Lindy Blanchard’s family pecan farm is known county-wide, but it’s the goodies her grandmother sells at their store, the Nut House, that really bring in the crowds—until someone turns one of her tasty treats deadly…
The “Most Original Pecan Treat” contest at the Ag Fair is the talk of Riverville, Texas, especially when it’s clear that Miss Amelia Blanchard’s Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar will take home a blue ribbon. Which is why everyone is amazed when her dish doesn’t even place—and even more shocked when one of the judges, Pastor Jenkins, keels over dead, right after taking a second taste of Miss Amelia’s food.
No one in town truly believes that Amelia would even hurt a fly, but all the evidence points to poor Pastor Jenkins’ death being caused by poison in the caviar. Now, unless Lindy figures out who wanted to frame Amelia for murder, her meemaw may have baked her last famous pecan pie…
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I believed right from the beginning that it was the prize-winning hog scooting down the crowded midway at the annual Riverville, Texas, Agriculture Fair that started it all. With so much uproar and carnival noise and screaming and running, everybody was drawn to the doors of the tents and echoing metal Ag buildings to watch the two-hundred-fifty-pounder with a blue ribbon attached to his collar as he zigzagged through tall legs in skinny jeans, leaping legs in wide-cut jeans, bowed legs in ancient jeans, and bare legs in jean shorts, on his way to his familiar sty back at the ranch where he was born.
I figured, much later, that it was all that hollering and laughing and betting, while a calliope ground out tinny music and ladies on the Ferris wheel squealed and teenagers kept thumping each other in the dodgem cars, that covered somebody (probably the person who let the pig loose in the first place) creeping into the Culinary Arts building to add something deadly to my grandmother, Miss Amelia’s, Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar.
Not that the hog wasn’t the hit of the day, with a lot of money being made as bets were placed on how long it would take Deputy Hunter Austen of the Riverville Sheriff’s Department to capture him. My childhood friend, Hunter, stood tall in his well-pressed uniform practicing a couple of twirls with a rope someone from the rodeo, down near the Colorado River, tossed to him. I watched from the crowd as Hunter twirled a last time and sent the rope cutting precisely around his body and over the head of the frightened hog. He held on tight and lost some of his cool as the hog kept right on going, dragging Hunter behind him with his heels dug into the red dirt until finally the poor creature ran out of steam and stopped. Hunter took only a minute to sit on the ground and get his breath before jumping up, brushing dirt from his sharp-pleated pants, and taking a few overenthusiastic bows as bystanders clapped and whistled, with me whistling the loudest for my old friend.
The hog was led back to his pen in the hog building, which still left me with almost an hour before the judging of the Most Original Pecan Treat, the last and most important of the culinary arts contests at the fair. New this year, the Most Original Pecan Treat was thought, by the cooks of Riverville, to be the highest honor of all the honors handed out. The best of the best. “The crème de la crème, Lindy,” Cecil Darling, an Englishman and owner of The Squirrel Diner, told me as if in secret. Cecil loved to rub Rivervillians’ noses in our lack of “continental couth.” I had smirked at him, nastily thinking how he’d better not plan on winning with his spotted dick or whatever he called it, since nobody had a chance to win with my grandmother’s Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar in the running.
The whole Most Original Pecan Treat contest was setting up to be the biggest event the fair had ever put on. There’d been whispers around town that Miss Amelia was the one to beat, and local chefs were ganging up to bring her down and end her years of dominating the culinary arts of Riverville. Didn’t matter. My meemaw had a leg up on the others with her cooking and baking the best of everything day after day at the Nut House, the family pecan store in town.
Ethelred Tomroy, one of Miss Amelia’s oldest and crankiest friends, even came into the Nut House one day to brag about her surprise entry and warn all who would listen to watch out. “Got me a winner,” she said and leaned back in her run-down oxfords and nodded her gray head so the bun at the back was bouncing.
I hung around to congratulate Hunter on his hog-tying skills and maybe get him to take me on the Ferris wheel, as he’d promised. I couldn’t be late for the judging, though. Miss Amelia was nervous as it was, with the whole world seeming to be lined up against her. I wanted to get there early to calm her down. I’d never seen my grandmother so twitchy and ill at ease over one more blue ribbon.
At home that morning Miss Amelia had me check and recheck the ice packs in her cooler, making sure the temperature was right for her special dishes. Since she’d already taken more ribbons than she could shake a stick at, she was mostly worried about the two bowls of her Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar. One was for the judging and one for the Winners’ Supper afterward.
“Gotta be just right,” she muttered over and over as she bustled around the ranch’s large kitchen, making the caviar, then choosing the perfect bowls—finally settling on bowls with the Blanchard crest on them: three pecans nested in three green leaves above three wavy lines representing the Colorado River.
She’d checked the labels on the bowls again and again, muttering that things had to be just right. All of us around the breakfast table assured her there was nothing to worry about. Of course she was going to win the last, and most important, culinary event of the year.
My mama, Emma, dressed for the fair in her green Rancho en el Colorado shirt and jeans that were maybe a little too snug, hugged Miss Amelia and held her away to give her the order to “Calm down now, ya hear? You’re jumpy as spit on a hot skillet.”
“You’ll be there for the judging?” Miss Amelia had looked around and smiled nervously at all of us except Justin’s friend, Jeffrey Coulter. Justin and Jeffrey were roommates during their undergrad years at Oklahoma University. Jeffrey, who’d been visiting a week now, was busily reading the financial section of the Riverville Courier and sniffing from time to time at how little news he could get of the New York Stock Exchange. Jeffrey, one of those people perpetually wrapped up in his own concerns, ignored Miss Amelia, as he usually did, not having much patience with the worries of elderly relatives.
“We’re gonna be there to celebrate with you,” my younger sister, Bethany, said. At twenty-three, Bethany was still young enough to be lost in her own world, but even she looked up from the bride magazine she was engrossed in, nodding and promising she would be there real soon to help set up, since she was the decorator in the family and the person running our new event pavilion, where she was planning big weddings and political events and all kinds of celebrations. Bethany spent a lot of time thinking about free-flying doves and billows of white tulle, and cakes built up to look like the Alamo.
On the midway, I moved under the canvas overhang of a taco stand to get away from the hot sun and see if I could pick out Hunter in the crowd. People pushed everywhere around me. I waved and shared happy smiles with women from Miss Amelia’s church, old school buddies, and other ranchers. Texans do know how to have a good time, and Ag Fair was a time for a big celebration in our community of many pecan farms.
No Hunter. Either some police business had come up or he was still laughing about his hog-tying adventure with friends and forgot about taking me on the Ferris wheel, which made me a little mad because Hunter and I were old friends, maybe even a little more than friends and I didn’t like being stood up.
I checked my watch. If he didn’t show up soon, there wouldn’t be time to do anything. Bethany was probably there already, tending to what she called “staging” Meemaw’s entry, fussing over whether the green and white bowl looked better against a backdrop of green plastic pecan leaves or whether the cut-out family crests should be sprinkled indiscriminately or made to form a border around the bowl of caviar—all things that bored me to tears.
Maybe, I thought, as I spotted Freda Cromwell, Riverville’s worst gossip, and looked around for the fastest escape route, I should have been paying more attention to Miss Amelia lately. She’d been looking concerned about something, not smiling as much as usual. Summer days in this part of Texas could be long and hot. Meemaw did a lot of baking and cooking, what with the tourist buses coming to town, stopping at the Nut House, and buying up all her baked goods and pecan candies and barbecue sauces. Maybe fatigue was normal for a woman in her seventies. But with Miss Amelia, any crack in that strong façade made me worry.
Anyway, no matter what was causing it, I’d decided to lend a hand in the store whenever I could though my work out in the greenhouses took up most of my time.
Now where was Hunter? He could be maddening. So straight and serious about his job, being one of Riverville’s three deputies, and so goofy and kid-like when off duty and ready to have fun.
But this was the last day of the fair. The Ferris wheel would be grinding to a halt soon and the roadies would begin to tear it down.
Feeling a little disappointed, I turned to walk back down the midway. I was thinking that maybe I’d stop in the Pecan Culture Building to take a last look at my own pecan cultivars, each with a blue ribbon attached. First in every horticulture category. First in new varietals. Best of Show for my strain of pecan tree that was a cross between the Carya illinoinensis and Carya ovata—the first drought resistant and the second an early budder. Of course, I’m a trained botanist but other ranchers hired botanists, too, and nobody, as yet, had come up with a strain of pecan trees that came close to what I was producing.
I decided to treat myself to a deep-fried ice cream, then stood licking fast and watching the crowd. Many walking by yelled out support for Meemaw in the contest. They waved and punched thumbs in the air. Others congratulated me on sweeping the new varietal judging.
I licked my ice cream as I settled in the shade of the overhead canvas and took in the sounds and sights and people all around me. I thought about how me and Meemaw sure made a pair. Meemaw with blue ribbons for her Very Special Pecan Pie, her Classy Tassies, Pecan Round-em-up Grilling Glaze, and still to come, for her Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar.
I envied her pure Texas charm in the face of beating out all the other cooks in town. Never a wicked gleam in her eye and not once did she lord it over Ethelred Tomroy, her cranky friend, who took second place in just about everything year after year after year. And she graciously put up with Ethelred’s grousing over the bad judging, the need for new contest rules, and her complaining that the contests were “Nothing but popularity contests anyway. They just like you better than they like me.” Which was true since Ethelred Tomroy rarely had a good word for anybody. Still, the contest judges were usually drawn from the clergy or were officers in the Pecan Co-op or members of the Agricultural Fair committee and therefore above reproach.
I straightened my jeans and pulled my ranch T-shirt away from my sticky skin. I took a moment, stepping out into the straight-up boiling sunshine, to pull my hair out of the ponytail I usually wore and brush it out around my face with my fingers. I figured, at twenty-nine, I still had a responsibility to look as good as I could look. Maybe I wasn’t in the marriage market—too busy working with my pecan trees to have time for flirting and dating, but still there was no reason I had to look like I’d just stepped out of a greenhouse, with dirt under my fingernails, hair slicked back out of my eyes, and streaks of honest Texas sweat running down my face.
I made my way past the pink, blue, and white umbrellas shielding fair food booths. I stopped to talk to kids I knew from high school, who were no longer kids and now pushed baby strollers. That took time since I had to bend over each baby and coo and carry on, and sometimes remark on the lovely hands because the baby was so . . . well, not ugly but . . . “different looking.”
Soon all that was left were a few minutes to maybe visit a game booth, win myself a giant panda or a Texas flag. But there was Ethelred Tomroy steaming toward me with a fixed look on her face. With only a few seconds before impact, I took evasive action, ducking behind a couple of old cowboys wearing white hats wide enough to shade a barrel of beer.
I skirted the big hats and lolling cowboys then stepped behind a Coca-Cola stand. I thought I’d outsmarted her until she came barreling around the front of the stand to corner me.
“Well, Lindy Blanchard, just the girl I was lookin’ for.” Ethelred, sturdy and solid in a flowered housedress with perfect sweat circles under her arms, blocked my escape. She held her clasped hands in front of her, stopped to pant a little, and leaned back on her oxfords. “You coming over for the judging? Think I got your grandmother beat this time. You gotta have some of my Pecan Surprise Tomato Puff. Never taste the beat of it.”
“Good luck to you, Miss Ethelred.” I pasted on my best phony smile. “I’m sure all you ladies have an equal chance to take the prize.”
“Well, maybe this time things will be fair. We got that new pastor from Rushing to Calvary leading the judging. I’ve been waiting for somebody with a little more sophistication than the usual around here.”
“Didn’t he come from Tupelo?”
“Sure did.” She nodded hard, sending stray steel gray hairs waving around her head. “Elvis Presley’s hometown. Mississippi people know good food when they taste it. None of that business about flavors having to go together and things like that. Nope, I’m sure today will be a new day in Riverville, Texas. You just wait and see.”
She smirked but looked pale behind the sweat beads on her face. “Saw you took Best of Show with those tiny pecan trees of yours. All I can say about that is you better not go messing with Texas nuts. Fancy education or no fancy education, we’re happy with the nuts we got and don’t cotton to change.”
I checked my watch. “I think the judging’s about to begin, Ethelred.” I held the watch up for the woman to see. “Shouldn’t you be getting on over there?”
Ethelred’s protruding eyes bulged. “Goodness, don’t want to be late for this one. No sir, don’t want to be late.”
And she was off as I watched her bent back move away from me. I was fuming and running things I should have said through my head when an arm slid around my waist and a familiar voice was at my ear.
“You see me get that hog, Lindy?” Hunter, red-faced and still extremely proud of himself, stood beside me. “Rope landed just where I sent it. Couldn’t have been a better throw, don’t you think?”
His straight and firm mouth bowed up into a huge grin. He still wore his uniform because he was supposed to be on duty, walking around, nodding to people, representing the Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Higsby, who had an election coming up in the fall.
“My favorite part was when you fell on your behind.” I brushed off his arm.
“Kind of felt like rodeoing there for a while.” He laughed at himself the way he often did.
“Where’ve you been?” I pushed at his chest. “Now there’s no time for the Ferris wheel.”
“Sure there is. They didn’t pull it down. Won’t for a couple of hours.”
“I’ve gotta be over to the Culinary Arts Building for Meemaw’s last contest.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He struck his forehead with his hand. “Forgot.”
He grinned again. “So how about I buy you some fried butter instead? Hear that’s going over real good this year.” He pointed to a stand with cutouts of sticks of butter flying around the selling window.
“Yeah, and a Roto-Rooter man to clear out my arteries.”
“You’re no fun. How about Kool-Aid Pickles, or fried cheesecake.”
“I’ve got to go.”
He smiled the kind of smile I’d warned him about. The kind that made me loose in the stomach. We’d agreed not to get serious or anything “yucky,” way back when we were twelve and fourteen. The agreement still held, though once in a while wide open cracks threatened to tear down all old agreements. Like now. With that smile of his.
“I’ll see you for the judging,” he said. “I gotta walk around the beer tent one more time. Just to let the boys know I’m still on duty.” He gave me a wave and was gone, lost in the throng of happy Texans.
The familiar smells in the huge, echoing Culinary Arts Building were of sugars and roasted pecans and every spice I ever imagined existed. Standing in the wide-open doors, I took in all the women dressed in their Sunday best, and all the men, old and young, in new and old cowboy hats and worn-down boots and plaid shirts and fringed shirts. All of this was a part of a world I knew so well, with everybody smiling and gossiping and excited to be there. This was my home—Riverville and all its people. This was the place I loved most. Even while I’d been away at Texas A&M, I’d missed my town. I’d missed the pecan farm and the whispers of the tall, old trees, the smell of the Colorado River running through our property, the sweetness of the Nut House, the hot afternoons out on the porch waving to passing neighbors.
It still felt good, being a part of the farming scene again, with the November harvest and packing, the excitement of spring rains, the budding of the stately trees, my meemaw introducing a new delicacy at the Nut House. Now I had my own place in it, with an apartment over the Nut House, where I looked down on Carya Street and watched the citizens of Riverville going about their slow, hot days, and slower, warm evenings, finding time to stop and talk, ask about a sick person here, a person in need there.
I worked hard, hoping to make life easier for all of us ranchers with a strain of pecans that could withstand deep Texas drought, could fight off scab and funguses, and hold the blossoms better. All of this to take some of the misery out of the lives of the farmers and ranchers at the mercy of Mother Nature, the way my daddy, Jake Blanchard, had been at the mercy of the rains and winds and heat.
I was stopped on my way to the center of the room, where the judging tables were set up, to be congratulated by Hawley Harvey, investment banker in town and a trustee on the board of the Rushing to Calvary Independent Church. Hawley was one of those jolly, round guys who shouldn’t ever wear anything with fringe on it, like the vest he was wearing today. And, of course, the way-too-wide cowboy hat and new boots that screamed “I never saw a horse in my life.” He makes me think of Santa Claus, with his happy “ho, ho, ho”-ing. The only thing that puts me off about Hawley is that he likes to hug young women and kiss them on the cheek—big wet kisses. He leaned in for that hug—okay—but I leaned out so the kiss didn’t quite make it to my cheek, just hung in the air between us.
“Congratulations, Lindy. Heard about your big win. You ever think about investing any of those big bucks you’re going to be making, come on over to the Dallas Building any day. I’ll take good care of you. Making some serious money for folks around here, you know.” He nodded hard, though I hadn’t challenged him. “You go ask Simon George and Elder Perkins. Turn you into a millionaire, too, like I’m doin’ for the church. Yes siree. Hope you’re coming to the ground breaking for our spectacular addition.” The short man smiled ear to ear. His bright new boots almost brought him eye to eye with me, but not quite.
I assured him that Ben Fordyce, the family attorney, saw to all of our investments. But Hawley Harvey, never a man to be overshadowed, shook his head and gave a chiding tongue cluck. “Man knows his law. But I know how to protect yer nest egg. Turn it over and over until it grows like one of those weeds you botany people study.”
I politely elbowed my way past him to Miss Amelia’s table, where her Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar was set out in the large bowl still covered with a sparkling white cloth. Small paper dishes and napkins and plastic spoons were arrayed on the paper-covered table on top of Bethany’s leaves and family crests.
Miss Amelia’s steel gray hair had been carved tall by Sally Witbeck over at the New York Salon of Beauty. Meemaw had even rubbed a little color into her cheeks and had a dusty line of shadow on her eyelids. She nervously rearranged her plates and napkins, then stopped to look around the huge room as if searching for someone. Her face lit up with pleasure when she spotted me.
“Lindy, I’m so glad you’re here.” Meemaw kissed my cheek and looked deep into my eyes. “What do you think?”
She waved toward her space on the table. “You think it’s too much? Bethany wanted to bring over silver spoons but I told her it’s a rule; the judges have to use those white plastic things the fair committee provides. But you know Bethany. Doesn’t listen, like all Blanchard women. So I just said, ‘Go ahead.’ But I took ’em off.”
“I like it, Meemaw. Looks pretty.”
“I was thinking it should have been like a Nut House logo, if I had one different from the ranch. Would’ve been a little classier, which is only right for my Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar. But you know Bethany. Gonna do what she wants to do.”
“Don’t you worry. It’s not the decoration that’ll knock the judges’ socks off.”
Miss Amelia snapped her mouth shut and looked deep into my eyes. She looked tired, which wasn’t usual for my high-speed grandmother. “Don’t you go gettin’ your hopes up, Lindy. There’s more important things in this world than winning another blue ribbon, you know.”
I grinned at her. “I don’t buy the humble act, Meemaw.”
Meemaw would normally have laughed along with me, but not today. She frowned, twisted her hands together, and gave me a look that signaled how tightly she was wound.
Ethelred Tomroy, sitting on a folding chair at the place next to Miss Amelia’s, turned her body around to face us. Ethelred looked worn out, too, maybe from all the lobbying she’d been doing for herself. “I hear tell people think Cecil Darling’s gonna take it today,” she called over. “Got something down there called spotted dick. Some kind of English pudding with pecans and a cream sauce . . .” She quieted as Mrs. Vernon Williams, Superintendent of the Culinary Arts Building and a member of the Riverville Chamber of Commerce, took her place at one end of the long judging table and raised her hands for quiet.
“As if an Englishman could make anything better than a good Texas woman,” Ethelred hissed as the festivities got under way.
Mrs. Williams, in her stylish red suit, red high heels, and helmet hair, called for the contestants to uncover their dishes.
There was a general oohing and aahing as the treats were revealed. People hurried to check out what Miss Amelia had prepared since she was always the odds-on favorite.
“Why, goodness’ sakes, what’s that called?” little Dora Jenkins, wife of the new pastor at the Rushing to Calvary Independent Church, one of today’s judges, asked, admiring the mélange of jalapeños, bell peppers, black-eyed peas, chopped pecans, and diced tomatoes, all tossed with herbs and spices.
“Heavenly Pecan Texas Caviar.” Miss Amelia smiled at the thin woman in a blue straw hat that matched her blue straw purse.
Dora looked up, wide-eyed. “Well, for goodness’ sakes. Won’t Millroy like that one, though?”
Miss Amelia looked over at Dora’s sister, Selma, standing behind her. Selma’s nervous eyes blinked and moved back and forth, from Dora to Miss Amelia, as if finding the whole business of an Agricultural Fair beyond her comprehension. The woman was dressed neatly in a pale blue summer dress that went almost to the floor, covering the one built-up shoe she wore.
“Morning, Selma,” Miss Amelia greeted Dora’s older sister. “Hope you’re well.”
“I certainly am, Miss Amelia.”
“And how’s that lovely garden of yours doing?”
“Just fine, thanks to all the nice people of the church and the help y’all been giving me.”
“We’re happy to do it, Selma. I’ll be over your way next Tuesday. My weeding day, if I remember right.”
“I hate to ask it of you, Miss Amelia. I mean, with the Nut House and all, I just don’t see how you have the energy.”
“Don’t you worry about me, Selma. I’m doing fine. Long as I got my health, nothing’s going to stop me.”
The women moved on to take a look at Ethelred’s Pecan Surprise Tomato Puff. Selma, with her one high shoe on her one short leg, dragging just a little behind the other.
Mama rushed in, a little late as usual, and a little out of breath. “Didn’t start yet, did they?” Emma asked.
“Glad you made it.”
I turned into a big hug from Bethany, who’d come up behind us with Jeffrey Coulter, our houseguest. He stood away, looking off into the distance then turning to Justin, saying something he found funny as Justin walked up with Martin Sanchez, foreman out at our ranch.
I nodded to Jeffrey. Enough of a greeting. To tell the truth, I couldn’t wait until Jeffrey Coulter went back to New York City. When Justin was in college, studying business, Jeffrey had come home with him once, for a weekend. That had been enough for me—all that snobbery and condescension, but even then Bethany had acted silly and smitten with the good-looking guy.
Watching as Bethany turned back to Jeffrey now, and directed a very coy, Southern lady wave at him, I was afraid the same thing was happening. Although I hadn’t said a word to Justin about his friend, I was getting the feeling even he was sick and tired of having the man around. Two weeks more. The guy was supposedly looking at properties for his father, a New York City investor who wanted to build a mall between Riverville and Austin. For all the properties he was inspecting, it seemed to me he was mostly underfoot, and mostly half sneering at our country ways.
“You take a look at the other entries?” Emma, her short, tousled hair held back with a green headband, leaned in to whisper. I shook my head.
“Where are the silver spoons?” Bethany’s eyes flew wide as she hunted around the table. “Somebody took my silver spoons!”
“Shh . . .” I cautioned. “Can’t have ’em out. Committee rules.”
“Oh, pooh on the committee’s rules. I know what’s tasteful and what isn’t. Plastic spoons aren’t.” She turned to smile up at Jeffrey, giving me a twist in my stomach. I hadn’t witnessed such blatant flirting since Angela Hornbeck had a crush on Hunter in seventh grade. I’d practiced raising one eyebrow for hours in the mirror, hoping to outdo Angela, who knew how to bat her eyelashes, raise her eyebrows, and flick her blond hair around—all at the same time. Good thing Angela Hornbeck moved to England after high school and married a lord or a duke or something like that and lost interest in Hunter.
Still in a huff, Bethany stepped forward to straighten a few of the family crests she’d laid out, then back to take Jeffrey by the arm and squeeze it a little, anticipating the arrival of the judges.
Suzy Queen, wife of Morton Grover, who owned the Barking Coyote Saloon, hurried over to throw her arms around Miss Amelia and give her a big smack on the cheek.
Dressed to kill in a fuchsia Spandex dress that barely covered the essentials, Suzy Q’s black hair was puffed out a foot around her head. She wore makeup enough to decorate a clutch of clowns and smiled from ear to ear at all of us. Suzy latched on to my elbow and pulled me around into a big, perfume-laden bear hug.
“Most of us are only hoping to take a white ribbon, Lindy. It’ll be a life-changing moment fer yer meemaw to win this one. Winningest woman at the fair. I’d say everybody but Ethelred’s pulling for her.”
She hurried off on high heels tall enough to tip her over at the first dip in the cement floor.
The girls stepped up next. Meemaw’s very special friends. Miranda and Melody Chauncey had been a part of Riverville since the day they were born. That was over eighty years ago now and still the twins, or “girls” as they were called, were a big part of town life. The thing was, the girls were kind of rough. At least Miranda was. She was always armed, a sidepiece at her hip and a shotgun out in their ancient truck. “Rattlers,” Miss Miranda would say and tap her gun with one of her arthritic hands while Miss Melody, more dainty and worried what people thought about them, would cluck, shake her head, and roll her eyes at us.
“Big day for you, Amelia.” Miranda nodded hard, sniffed, and looked around the large open room. Her museum-quality cowboy hat hung down her back on a string that wasn’t long for this world. She wore what she always wore—old denim pants and jacket with a plain man’s shirt under it.
Melody smiled and nodded to folks around us, then leaned back to preen a little in what was obviously a brand-new outfit with a pretty fringed skirt. She’d had her hair done, too, and flipped it up around her head with one manicured hand. She was dolled up the most I’d ever seen her, and I admired her spunk in the face of her sister’s indifference.
Ethelred, who’d been listening to all the good wishes sent Miss Amelia’s way, was on her feet now, leaning heavily against the table. “I just might have you beat, Amelia.”
She gestured toward her red dish.
“Why, bless yer heart, Ethelred.” Miss Amelia turned a sweet, almost fluttery, smile on her old friend. “I really do hope you get yourself a ribbon.”
“I’m not talkin’ just any ribbon. I’m talkin’ blue. That’s what people been sayin’ to me. Blue, ’Melia. You know what that means.”
She was interrupted by the sound of shushing as it traveled from one end of the large building to the other. The judges, clipboards in hand, stepped through the large, roll-up door at the far end, freezing everyone in place.
The girls scattered. Ethelred shuffled fast to stand at her own table, and the rest of us formed a half circle in front of Meemaw, waiting for the good news.
Millroy Jenkins, pastor at the Rushing to Calvary Independent Church, out almost to Highway 10 on the way to Houston, led the procession into the room, making a point of smiling kindly and diplomatically at each and every cook as he made his way to the far end of the long judging table to begin tasting the pecan entries.
Dressed casually in gray slacks, an open blue jacket, and a white shirt not buttoned at the collar, the pastor wasn’t as dour and serious as the other two judges, who followed closely behind.
Eloise Dorrance, with the Riverville Chamber of Commerce, had been a judge many times and knew to keep her well-coiffed head turned away from the eager contestants.
The last judge was Mike Longway, the dapper, middle-aged president of the Riverville Pecan Co-op. Mike, true to his nature, always added a flourish and an eye roll to his tastings. Mike did relish a rapt audience. After he tasted, he’d move on to write on his clipboard with his hands cupped around his marks, adding a bounce of his eyebrows, and then a grin toward all of the hand-wringing women watching.
As the tasting began, Millroy Jenkins put a plastic spoon to his mouth, smacked his lips, and threw dish and napkin away. He smiled at the contestant as he walked off to make notes on his judging form. Eloise followed close behind. She tasted, sniffed a time or two, wrote, and moved on. Mike Conway tasted, mugged as was expected of him, and attacked the next dish.
Miss Amelia stood tall, her pale eyes following the slow procession of the judges. Her hands were clutched in front of her, one wringing the other. From time to time, she turned to look around at the crowd, as if expecting to see someone, then she would turn back to smile nervously at me and Bethany and Mama, then back to the judges as they made their way toward her.
Next to where Miss Amelia and the rest of the Blanchards waited, the Reverend Jenkins tasted Ethelred’s Pecan Surprise Tomato Puff and smacked his lips. He smiled at the pale, almost fainting, woman, perspiration standing out on her high forehead, hands clutched at her breast. She tried to smile but ended by giving the man an unattractive grimace.
The pastor reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder for reassurance then moved on, throwing his plastic spoon and napkin in the small garbage can under the tasting station.
“Miss Amelia.” The Reverend Millroy Jenkins nodded at Meemaw. “Hear you’re the one to beat here.”
The pastor stuck a plastic spoon into Miss Amelia’s bowl then stuck the spoon in his mouth so that his lips closed right up to the spoon handle. He hesitated a minute, standing with the spoon sticking from between his lips, then pulled the spoon back out, still half loaded with the caviar.
He wiped his mouth with his paper napkin, cleared his throat, and gave Miss Amelia a halfhearted smile. He dipped his head toward the rest of the family, wadded the paper napkin in his hand, ran it slowly across his mouth again, then threw spoon and napkin away.
As the pastor walked on to Suzy Queen’s Blessed Pecan Dip, the other two judges stepped up. Eloise Dorrance dipped her spoon into Meemaw’s glass bowl and put it directly into her mouth.
For a moment her head came up and her eyes grew wide. I took the woman’s reaction for wonderment but soon saw she was grasping for a napkin, sending a shower of paper to the floor. She brought the napkin to her mouth and spit out the caviar.
I could feel my family stiffen around me.
Miss Amelia said nothing.
When Eloise had passed, Miss Emma, outraged, whispered, “What the heck’s wrong with Eloise?”
There was no time to answer before Mike Longway got to Miss Amelia’s bowl. Maybe picking up signals from the other judges, Mike seemed wary as he dipped his spoon in and drew it out with only a tiny taste of caviar on it. He dipped his tongue cautiously in the caviar, then drew it quickly away.
The spoon went into the garbage can and Mike moved on to Suzy Queen.
“What’s going on?” Justin, in his best overalls and plaid shirt, stepped up to ask in as low a voice as Justin ever used.
Miss Amelia shrugged and stood staring at the backs of the judges as they made their way to the far end of the table then moved to stand away from everyone, heads together, making their decisions.
Ten minutes went by. Twenty. There seemed to be a heated debate going on as Eloise shook her head again and again and Mike Longway looked up at the ceiling for help.
A half an hour passed and still no decision from the judges. The crowd grew restless.
Finally, Mrs. Williams went to the three to see if she could help.
I could see she was pressing the judges to get on with it so they could set up the Winners’ Supper before everybody left. Volunteer servers waited at the back of the building for the tables to be free. There were new tablecloths to be spread, flowers to be set, and stacks of dishes and cutlery to be put out. Volunteer cooks waited impatiently outside the building for the signal to snatch the barbecue off the grills.
Any one of the volunteers could have told these slow judges that a good supper was a matter of timing. Too long on the grill and the chicken and ribs could end up tasting like burned toast. Winning salads and side dishes couldn’t be taken out of coolers too soon or they’d be warm and gummy by the time people actually got to enjoy them.
I watched as Mrs. Williams, aware of all the preparation yet to be made, insisted on results. Finally she turned and bustled officiously to the center of the room, a wide smile on her face.
“Can I have everybody’s attention?” she called over the screech of the microphone, then tapped the microphone a few times, leaned into it, and asked for quiet.
“Our judges have made their decisions in this new event added just this year, Most Original Pecan Treat. The Chamber of Commerce, along with the Riverville Pecan Co-op, and the entire fair committee want to thank everybody who entered not only this event but all the others. You’ve made it an amazing year for Riverville and the Agricultural Fair, bringing all these wonderful dishes to be judged. In my mind everybody’s a winner, don’t you think?” She waited for the “Yes sirs” and “You betchas” and the applause to quiet. “So I’m gonna ask the Reverend Jenkins to come up here now and read off these final winners.”
The Reverend Jenkins moved to the microphone, bowing to Mrs. Williams and then to the large crowd of people looking up eagerly as they surged toward the stage.
The pastor cleared his throat. He looked uncomfortable. His eyes shifted from one face to the other, then down to the card he clutched in his hand.
Meemaw was wringing her hands, then forcing herself to hold still.
“Er . . . ah . . .” he began. For a reverend used to preaching hellfire, he was surprisingly uncomfortable. He ran a hand over his perspiring red face. “Like Miz Williams said, I think everybody who entered here’s a winner. I tasted things I never tasted before in my life.”
“And still standing . . .” a man near the back of the crowd called out. There was the requisite laughter. The parson chuckled and went on. “I’m new to Riverville, as y’all know, and never imagined there was this much baking and cooking talent here.”
He smiled from one side of the room to the other, settling into himself, commanding attention, shedding his light around like a beacon. “Very tough choices here.”
I appreciated the man’s kind of “aw shucks” humbleness but couldn’t help wishing he’d get on with it. I was already thinking of home and checking the new irrigation setup out in my test garden. The day had been a hot one. That meant hot for my trees, too.
“I’m gonna start with the honorable mentions, if that’s okay will y’all.” The pastor beamed another smile around the room. “If I call yer name, would you make your way over to Mrs. Williams to get yer certificate?”
He nodded to where the woman stood at the foot of the stage steps waving honorable mention certificates in the air.
There was disappointment and murmurs of disagreement as five names were called, including Cecil Darling’s, and those five people made their embarrassed way through the crowd to get their loser’s certificate.
“Now, on to the white, red, and last but not least, the blue ribbon.” He glanced a last time around the crowd.
“Third place, in our Most Original Pecan Treat event, the last event in this year’s Riverville Agricultural Fair, along with a gift certificate for a free facial at the Stony River School of Beauty goes to . . .” He looked at his card as if he couldn’t quite make out the name and then called out, “Suzy Queen Grover for her Hot and Spicy Pecan Dip.”
Men from the Barking Coyote and the other waitresses hooted and hollered. There was whistling and stamping of feet, and people barked various howls as Suzy Queen, pulling down on the hem of her fuchsia dress, hurried over to pick up her white ribbon and gift card from Mrs. Williams.
Anticipation grew as Reverend Jenkins leaned back into the microphone.
“Now, for second place. The red ribbon, and a fifty-dollar gift certificate to Morley Brothers Hardware”—he gave the expected pregnant pause—“goes to Mildred Firney for her Pecan Crescent and Apple Butter Rolls. Mildred?” He looked out at the crowd where a tiny woman in blue shorts and dotted green shirt held on to her startled face with both hands, so completely bowled over it took two of her friends to lead her across the room to claim her prizes. Mildred came to herself quick enough to hold the red ribbon high over her head as she made her way back through the appreciative crowd, talking to first one person and then another, luxuriating in her win.
The crowd grew quiet. This was the big one, the blue ribbon and a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate from Carya Street Movie Rentals.
I took Miss Amelia’s elbow and squeezed. Miss Emma turned her tired face to her mother and smiled. Bethany pulled Jeffrey over to stand by her.
“First place in the Most Original Pecan Treat goes to . . .” The pastor paused for effect.
He seemed to be looking straight at Miss Amelia, who was looking hard back at him. “Goes to . . .”
When he said, “Ethelred Tomroy, for her Pecan Surprise Tomato Puff,” the crowd gasped.
Angry words were shouted out. The name “Miss Amelia” went from woman to woman and man to man. The applause, when it came, was tepid as Ethelred Tomroy pushed her way to the front, telling folks to get out of her way, smiling wide and looking very pleased with herself as she assured everybody they’d heard right. She was the big winner at this year’s Ag Fair and unlikely to let anybody forget it for the whole next year to come.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for A Tough Nut to Kill
“Warm, witty, and full of Texas charm and feisty characters. Clear a space on your keeper shelf for the Nut House series.”—Duffy Brown, national bestselling author of the Consignment Shop Mysteries
“A family nut tree with some branches missing, sly old ladies, and a tall, dark stranger come to town. Or is he? Chomp into this engaging new mystery series, and it just might Bite-U-Back!”—Mardi Link, author of Isadore’s Secret
“Elizabeth Lee delivers a delectable mystery that’s pure Southern comfort. Readers will go nuts over A Tough Nut to Kill.”—Riley Adams, author of the Memphis Barbeque Mysteries
“What a wacky group they are in Riverville, Texas. From the Blanchard family to all the townspeople, they had me laughing and shaking my head…A solid start to the series.”—Socrates’ Book Reviews
“[Lee] has given us the most important ingredient of a cozy mystery—quirky characters! She has created some real treasures…A well thought out whodunit. Plenty of suspects and red herrings to keep the readers guessing. There is also a great deal of humor and Southern charm spread throughout the entire story.”—Escape with Dollycas
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the second book in Elizabeth Lee's Nut House Mystery. With the great state of Texas front and center I find it small town living at it's best. In spite of all the kooky characters, (perhaps I should change that to because of) they're a town full of folks who are there for family, for friends, friends from long ago despite the fact that they don't really like each other. Lindy is her grandmother's biggest fan. How is it possible that anyone could think that Miss Amelia could possibly set out to bring harm to someone else, especially the new pastor in town. Lindy ends up knee deep in the mystery, as she steps in to give Deputy Hunter a hand. County fairs, hogs running wild, church ladies, new and original pecan recipes and of course a cast of loving, caring town folk will steal your heart. I know it stole mine.
Snoop to Nuts is the second book in the A Nut House Mystery series. Lindy Blanchard is back in Riverville, Texas using her college education to develop disease and drought resistant pecan trees on her families pecan farm. But she needs to put aside her research to help her grandmother, Miss Amelia, get ready for the Most Original Pecan Treat contest. Miss Amelia almost always takes home a blue ribbon with whatever she enters, but this year she seems very worried about what the outcome might be this year. As Pastor Jenkins is trying her Texas Caviar entry, he very politely gets rid of the bite he has taken. Miss Amelia's nemesis, Miss Ethelred, wins this years contest. After the judging Miss Amelia convinces Jenkins to try a sample of her Texas Caviar from a back up dish she had prepared. Judge Jenkins seemed to enjoy his firs taste, but soon has violent death When it has been determined that he died from a dose of Spotted Water Hemlock, a plant that grows readily in the area, Miss Amelia becomes a person of interest, much to the chagrin of Lindy and her family. Lindy begins to ask questions of her own, hoping that folks will tell her things that they wouldn't tell the police, so that she can clear Miss Amelia. This a very good follow up to A Tough Nut To Kill and most all of the enjoyable characters are back again. No romance for Lindy in this book, but maybe soon something will happen between her and Deputy Hunter Austen. Looking forward to the next book in this series.