The Fourth of July is coming, and for professional food lover Samantha Barnes, it’s all about the picnic. Okay, and the fireworks. And the parade. But mostly the picnic. What could be better than a DIY clambake followed by the best blueberry buckle in the world? Sam has finally found the perfect recipe in the kitchen of Clara Foster, famed cookbook author and retired restaurateur, and she’s thrilled when Clara agrees to a buckle baking lesson.
But when Clara dies in a house fire blamed on carelessness in the kitchen, Sam doesn’t believe it. Unfortunately, her doubts set in motion an investigation pointing to the new owner of Clara’s legendary restaurant—and a cousin of Sam’s harbormaster boyfriend. So, in between researching the Cape’s best lobster rolls and planning her clambake, Sam needs to find Clara's killer before the fireworks really start....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ladies and gentleman, I have an announcement," I said grandly.
My friends paused from wolfing down various decadent desserts and glanced at one another skeptically. They were not used to me saying anything grandly. Usually my pronouncements began with "Um . . ." or "Yeah, but . . ." This time, though, it would be different. This was an historic moment.
"My search for a blueberry buckle worthy of our upcoming Fourth of July picnic is finally at an end," I said, still in grand mode. "This"-I paused dramatically-"is the world's best blueberry buckle."
I waved my fork at the deceptively simple wedge of buckle on the plate in front of me. My gaze invited my fellow diners to admire the dense, almost cookie-like cake studded with tiny berries and topped by a rich, crumbly brown sugar streusel. To call this confection a coffee cake would be technically correct but would diminish its rich, buttery deliciousness. And besides, it was being served as dessert, as evidenced by the rich dollop of whipped cream on the side, so it was a confection. Serve anything with whipped cream and it automatically becomes a dessert. Everybody knows that.
As one, my friends reached toward my prize, forks at the ready. I picked up the plate and waved it out of their reach.
"Oh, no you don't," I protested. "There is no 'we' in blueberry buckle."
The five of them sat back, sighing audibly. I grinned at them. I love my friends. I love my organic farmer friend Miles Tanner, who looks like a gay Paul Bunyan. I love my best friend from childhood, Jenny Snow Singleton, who has three rowdy boys and is married to a high-powered lawyer but is growing her own videography business like the tycoon she secretly is. I love Jillian Munsell, who manages the local nursing home with immense efficiency and warmth and who is the best baker I have ever known (and as a onetime chef, I have known a few). I love Helene Greenberg, my sixty-something next-door neighbor and the town librarian, who wears T-shirts that say things like "I do a thing called what I want." I even kind of love my friend/boss, Krista Baker, the editor in chief of the Cape Cod Clarion, who, when I complain that she can be a bit overbearing, dismisses me with a quick "I'm not bossy. I have executive leadership skills." A reply which, I might add, she got from a tote bag my mother gave her for Christmas. Thanks, Mom.
So, yeah, I love them. Even Krista. Sometimes. But at that moment, I loved my blueberry buckle more.
"No fair," Jenny protested. "We always share when we go out to eat." Jenny can be a real Greedy Gus.
"We share when I'm doing a restaurant review," I pointed out. "Not when we're out as friends. You all wanted fancy stuff like chocolate soufflŽ and strawberry pavlova. I ordered the old-fashioned blueberry buckle, and the blueberry buckle is all mine."
"Actually," Helene pointed out, "since I'm the one paying, it's technically mine. Or at least a bite of it is."
She had a point there. It was Helene's birthday, and contrary to all birthday party protocol, she had insisted on hosting the five of us at the legendary Provincetown restaurant Clara's Place to celebrate. This was typical of Helene. She knew that, except for Jenny, dinner at Clara's Place would be a stretch for us. But she had couched her offer as a favor we would be doing her. "Every time I spend some of my divorce settlement on an extravagance, I feel a wonderful sense of revenge," she'd explained. Far be it from us to deny her that sweet payback.
"Okay, birthday girl," I said reluctantly, passing the plate over to her. "One bite."
Helene took one bite.
"Oh, good lord," she moaned. "This is delectable."
Helene uses words like "delectable." I use words like "yummy."
She waved over our server, Clive, who'd been hovering nearby ever since Helene had ordered two bottles of champagne at the start of the meal.
"Five more servings of the blueberry buckle, please."
"Of course," he said, as if two desserts per person was par for the course at Clara's Place.
For all I knew, it was. Nothing at Clara's Place would surprise me. I'd never before eaten at the iconic farm-(and fishing boat-)to-table restaurant. First of all, because I couldn't afford it, and second of all, because I couldn't afford it.
I was thrilled to finally be there, even if the legendary Clara Foster herself had retired. But Miles, as the purveyor of organic produce to many Cape restaurants, had told me that the new chef/owner was Clara's longtime protégé and, while making some forays into something a little broader than Clara's French country cooking-inspired menu, was mostly sticking to the dictum "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Certainly nothing that I'd eaten that night was broke. Not the roasted shallots on crispy polenta that I'd had for a starter and certainly not my entrée of bouillabaisse made with the freshest of shellfish and the catch of the day in a broth that I could tell was the result of hours of careful simmering until it had cooked down to literally the essence of the sea. Nope. Nothing broke there.
On the other hand, I was surprised and delighted to see swordfish brochettes with harissa, a Moroccan condiment that I happen to love. Miles had ordered the brochettes and had slid a lovely chunk of the fish off the skewer to allow me a bite or two. I savored its spicy chili hit backed by garlic and lemon, and immediately knew what I'd be ordering at Helene's birthday party at Clara's Place next year.
I had to admit, though, that the restaurant itself, having reached its much-celebrated fiftieth birthday a few years ago, was showing its age. As its popularity had grown, its dimensions had not. And I suspected that to accommodate more eager diners, the original tables had been replaced with smaller versions and placed closer together than was ideal.
If this were my restaurant, I found myself thinking, I'd buy up that sad souvenir shop next door, bump out the dining room by another twelve feet, and enlarge the kitchen to accommodate more cooks and line prep. I knew the building was a designated Provincetown landmark, so nothing about the façade could be changed, but you could probably enlarge the windows in the back of the dining room for more natural light and an enviable view of Provincetown Harbor.
But it isn't your restaurant, Sam. You don't own a restaurant, and you never will. I thought you were cool with that.
This line of thought was mercifully interrupted by Clive's arrival with a tray of blueberry buckles. He was accompanied by a vaguely familiar man of considerable heft and a mop of dark hair. From his white cotton double-breasted executive chef's jacket and black-and-white checked pants, I cleverly deduced that he was the chef.
It didn't surprise me that he'd come out to say hello to Helene, guided by Clive's quick nod in her direction. When a customer at one of your tables is spending money like a Real Housewife, it behooves you to come out and make them feel welcome. I'd often done it myself in an earlier life. So, no, it didn't surprise me to see the chef at our table. Nor was I surprised when Miles stood and wrapped him in one of his signature bear hugs.
"Ed! How great to see you!"
He finally released the poor guy, and then held him away by the shoulders, surveying his victim's girth with a grin. "I haven't seen you since, what, thirty pounds ago?"
At this, the chef laughed and punched Miles not exactly lightly on the shoulder.
"I could say the same for you, buddy," he said. "At least I have an excuse. I cook for a living."
Miles patted his own tummy affectionately. "No excuse needed for loving good food. And I gotta say, yours is still as good as I remember."
Slinging one huge arm around the chef's shoulder, Miles turned back to the rest of us. "This is my disreputable friend Ed Captiva, the new owner of this disreputable establishment."
Ed Captiva. No wonder the guy had looked familiar (particularly that head of you're-not-the-boss-of-me hair). This had to be the cousin that my own sometime sweetheart-don't go there, Sam-Jason Captiva had told me about. The one he'd said, unhelpfully, was a "cook" at "that Clara restaurant in P'town." A cook. Hah. The chef, it turns out. And the owner. When Jason got back-if Jason comes back, Sam-we were going to have a little talk about accuracy in reporting.
Miles proceeded to introduce Ed to those of us around the table. When he got to me, he said, "And this is my friend Samantha Barnes."
Ed gave me his hand and a wide smile. "Jason's Samantha Barnes?"
I felt myself coloring. "Um, yeah, I guess," I admitted gracefully. Not.
Ed didn't seem to notice my embarrassment. "I saw him just before he left for that assignment in California. He talked about you like I never heard him talk about a girl before."
He stopped, gave me a frank look of appraisal, and then said, "Ms. Barnes, you tell him from me that Ed approves of his choice."
I was at a complete loss as to how to respond, and Miles, seeing my predicament, stepped in. "Sam's just announced that Aunt Clara's blueberry buckle is the best in the world," he said.
Aunt Clara? Clara Foster was Miles's aunt? Why was it that my friends never told me the important stuff?
"Clara Foster is your aunt?" I squeaked.
"Not my real aunt," Miles said, "but I've always called her that. She's a close friend of my mom's."
"And of yours," Ed added significantly.
Miles nodded, smiling softly. "Yes. And of mine. She understood when so many others didn't." I knew Miles was talking about his struggle coming out when he was a teenager. I remembered him talking about a friend of his mother's who had been supportive. I just didn't know who that friend was. "Aunt Clara and her partner, Kit, were my port in the storm."
"Clara's around here somewhere," Ed said.
At this point I think my heart actually stopped beating. The founder of Clara's Place and the author of the classic cookbook Simply American was in the restaurant? Clara Foster was around here somewhere?
"Clara Foster is around here somewhere?" I squeaked again.
Ed gave me a tired smile and turned to Clive, who'd managed to finish arranging the now eleven dessert plates on the now rather crowded table.
"Go find Clara, would you, Clive?" he asked. "She's probably haranguing the sous chef to double the aioli in the fish stew or something."
I thought it was interesting that Ed used the local term "fish stew" for the bouillabaisse. And that his voice was sharp with something a little more than mere irritation. Uh-oh. The new boss had some ideas of his own and wished the old boss would just butt out.
Clive hopped to it, heading back to the nether reaches of the restaurant at a fast clip. He returned in short order with a diminutive woman who looked to be in her mid-seventies, with close-cropped silver hair, deeply tanned skin, faded blue eyes, the whites a bit yellowed with age but bright with intelligence, and a determined chin. Something about Clara reminded me of my Aunt Ida the last time I'd seen her, though the two women could not have been more dissimilar in appearance. Maybe it was a shared determination not to be overlooked just because they were older. Clara was wearing a chunky gold necklace and a white linen tunic over black linen trousers, and I knew that this was a woman who, unlike yours truly, had always been effortlessly elegant.
She trotted over to Miles, who gave her a much gentler bear hug than he'd treated Ed to and then began the introductions all over again. Nobody could have been more surprised than I when, as Miles got to me, Clara Foster said, "No introduction necessary, Miles love. This is Samantha Barnes, the Cape Cod Foodie."
Well, she got that right. My name is Samantha Barnes-Sam to my friends-and I am the ClarionÕs food reporter, aka the Cape Cod Foodie. Recently, Jenny and I had worked on a series of unexpectedly popular Cape Cod Foodie videos, so Clara had probably seen a few of those. Unless she recognized me from YouTube. Please god, don't let Clara Foster have seen those YouTube videos.
Cape Cod Foodie describes me pretty accurately. I was born and raised in Fair Harbor, a small town on Massachusetts's Cape Cod, and I've been a foodie from forever. After high school, I went off to study at the Culinary Institute of America and, once I'd graduated, began making my way as a chef in New York City. I soon became known as a rising star in the city's food scene. That is, until my chef hubby and I mixed it up in a kind of chef fencing match unhelpfully posted on YouTube by a bystander. The video went viral, at which point I became known as the fallen star of the city's food scene.
And so I retreated home to the Cape, where I've been trying to balance my new job as the paper's Cape Cod Foodie with a complicated love life, a posse of just slightly odd friends, a falling-down house, and a ginormous puppy. Along the way, I've also discovered a new talent-a propensity for falling over dead bodies. And solving crimes. And despite my best efforts, periodically starring in some super-embarrassing YouTube clips (as in, for example, the "Santa Claus is dead" video).
But life goes on. My falling-down house, which I'd inherited from my Aunt Ida, was shaping up, thanks to Miles's DIY skills. Jason and I began stumbling toward whatever our relationship was going to be. Or at least we had been. I'd taken a huge step back last March. And here it was almost the middle of June and Jason was currently 3,000 miles away, which I did not want to think about.
I'd also made a trusted friend of Helene, who, as a former police psychologist, was very good at reassuring me that I was not crazy. At least not all the time. And I'd fallen back into my easy friendship with Jenny and was even becoming fond of her lawyer husband, Roland, and their boys, aka the Three Things.
And I'd grown to absolutely love the ginormous puppy-now a full-grown and even more ginormous dog-who had come with the house, Diogi (pronounced dee-OH-gee, as in D-O-G, which still makes me laugh).