Stacey Ballis cooks up a delicious broth of a novel about a woman whose perfect life falls apart in spectacular fashionleaving her with a house to restore, an antique cookbook (but no cooking talent), and one very unhappy schnauzer. For fans of Jen Lancaster, Jennifer Weiner, and Emily Giffin.
To an outside observer, Anneke Stroudt is a mess—her shirts are stained, her fingernails stubby, her language colorful. But, despite her flaws, Anneke’s life is close to perfect. She has a beautiful historic house to restore and a loving fiancé who cooks like a dream.
Until Anneke’s charmed existence falls apart when she loses both her job and her future husband in one terrible day. In need of a new start, she packs up her disgruntled schnauzer and moves into her half-finished home, where she throws her pent-up frustration—and what little savings she has—into finishing the renovation.
But at the first step into the house’s overhaul, Anneke is sidetracked when she discovers a mysterious leather-bound book, long hidden away, filled with tempting recipes and steamy secrets from Gemma Ditmore-Smythe, the cook for the house’s original owners. Slowly, with the help of some delicious food and Emma’s life lessons, Anneke begins to realize that, just like a flawless recipe, she’s been waiting for the right ingredients to cook up a perfect life all along…
“With the perfect blend of humor and heart, Ballis’s writing is powerfully honest and genuinely hilarious.”—Jen Lancaster
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.11(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.95(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Stacey Ballis is the author of ten foodie novels: Inappropriate Men, Sleeping Over, Room for Improvement, The Spinster Sisters, Good Enough to Eat, Off the Menu, Out to Lunch, Recipe for Disaster, Wedding Girl, and How to Change a Life. She is a contributing author to three nonfiction anthologies: Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, and Living Jewishly.
Read an Excerpt
SIX MONTHS FROM NOW . . .
I slip the dress over my head. I can’t remember the last time I was actually in a dress. It’s definitely been over a year. I’m not big on dresses in general; it can be hard to find them for my shape. If they actually fit over my substantial boobs and wide hips, I lose my waist entirely and become a blob. Or they make me look like the mother of the bride. I was just going to wear the charcoal gray wrap dress that is always my fancy-night-out go-to, but the girls pitched a fit. And when I told them we were just going to go to city hall and then maybe have a really nice meal somewhere, you’d have thought I suggested we sacrifice puppies. On a burning altar of rare oil paintings. In the middle of the Vatican.
So my wedding gift from them turned out to be the wedding itself, and everything that entails. Caroline took charge of the whole thing, refusing to let me decline either her generosity or her good taste. It was a relief. I’m just not your girly girl dreaming of a foofy dress and bells and whistles. For most of my life I presumed that marriage itself was not for me, so now that I’m actually taking the plunge, handing over the endless details to people who think these things matter was a huge weight off my shoulders, and allowed me to keep my focus on my work while they pulled the thing together with my gratitude and carte blanche to make the decisions. Best kind of wedding? The one where you just have to show up.
At least the wedding planning gave them a chance to bond a little bit with my groom, who did have some things about the day that were important to him, and if it didn’t fully solidify their connection to each other, it at least appears to have created an atmosphere of respect and the beginnings of acceptance.
Caroline, in addition to being the wedding planner and hosting the whole shindig at her beautiful house, found the dress for me, her taste in all things being impeccable. It’s a wonderful shade of medium gray with a lot of green in it that makes my skin look creamy, and my auburn hair sparkle, and my hazel eyes pick up the green in fiery flecks. It’s made of some kind of heavy matte silk, with a sort of an early 1960s vibe, a wide scoop neck that shows off my shoulders and my décolletage, very fitted to the waist, keeping everything locked and loaded, and then a wide sweep of skirt over an actual crinoline. I’m making kind of fun rustling noises, and for once it isn’t just my ample thighs rubbing together. With the sparkly gold kitten heels I borrowed from Hedy, the effect is just perfect. The wide skirt masks my hips and substantial butt, the skirt hits just at the bottom curve of my muscular calf, giving the illusion of a slender ankle; the whole effect makes me look like . . .
“You look like a brickhouse,” Hedy says, whistling under her breath.
“I know. It’s weird.” Even when I do wear dresses, I never feel beautiful or sexy, I just feel dressed up.
“It’s not weird, it’s fantastic.” This, for her, is a statement of fact, an approval of the costume, if not the circumstance.
“Well, you don’t look so bad yourself.” She’s wearing a stunning deep eggplant shift dress with a wide gold architectural necklace and chunky gold bracelets. Her chestnut hair is pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, shiny and subtly highlighted. And she’s wearing a killer pair of black cage heels that I’m sure cost more than a mortgage payment, and in which I would be on my ass in less than four minutes.
“Here, let me put this on you.” She comes forward with a beautiful bracelet, an art deco design in diamonds and sapphires. She clasps it on my wrist. “Perfect.”
“Hey, you guys almost ready in here?” Marie pokes her head around the corner. She’s wearing a fun vintage strapless dress on her voluptuous figure, in pale violet with a delicate rhinestone belt. Her long curly brown hair is twisted up into a loose bun with little ringlets escaping.
I always marvel that my three best friends in the world, as different as they are from each other, are all on the same page when it comes to dress and hair and special occasions. They like to put themselves together, to shop, to plan parties, to celebrate milestones with pomp and circumstance. Caroline likes to host at home, to show off her cooking skills, to arrange the flowers and make the little takeaway gifts by hand. Hedy is a restaurant girl, she loves a private room with a specially chosen menu, leaves the flowers to Cornelia McNamara, Chicago’s florist to the stars, and has one of her many personal shoppers decide on the trinkets. Marie bops back and forth between funky venues like the Diversey River Bowl or a road trip to a drive-in movie at the McHenry Outdoor Theatre, and casual parties at the Wicker Park loft she shares with her boyfriend, John. Marie leans more toward potlucks, chili cook-offs, dogs and burgers on the grill. All different, but the impulse is the same. To gather those you care about for joy and conviviality. My best guess is that it’s because they all had mothers who taught them how.
I should be flattered that they even deign to hang out with me, since my idea of shoe shopping involves steel-toed work boots, yesterday was my first manicure in nearly a year, and I almost always forget not only their birthdays, but my own too. Also? I never host a party. Ever. Occasionally a casual girls’ night, involving ordering in pizza or Thai with plenty of beer. My idea of hors d’oeuvres involves opening a cellophane bag or two and perhaps popping the lid off some dip.
“What do you say, lady? You ready?” Hedy asks me. Her voice is friendly but her mouth is a thin line. She looks at best resigned, and at worst pissed off, but I can’t even think about that today. Your friends have to forgive you eventually, and even if they don’t approve of the marital adventure I am about to embark upon, they’ll get over it once they realize that I’m just being true to myself.
“Yep. I’m ready.” I do one last check in the mirror. My usually unkempt frizzy mass of hair is tamed into gentle waves, pulled back off my face with an antique silver clip, and my usually bare face is accented simply with very natural blush, a swipe of shimmery gold eye shadow, mascara, and a pale pink lip gloss.
“Okay, let’s go, gorgeous.” Marie reaches out and takes my hand like she used to when we were kids. Her eyebrows are knitted together, and she doesn’t make eye contact with me at all. “Caroline went insane down there, just so you know.”
I laugh. “I never suspected anything else.”
“Okay, stop gabbing, there is a party downstairs that is happening without you, and you are the main attraction.” Hedy scoots us all out of Caroline’s bedroom and we go down the wide staircase. When we get to the second floor, Caroline, looking perfect and radiant in a Tiffany-blue swirly chiffon number, claps her hands.
“You’re spectacular! Here.” She reaches forward and hands me a bundle of deep purple and mauve calla lilies. She looks me dead in the eye. “You ready?” she asks pointedly.
“And you’re absolutely sure?”
She nods, her forehead furrowed in query, her mouth a wan half smile. “Okay, then.”
We head down the second flight of stairs. When we get to the landing, I can see all the people, about twenty of them, looking up and smiling at me. Caroline’s husband, Carl, has his big camera, the one he uses when they travel, and he’s taking pictures of me as I come down the stairs. The whole thing is surreal, and shocking, yet I’m feeling weirdly really happy. And light for the first time in forever. Whatever my best friends think they know, no one knows my heart the way I do, and this feels right, and safe, and shockingly real. Caroline has filled her living room with flowers and candles, all of the antique chairs from her dining room are swagged in wide ribbons, and I’m genuinely happy as I float downstairs to meet my future.
We can’t thank you enough, Anneke, it’s just perfect,” Claire says, her eyes sparkling.
“Really, Claire is understating, we’re over the moon!” John pipes in, sliding an arm around his wife, and pulling her close to him. “It’s a dream come true for both of us.” Their easy affection speaks to a lifetime together.
“It was my deepest pleasure, I’m just glad you’re happy.” I’m keeping things professional and calm on my surface. “Live a very happy life here.” I hand John the keys, on a custom titanium key ring engraved with their address, accept awkwardly the hugs they both offer, and quietly head out the front door. As soon as it latches behind me I hear a loud whoop from inside the house, followed by effervescent giggling. I turn and get a peek through the window, John is spinning Claire in the living room in a jubilant waltz, her head thrown back in laughter, and I’m able to let go of the tears that I was suppressing.
I’m not generally demonstratively emotional; in fact my girlfriends tease me about it all the time. Hedy will call me Iceberg Anneke or Proud Stroudt when she thinks I’m being distant or unaffected. Marie will shake her head and sing “It’s All Right to Cry” from Free to Be . . . You and Me with a smirk. Caroline will just reach over and squeeze my hand. Whatever. I can’t help it that my besties are all sappy and tenderhearted and can produce a flood of tears at a goddamn AT&T commercial. Whenever we have chick flick night and the three of them are unabashedly weeping, they all look over to see me on the couch, dry-eyed and skeptical as Bette Midler sings about the wind beneath her wings to her best friend’s orphan.
For me, I can’t really understand why they are so upset at the fictional death of an actress on-screen. I just saw Barbara Hershey in People magazine four days ago, for chrissakes. I can’t get it up for what is basically a decent makeup job, some convincing coughing, and swelling strings in the background. It’s just not how I’m wired. Which, while it may occasionally be a pain in my personal life, is a good thing in my line of work. The design/build industry is still very much a man’s game, and they can smell weakness from ten miles off. I know that tears are not in and of themselves a sign of weakness, but the boys I work with do not. So my ability to keep it together is very important to me professionally. It doesn’t matter what happens, if the cabinets show up the wrong size or the painter drops a full bucket of Magnolia White down the newly carpeted stairs, my response at best is pragmatic and at worst is pissed off. I will cajole. I will swear. I will yell. I will question the fidelity of one’s mother specifically, and the relative intelligence of the human race in general. I will punch something hard, or laugh like a hyena, or go into total crisis control mode. But I will not cry.
Except on days like today.
Despite my inner stoicism about life globally, I almost always let myself shed a tear or two on key days. When you get to look at the people for whom you have sweated over the course of months, or sometimes even years, and hand over the keys to their personal kingdom, that hits me where I live. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a small bathroom remodel, or a complete empty-lot-to-dream-home build from the first shovel to the final nail. The satisfaction of getting the job done, of making dreams come true for people, of creating home for them, it makes the long hours, the lost weekends, the damage to personal relationships completely and utterly worthwhile. Even though I’ve effectively been doing this for over half my life, it never gets old. It’s always worth a quiet moment of self-satisfaction and a tear or two for someone else’s joy that you made possible.
This had been an especially fun project. John and Claire lived in their bungalow for over twenty years, saving their money for a complete renovation, which happened to coincide with their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. It included finishing both the basement and attic, effectively tripling the square footage of the place. We created a wonderful, bright master bedroom suite in the former attic space, with his and hers walk-in closets and a spa-like bathroom with a steam shower for John and a huge tub for Claire. In the basement, we gave them a large comfortable space for entertaining, a small office for John, an updated laundry room, and a guest room with an en suite bathroom. On the first floor, we renovated their 1970s-era kitchen, opening it up to their formerly cramped dining room and living room for a large, open-concept space. We were able to honor and highlight the Arts and Crafts details they loved about their 1919 house, while making all of the systems pure twenty-first-century functional.
My favorite kind of project, to be honest. The kind of thing that has spoken to me ever since I was thirteen and my stepdad, Joe, took me to one of his work sites, the renovation of an old Victorian brownstone, showing me the magic in how houses used to be constructed. I thought the intersection of architecture and artistry and archeology was extraordinary, the perfect arrangement of imperfect stones to create the foundation, old solid bricks supporting wooden lath and hand-applied plaster. I came home with sawdust in my hair and cement crusted on my sneakers, and new love in my heart. Both for Joe, who was the only thing I ever had in my life that could be considered family in a positive and rational way, and for old houses that needed to find their full potential.
I jump into my 1967 Ford F-100 pickup, formerly Joe’s and part of my inheritance from him. Lola is a classic, with the original turquoise paint, now pitted and scratched and dulled from the years, and an engine that purrs like a lion cub. She’s hauled endless loads of drywall and lumber, schlepped salvaged bathtubs and brand-new dishwashers with ease, and despite her nearly 250,000 miles, has never let me down. Plus, I get major street cred with the subcontractors. They’re used to women architects and designers teetering around job sites on inappropriate shoes, and trying to climb ladders in miniskirts. I am, it goes without saying, not that kind of girl. I usually have paint on my face and grout under my stubby fingernails, and 94 percent of my wardrobe is covered in permanent filth.
I steer Lola through the icy streets of Chicago, heading back to the MacMurphy offices for a final debrief with my bosses. As much as I love the work? The job itself is craptastic on a good day. I knew when Joe retired that I wasn’t ready to go out on my own. I didn’t have enough experience under my belt. I knew I needed to work for a firm where I could get a wide variety of projects, where I could build relationships with subcontractors and tradesmen and suppliers. MacMurphy seemed like the perfect place. They do everything from small single-room projects to quick and dirty house flips to multimillion-dollar custom-home builds. They appreciated that I’m a general contractor who is also an architect, since they can charge the client for the two separate services but just pay me once. I sometimes think that one of the reasons I cry on key days is because it means I have to briefly spend some quality time at the office instead of out on the job site, and I hate the office.
The day is typical blustery December, overcast and dreary, with a biting wind. I pull into the lot on Clybourn, parking next to Liam’s brand-new F-150. He gets a new one every other year. Always shiny, showy red, always completely kitted out with bells and whistles and every possible add-on. In-dash GPS navigation screen, upgraded Bose sound system, custom leather interior. Mud flaps with chrome shamrocks. They shouldn’t say it has EcoBoost; they should say it has EgoBoost.
Liam? Is a total douche. In case that is unclear. I’m sure he thinks the slight lilt of an Irish accent makes him charming, but I like to remind him that he hasn’t set foot on the olde sod since he was six, and it just makes him sound stupid and affected.
Liam is the first cousin of Brian Murphy, one of the company owners and my direct boss. Brian, Murph to his friends, runs the build side, while his partner, Marcus “Mac” McPherson, runs the design side. Liam and I have the same title, senior project manager, but somehow he always gets his pick of choice jobs and cool clients. Which is why I loved working with John and Claire so much. Usually I get the problem children, the cranky, the indecisive, the ones with questionable taste or insanely limited and unrealistic budgets. This one was just fun and easy and a real treat. Joe always said that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, and while it always still feels like work to me, there was much happy in the last nine months.
“Hey, Anniekay!” one of the Barbies says as I come in the door. Mac and Murph hire an endless series of buxom blondies with limited vocabularies to man the front desk and do basic secretarial work. There are usually three or four of them teetering around on those platform stilettos that look like high-heeled hooves. They all get titles like customer relations specialist or office manager. I’m always eye level with a wall of silicone and perpetually erect nipples. None of them lasts much more than a few months, and none of them can ever pronounce my name, Anneke. Ann-uh-kuh. How hard is that?
“Hi. Is Murph ready for me?”
She grins a blinding smile, veneers sparkling strangely bluish behind thickly glossed and plumped lips. She looks like a deranged grouper. “He said to give him fifteen minutes,” she says breathlessly, bosom heaving, nipples aimed at me in a shockingly accusatory fashion, with the top button of her tiny shirt straining against the effort. I better extricate myself from this conversation before it gives way and blinds me. I would not be cute in an eye patch.
“Great. I’ll be in my office.”
I head down the hall to my tiny windowless closet of an office, barely big enough for my desk and one chair, books and floor plans and blueprints scattered everywhere. Stacks of finish samples teeter in the corners, and empty plastic water bottles are erupting out of the wastebasket. I’m something of a slob. But messy, not dirty, I like to tell myself, as if this is better. Liam? Has an office three times this size. With a window. And a private bathroom. Apparently the previous office occupant was a three-man law firm, so there are three offices with en suite baths. It was empty when I started, but I still got the “one step up from coffin” all the way in the back near the alley where I get hot-garbage scent all summer, and Liam, who started after I did, slid right into the choice digs like shit out of a goose.
“How’d it go with the Osbornes?” Liam arranges his lanky frame in my door, dark curly hair artfully rumpled, piercing green eyes shining behind long, thick, dark lashes.
“Great. They couldn’t be happier, the place really turned out even better than expected.”
“Good to hear. You must be glad to get that one put to bed.”
“Always bittersweet. Glad to have a job finished, sad to let it go. But I’m happy that they’re happy. How are things over on Fremont?” Liam is in the middle of my most hated kind of project. A wonderful old building with clients that are keeping the façade and doing a complete gut on the inside. All the original hardwood floors, beautiful cabinets and built-ins, claw-foot tubs, mosaic tile work, even some historic hand-painted silk wall coverings, all ripped out in favor of new new new everything. The couple, young trust fund babies both, wanted to build from scratch, but couldn’t find a double lot on one of their seven preferred Lincoln Park streets on which to erect one of those horrible places that all look like banks, so they settled for mangling this beautiful turn-of-the-century brick home instead. I’m grateful for only two things. One, they didn’t decide to tear it down completely, and two, I was able to spend a long, exhausting weekend with some of my guys salvaging everything that was salvageable and moving it to my storage unit. If I don’t use it myself, I’ll be sure that it all finds future useful life.
“You know. Couldn’t be more generic. Open-concept main level, eat-in family room slash kitchen with homework station blah blah blah. It’s going to look like a Restoration Hardware catalog.” I give Liam credit for only two things. He does appreciate the old school and old world and hates to see people destroy things as much as I do. And he’s as big a perfectionist as I am in terms of quality. Joe’s first lesson to me was to focus my energy on doing everything the right way. “You know what I call the building codes?” he used to say. “A start.” I’ve spent the better part of my career convincing people to spend more money than they want to on infrastructure, and micromanaging subcontractors who insist that something is just fine “at code.”
“At least you won’t have budget issues,” I say to Liam, wishing he would put his arm down so that I can stop staring at the swath of exposed six-pack where his thermal shirt is hiked up, stop wondering about how he might have gotten the thin white vertical scar below his rib cage. I’d love to tell him to go away, but it’s become clear that Murph fully intends to hand him the management when he retires, which he threatens to do more and more, and while I’m far more qualified for the job and should be considered, I know it won’t happen. I’m not enough of a suck-up. I like to think of my style as honest and straightforward, but apparently, according to my annual reviews, I’m “abrasive” and “disrespectful.” At least once every few months Murph calls me in for a dressing-down because I’ve pissed somebody off. I can’t help it if I’m going to call his buddy the plumber out on reusing pipes from a previous job and charging for new, or if I tell a client that I absolutely will not come back after inspection to build out a bonus mudroom that they can’t claim on the permit drawings because it adds illegal square footage.
“True. That is something. You ready to jump onto the Manning job?” He smirks.
“Please. Don’t remind me.” The Mannings, new-moneyed distant cousins to a storied Chicago scion, with all of the entitlement that implies, are my next primary clients. And the design for their new dream home, an up-from-the-ground build in Bucktown, looks like Carmela Soprano decided to buy a place in Connecticut and hire Dolly Parton and Ralph Lauren as her decorators. Waspy, but with weird spangly twists. Never thought I’d see design plans that included both a room upholstered in padded tartan-plaid silk with a gargantuan gold-plated chandelier dripping crystals, AND a custom-paneled library with leather-tile floors and a window seat covered in magenta ponyhide. The whole place smacks of Martha Stewart’s Acid Trip Dream House. The budget is pretty astronomical, but they still want to score a bargain wherever possible, and seem to always have a “contact” who can “get a better deal.” Warren Manning, who seems to have made his money in a strange combination of flatbed trucking and school buses, is a squat, sweaty man with a badly dyed comb-over and a permanent sneer. His wife, Susie, is a pinched little round woman, who crams herself into ill-fitting designer suits, which she pairs with cheap shoes and expensive handbags. They both like to bark orders and make grand pronouncements, and they name-drop like Perez Hilton has them on retainer. I hate them and their stupid house already.
Liam grins. “Yeah, have fun with that.”
Barbie Two peeks under his arm, platinum blonde extensions tipped in hot pink, because her colors are Blush and Bashful, and a skirt short enough to see her daddy issues. “Hey, um, Annamuk? Brian will see you now.”
Liam shakes his head and smirks. “Better not keep him waiting, um, Annamuk.”
Seems like everything is in order,” Murph says.
I’ve long ago given up on getting actual praise from him for a job well-done. And I was really good on this one. No fights with subs, no complaints from clients, no reprimands at all.
“Keys handed off today.”
“You got the pictures for the portfolio?” Mac asks, always wanting to pad out the website content.
“Yes, and the testimonial sheet.” I preempt the next question.
“Good,” Murph says, turning his attention to his cell phone for something terribly important, like a “Which car would you be?” quiz or something.
“And you gave them their handbook?” Mac says, conveniently forgetting once again that the handbook was my idea, and is the only thing I brought with me to MacMurphy that they have adopted. Whenever I finish any build, I put together a three-ring binder for the owners. It contains manuals and warranties for all of the appliances, care instructions for fixtures or finishes, and a one-year calendar cheat sheet for upkeep schedules. Mac and Murph thought it was such a great idea they insisted all the project managers start to do it, and even printed up custom binders to contain the paperwork. I think they just like to slap their logo on anything that isn’t nailed down.
“Of course. They’re thrilled.”
“Good. That should pretty much clear your schedule for Manning?” Murph looks at the master calendar.
Shudder. “Yep. The closet project on Maplewood is pretty much in the hands of California Closets for installation; I’ll do a walk-through tomorrow to check up, and again when they’re done. The bathrooms at the new Rick Bayless restaurant are just waiting for the stall doors to come back from the refinisher, and the footings are in for the sunroom project up in Park Ridge, so I’ve handed it off to Clark; he says it should be about a month.”
“Sounds good, Anneke. Looks like everything is in order, then. Anything we need to know about Manning?” Mac asks.
“Not really. Plans are pretty much done; they are still tweaking some interior spaces, but not in a way that will impact structure, they’re just finalizing some decisions that really only affect the electrical plot in small ways, so we’ve got time. Permit application will go in this week; my best guess is that we’ll be good to go in about eight weeks. I’ve got plans out to the usual suspects for bids; we’ll see how they come in and what the scheduling looks like and see if we need to go wider.” This is my least favorite part of the job. It is very rare that a client will just trust me to hire the best guys, the ones I know will do the best job; they usually assume there are kickbacks and dirty politics involved, so you always have to get three to five bids from subcontractors for every aspect of the project. It’s time-consuming and annoying, and then you have to hope that the people you actually want to work with come in at a decent price AND are available when you need them. And my favorite guys aren’t always the guys Murph owes favors to, and since I don’t get final approval on my teams, it is all up in the air anyway.
“Okay, sounds like that is in order, keep us posted,” Murph says, by way of dismissal.
“You’re welcome, I think it turned out great too,” I mutter to myself under my breath as I head back to my office. On my way down the hall I see Liam talking to Oliver Jacobsen, one of Chicago’s top architects, and someone I respect and admire enormously. His projects are just spectacular, Frank Lloyd Wright meets Louis Sullivan with just a hint of whimsy that is all his own. I’d give my left ovary to work with him. Actually, I’d give them both; lord knows I don’t plan on using them. Murph and Mac come out and join them, with lots of back-patting and manly joking. It’s clear that there is a new project in the offing, and Liam is essentially pissing all over Oliver to stake out his territory. I can feel my heart sink, because with this one simple tableau, I can see that I will never be able to fully break into this stupid boys’ club, and my chances of working with Oliver Jacobsen are about as good as getting struck by lightning. Twice. In my living room. On a sunny day.
As I pass by the employee lounge, I notice that someone has left a box of doughnuts on the table. I wonder who got laid. It’s an old tradition, the camaraderie of the job site; if you get lucky, you bring doughnuts in for everyone. And of course Murph started doing it at the office too. Usually they just appear anonymously. But this box? Has a note on the lid.
Of course he did.
I grab a napkin and a chocolate frosted, and then I pause. What the hell. I add a vanilla crunch on top. I’m heading out with my bounty when I bump into the current third Murph’s Angel in the hallway. This one is a tiny little thing, shorter than me, except for the platform boots, and I’ve heard Liam and Murph refer to her as a spinner behind her back.
“Oh, hey, America!”
Seriously? I just give up. “Hi.”
“God, I’m so jealous!” she says, looking down at my plate. “I wish I didn’t care about my figure. You’re so lucky!” And she hobbles past me into the bathroom, completely unaware that she’s said anything offensive.
I go back into the lounge, debate putting both of the pastries back, think “Fuck it,” grab a raspberry glazed for a Neapolitan doughnut bonanza, and head back to my hovel to eat my feelings.
Most people would leave a long day of paperwork and phone calls and emails and go straight home, heading for a cocktail and something to eat, needing to get home and walk and feed the dog. And that was certainly my intention as well, when my phone rings.
“You on your way home?” my fiancé, Grant, asks.
“I’m going to be stuck at the restaurant till close, but I stopped home and walked and fed the beast, so the night is yours. How was the day?”
“Up and down. Finished the Osborne house and they love it.”
“Congrats, baby, that is fantastic! I’ll bring home a bottle of bubbles. What about the down? Hack and Smurf being their usual charming selves?” I am always tickled at his nicknames for Mac and Murph.
“Yep. And it looks like Liam probably just snagged my dream project right out from under my nose.”
“I’m sorry. I hate that for you.”
“Oh, and apparently my name is now America.”
“Nipple Barbie or Pinky Tuscadero Barbie?”
“Wow. You have got to start thinking about an exit strategy, that place is a toilet bowl. I just hate that you even have to talk to those assholes, let alone work for them.”
“I know you do.” He hates it worse than I do, and I love him for that.
“I have some ideas about that; we’ll talk about it later. Gotta go. Love you!” I can hear him shouting something at someone about basil as his phone hangs up.
A normal person would look at this gift of a quiet evening alone as decadent relaxation just waiting to happen. You might think this would be a great time to cozy up to the DVR and indulge in some serious binge watching, to finally catch up on Downton Abbey and drool over the houses, but as tempting as that is, there is something even more tempting.
I press the button on the garage door and watch it open smoothly, the set of converted antique carriage-house doors, with their leaded glass windows and beautiful old wood with iron strapping, now a thoroughly contemporary convenience. I steer Lola inside to the left, giving wide berth to the old doors and windows and other salvage items that are stacked carefully in the middle of the expansive space, big enough for three SUVs plus storage. The door closes behind me, and I grab my big key ring out of the glove compartment, letting myself in the back door and dropping my coat and bag in the roughed-in mudroom. I breathe in the intoxicating scent of old house and new wood, make my way carefully through two dark rooms looming with odd shapes, and finally flip the lights. The place is a complete disaster. Plaster walls with gaping holes down to the lath, hardwood flooring covered with adhesive from badly applied carpeting, the world’s most hideous brass pineapple chandelier putting out a gloomy yellow light.
It’s the most beautiful sight in the world.
I head directly to the bathroom, inching sideways past the old claw-foot tub that’s sitting in the dining room, partially blocking the entrance of the wide hallway, and find my supplies right where I left them three days ago. Boxes of basket-weave-pattern white marble tiles with gray accents, sacks of thinset mix and pale gray grout powder. I grab a nearby bucket, dump thinset mix into it, and add water with the small hose that I’ve attached with duct tape to the wall faucet that used to feed the tub. Using a mixing paddle on my power drill, I watch as the mixture throws up a cloud of dust before coming together into a thick paste. I already installed the electric radiant heat floor system last week, and now I can carefully tile over it, thinking of how much someone is going to appreciate getting out of the shower onto a toasty floor on a day like today.
I can feel the stress of the afternoon leave my shoulders. It all disappears here. The Mannings and what that job will be for the next eighteen months. Mac and Murph, doling out minimal praise for the Osborne build, as if any monkey could have brought that job in three weeks early and nearly $15K under budget. Liam, throwing his arm around Oliver Jacobsen’s shoulders like they are old friends, blowing smoke up his ass about how he is going to bring the drawings off the page and into a perfect expression of his vision, or some such crap that will ensure that he will get that project, and I’ll probably have to do some quickie cheapo job for one of the cheesy flippers that Mac and Murph always seem to have in their back pocket waiting for me. Barbies at every turn mocking me with their perfect bodies and imperfect grasp of the English language.
This is my safe place. Everything else goes fuzzy, and my entire focus is on laying this tile. Getting it perfect. Every piece lined up. For three blissful hours my whole life is this floor, and when I lay the final little trim pieces just inside the doorway, I can feel my heart get bigger. I stand, stretch my back, aching from the meticulous work, and pull off my padded knee guards. I’ll come back this weekend to grout once the thinset has cured fully. I take one last look, and then shut down the lights, and head for home.
Someone isn’t happy with me.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry, I just got caught up at work,” I say, on the receiving end of a glare that can only be described as steely. “C’mon, don’t be like that.” I reach out my hand for a comforting caress.
And get it nipped. Not enough to break skin, but enough to send a message.
“Stupid dog, do you realize you have actually LITERALLY bitten the hand that feeds you?”
Schatzi looks at me with a withering stare, arching her bushy eyebrows haughtily, and then turns her back to me. I stick out my tongue at her back, and go to the kitchen to freshen her water bowl. Damnable creature requires fresh water a zillion times a day. God forbid a fleck of dust is dancing on the surface, or it has gone two degrees beyond cool, I get the laser look of death. Once there was a dead fly in it, and she looked in the bowl, crossed the room, looked me dead in the eye, and squatted and peed on my shoes. I usually call her Shitzi or Nazi. I suppose I’m lucky she deigns to drink tap water. Our bare tolerance of each other is mutual, and affection between us is nil. The haughty little hellbeast was my sole inheritance from my grandmother who passed away two years ago. A cold, exacting woman who raised me in my mother’s near-complete absence, Annelyn Stroudt insisted on my calling her Grand-mère, despite the fact that she put the manic in Germanic, ancestry-wise. But apparently when her grandparents schlepped her mother from Berlin to Chicago, they took a year in Paris first, and adopted many things Française. So Grand-mère it was.
Grand-mère Annelyn also insisted on dressing for dinner, formal manners in every situation, letterpress stationary, and physical affection saved for the endless string of purebred miniature schnauzers she bought one after the other, and never offered to the granddaughter who also lived under her roof. Her clear disappointment in me must have rubbed off on Schatzi, who, despite having lived with me since Grand-mère died neatly and quietly in her sleep at the respectable age of eighty-nine, has never seen me as anything but a source of food, and a firm hand at the end of the leash. She dotes on Grant, but he sneaks her nibbles when he cooks, and coos to her in flawless French. Sometimes I wonder if the spirit of Grand-mère transferred into the dog upon death, and if the chilly indifference to me is just a manifestation of my grandmother’s continued disapproval from beyond the grave.
Schatzi wanders over to her bowl, sniffs it, sneers at me one last time for good measure, shakes her head to ensure her ears are in place, like a society matron checking her coif, and settles down to drink. I jump in a hot shower to get the grit off me. I keep my thick, wavy dark auburn hair just above my shoulders, long enough to pull into a short ponytail or messy bun when I’m working, but short enough to not require too much fussing. I’m twisting it up into a towel turban when I hear joyful yipping.
“Hello, my darling. How are you, sweet girl?” I wander into the living room, where Grant is snuggling the dog, who is submitting to his attentions with clear delight.
Grant stops petting the suddenly animated Schatzi to come kiss me, which he does gently on my forehead. “How was your day?” He smiles at me in a way that makes me know he had a good night.
“Long, annoying. You?”
“Same. Probably less annoying than yours. Have you eaten?”
“Not yet, just got home.”
“Perfect.” Grant and I have easy shorthand. I love that we don’t have to share every tiny detail of our day first shot out of the gate. We’re both busy, we’re both under pressure, there are a million pieces of minutia that we’ve dealt with since last we spoke, and neither of us feels the need to unburden it all. We’ll eat, and slowly let the days we’ve had trickle out, the important bits. My guess is that because we are both only children, both from broken homes with indifferent parenting, we’re self-sufficient by nature. He heads to the kitchen, and I follow, perching on a stool across the island from him. He grabs an apron, wraps the ties around his back over his nonexistent tush, and ties it in front on his round little belly. He runs his fingers through his fine sandy hair, and heads for the sink to wash them, almost like a surgeon. Then he pulls the large cutting board from underneath the counter and grabs his eight-inch chef’s knife. I love watching him cook. And I’m not the only one.
Grant was both the winner and the fan favorite of season three of World’s Supreme Chef, handily beating out fifteen other American hopefuls to compete in the international reality-TV competition, and narrowly edging out a win over the French cheftestant. His charming self-deprecating personality made him a darling of the talk show circuit for a few months, and helped garner him an investor partner to help him finally have his own restaurant, which has been packed to the gills since the moment he opened. His place, Nez De Cochon, is right across the street from Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, and they often joke with each other that they both wish the other were less successful so that they had a place to send the reservationless walk-in patrons they can never accommodate. He’s nearing completion on a second place, a more casual comfort food diner concept, and after being a judge for season six of WSC, has been approached by a major network to develop a prime-time cooking show.
The prize package he received, along with the endorsement deals and bestselling cookbook his presence on the show generated, allowed him to purchase this spacious condo in the West Loop, walking distance to his Randolph Street restaurant. It also allowed him to hire MacMurphy to do the design and build of the gut rehab he wanted, which was how we met. We worked closely together on the project, and I was thrilled with how much he relied on me, embraced and accepted my suggestions. He cooked for me. We became friends. Then one night, almost accidentally, lovers. I would have written it off as a one-nighter between friends, but the next morning he made me breakfast and asked if he could take me on a proper date. I figured it would be rude to decline the offer, in light of all the naked the night before, which is also how we ended up in bed the second time. And the third. We quickly became, for lack of a more romantic term, a habit. By the time I finished the apartment, he asked me to move into it, and I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.
Grant is like no one I’ve ever dated. I always leaned toward big hulking boys with more muscles than brains. Simple boys, not so much emotionally unavailable as emotionally indifferent. I always liked things uncomplicated. I never really needed much more than a strong warm body, the occasional release of straightforward sex. I wasn’t really ever very good at romance or being a girlfriend; most of my relationships landed in the nebulous region between friend with benefits and better-than-nothing boyfriend. I liked men who didn’t need much from me, ones who let me be in charge. I’d never really been in grown-up love before Grant, and he is the absolute opposite of everyone who preceded him.
Grant is five foot eight to my five foot five, and we weigh the same, 180, allowing for my solid muscular Bavarian build and his soft, chefly poochiness. He’s sensitive and tender, a good listener, a thoughtful romantic. No one since Joe had ever made me feel so safe, safe enough to be really open and honest. To share my darkest thoughts, to vent my deepest hurts. And when he proposed last year, he eschewed the traditional ring and instead did it with a stunning pair of diamond stud earrings, two fiery carats each, in a platinum three-prong low-profile setting. The perfect way to spoil a girl who works with her hands and has to wear hardhats regularly.
I fill Grant in on my boring day of bids, the embarrassment of the staff meeting where Murph called me out for signing off on the Rick Bayless restaurant bathrooms without noticing that we installed the women’s room door on the men’s bathroom. “Apparently our little Anneke can pee in a urinal with no problem, so it didn’t occur to her that the other ladies might not have such great aim.” This was received with a roomful of laughter, and Liam jumped right in. “Well, she does have bigger balls than you, Murph.” It took five minutes before everyone stopped laughing and poking fun, and I sat there smiling and chuckling as if it didn’t matter. And then I said that my balls were perfectly delicate and ladylike, but my dick was definitely bigger than Murph’s, and the room went totally silent in that way where you can almost hear the needle scratching violently across the record, and he glared at me and curtly told me to get the hell over there and fix it and apologize to Rick for the error. Lucky for me, Rick Bayless is a very kind gent, and pals with Grant, so we laughed about it and he made a delicious torta that he has been experimenting with and we split it and talked about Grant’s new place, and he sent me off with a bag of warm churros, so the day was somewhat saved.
Grant shakes his head and mutters about how rude and unnecessary it is to humiliate people, while he slices an onion and chops a bagful of multicolor cherry tomatoes. He drops the veggies in a pan, adds a large sprig of fresh basil from the vase on the counter, smashes a garlic clove, and tosses it in. A hefty glug of olive oil, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, more salt than you would imagine necessary, a fistful of dried linguine, some water, and the contents of a plastic tub of the gelatinous amber chicken stock that he always brings home from the restaurant. He turns the flame up, gives it a stir, and then reaches into the wine fridge underneath the counter and hands me a bottle of Barolo to open. He begins grating a snowy mound of Parmesan into a bowl, pausing periodically to give the contents of the pan, now at a rolling boil, a quick stir with his tongs. A latchkey kid whose mom worked long hours, he’s been cooking for himself since he was eight, and for others since he lied about his age and got an after-school job as a prep cook in a fast-food joint at fourteen. He skipped college in favor of culinary school, and the rest is history.
I pour the inky wine into two glasses, and we clink before taking a deep and satisfying sip. Cheese finished, he stirs the pasta again, and then takes more basil from the vase, picking the leaves carefully and reducing them to a pile of shreds in seconds. Grant has amazing knife skills. It’s mesmerizing to watch. He removes the basil sprig and garlic clove from the pan, tossing them in the garbage, stirs again, and pulls one long noodle to taste. Smiling, he pulls the pan from the heat, divides the contents between two shallow white stoneware bowls, and gives each serving a healthy twirl of olive oil, a fistful of cheese, a scattering of basil. He reaches behind him and grabs a half of a crusty baguette off the counter and places it between us.
It’s been maybe fifteen minutes. And I have heaven in a bowl. Grant might not be able to pick me up and whisk me to the bedroom, nor do either of us have much energy for that these days anyway. But he wants to know about my thoughts, and he makes me meals full of love, and I always feel so cared for with him. This is as close to home as I’ve had since Joe died, and it guts me that they never met. I think they would have gotten along famously, and I know that Joe always wanted me to have this, a good man who loves me, a place to live that is safe and stable. Grant and I eat right where we are, ravenously quiet, me sitting on the stool, and him standing behind the stove, pausing only to add more cheese, or drink more wine. As little time as it took to make, it takes less to devour—the perfect thing for a late supper after a long day. I marvel at his ability to do something that on the surface looks so simple, and yet is completely beyond me.
Because for all my massive appetite, I cannot cook to save my life. When Grant came to my old house for the first time, he became almost apoplectic at the contents of my fridge and cupboards. I ate like a deranged college frat boy midfinals. My fridge was full of packages of bologna and Buddig luncheon meats, plastic-wrapped processed cheese slices, and little tubs of pudding. My cabinets held such bounty as cases of chicken-flavored instant ramen noodles, ten kinds of sugary cereals, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and cheap canned tuna. My freezer was well stocked with frozen dinners, heavy on the Stouffer’s lasagna and bags of chicken tenders. My garbage can was a wasteland of take-out containers and pizza boxes. In my defense, there was also always really good beer and a couple of bottles of decent wine.
My eating habits have done a pretty solid turnaround since we moved in together three years ago. Grant always leaves me something set up for breakfast: a parfait of Greek yogurt and homemade granola with fresh berries, oatmeal that just needs a quick reheat and a drizzle of cinnamon honey butter, baked French toast lingering in a warm oven. He almost always brings me leftovers from the restaurant’s family meal for me to take for lunch the next day. I still indulge in greasy takeout when I’m on a job site, as much for the camaraderie with the guys as the food itself; doesn’t look good to be noshing on slow-roasted pork shoulder and caramelized root vegetables when everyone else is elbow-deep in a two-pound brick of Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich dripping marinara.
“How are things at the Palmer Square house?” Grant asks, wiping his plate with a chunk of bread.
“Never got there today, the day got sucked up with the endless bids, I had to run all the way out to Park Ridge to put out a fire, and then the bathroom door debacle. But hopefully tomorrow after work I can swing by and do a little something. When I’m there it feels great, and what little I’m able to do is going well. And it’s going to be freaking gorgeous.”
“Well, there’s no doubt of that. How are you feeling about the timing? Another two years?”
I think about what’s left to do. It seems endless. When I found the property it was in foreclosure; the previous owner had overextended himself assuming that the three-flat, which had been converted to apartments, including an illegal one in half of the basement, would generate enough income to be self-supporting. But he overestimated the rents he could charge for spaces that hadn’t been updated since the 1970s, and when the housing market crashed, he was so underwater he just abandoned the property completely and declared bankruptcy.
Grant and I thought it would be the perfect first venture for us in the realm of flipping, to restore the place to its original glory and sell it as a spectacular high-end single-family home. Or rather I thought it would be, and Grant was easy to convince. I sold the little house I had gotten from Joe when he died to the people who had been renting it from me, and used half of the profits to buy the Palmer place outright; Grant has been funding the renovations. We got it for a song; it couldn’t be torn down due to the historical landmark status of the street and needed so much work no one wanted to touch it. We took it off the bank’s hands for literally pennies on the dollar. I’ve done most of the renovations on my own, bringing in some specialty help for the major projects like upgrading the electricity and plumbing. It’s been just over a year, and as of right now, the only room in the house that’s completely finished is the kitchen, since that’s always the most fun to design and is the only thing Grant really cared about in the project. I may not cook, but I can do a seriously spectacular kitchen design. Grant actually hasn’t been to see the place since the final kitchen fixture went in, but he’s good about checking the progress verbally.
“I’d like to say two on the outside, but you know how it goes. Verrrry sloooooowwwwly.”
“But you love it?”
“So much. It’s like a gift to get to go there and work.” There have been wonderful surprises, original treasures covered up by drywall and paint and carpet and linoleum. For every bad discovery—asbestos in the basement, lead paint throughout, a horror-movie nest of rats in the old coal hopper—there has been a glorious one: marble wainscoting behind drywall in a bathroom, a covered-up fireplace in the living room, gorgeous coffering in the dining room hidden by an industrial drop ceiling.
“What if you did it full-time?” Grant clears our plates and pours us both more wine.
“Why not? What do you figure we can clear on this flip when you are done?”
“If we stay on budget, and the market stays strong, we should net about 500K, maybe a smidge more if we get lucky.”
“That seems like enough to get a second project under way. You hate it where you are. They don’t begin to deserve you, and you almost never get the kinds of projects that make it worth putting up with their bullshit. And you love working on that house. Maybe it’s time to do it full-time, get it finished, let it take you to the next step? I mean, don’t you want to just find wonderful houses like that and restore them and then sell them and stop with all the boring cookie-cutter work for ungrateful clients and shithead bosses?”
My heart flutters. I’d never thought seriously about going out on my own full-time so soon; I just thought it would be fun to do a project here and there. To get a lot of experience under my belt, and then MAYBE in another ten years or so to take the leap. If things were good financially, if the market was conducive. In the meantime, I just figured that working on one personal project at a time, for as long as it took, would be enough to fill that need in me. To have control, to make the decisions, to fully realize a single vision from start to finish. I’m always proud of my work, but when you work for other people, their input takes precedence. The end result is your execution of what they want and need. Hopefully, you’re able to convince them to trust you on details here and there, to make them fall in love with your ideas, but at the end of the day the purity is lost. But the thought, the mere mention, of just getting up every day and going over to Palmer Square and working the way I crave? To finish it and then find another project to fall in love with all over again? That makes me all tingly.
“I don’t know; that is a huge risk.”
“I don’t think it is. You’re really good at what you do, honey, you know that. You’ve got all the right instincts, and great taste. You know the market. I just think that life is short, and waiting around for some magical sign that it is time to stop wasting your talent on projects and people so far beneath you is silly. Go big or go home, right? What is the worst thing that could happen?”
“We could lose money on the house and not have any profit to find another project and then I would not have a job to go back to. The whole thing is very risky. Not to mention an expensive proposition for you. You’d have to be the sole breadmaker AND breadwinner.”
Grant smiles. He reaches across the counter and traces his fingertip down the length of my nose. “You’re worth it. Besides, when the TV thing gets signed this week, the money won’t be much of an issue.” His idea for the show is a wonderful one. Each episode he would get together with one other chef so that the two of them could cook dinner for a small gathering of chefs, foodies, critics, and other interesting cultural figures who happen to love food. Sort of half cooking show, half salon. The deal would be for a guaranteed full twenty-six-week season, and would pay him handsomely. Even better, he would get to work with his friends Patrick and Alana, whose production company put the deal together, and who would serve as co–executive producers. Grant always said that after the World’s Supreme Chef experience, he would only do more TV if he was sure about the people he was working with. He’s turned down half a dozen offers, everything from The Next Iron Chef to recurring judging on various shows. He does a once-a-month lunchtime spot on WGN locally, because they are near to his heart and he loves that Tom Skilling always sneaks in to taste and rave about whatever he’s cooking. When Patrick and Alana approached him, he recognized that he could really create a show to be proud of, and that they wanted him to have a tremendous amount of creative control, and that was what sealed the deal for him. With the TV show plus the anticipated numbers for the new restaurant he is about to open, and the second cookbook that comes out this summer, we aren’t going to be buy-an-island rich, but the cash flow is going to be really very comfortable. And since neither of us wants kids, it isn’t like we have to sock money away for college educations or to try to create intergenerational wealth. We’ve both been diligent about retirement savings, and will obviously continue to be, but the big bump in disposable income that is imminent does present some wonderful opportunities.
“Well, let’s think about it after, then. You know my motto. No drinking till the inking!” I carry the chip on my shoulder of almost every self-made person. On the one hand, you can see clearly where the financial assistance will help you achieve what you want faster or more completely. Yet, your very soul chafes at the idea of accepting, even when offered as generously and openly and with as much love as Grant offers. Since he is also self-made, he knows better than to push too hard.
“Okay. But know that I’m more than prepared to support you in every way. I think you’ll be happier, and I like you happy.”
He comes around to my side of the island and gives me a powerful hug. Grant is a great hugger. I look up at him and he kisses me softly on the lips. “Dessert?” he asks.
I grin at him. “Absolutely,” I say, waiting for the slide of his hand up my robe or a deeper kiss.
He grins. “Coming up!” And he walks over to the fridge to fetch something new the pastry chef has been working on.
Oh well. I’m probably too full and tired for bedroom acrobatics anyway. Grant brings over a plate with what looks like a chocolate pyramid on it, and hands me a fork, and we have our cake and eat it.
I’m dreaming about getting a facial, Grand-mère standing over me saying that my skin is horrible, that I don’t take care of myself, and blowing sulfurous steam at me to open my pores. Then she leans over and scratches at my face with her always impeccably manicured fingers, telling me that I have neglected my exfoliation. I open one eye to find Schatzi pawing at my forehead and breathing foul kibble breath up my nose.
“Seriously, dog? You hateful bitch. I know Grant already walked and fed you.” I give her a shove, and she drops lightly off the bed, clicking her claws down the hall in a perfect replica of Grand-mère’s kitten-heeled cadence, making me shudder. Two years gone and she still haunts me. Schatzi is only six, so barring some unfortunate accident or unexpected illness, I could have another good eight to ten years of this abuse ahead of me.
I swing my legs out of bed and drop to the floor to stretch. I may be still a few months shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, but my body bears the signs of a life of physical work. My joints take a few minutes to loosen, my neck and back require some coaxing to unclench. My girlfriend Marie tried to get me to do yoga, but I got twisted into some warrior pose and accidentally lost control of a massively loud and horribly smelly fart, the unfortunate result of a La Pasadita carne asada burrito for lunch. Needless to say, I’ve never had the balls to take another class. I do my own little stretch routine in the morning for a few minutes, and it seems to help limber me up for the day. And if a foul wind escapes me, there is only me and the dog to witness, and frankly, crop-dusting that satanic canine is one of my few deep pleasures. I throw on an ancient pair of jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a zip-up fleece vest. It’s Saturday, my favorite day of the week. I get to spend a whole day at the Palmer house, and then dinner with my best girlfriends, my total me-day.
Saturday is Grant’s longest workday. He hits the markets in the morning, plans menus for the coming week, places orders with vendors, and then goes to the restaurant to prep and do a grueling Saturday-night service, usually getting home between one and two in the morning. I try to stay up for him. When he gets home he’s usually wired, and we often have a snack and a small glass of bourbon or calvados, which is a very nice way to jump-start our Sundays. If Grant isn’t out of town for an event or press thing, rarer and rarer these days, he and I spend Sundays blissfully together, sleeping in, having some sort of brunch adventure, watching shows and movies on Netflix, napping, and having something wonderful for dinner. Since the restaurant is closed Mondays, he often has to get up early on Sunday and fly somewhere for Sunday night and Monday appearances, returning late Monday or early Tuesday to get back to the grind of the restaurant. He’s frantically training his executive sous chefs for both restaurants in anticipation of the television work, which will take him away from them even though it will film in Chicago. When we get them, maybe only once a month, Sundays are the days we make up to each other for having jobs that keep us apart and exhausted the rest of the time.
Grant has left me an everything bagel, the crusty seeded roll smeared thickly with herbed cream cheese and covered with a thin shingling of cucumbers and a slice of the white ham La Quercia makes specially for his restaurant. I wrap it in a paper towel, toss Schatzi a treat from the bowl, and head out. The day is Arctic Circle cold, but sunny and bright, a welcome change from the overcast gloom that is typical of January in Chicago. Luckily we have garage parking next door to our building, so I don’t have to scrape ice off the car, but it isn’t a heated space, so I always give Lola a good eight to ten minutes to really warm up before I make her drive in winter. This gives me a chance to devour the sandwich, naturally dropping a glob of cheese on my huge puffer coat, and sprinkling sesame seeds, sticky bits of onion, caraway, and salt crystals all over myself. In addition to having no cooking skills, my eating skills also lack finesse. Most everything ends up on my not-insignificant boob shelf, or lost off the fork into my lap. Grand-mère sent me to actual etiquette classes when I was seven and again when I was twelve, but while I understood everything intellectually, it never really sank into my bones. As a result, I get giddy if I get to wear anything nice more than once before I spatter it with stains. I’ve always known that I’m very lucky to have a career that requires grubby dress 99 percent of the time. If I’d wanted to be a lawyer, it would have cost me a fortune in blouses and dry cleaning.
I swing Lola into a parking space in front of Intelligentsia on Milwaukee, and scamper inside to get some fuel.
“Hey, Anneke,” Rainn, my favorite barista, says. “The usual?”
“Yes, please.” I take a seat at the bar while she efficiently pulls shot after shot of dark espresso. Every Saturday is the same; I get a rich double-shot latte with whole milk to prime my motor, and then two quad-shot iced Americanos with four sugars each to give me bits of pep through the day. And yes, I’m aware that ten shots of espresso in a day seems ridiculous, to say nothing of the eight packets of sugar, but Saturday is my cheat day for caffeine, which I limit to one latte a day during the week, and I believe in full indulgence.
I take my tray of enormous beverages, and head over to the Palmer house. It is so much more fun to work here in daylight, to fully appreciate the high ceilings and oversized windows and architectural details. She is a classic graystone, like a little castle, complete with a turret, the subtly wavy glass in the windows curved to match the curve of the stone. I love doing a full walk-through on Saturday mornings, to visualize the plans, to center my thoughts, to let the building tell me what it needs. I drop my coat and Joe’s old leather tool bag on the first floor and put the two iced coffees in the small fridge I’ve rigged up in the dining room. Then I take my latte and begin my walk-through.
I start at the front foyer, cringing as I always do at the horrid vinyl faux-grass-cloth wallpaper. But the intricate plaster ceiling molding is mostly intact; it will need some repairs, but I should be able to save it. And the original penny tile floor was essentially perfect when I pulled up the industrial carpeting a previous owner had put down; I just needed to strip some old adhesive off and give it a seal. It gleams like new under the protective thick paper I’ve taped over it to keep it safe and clean. I’ve been putting off dealing with the wallpaper because I hope that the murals that adorned the walls of the entrance are still there and can be restored.
When I researched the history of the building, I found a lot of newspaper articles on the family who built it, and a couple of them included faded photos of some of the interiors. That was how I knew where to look for the fireplace in the living room.
I love a building that has good history in addition to good bones. The Rabin family emigrated from Russia to Chicago right after the Great Fire, losing the “owitz” from the end of their name, and establishing a profitable family firm of accountants and insurance agents that continues to thrive today. The youngest of their three sons, the only one born here, married the daughter of a wealthy department store family, and they built the house in the up-and-coming Palmer Square neighborhood just before the turn of the century. The mansion was host to grand parties and philanthropic events that pop up in the society pages from 1900 to 1940, when the widow Rabin sold the house to a cousin who used it as a boardinghouse through the late 1950s. The cousin’s son took over the building and decided its value was more as a rental property, doing a shoddy conversion to the three upper floors to create apartments, and creating a garden apartment in the half of the basement that used to house the maid’s quarters. He sold it in the early 1960s, and nothing is known about it until 1978 when it changed hands again. The new owner did a halfhearted upgrade to some of the systems, and covered everything that could be covered in durable carpet and linoleum. The building passed to his daughter when he died, and she sold it to the guy who lost it to the bank.
It kills me that these rooms that knew generations of family parties, wedding receptions, and holiday celebrations got chopped up into unnatural bedrooms and closets, their details hidden and made generic in the name of commerce. Lucky for me, I had access to the original plans for the house, which had been filed with the city, and was able to gut the walls that had been added over the years, without disrupting the load-bearing originals. I’ll give those turn-of-the-century builders their props. This place is like a fortress. Whatever went on with fixtures and finishes, the structure is as solid as the day she was born.
After the Great Fire, the wealthy didn’t take any chances with their mansions, so the structure here is steel, not wood, and will support this old girl for another one hundred years at least. The walls are sound; the roof is solid, if in need of new insulation and a fresh coat of tar. Inside, the place may be something of a disaster, but at least the layout is getting back to what it was, if not yet what it will be. I still have massive demo to do in the basement; since that is a gut job, I’ve been saving it for a time I can take a few weeks’ vacation to really handle it right.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the place coming together. The spacious formal double-parlor living room with its restored fireplace surrounded by a carved limestone mantel I rescued from Liam’s Fremont job. The long dining room, anchored by built-in buffets with glass-door china hutches. The butler’s pantry with its double pocket doors and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry. The new state-of-the-art kitchen, practically restaurant quality, which sits upstairs with its shiny appliances all still covered in their protective blue plastic, waiting for a passionate home cook to fire it into life.
The bonus rooms I’ve planned for the basement, waiting to tell me what they should be. A man-cave? Exercise room? Home office? Guest suite? Mother-in-law apartment? I’m not pushing myself to decide quite yet. I may leave them as what Joe always called a “vanilla box,” just framed-out walls and roughed-in plumbing and electrical, and put it on the market for the buyer to determine what they need and let me custom finish it to their specifications.
Despite the gaping holes in walls where the electrician ripped out the old knob-and-tube wiring that was sitting scarily live underneath the lath, and the ghastly 1970s bathrooms sprinkled about, there are things about this house you cannot help but appreciate. Twelve-foot ceilings with custom crown moldings a full fourteen inches wide, albeit covered in god-knows-how-many layers of paint. The windows, which shockingly are in terrific shape, need a little love and all need the casements stripped and resealed, but they aren’t drafty, and the storm windows appear to be one of the only places the previous owners didn’t cheap out on. The spacious attic with its built-in closets and cupboards and shelves, all of them lined in cedar for storing seasonal clothes and party linens.
I always finish my tour on the second floor, where a pair of tall, slim French doors open onto a small Juliet balcony. I’ve planned this room as an office, imagining it with a beautiful antique desk, maybe a chaise longue, picturing a creative type, a graphic artist or an illustrator or a writer, someone who would be inspired by the light, by the ability to open these doors and let in fresh air. Unless it’s raining or snowing, this is where I finish my coffee, looking out onto Palmer Square Park and clearing my head for the day.
My phone rings just as I’m finishing the grout on the bathroom floor, bemoaning the fact that it has taken me three weeks to get back here to finish. I figured out a long time ago to keep a pencil nearby when I’m doing grubby work like this, so that I don’t have to take off my gloves. Caller ID says it’s Hedy. I use the eraser end of the pencil to put her on speaker.
“We’re going to Caroline’s tonight,” she says without saying hello.
“We always go to Caroline’s.” Which we do, despite the fact that she lives in Evanston and the rest of us live in the city.
“I know, but she’s making dinner.”
“That’s how she gets us.” Caroline is a very good cook, and I live with a professional chef, so I know whereof I speak.
“And Carl pulled something from the cellar that is older than us.”
“Damn them.” Carl, Caroline’s better half, is a pretty serious wine guy, and when he pulls something from the cellar, you better sit up and take notice.
“I know. They’re insidious. I’ll fetch you at five thirty.”
When Hedy says she will fetch me, what she means is that her driver will come fetch me. Hedy shouldn’t drive. As one of the top interior designers in the city, she spends more than half her life in the car, and all of her life on the phone. After six expensive fender benders and four talking-on-her-phone tickets (that she couldn’t flirt her way out of, of the ten times she was actually pulled over), she finally gave up and hired Walter, an elegant man of indeterminate age, who squires her around in a massive Lincoln Navigator. And it certainly helps on nights like this, when you have a friend with really good wine way out in the burbs. Saves us a fortune in taxis, and no one has to miss out on the vino to be the designated driver.
I finish the grout, making one final pass over the tiles with a huge damp sponge. Barely a cup of leftover grout in the bottom of the bucket, much to my satisfaction. Some people are math savants, or piano savants; I’m a bucket savant. I can eyeball the perfect amount of adhesive, grout, Spackle, cement, paint, drywall mud, mortar, anything that either comes in a bucket or gets mixed in a bucket; I’m usually right on the money. Grant can measure a precise amount of salt or herbs in his palm, from an eighth of a teaspoon to a full quarter cup, and yes, I have tested him. I’m that way with building materials.
My stomach growls, and I wash my hands and grab my phone. The local Al’s Beef delivers, and I’m feeling like I’ve earned it. By the time my “Big Al, sweet peppers, dipped” with a large fries, extra ketchup, extra napkins arrives, I’ve cleaned up the grouting supplies. Thank god for the exertion of work, otherwise, with my appetite, I’d be twice my size. I’m built like a German peasant, all muscular legs and broad shoulders, wide hips and big boobs. And while 180 is certainly not an insignificant weight for a girl who just barely hits five foot five, I’m solid, not squishy. My doctor tells me that she’d love me closer to 150 to 155 for my build, but I’m healthy as a horse, and my body does most of what I ask of it without too much trouble. I know that when I can’t do the labor anymore I will have to rethink my appetite, but for now, youngish and active, I pretty much eat what I want, and burn it off on the job.
Grant loves that I eat. He says it was the first thing he noticed about me. I try to take this as a compliment, ignoring that I might have preferred that he notice my sparkling hazel eyes, or my porcelain skin bespattered with fetching freckles, or my beautiful smile. But I’ll take it. I’m frankly glad he noticed me at all. My looks, perhaps one tiny notch above plain, and comfortably in the arena polite people call handsome or attractive or interesting but never beautiful, skipped two generations. I look exactly like my great-grandmother Anneliene.
Both my mom, Anneliese, and Grand-mère Annelyn were stunning beauties, with willow-lithe frames; blond, blue-eyed sirens with quiet voices, light tread, and delicate features. I was a squat little tank of a girl from the day I was born, with a voice like Cathy Moriarty after a bender, thick, wavy dark red hair with cowlicks that tended toward frizz, and a step like a baby elephant. I was enormously disappointing to both of them. My unnamed and unknown-to-me father was, according to Grand-mère, gone from my mother’s life and the city before they even knew I was on the way. There was always an implication that he had been in town for business temporarily, eventually finished the job, and likely gone back to a wife and kids, but that sense was never officially confirmed by either Grand-mère or my mother, and frankly, I couldn’t care less. My relationship with my mother is proof that blood doesn’t make someone family. Her difficult pregnancy and the first year of my life, which kept her tied to the house and off the dating market from the prime ages of twenty to twenty-two, were an offense I was never able to redeem. As soon as I was walking and taking solid food, she put all of her focus into finding a man to take her away from the tragic turn her life had taken.
For my entire childhood, Anneliese jumped from husband to boyfriend to husband, sometimes hers, sometimes other people’s, in parts distant from Chicago. Usually warmer climes and occasionally glamorously abroad, and when the husbands or lovers would leave her, or she them, when they would break her spell and go back to their lives or their wives, she would return home for a short time to Grand-mère’s care and my company. Long enough to sigh over the state of my hair and clothes, my choice of playmates or lack thereof, my powerful appetite, and the baby fat that never fully melted. Anywhere from six weeks to six months, never more, and she was off on her next romantic adventure, postcards and odd occasional gifts to follow.
I never thought Grand-mère was one for sentimentality, but when she died I found a box in her basement, all of the trinkets my mother had sent me over the years. The Russian nesting dolls and Turkish slippers, the embroidered dress from Greece and the pale pink beret from Paris. The tiny little cowboy boots from Brazil, and half a dozen dolls, each in some sort of traditional garb. The box is in my storage unit; I don’t really want the stuff, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw it away.
On one of her jaunts at home, when I was thirteen, she met Joe, who had been dispatched when Grand-mère’s usual handyman wasn’t available to fix the garage door. He was tall, blandly Midwestern handsome, unassuming. He was no match for my mother, who took to him, wooed him, won him, and within a month they were married. A part of me thinks that it was her way of trying to actually give me something that resembled a family life, her sacrifice for me. Or maybe she remembered Grand-mère’s unquenchable need for perfection from her when she was a teenager and wanted to protect me the smallest bit. I want to believe she did one thing for me besides the accident of my birth.
The three years they were together were almost normal. We lived in Joe’s tidy little house, my mother and I circled each other cautiously, like strangers do, but at least she wasn’t mean and dismissive like Grand-mère, just oddly distant. And she required a tremendous amount of rest. I think being beautiful must be exhausting. I spent most of my time hanging out with Joe in his garage workshop, watching him build furniture while she took long baths and longer naps, and indulged in a daily routine of personal care and improvement that took no fewer than four hours. She slept every day till nearly noon, in the bedroom she kept as cold as a tomb with heavy blackout curtains and a sleep mask for good measure. She would start her day with a long bath, and break her fast with hot water and lemon, a single piece of dry toast, maybe some yogurt. The afternoon was usually devoted to personal upkeep, which was the closest thing she ever had to a job. She gave herself manicures twice a week and pedicures once a week. Weekly facials and deep hair-conditioning treatments. An hour of stretching exercises and calisthenics every day without fail. I always thought it was strange that by the time she finished applying lotions and potions and perfect makeup, it was nearly time for her to meticulously begin reversing the process.
Joe was a contractor by trade, but a master cabinetmaker and furniture designer by nature, and his pieces were stunning, most of them in the Arts and Crafts or Prairie mode, simple functional designs in beautiful woods. He would let me meet him at job sites; I would work on homework in the trailer, and then follow him around and learn about his work. When it became clear that my mother couldn’t cook to save her life, or ours, and the constant restaurant meals were going to bankrupt him, he bought a copy of Joy of Cooking at a yard sale and, after a long day at work, would put together simple meals for us, or pick up takeout. This was mostly for the two of us; Anneliese, like Grand-mère, was entirely indifferent to food, and would pick at Joe’s meals, or skip them entirely in favor of a small salad dressed with lemon or cider vinegar and no oil or salt.
My mom disappeared one Sunday night shortly after my sixteenth birthday. We came home from a long day at his latest project, covered nearly head to toe with dust from my first experience with plaster and lath walls. We had a huge bag of Chinese food to celebrate my new skill, but when we opened the door, the house was dark and quiet and there was a short note on the kitchen counter for Joe that I wasn’t allowed to read.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for OUT TO LUNCH
"Ballis delves again into foodie women’s lit with flavorful results. Some of the story's pleasure derives from the sheer Pinterest-quality abundance of goods—cookies, cashmere and Chicago restaurants abound. A recipe index is offered for aspiring chefs. But Ballis has real things to say about relationships and grief, and at its best, this book is honest and touching. A cozy meal, with dessert."—Kirkus Reviews
"A unique and satisfying story which slowly gains momentum like a carefully cooked meal."—Booklist
“Heartfelt and hilarious….A deeply satisfying look at food, friendships and the families you create for yourself when you need them most.”—Jen Lancaster, author of The Tao of Martha and Here I go Again
"A sparkling, heartwarming novel with all the elements of a can't-put-it-down reada heroine you'll root for, unexpected plot twists, and dangerously good descriptions of food!"—Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Best of Us
"A funny and heartfelt tale of friendship, food, and how difficult it can be to open yourself up to love, you’ll want to devour Out to Lunch in one delicious bite. This is Stacey Ballis at her witty and chef-tastic best."—Amy Hatvany, author of Heart Like Mine and Best Kept Secret
Reading Group Guide
1. What do you think about Anneke as the story’s protagonist? Did you admire her? Why or why not? Cite specific examples.
2. How did Anneke’s character evolve throughout the novel? In what ways did the building of the house and her trials in the kitchen effect this development?
3. If Grant had been unfaithful with a woman, would that have made his infidelity any better or worse? Would you have been able to forgive him in either situation?
4. Construction is very much a man’s world. How does Anneke stand her ground in the business? Did you agree with her actions at the MacMurphy offices?
5. Discuss the morality of Anneke’s marriage to Jag. If you were in her shoes what would you have done?
6. What do you think was the turning point in Emily and Anneke’s relationship? How did they influence each other?
7. What do you think were Liam’s initial motivations in becoming a partner in the Palmer house? Do you think they were honest from the onset?
8. In Recipe for Disaster, blood relations don’t necessarily make someone family. Who do you consider family to Anneke by the novel’s end? How important are blood relations in your life?
9. In the novel, Anneke forms new friendships and sustains her old ones. Consider these two circles of friends. What does Anneke gain from each?
10. In the last chapter, Liam and Anneke’s relationship is left ambiguous. Where do you think it’s headed? Did their relationship surprise you?
11. How did Anneke and Jag’s relationships with their parents affect who they become and the decisions they make? Discuss the positive and negative influences of the parents on each character.
12. Anneke cherishes the history of the Palmer house and works to honor it in her modern design. How do the past and present interweave in this novel? How does Gemma’s journal fit into this connection?
13. Gemma’s journal increasingly becomes a source of comfort and advice for Anneke. What is the significance of Anneke leaving it behind for the new owner?
14. Food plays a huge role in this novel. Do you have a favorite recipe from the book? What dishes and dining traditions does your family celebrate?
15. Considering the book’s title, what do you think was the “recipe for disaster” it refers to?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A little longer read than usual for this author, but an excellent read.
Good story, don't care for the "f" word usage.
Would make a great series.