Authors: Ellen Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Nonfiction
One Week Later
“For those of you who’ve just tuned in,” said Bram Baldric, adjusting the mic a little closer to his mouth, “we’re talking food in our final hour today with two home grown experts. First we have the talented, beautiful, and always opinionated Sophie Greenway, the new restaurant review editor at the
—otherwise known around the house as my wife.”
Sophie grinned at her husband, and said, “Always a pleasure, dear.” This was the first time Bram had invited her to be on his afternoon radio show since she’d taken on the top reviewer spot at the paper. She knew all his food peccadilloes, so the hour was destined to become a classic.
“And our second guest is Bernice Washburn, author of the forthcoming
All That Glitters
, a study of cafe society in America. Bernice is also the food editor at the
.” Bram nodded to her.
“I’m delighted to be here,” said Bernice, her tentative voice betraying her nervousness.
Sophie gave Bernice’s hand a reassuring squeeze. They’d both worked at the newspaper for many years, Bernice as a full-time employee. Up until recently, Sophie wrote an occasional restaurant review, but she was just a guest columnist. She couldn’t exactly say that she and Bernice were close friends. It was more of the work-related variety. Still, she respected Bernice enormously. Bernice had also written six books on various food-related topics. While she was a fascinating thinker and writer, she tended to grow a bit formal and pedantic when talking to a group, which only cemented her dislike of public speaking. Radio interviews terrified her. She would never have agreed to come on the show today if Sophie hadn’t promised to be part of the ordeal.
Bram glanced at the clock on the wall. “So, before we start talking about cafe society and the denizens of that particular deep, tell me, ladies, what’s new out there in foodie-land? What are gourmets eating today? What’s ‘in’? Trendy? Cutting edge?”
Sophie could see Bernice struggling to form an answer, so she jumped right in. “Believe it or not, meat loaf.”
“It’s all the rage,” said Sophie. “Come on, fess up, honey. Isn’t it secretly one of your favorite foods?”
“Well . . . okay. I suppose. If it’s made to my exacting standards.”
a man of taste and refinement.”
Bram tugged at the knot in his silk tie. “Not to mention boyish and sexy.”
Bernice gave a little cough, signaling that she wanted to speak. “It may sound silly, but Sophie’s correct. So many of our food choices today, especially for baby boomers like the three of us, are based on nostalgia. I’m currently doing research for a new book about that very subject. Boomers have an incredible ambivalence about appetite, about bounty. We are the wealthiest, most educated, most powerful, plugged-in, well-fed, sheltered, and pampered generation in history, and we’re always hungry. In fact, I believe that hunger and loneliness define us in some basic way. There’s no better place to see that reflected than in our uneasy relationship with food. One minute it’s our friend, it’s going to help us live forever; the next minute it’s a drug, getting us through the day. And finally, it’s the enemy. Food is going to kill us. Even with all the abundance surrounding us in this country, our nutritional intake is woefully deficient. Why? Because we try to combine minimal meals with excess—the rich dessert followed by days of lunching on nothing but a Diet Coke and a cigarette. Excess is the fashion in all age groups—either excessive indulgence or an excess of denial.”
“Where does meat loaf fit in to all that?” asked Bram, scratching his chest through his Egyptian-cotton shirt.
“A perfect example of boomer food,” Bernice continued. “It’s where nostalgia and culinary evolution meet. More than any other country in the world, Americans are constantly reinventing what they eat. Old ideas are given a modern twist. Perhaps nothing reflects our fragmented, multicultural, contradictory, patchwork society more than the simple meat loaf. Instead of the more traditional beef, or beef, pork, and veal, it’s often made today with lean ground turkey, lentils, tofu, spiced Mexican or Oriental, Greek or Italian, or a million other ways. Meat loaf is such an old standard, such an integral part of the American culinary psyche, that we can’t leave it alone. Each generation tinkers with it, while at the same time demanding that someone, somewhere, cook it just the way mom used to make.”
Sophie nodded to her husband. “Tell me about it. When Bram and I first got married, one of his favorite foods was—”
Bram cut her off. “My listeners aren’t interested in ancient history,
Sophie regarded him patiently, and then continued, “One of his favorite foods was tuna noodle casserole.”
The woman inside the control booth tossed her head back and laughed, pointing at Bram through the glass.
“Another American standard,” said Bernice.
“I wrote to his mother,” Sophie continued, “and asked her to send me her personal recipe. Bram would go into raptures about how wonderful it was. He used the same words to describe it that other people reserve for life everlasting.”
“I was thrilled the day I finally received his mother’s recipe in the mail. That night, I made it for him. It was going to be one of his birthday presents. I used Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup, just like my mother-in-law said. Mixed it with sour cream. I chopped up onions and celery and sauteed them before adding them to the glop. I covered the mess in orange cheddar cheese and topped it with crushed potato chips. And then I baked it.”
“I’m ruined,” said Bram, shaking his head, refusing to look up. “No maitre d’ will ever seat me in a four-star restaurant again.”
“I lit candles. Obsessed over the wine. What does one serve with tuna noodle casserole?”
“One of life’s imponderables,” muttered Bram.
“When my husband got home that night, I presented him with the casserole. Was he pleased? Was he?”
“Yes,” said Bram, about to hit the button and turn off her microphone. “He was.”
“No,” said Sophie, grabbing his hand. “He wasn’t. And why? Because I’d failed to use the right noodles. I’d bought the flat egg-noodle variety. Bram insisted his mom always used the kind of noodle you could blow through.”
The woman in the control booth nearly fell off her chair.
“You make me sound like I’m eight years old.”
Bernice was laughing now, too. “That’s a marvelous story. I’d like to use it in my next book. It illustrates my point beautifully.”
“But back to meat loaf,” said Sophie.
“This should be a lesson to all you other talk show hosts out there.” Bram rested his chin on his cupped hand. “Never bring your wife on your show. Somewhere along the way, I seem to have lost control.“
“We were talking about meat loaf,” said Bernice helpfully.
“I think we’ve done that topic to death.”
“But one last comment,” said Sophie. “The
is currently running a special statewide competition. Everyone in Minnesota is invited to send his or her favorite meat loaf recipe to the paper. New or old, it doesn’t matter. The deadline is next Friday. In early September the winners will be announced. We’re giving out a first, second, and third prize, as well as three honorable mentions. The winning recipes will be published in the paper. The winners will spend a weekend at the historic Maxfield Plaza in downtown St. Paul. They’ll be wined and dined at some of the finest restaurants in the Twin Cities, and will be featured with their winning creations on WTWN’s
Good Morning with Bailey Brown
“Such a deal,” said Bram, peering at Sophie over the top of his reading glasses. “Now, since we’re doing promos, I’d like to remind my Minnesota listeners that next Monday my show will be broadcast live from the Itasca County fair in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. I like to get out of the studio every now and then, and county fairs give me a great opportunity to meet and greet my audience.”
“I’m sure the cows and chickens are lining up to get good seats,” said Sophie.
“You’re in rare form today,
.” Bram cleared his throat. “Now, I think we’d better talk about that book of yours, Bernice. Otherwise, your publicist will have my head on a plate.”
“I’d stay away from culinary metaphors on this show.” Sophie took a sip of coffee. She was surprised to see Bram pop a couple of antacid tablets into his mouth. She hoped the tuna casserole revelation wasn’t giving him heartburn.
Bernice jumped in. “Sophie and I were talking about cafe society on the way over here this afternoon.” She glanced around the claustrophobic studio, her eyes drawn to the gray honeycombed soundproofing material covering the walls. “It’s a fascinating topic.”
“In your new book,” said Bram, “you discuss such subjects as roadhouses and speakeasies in the Roaring Twenties. Cafes in the Jazz Age. Gay cafe society in San Francisco during the seventies.”
“But interestingly,” Sophie interjected, “you wrote nothing about the role of the cafe in rural, small-town America. That’s always fascinated me.”
“Me too,” said Bernice. “But that will have to wait for another book.”
“Actually,” Sophie continued, “since we’re on the subject, I’m planning to feature small, Main Street cafes in my restaurant reviews for the next few months. If anybody out there knows of a great cafe, drop me a line and give me the details.”
“On that note,” said Bram, acknowledging a signal from his producer, “we need to break for weather and traffic. Steve Hardy, take it away.” Bram removed his headphones and leaned back in his chair.
The “On Air” light went out.
“Are we doing okay?” asked Bernice tentatively. “It’s not too boring, is it?”
“Listening to my wife deconstruct my life is never boring.”
“Come on,” said Sophie, “I was just having some fun.” Over the rim of her coffee mug, she watched him press a hand to his chest. “Are you okay?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It’s just . . . you look like you’re in pain.”
He coughed a couple of times. “I had a greasy grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. I think it’s stuck somewhere between my lungs and my backbone.”
The woman in the booth held up one finger.
“Wait until I tell all my listeners about your wine and popcorn diet,” said Bram. “That was your finest hour.”
He made his eyebrows dance.
The rest of the hour went by quickly. At five, when the local and regional news came on, Bram took the opportunity to walk Sophie and Bernice to the elevators. “Thank you, ladies. That was fun.”
“It . . . I mean, I wasn’t too . . . dry, was I?” asked Bernice. In high heels, she was several inches taller than Bram, who hit the mark at just over six feet. Tall, plain, large-boned, and string-bean thin. The heavy horn-rimmed glasses she wore made her look even more like the egghead intellectual she so clearly was. Her hair was shoulder length and brown, mixed with a touch of gray, and no matter how hard she tried to style it, wind and humidity always returned it to an unruly mass of curls.
“No, you were just fine. It was an interesting hour.”
“Was I fine, too?” asked Sophie, blinking innocently.
Bram smiled, kissing the top of her strawberry-blond hair. “You’re always fine.” Sophie was as short as Bernice was tall. Short, and—staying with the bean analogy—more of the Great Northern variety. Both she and Bram fought their weight constantly. Bram, however, could hide a great deal more under his suit coats than she could hide in a dress. Most everyone thought he was the spitting image of the more mature Cary Grant. He generally milked the likeness for all it was worth.
When the elevator arrived, Sophie and Bernice stepped on. “See you tonight,” said Sophie, blowing Bram a kiss as the elevator doors closed.
When they were finally alone, Bernice said, “You have such a handsome husband.”
“Bram would agree with you.”
“Oh? Is he . . . conceited?”
“Actually, no. A little vain perhaps, especially when it comes to clothes, but he’s really a sweet guy.”
Sophie recalled that Bernice had been engaged once, but she’d been in the process of disengaging when they first met. That was ten years ago. As far as Sophie knew, she hadn’t dated much since.
As they approached Sophie’s silver Lexus, the cell phone in Bernice’s purse gave a beep.
“I need to take this,”she said, her expression clouding over. “It may be about my father. He had a stroke last week.”
Sophie hadn’t heard. “I’m so sorry.”
“My mother and my Uncle Milt have been at the hospital just about round the clock since it happened.” She clicked the phone on and said hello. After a few seconds, she raked a hand through her hair, and said, “Slow down, Mom. I can’t understand you. You say he opened his eyes?” Again, she listened. “Can he talk? What? Just calm down, okay? You need to remember what the doctor said. Take it one step at a time.” She listened a moment longer. “Okay, I’m leaving right away. Maybe I can beat the rush hour traffic out of town. I’ll be there by . . .” She glanced at her watch. “Seven-thirty. Eight at the latest. Tell Dad I love him. And stay strong, Mom. This is a good sign. I love you, too.” Bernice’s hand shook as she stuffed the cell phone back in her bag.
“Where do your parents live?” asked Sophie.
“Rose Hill. It’s out near Marshall. Dad’s at St. Matthew’s Medical Center.”
“Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
“I’m fine. Just get me back to the paper. My car’s parked in the lot across the street.”
The radio studio was located north of St. Paul. Once they were on the freeway flying back to Minneapolis, Sophie looked over at Bernice and saw that she was crying. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“No,” she said, sniffing into a tissue. “I’m not. I’m a mess. I’ve been driving back and forth between Rose Hill and Minneapolis all week and I’m exhausted. I’m also scared to death.”
“But it sounded like good news. Your father opened his eyes?”