty much a roll of the dice, I turned for consolation, as I always do, to food. More specifically, to making food for the people I love. Before my career and marriage went south, I'd spent eight years in New York City creating very imaginative, very delicious concoctions for very discerning patrons to some very nice reviews. But never once did I feel the satisfaction that I felt when I watched my friends dig into my chicken potpie and clamor for more.
So I decided that what would cheer me up was to go all-in on a Christmas Eve Friends and Family Feast of the Five Fishes. Okay, so traditionally it's seven fishes or even twelve. But times have changed. The holidays are stressful enough. Christmas Eve should be fun.
You would think my friends and family would get that, but no. Nobody was exactly cooperating. My mother began sending me recipes for soy "fish." Jenny said she'd only eat real fish and then only if it didn't "smell fishy" (which it doesn't if it's fresh, but try convincing her of that). Her kids, known collectively as the Three Things, essentially only ate sugar, and Miles only organic. Helene, being Jewish, wanted the traditional Chinese takeout. My friend/boss Krista said she didn't care what she ate as long as she didn't have to cook it. (Krista's lack of sentiment is sometimes a good thing.) I'd also invited a newish friend, Jillian Munsell, the manager of Shawme Manor, Fair Harbor's combined nursing home and assisted living facility, who'd announced that she would bring dessert. She wouldn't tell me what it would be, though, insisting that it should be a surprise. (Not a good thing. When I plan a meal, I don't like surprises. I like control.)