Picturesque Longley, New York, is ringing in the holiday season, but visions of sugar plums are not dancing in Libby Simmons’s head—especially since she and her sister Bernie are set to appear on the Hortense Calabash Cooking Show. The premise is to give six professional caterers random ingredients and have them whip up a holiday meal. The icing on the fruitcake is that Hortense Calabash is a grinch of epic proportions. And the other contestants are some of the most demanding—and difficult—chefs in the business.
Bernie and Libby are thrown into the mix as arguments and accusations simmer on the set. Then Hortense, all dressed up as Santa Claus for the opening sequence, is killed by an exploding oven. With the holiday rush in full swing and a killer still on the loose, Bernie and Libby have no choice but to wrap up the mystery before their geese are well and fully cooked…
Includes scrumptious holiday recipes for you to try!
“Fans of culinary cozies by Joanne Fluke and Diane Mott Davidson will enjoy discovering Crawford.” –Library Journal
About the Author
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A CATERED CHRISTMASA Mystery with Recipes
By ISIS CRAWFORD
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Isis Crawford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLibby looked around the TV studio. She just knew she was going to hate being on TV; she was going to hate being on the Hortense Calabash Show; she was going to hate being in this stupid contest; but most of all, she was going to hate being away from the store at Christmas time.
"I think I'm going to throw up," she blurted.
Bernie considered the remark for a second. Then she pointed to her pink suede wedges. "Well, don't do it on these. I just got them."
"You're a veritable fountain of compassion," Libby told her sister as she gestured toward one of the TV cameras on the set.
"You'll be fine," Bernie said. "Just think of these as your friends."
"They may be your friends," Libby retorted, "but they're certainly not mine."
"Getting a little snappish, are we?"
Libby began biting her cuticle, realized what she was doing, and stopped herself. "Anyway, I have nothing to wear."
"What's wrong with the tweed skirt and fitted pale blue blouse we bought down in the city last week?" her sister asked.
Another mistake, Libby reflected. Now she'd have to tell Bernie she'd returned them. She took a deep breath and let it out. "I took them back. They were too tight." She took another deep breathwhile she watched her sister roll her eyes. "Well, they were," Libby said in what she realized was a defensive tone of voice as she looked at Bernie standing there in her burgundy leather pants and hot pink V-neck sweater. It wasn't Bernie's fault she didn't understand, Libby reminded herself. She'd always been the thin one.
"They made me feel like a sausage."
"No, what you're wearing makes you look like a sausage. I keep telling you, loose clothes make people look fatter, not thinner. And anyway, you're not that fat."
"That fat?" Libby squeaked. "That's a little bit like saying I'm not that ugly."
"I'm not doing this."
Bernie ignored her and gestured to the black pants and shirt Libby was wearing. "At least don't wear black on camera."
"I'm not going to," Libby said, even though she had been planning to. She felt more comfortable in it. It made her feel invisible. "I'm wearing my brown pants and yellow shirt." When Bernie didn't say anything, she added, "I'm sorry. I just think that spending two hundred dollars on a blouse is a little much."
"Two hundred and ten dollars to be exact," Bernie said absentmindedly as Libby watched her look around the studio. "And it was a Krista Larson for heaven's sake."
"It made you look great, that's what."
Libby watched Bernie walk over to one of the sinks and turn on the faucet. Nothing came out. She walked over to the second sink and tried that faucet. Water poured into the sink, but it didn't go down. It was clogged.
"Good," Libby said.
Maybe they wouldn't have to tape after all. Maybe she and Bernie could go back to the store, and she could finish the batch of Christmas cookies she was in the middle of decorating. After all, they couldn't cook if things in the kitchen didn't work.
She was sighing with relief when Bernie put her hands on her shoulders and said, "Look, let's forget about the clothes. Let's forget about everything. Let's just concentrate on winning."
Libby took a step back. "We're not going to win."
Bernie dropped her hands to her sides. "Why shouldn't we win?" she countered. "We have as good a shot at it as anyone else."
And that interchange, Libby decided, pretty much defined the difference between herself and her sister.
"I think I need a cookie," Libby said.
"Or a stiff drink," Bernie observed.
"A cookie." And Libby started rummaging around in her backpack for one of the chocolate chip ginger cookies she'd made earlier in the day. Given the circumstances, what was another pound or two? She took a bite. The cookie was good, but not good enough. Usually chocolate did it for her, but it didn't seem to be working today. Maybe Bernie was right. Maybe she needed a drink. Something like a Long Island iced tea. Or a large bottle of Pinot Noir. Or a tranq.
Libby took another bite of her cookie anyway as she contemplated what was in store for her and Bernie this evening. It was no big deal. Why should she be nervous? There'd just be thousands of people out there watching her cook. What was the problem with that? Just because she probably wouldn't be able to get any words past her vocal chords because they would be constricted in terror.
And so what if she dropped say ... a chicken ... on the floor, or burned it, or it didn't cook all the way through? What then? The great Julia had done things like that all the time on her television show. But, Libby told herself, she wasn't Julia Child. And Julia didn't have the Heavenly Housewife, aka Hortense Calabash, of the Hortense Calabash Show critiquing her food.
Not that Julia would have stood for Hortense's nonsense. Julia would have bashed Hortense over the head with a frozen leg of lamb or a Christmas goose if she ever pulled any of her stunts on her. Just the thought of that made Libby smile. But Libby knew she'd never raise a strand of spaghetti to Hortense, let alone a blunt instrument. Ever.
Libby took a third bite of her cookie. As she swallowed, she could almost see the slight flare of Hortense's thin nostrils, the miniscule lifting of one of her eyebrows when she didn't like something. What had she said to Rudolfo, the chef from Mesmerize, after she'd tasted the pâté he'd made? Wasn't it something along the lines of, "My, what an interesting group of ingredients you've chosen to use. This tastes rather like a mix between raw eggplant and liver I once sampled in Uzbekistan."
Libby had never seen a man turn white with anger before. He'd spluttered, but no sounds had come out. Needless to say, Mesmerize had gone out of business two weeks later. A week after that, Libby had heard through the caterer's grapevine that the pâté had actually been fine. Hortense had just needed a little something to boost her ratings that week. No wonder Rudolfo had sent her a chocolate cake filled with a mixture of ganache and pureed hog intestines as a thank you for being on her show.
Or how about the time there'd been that woman on the show demonstrating one of the recipes from her new cookbook on how to use a pressure cooker, and Hortense had taken a bite of the stew she'd prepared and said, "My this is tasty"-then came the dramatic pause, never a good sign-"if you're partial to the kind of canned stew they sell in the supermarket."
And another career had bit the dust. Libby shuddered as she finished her cookie. What if Hortense said something like that to her about something she and Bernie made? And while it was true that her store, A Little Taste of Heaven, had a loyal and devoted clientele, people were fickle. They tended to believe what they heard on TV.
"What do you think she's going to give us?" Libby asked Bernie.
The surprise-ingredient thing was probably the worst part of the whole contest deal as far as Libby was concerned. She spent hours and hours planning out her menus, and here she and Bernie were being asked to cook a whole Christmas dinner with some strange ingredient that Hortense was going to give them in an hour. Then if they won the first round, they'd have to do it again and again.
"A boar's head," Bernie replied. "She's going to give us a boar's head."
"Be serious," Libby said.
"I am. Boar's heads were the most popular item associated with medieval Christmas feasts." Bernie paused for a moment. "Although they didn't have Christmas foods the way we think of them. Well, that's not entirely true. They did have plum pudding and mincemeat pies."
Libby sighed. Her sister was full of more information than you'd ever want to know.
"I wish there was a way we could find out," she mused.
"You and everyone else on the show."
Of which there were seven. Actually, five if you didn't count her and Bernie. Five caterers. Libby rubbed her forehead. She never watched reality shows on TV as a matter of principle and now she was going to be on one!
"Of course, we could always sneak into the cooler and take a look," Bernie said. "I bet they have the ingredients stored in there."
Libby ignored her. It was bad enough they were in the studio.
"This sucks," she said instead. "At least Bree could have given us three or four months notice instead of letting us know at the last minute she'd booked us on here."
"Back to the weight thing are we?" Bernie asked.
"Not at all," Libby retorted, even though she was. If she had had even two months notice, she would have gone to Weight Watchers or Atkins or booked a cruise to Antarctica. Or Siberia.
Libby shut her eyes. She could picture Bree Nottingham, real estate agent extraordinaire, breezing into her store the day she'd made her announcement. Even though it had been cold and gray, she'd been dressed in pink, the color of the moment according to Bernie: pink tweed Chanel suit, pink slingback heels, pink Chanel purse.
"You're so lucky to have this opportunity," Bree had trilled after she'd explained to Libby what she'd done. "I had to fight to get you on the show, but I said, 'Hortense, we have to use some of our local talent. It's only fair.'"
Lucky was not the word Libby would have used.
"Maybe I could come down with typhoid or bubonic plague."
Bernie tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "It would probably be bad for business."
"Worse than me on television?"
Bernie shook her head. "Get a grip."
"But I'm not a competitive person." Libby moaned.
"You are now," her sister said.
"You sound like Dad."
"I am like Dad."
Libby reflected that her dad was extremely excited that she was going to be on the show. So was her boyfriend, Marvin, for that matter. In fact, that's all her father or Marvin had been talking about for the last three days.
"The whole world will be watching," Marvin had told Libby, a comment that had sent her straight to the freezer for some homemade coconut ice cream.
As Libby looked around the set again, she wondered who the hell had a television studio built onto the back of their house anyway? Hortense Calabash, doyenne of the cooking channel, queen of sauces, and resident of Longely, that's who. Libby couldn't even use the excuse that she and Bernie were too busy in the store this time of year to take the time out to do this.
"Hortense's house is only fifteen minutes away," Libby remembered Bree Nottingham telling her.
Like she was some kind of moron. Of course Libby knew how far away Hortense's mansion was. They lived in the same town for heaven's sake. Not that she ever saw her. They didn't exactly move in the same social set, which was fine with Libby. But then everyone in the world knew where Hortense's house was. Okay. They had known a couple of years ago. According to the latest polls, her popularity was being eclipsed by a show on cooking caveman style. But it was still pretty popular.
"We've been friends since camp," Bree had chirped.
"Good for you," Libby had wanted to say to Bree. That woman had been the bane of her existence since the fourth grade.
"I should kill her," Libby observed. "I'd be doing the universe a favor."
Bernie raised an eyebrow. A well-manicured one, Libby couldn't help noticing. Maybe she should get hers done too. Before tonight. But the thought of having someone put hot wax on her eyebrows and then ripping the hair out made Libby shudder.
"Hortense?" Bernie asked as Libby was contemplating what the wax thing would feel like on other parts of her anatomy. "What would her legion of crazed fans do? How would they know what to cook or how to serve it?"
Libby frowned. "No," she said. "I meant I want to kill Bree Nottingham for making us do this."
"She didn't make you," Bernie pointed out in her most reasonable-albeit irritating-tone of voice.
"Not in the literal sense, no," Libby conceded. But when the social arbiter of Longely tells you to jump, and you're in the catering business, you ask what hoop she has in mind.
"Well then. There you go," Bernie said. "Anyway," she continued, "this will be good exposure for the store."
"A Little Taste of Heaven doesn't need any more exposure," Libby replied. "We've got more customers than we can handle as it is."
"Not if you hired on more staff," Bernie pointed out.
"We don't have the room."
"We could expand," Bernie replied.
"That would mean moving," Libby said.
"And we're fine where we are," Bernie finished for her.
"Well, we are," Libby retorted as she watched Bernie saunter over to the sink.
She and her sister had had the "moving discussion" at least once a week for the past year. But Libby was holding fast to her convictions. She knew too many other places that had been doing well until they expanded. What Bernie didn't seem to be able to grasp was the amount of planning that the kind of expansion Bernie was talking about would involve.
But then her sister had always been like that. Diving headlong into something seemed to work for her, Libby thought to herself. She didn't know how, but it did. It was like Bernie's shoes. How she could walk, let alone work, in them was something that Libby had never been able to fathom.
As Libby watched her sister pass by the mini Christmas tree sitting on the end counter, she reflected that it felt strange being on the set. It wasn't as if she was a big fan of Hortense, because she wasn't. In fact, she hated her, hated everything she stood for. But still. She'd watched Hortense's program on TV from time to time with her dad.
She'd seen those cabinets with the red door pulls, the signature gleaming dark red Viking range while sitting in her living room, and here she was on the set looking at them for real. Somehow they seemed smaller in real life than they did on the screen. It made her feel odd in a way she couldn't explain.
"I'm not sure we should be in here," Libby repeated. She knew she'd said it before, but she couldn't help herself. After all, the doors to the studio had been closed, and a sign posted had the words NO ENTRANCE clearly written in big black letters. "We should be in the green room."
"We will be there-eventually," Bernie said. "That's one of the advantages to living nearby. We get to come early."
"But the sign ..."
Bernie gave her the look. "I didn't see it. Did you?"
"Not after you hid it behind the table."
"I didn't hide anything," Bernie protested. "Is it my fault if the thing slipped?"
"But-" Libby started to protest.
Bernie cut her off before she could say anything else. "I just wanted to take a look around before everyone else comes on the set." She pointed to a door over to the right. "According to Bree, the real cooking is done in the other kitchen. This set is just for the show."
"What are you doing?" Libby demanded as Bernie crossed the room.
"Taking a peek, of course."
"They probably have an alarm," Libby told her.
"Don't be ridiculous." Bernie opened the door and stepped inside.
"Looks like our kitchen," Libby heard Bernie say.
"I shouldn't be doing this," Libby told herself. But she followed Bernie inside anyway. What was it her father always said about in for a penny, in for a pound?
There was a metal table in the center, clusters of pots hanging from the ceiling, steel racks full of assorted pans, and two large ovens that looked as if they'd seen a lot of use.
One of them was on. Libby resisted the urge to peek. That would be going too far. Instead she went over to the table in the middle and picked up one of the glass pinecones that were in a wicker bowl in the center.
"I wonder what these are for?"
Bernie shrugged. "Christmas ornaments?"
"They're pretty." Libby put the pinecone down and looked at the tray of meringue mushrooms on the table. "They're perfect," she said.
"Yours are just as good," Bernie told her.
"Not quite," Libby said as she followed Bernie back out onto the set. Hortense's had more texture to them. Libby was wondering what kind of pastry tube Hortense had used to get that pebbled effect when she realized that Bernie was talking.
"You know," she was saying, "Hortense may be the ultimate bitch, but you have to hand it to her in the interior design department. Although I like what you did better."
Libby smiled. "Me too."
But what Hortense had done wasn't bad at all. She's just gone in a different direction. And it had taken her a lot less time to execute, something Libby reminded herself she should bear in mind for next year. The mini Christmas tree on the end of the counter was decorated with homemade cookies that Hortense had baked, painted with gold leaf, and shellacked on her last show. The bows that were knotted around the garlands of greenery were made out of a cream-colored organza that had been shot through with gold thread.
Excerpted from A CATERED CHRISTMAS by ISIS CRAWFORD Copyright © 2005 by Isis Crawford. Excerpted by permission.
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