Tamar Myers - Penn Dutch Inn 06 - Eat, Drink, And Be Wary
I was an adulteress. An inadvertent adulteress, to be sure, but an adulteress nonetheless. This is not an excuse for the tragic events that were about to unfold here at the PennDutch Inn, it is merely an explanation for my muddled state of mind. A clearheaded Magdalena would have put her big foot down the second Freni Hostetler came to me with her outrageous request. But even under normal circumstances, that's easier said than done.
Freni smiled pleasantly, a warning sign if there ever was one. "It's only a little cooking contest."
"Five contestants is all."
"Ach!: Freni beamed with pride and stroked the blue ribbon she wore pinned securely to her ample bust.
"Hochmut," I said in Pennsylvania Dutch. It means ride. It is one of the few dialect words I know, but one I am not likely to ever forget. Mama used it on me all the time. It is, perhaps, the worst epithet one can ascribe so someone of Amish or Mennonite persuasion.
Freni Hostetler colored. "It isn't prideful to use the talents God gave you, Magdalena."
I will confess to enjoying the woman's discomfort. The short, stout woman is both my best friend and my employee. I have known her my entire life, although I will confess to being uncertain of her age. Freni is one of the few women I know who actually pads her age, in a misguided attempt to gain more respect. I suspect that Freni is pushing seventy, although she would have you believe that she's a half-dozen years older. At any rate, ever since Mama and Papa died an untimely death in a tunnel, squished between a milk tanker and semitrailer hauling state-of-the-art running shoes, Freni has functioned as a substitute parent. Nevertheless, the woman drives me crazy.
"Your slow-baked bread pudding is very good, Freni. I'm sure it deserved to win first place at the Pennsylvania State Fair. But isn't wearing the ribbon going a little too far?"
Freni is Amish, you see. She is required to adhere to a strict dress code - a plain, long-sleeved dress of modest length, topped by an apron. Her head must be covered at all times by a prayer cap. Even buttons are considered too worldly for her sect.
I, however, am a Mennonite. My religious denomination has close spiritual and historic ties with the Amish. There are many varieties of both sects, so it is hard to make comparisons. In general, we Mennonites are more liberal than the Amish, but far more conservative than your average Protestant. My dresses have buttons, a few even short sleeves. Although some women in my church wear slacks at home, I choose not to. If the good Lord wanted me to wear pants, he would have given he hips upon which to hang them.
"The State of Pennsylvania awarded me this ribbon," Freni said. "It is my civic duty to wear it."
"Does the bishop know?"
"Ach, you're jealous," Freni said, and made an awkward attempt to cover the ribbon with her small plump hand.
"Me?" Perhaps I was - but just a little. I don't have any discernible talents. Sarcasm is not a sanctioned skill, after all.
"We were never legally married," I wailed. "Since he was already married, our marriage license was totally meaningless."
"As worthless as last year's corn husks, I'm afraid."
"You don't mean?" She waggled her scant eyebrows.
I hung my head. "Go ahead and say it. I'm a trollop, a tramp, a - "
I drew myself up to my full five feet ten inches. `I most certainly am not that! I paid all the bills, remember? Aaron was as broke as a teenager on vacation."
Freni nodded. "The man didn't have a penny to his name. So, you aren't a harlot. But you're still an adulteress, aren't you?"
"Inadvertent! There is a big difference between a deliberate adulteress and someone like me. Not that most folks seem to care. I'm branded, you know. I waited forty-six years to give myself to the right man, and see what happens?"
"Yah, but look on the bright side, Magdalena. At least now you know what all the fuss is about."
"You mean sex?"
"Ach! So direct!"
"But that's what you mean, right?"
"Yah. So now you know?" Freni pretended to be examining her fingernails, but I knew she was intently interested in my answer.
I blushed, remembering my wedding night. The male anatomy proves that the Good Lord has a sense of humor.
"Yes, I know what it's all about, and it's a wonder the human race doesn't just die out."
Freni nodded solemnly. "It is a wonder."
Her unexpected sympathy made me feel suddenly charitable. "So when is this little cooking contest of yours?"
That was three months away. There would be plenty of time to back out if I changed my mind.
"Fine. So what is it you're really after, the use of my kitchen for a couple of hours?"
I sensed a "but." "Okay, I get it. You want me to be the judge, right?"
She fidgeted, shifting from one short, broad foot to the other. "They have their own judges."
"Who is they?"
Freni reached deep into a pocket of her navy blue dress and extracted a color brochure. I snatched it from her.
"It's all in there," she said.
I scanned the glossy pages. "East Coast Delicacies? I've never heard of that company before."
"They make gourmet foods." She pronounced the word so that it rhymed with sour pet.
"Goor-may," I said, although it didn't really matter how she said it, Freni knows as much about gourmet cooking as id o about writing mysteries. Although she is the cook at my very popular inn, the dear woman is gastronomically challenged. For her, there are two food groups: meat and other. The latter is a broad category centered around starches - usually potatoes, but often noodles. Fruits and vegetables are relative terms. For instance, Freni considers cheese a fruit, because she frequently serves it with apple pie. Butter, which she dollops liberally atop any cooked vegetable, becomes by extension a vegetable.
"That means fancy food, Magdalena."
"I know what it means, dear."
"Read about the prize, Magdalena."
I read, not believing my eyes. "A hundred thousand dollars?"
"Yah. And I'm going to win."
"Wait a minute. It says here that contestants are by invitation only. Who invited you?"
"A very nice young man named Mr. Anderson. He's the one who gave me that." She tried to snatch the brochure out of my hand, but at five feet two, she was no match for me.
"Freni, this sounds like a scam."
Brown beady eyes blinked. Freni is not well versed in the ways of the world.
"It means that someone is trying to take advantage of you financially."
"Ach, don't be ridiculous, Magdalena."
I scanned the rest of the brochure. Except for the preposterous prize, money wasn't mentioned.
"Freni, did this nice Mr. Anderson ask for money?"
"Well, there's got to be a catch somewhere."
Freni was fit to be tied. "You should be ashamed of yourself, Magdalena," she said, waggling a finger at me. "Just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm stupid. Mr. Anderson was one of the judges at the state fair. When he tasted my bread pudding, he said it was the best thing ever to pass his lips."
I hoped humble pie was half as tasty. "Well, in that case, I'm terribly sorry. You're absolutely right. I should have trusted your instincts."
"Apology accepted," Freni said graciously.
I handed the brochure back. "Sure, you can use my kitchen for the contest. Just make sure they clean up after themselves, and that it doesn't interfere with serving our guests."
"There won't be any guests, Magdalena."
I jiggled a pinkie in my left ear, just to make sure it was functioning properly. Ever since Miss Enz, my fourth-grade teach, clapped me up the side of the head with a chalkboard eraser, that ear has been unreliable.
"What did you say?"
Freni cleared her throat. "I'm afraid you're going to have to cancel your regular guests, Magdalena. I promised Mr. Anderson that the contestants, and some of the judges, could stay here. The sponsors will pay your normal rates, of course."
"Over my dead body!" I screamed, and then immediately regretted it.
Those four words invariably mean deep trouble for me.
I took a couple of deep cleansing breaths. Maharishi Lophat Yoggurt stayed at my inn once, and although he swiped one of my best sheets, he taught me some wonderful breathing techniques.
"The PennDutch is booked solid for the next three years," I said calmly.
It was the truth. I have, in some ways, been a very fortunate woman. My parents' untimely death left me with a dairy farm and a younger sister for whom to care. I am still caring for Susannah, but I sold all the cows but two, and turned the farm into a full-board inn. As luck would have it, one of my first guests was a travel writer for the New York Times, and she declared my establishment "quaint, but chic." It has been easy street for me ever since.
The first hordes of overwashed and heavily scented visitors were East Coast yuppies. Washington bureaucrats began beating a hot trail to my door soon after. The last great influx has been from Hollywood. Confidentially, they are the easiest to dupe.
I offer a special package I call A.L.P.O. (Amish Lifestyle Plan Option), whereby guests may clean their own rooms and do their own laundry by paying extra for the privilege. I explain to them just how lucky they are to be honorary Amish for a week, and without having to give up all of their many vices (I will not allow drinking or smoking!). If that doesn't work, I tell them that housekeeping will be in the "in thing" for the new millennium, and don't' they want to express their individuality by getting a jump on the rest of the country? That invariably clinches it for the celluloid crowd. There is nothing quite like the prospect of being an individual to start a stampede down from the Hills.
"Now this is a broom, and that is a mop," I'll say, and with every "ooh" and "ah" and look of wide-eyed wonder, my bank account grows. But please don't get me wrong. I give most of my profits away to charity, because as a Mennonite woman, my needs are very simple. A decent meal, a good book, a pair of comfortable shoes (dare I add a bra that fits?) - a body requires little else in the way of earthly pleasures. Still, I couldn't just back out of my obligations to the glitzy-ditzy bunch, now could I?
Freni seemed to think so. She tried her usual litany of guilt trips, stopping just short of recounting a long and arduous labor. Although she is not my mother, I fully expect to hear that one someday.
"Freni, Freni, Freni," I said, shaking my head. Perhaps I was grinning as well.
"Don't you Freni me, Magdalena. When your friends found out you were an adulteress ad dropped you like a hot potato, who stood up for you?"
That was a low blow. It wasn't entirely true, either - my real friends never dropped me. Sure, a few folks at Beechy Grove Mennonite Church gave me the fish eye, but only until Reverend Schrock reminded them that the church needed a new organ, and that yours truly was the most likely person to donate one. It was true, however, that whenever tongues wagged - at least within earshot - Freni readily silenced them. If a tongue is indeed sharper than a two-edged sword, Freni wields a mouth full of scalpels.
"All right," I said, worn down to a mere nub. "I'll make some calls and see what I can do. But Bill and Hillary are going to be mighty disappointed. This is the second time I've had to cancel out on them. Who knew Dole was going to lose?"
Freni smiled happily. "So it's settled then?"