The romance holiday looms large for Mina Kitchen – a forty-something single without a boyfriend in sight, and a catering disorder to beat the band. Everyone else is all set: even her Swiffer-addicted neighbor Vito (the ex-leader of the Moils, the Jewish-Polish Family from Bumville, New Jersey) has a significant other. Who knew?
And then there’s her best friend Trixie. She’s got a steady boyfriend, and a full time job with plenty of OT, too. She’s even quit smoking! Except now she’s a jelly junkie. Well, not just jelly – any sweet will do.
What’s a girl to do? Set her sights on handsome Chef? Or dare a flirt with juicy James? Who you gonna call? GumBuster! Wait, that’s just one of Mina’s new part time jobs.
Romance fills the air (or is that fried chicken?) but dates remain elusive as a series of mysterious thefts rattle the shop owners of Lancaster “Pee-Ay”. Can mild-mannered Mina land a full time job, a boyfriend and save Trixie’s waistline without getting konked by some creepy crook? Vinnie, her mini mountain lion-sized tabby keeps assuring her everything will turn out fine – but he’s been wrong before.
Confection Connection is packed with laughs, mysterious thefts and a ghost – with a cherry on top – recipes. Set in Lancaster, “Pee-Ay” you’ll discover quirky characters, hysterical dialogue and funny surprises simmering away.
Targeted Age Group:: 30+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Truth is stranger than fiction…
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I combine various aspects of friends, family and strangers… and name my characters after family – sometimes pets.
“I now baptize you, Aaron Stefan Smith, in the name of…” Auntie’s vicar waxed lengthy, as usual. He’d just finished christening Aaron’s sister, Arwin Sheila Smith. While everyone bowed their heads, I prayed fervently that Father Horatio would ramp up the tandem display of the twins to fast forward. While officially unemployed, I work sporadically for Squirrel Run Acres, a wedding-factory type caterer. Unfortunately, it’s at the polar opposite side of town from St. Bart’s. I had severe misgivings about my timely arrival following the service, since the service was dragging on and the weather was serving up complete helpings of rain, sleet, hail and ice.
I also had severe misgivings about the twins having the initials ASS. But my sister, Ethel Kitchen Smith, and her husband, Ike Kenneth Smith, were determined. Go figure.
I don’t have kids, I’m a first time Auntie and now a first time god mom. I also remain first time unemployed.
My name is Mina Kitchen – Mina being a nickname for Wilhelmina, although my family pronounces it like the bird. I’m named after a great-grandmother I never met. I plan to thank her in the heavenly hereafter about our common catering compulsion by thwacking an eternal spatula upside her life-everlasting noggin.
Living in Lancaster has been a bit of adjustment, what with my being a Joisey transplant and having no Amish relatives. Luckily, I’m best friends with some of the natives. I’ve even learned to pronounce Lancaster as LANCaster, with no similarity at all to England’s War of the Roses.
“Now, go out in peace, to love and serve the Lord! Alleluia! Alleluia!” the vicar finished his instructions. “Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Alleluia!’” we all shouted back for various reasons. I got sandwiched into standing in line for bye-bye handshakes.
“How’d we do, Toots?” I turned around to see Vito, my next door neighbor and his new main squeeze, Miriam, dressed up in matching red and white Valentine’s outfits. He wore Chinos and a black sport coat that framed a vibrant, electric pulsating tie with blinking red and white hearts. This matched the red, white and black sequined hearts on Miriam’s jacket, tunic and slacks. And her electric, pulsating heart-shaped earrings.
This might have been cute if they weren’t in their sixties. I was grateful no one attending today’s service exhibited any signs of a gambling addiction – standing side-by-side they resembled billboards along the Las Vegas strip.
They did, however make my sister and brother-in-law look relatively normal regarding twin wear. Ethel and Ike have notoriously dressed their Ratties – their Yorkie dogs, Hansel and Gretel – in equally humiliating matching outfits. Since having their own set of twins, they are unfortunately in their element.
Yet the big plus about Miriam being Vito’s main squeeze was that she had obviously informed him about the drawbacks to spray-on hair. Vito hasn’t sweat his fake hair off in quite some time. Then again, it’s February.
I looked at Vito and nodded. “So far, so good. But are you really sure you want to convert? You don’t have to. Auntie does this to everyone.”
“It don’t hurt to check things out.”
Vito acts more like a roommate since he’s at my home more than I am. But that’s probably because he still has a spare key. I never got around to asking for it after I bought my townhouse from him. This sometimes works in my favor, since Vito also has a Swiffer addiction, for which my floors gleam happily.
He’s also a former witness protection member, after he quit being the leader of the Moils, the family that led the Jewish Polish Mafia out of Bumville, New Jersey. This sometimes puts me on edge around Vito. Especially in church. The last time he faked Episcopal he drank all the sacramental wine in one gulp. But Aunt Muriel took Vito’s fondness for tawny port as an opportunistic sign to convert him. She must have tallied him as a BOGO, since Miriam came along for the ride.
“Oh, we think the Entry to Episcopal classes are just fascinating!” Miriam chimed in, nodding enthusiastically.
“Besides, at our age, it don’t hurt to have a little insurance, if you know what I mean.”
I cringed and slapped on my happy face.
Arwin wailed. Aaron chorused. “Here, hold her for a minute.” Ethel shoved my newly- christened niece into my arms.
“Aww.” I stood bobbing her up and down. She stopped crying and yawned. I kissed the top of her peewee head.
I’m a forty-something female with no boyfriend and a catering disorder. The closest I’ll get to a bun in the oven is baking a pack of Pop’ems biscuits. With Valentine’s Day looming around the corner, thoughts of romance and maternal daydreams gone by poked their heads hopefully out from behind the cupboards. I sighed inwardly and gently closed the doors.
“So, here’s our newest member,” Ed said next to me. He’s a regular. His banjo eyes gazed at Vito and me in tandem, so I guessed he was talking to Arwin. She understood completely and cooed back at him. Aaron gurgled. “And you, too, young sir,” he said, looking simultaneously at both twins.
Ed sports a shaved head, which he donned last summer after he inadvertently set his hair on fire during one of his clandestine stints as a community arsonist. He’s since led the straight and narrow but has kept the non-hair style.
Ethel was digging around in the diaper bag. It was gigantic. She and Ike slung it across their shoulders like a giant backpack. It looked like they were on a perpetual camping trip. I suggested putting it on wheels, but Ike was afraid they’d look like pharmaceutical reps.
We made it to the head of the line and said bye-bye to Father Horatio. “Blessings to you! And you!” he took turns cooing into the babies’ faces. They cooed back.
“And thank you for visiting today,” he continued, shaking hands with my buds, Bauser, Norman, Trixie and K. Armand, my waiter friend, would have come too, but he started a new gig at a late night jazz club, and probably just got home a few hours ago.
Bauser and Norman and I used to work at Executive Enterprises for Job Intuitive Technologies, otherwise known as EEJIT. That is, until Bauser and I got fired, and Norman quit. Just post-termination, Norman let on that his bank account holds more inherited money than Pennsylvania has pretzels. Which was not necessarily a bad thing. Bauser and Norman are still figuring out their new business venture, with Norman as a non-silent backer.
K. could attend the baptisms because he makes his own hours in-between stints when his interior decorating customers don’t call him and he doesn’t answer. His circles include a slew of local, well-paying clientele along with high-end shop owners and suppliers of luxury goods.
And oddly, yes, K. is his legal name, after he changed it at an unknown time for an unknown sum. He claims it was a business decision, but I have my doubts.
“Wait until I tell you what happened at Fabric Frenzy,” he said.
“They think it’s an inside job. I’m devastated. I’ll tell you over coffee.”
“You are coming for coffee, aren’t you dear?” Aunt Muriel grabbed my elbow.
Arwin woke up and cried. Ethel emerged from her bag and shoved a binky into her mouth.
“Umm,” I replied brightly.
Auntie nodded and led us to the head of the line. We got our coffees dispensed in nanoseconds.
“Wow – that was a lot faster than I thought possible.”
“I should get preferential treatment sometimes, for funding the Brethren Breakfasts.”
“You fund them?”
“Just a few a year. Well, actually your Uncle Max does, but I give him the tax credit.”
I hung my head. Uncle Max and Aunt Muriel have been divorced for many years. I often wonder when Uncle Max will begin introducing Auntie to her next husband so he can get out from under their alimony agreement.
Trixie poked me, chewing hard on a biscotti. But then she had to chew hard. They were donated from a local grocer and were about a hundred years old. I hoped she hadn’t smashed a molar. “You mean you’re leaving?”
“Yep, gotta work today.” Chef Jacque – Jack – had me scheduled long before he asked me out last New Year’s Eve. But things hadn’t played out quite as planned. To be frank, they hadn’t played out at all and I still felt a bit confused, not to mention miffed. But the wedding scheduled for today was booked way in advance, so it would be a busy day. I was glad for the work. But I wasn’t looking forward to the anticipated awkwardness.
“Okay,” she said, popping a few gumdrops into her mouth. “But I’m telling you, I have to fill you in about this hypnotist! He really did the trick!”
Trixie is my BFF and an ER nurse who until quite recently was a chain smoker. Since being an RN and a cancer patient don’t exactly go hand in hand, she’s been trying to quit. That, and the hospital said so. And her new boyfriend, Mike Green, who hates smoking. Although he likes Trixie all right. Trixie tried so many quit-smoking schemes she could launch her own YouTube channel. She found her hypnotist through an ad in the local paper, and now claims he rid her of her habit.
Apparently, it’s worked. But it seems to me that he’s cross-wired her nicotine addiction with a confection connection. Which is odd, because Trixie used to be ambivalent toward sweets of any kind. She also used to be a size eight. Since last Christmas, she’s grown to a gumdrop-slinging size 12. This wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that Trixie stands at just five feet. If her replacement addiction keeps up at this rate, she’ll be as wide as she is tall.
I gulped my coffee and stood up, while a crowd gathered around the twins.
Bauser stood up with me. “So, seriously, you’re not going to your Aunt’s shindig?”
I shook my head. “Working. But I’ll stop by on my way home, for the post mortem.”
“But you catered the party, right?”
“Well then, I’m sure we’ll still be eating by the time you get there.”
This was probably true, since I have yet to curb my disproportionate portions. Like great-grandma Wilhelmina, I tend to go a little over the top when it comes to the cooking thing. Parties for 20 usually get catered as events for 200. Although I felt sure I’d cut today’s affair down to no more than 50 or so.
I hugged my family and scooted out the door, skidding on the wide patches of ice that covered the ancient parking lot like frozen fondant. I shivered inside the Doo-doo, my flat brown mini-van which has had some unfortunate run-ins with items of the same moniker. Unfortunately she also has no heat. So she sometimes doubles as a refrigerated delivery vehicle.
The Doo-doo also has a propensity toward religious programming. That is, she won’t start unless the radio is tuned to her genre of choice. She let me make do with Christmas carols, from Halloween until New Year’s Day, but that well ran dry. Since then, I found a college gospel station, figuring music was better than the usual evangelical shouting… errm, sermons.
I turned on her favorite station, she revved like a charm, and we sped along Harrisburg Pike. We stopped by a traffic light at the corner, just before Keyes Pianos, where I enjoyed some momentary entertainment watching a short, pudgy bearded man methodically conducting the air with his walking stick. This was accompanied by a crew of burly workmen, seemingly moving in time as they hoisted a white baby grand piano into a Keyes Piano truck. I thought Keyes Pianos was closed on Sundays? The little man looked at me, so I waved. He turned his back abruptly, beating time with his stick.
The light changed and I sped forth, finally pulling into the parking lot past the statue of a giant squirrel wedding couple grinning coyly at each other. The bride-and-groom statue was new, since Hector, the owner, had to euthanize two oak trees last fall. He decided to employ a local chain saw artist as repayment for the money owed for a great-uncle’s funeral party. I wasn’t sure how the new “art” would speak to future clientele, other than to convey we’re a super friendly wedding party establishment that doesn’t serve road kill.
I walked around back, near the smoker. Chef burst out the back door, pushing a metal trolley. We stood staring at each other. It was the first time we’d seen each other since he asked me out. And stood me up. I was right; ‘awkward’ didn’t begin to describe it. But he’s one of my part-time bosses, so I pulled my big girl panties up to my neck.
“Can I help?”
He stared at my outfit. “Are you working today?”
“Yes. You scheduled me, remember?” Was he going to dump me for a shift, too?
“Sure. I – just – thought – um. You’re not in work clothes.” He continued to stare at me.
“I know. That’s why I brought these.” I waved my bag o’clothes at him.
He raised an eyebrow. The trolley listed a bit downhill.
“Do you want me to hold this, so it doesn’t roll away from you?”
He nodded, still staring.
I gritted my teeth and helped him, wishing he wasn’t a boss and I could give him a piece of my mind. I also wondered how much I’d spilled on myself during my three-minute coffee hour for him to be staring at me like a filleted trout.
“Thanks.” He launched into work mode and opened up the smoker. Out came pans of hams, briskets and a couple of smoked turkeys. I sniffed the smoked goods, and immediately felt much better. There’s nothing that calms me down, what with my cooking crazies and all, better than a hundred pounds or so of smoked meat.
I helped him guide the stacked trolley past Jenny and Penny, who were arranging a hundred salad plates for all they were worth. They looked up and nodded without breaking rhythm.
I spotted the individual orange “rose” garnishes, made out of intricately shaved carrots. “Wow, pretty!”
They shrugged. “The bride’s color is orange,” Jenny said simply.
I thought it was impressive.
I pointed to the lined up hams. “Big wedding, huh?”
“For tomorrow’s Rotary Club.” The Rotary Club has had two semi-annual fundraising dinners at Squirrel Run Acres since 1978. Hector and his staff are financially exuberant they continue to uphold tradition.
Chef waved at me to stop kibitzing. We pushed the trolley to the back of the kitchen. “I haven’t seen you in regular clothes before. You look great.”
I shrugged. “Thanks.” I suppose he was back-peddling for reneging on his invite. Whatever. Besides, his standard operating procedure since hiring me has been to be extraordinarily complimentary when I come to work. I guessed this was part of his confidence-boosting “get a full-time job” plan, since he’s made it plain he won’t hire me full time – ever. Which is okay, since the kitchen work I actually qualify for lingers around dishwasher pay.
“I need to change.” I took my bag of work wear and zipped around the corner.
I opened the door to the ladies room and ran smack into Hilda, the manager. She’s been a peach. And her John Hancocks on my paycheck are even peachier.
“How was the christening?”
I gave her the thumbnail sketch.
“Well, at least no more bags of doo-doo, right? Har! Har!”
Ever since last summer, and unfortunately Christmas, the doo-doo jokes regarding my van abound. Which doesn’t exactly help my rep in the food service community.
“C’mon, the quicker you get to work, the quicker you’ll get to the christening party, right?”
“Well, as godmother, you should be there. Why in the world did you agree to work today?”
“Chef booked me for this before last Christmas.”
She scowled. “And nothing since?”
“Nope.” I pulled my white shirt on over my black slacks, then sat down to put on my orange kitchen crocs.
I jumped. “What?”
“I completely forgot you wore those! The bride’s color is orange! You can help serve! She’ll love it!”
“It’s no big deal. You’ll just replenish. It’s a buffet.”
We hustled into the kitchen, where I saw Arnie slinging celery into a sink. He tipped his chin “hi” to me.
Hilda pointed me toward scrubbing the celery. It’s been one of my regular kitchen duties since last summer. I rolled up my sleeves.
“Nope, not today,” Chef countered.
Hilda and I stared at him.
He motioned me over. “You’re pretty comfortable with scrambling eggs for the Brethren Breakfasts, right?”
“Okay, get cracking.” He pointed me toward a few cases of eggs lined up on the metal counter near the stoves.
“Well, what do you know? You just got promoted,” Hilda whispered in my ear, and hurried over to help Arnie.
I hugged myself inside and let myself smile at Chef. Maybe New Year’s Eve guilt has fringe benefits?
He proceeded to show me how to crack an egg. “Now, normally, you crack eggs like this, right?” he demonstrated, using two hands.
I nodded mutely.
“That’s not going to be efficient in a commercial kitchen when you have a hundred or more eggs to scramble.”
I smiled back at him. I was happy.
“Look, do the math. You do that, and your guests will end up getting their scrambled eggs with their cocktails.”
Maybe he was busy New Year’s Eve? Did he get kidnapped, too?
“Instead, we crack eggs like this.” He proceeded to crack eggs one-handed, like a robotic egg-o-matic.
My jaw dropped. He’d cracked about 20 eggs. And he also had egg whites all over the counter. Clearly, the yolk wasn’t on him.
He handed me an apron. “Give it a try. You’re not going to get it right today, but you can learn. These are a refill batch, so don’t get flustered, okay?”
I nodded again. If I became less verbose, he’d mistake me for Marcel Marceau.
He patted me on the shoulder, strode across the kitchen and peered inside the soup kettles, simmering away.
I blinked at the crate of eggs. They blinked back.
“Okay, I can do this.” I grabbed my first egg and whacked it hard against the metal mixing bowl. It smooshed inside my hand.
I tried again. The egg made it into the bowl, along with half the egg shell. I picked out the shells.
After the first dozen eggs, I got pretty good. But I figured that was because my hands were sticky with egg gunk, which made cracking the eggs a lot less slippery.
I finally had the eggs in the bowl, and whisked happily. It’s funny, but scrambling eggs for the well-to-do isn’t much different than scrambling eggs for the needy. It’s just a matter of geography.
Chef came back and stood behind me, throwing some herbs and salt into the mix over my shoulder. He put a clean bowl in front of me for my next batch, taking my full bowl and throwing the mixed eggs into a sizzling pan.
I went to put down my whisk, but it stayed stuck to my hand. I waved my hand. The whisk waved back. Apparently egg gunk makes pretty good glue. I panicked and shook my hand furiously over the sink.
Chef turned around and stared.
I held up my captive hand.
He rolled his eyes, grabbed my hand and held it under the faucet. The whisk fell off into the sink.
“Thanks,” I said, while he held my hand under the stream of water. His hands felt large and strong. We looked at each other, and I felt my feet tingle again, like they used to whenever I was around him. He opened his mouth to say something, then snapped his head toward the skillet. He dropped my hand and ran to the stove. I turned back to the sink. When I turned around again, I saw only his back as he emptied a batch of scrambled eggs into a hotel pan. I dried my hands quickly and went back to work.
Soon everything was in place and ready to be brought out to the banquet room. The gals stood at the ready to roll their carts out to the buffet tables. Arnie stood with his cart full of breakfast breads, bagels, lox, chopped eggs, red onion, capers and caviar. Tomas was washing down countertops.
Chef had to be at the front of the house at the carving station. He threw his black working jacket across the kitchen into a corner, standing in a wifebeater tee and pulling on a clean white French-knot chef coat. Over very muscular shoulders. And buff arms. I wondered what our working relationship might have been like if we’d kept our New Year’s Eve quasi-date. The fizzy feeling that made my feet tingle last Christmas had fallen flat like old champagne since then. Now all of a sudden, I felt fizzy again. As I pondered this, I noticed he was looking at me with intense indigo blue eyes as he buttoned his top button. I realized I’d been staring, and felt my face turn crimson. When I whirled around to avoid his gaze, I smacked straight into Arnie’s cart.
“Geez!” he whispered.
“Shhh!” everyone hissed back at me.
“Sorry,” I whispered back.
Hilda tapped my elbow, put a finger to her lips, and pointed toward the window in the kitchen door. I peered out. “Now that you are joined as man and wife….” The groom stomped a handkerchief on the ground, and a loud “pop” made everyone jump.
“Mazel tov!” the banquet room erupted at the bride and groom. The young couple stood smiling together, grinning sappily back at their families and friends.
I sighed and wished Valentine’s Day wasn’t quite so obvious this year.
“C’mon!” Hilda hissed at me while pushing a large bowl of raspberry sauce into my arms. I placed the sauce next to a warmer full of blintzes.
As I walked away from the buffet table, the bride smiled at me and pointed. “Nice clogs! Thanks for matching!”
I looked around the room at the orange organza overlays on each table, with matching napkins and orange Gerbera daisy centerpieces.
“Sure, no problem.” If the bride wants to think the staff at Squirrel Run Acres goes the extra mile, I wasn’t going to let her down.
After the buffet, the guests all gathered around the wedding cake. Honestly, it was the first five-tier orange wedding cake I have ever seen. With a cascading fountain. And a staircase. And itty-bitty bride and groom toppers holding hands under an itty-bitty hoopa. It was impressive. Especially because of the pulsating lights in the fountain.
I helped Jenny and Penny put away the remaining buffet, just after the bride and groom exchanged wedding cake schmears.
“I really liked your orange roses,” I told Penny inside the kitchen.
“There’s really nothing to it. I can show you, if you want.”
“That would be great!” Wow. I was going to learn how to make carrot roses. Was that good, or what?
“Here, you start like this.” She cleaned up a full-grown carrot, and then proceeded to sculpt it into an orange rose.
We looked at it. It looked like a flat orange tapeworm.
“You can practice at home.” She rushed to push coffee trolleys out the door.
“It looks like a flat orange tapeworm,” Chef said, looking over my shoulder.
I looked up at him and blushed.
“Garnishes aren’t everyone’s thing. Mine came out looking like Silly String.”
I looked past him and noticed the clock on the wall.
He turned around and looked at the clock. He looked back at me, running his hand through his hair, and staring at the floor. “Okay, well, thanks for coming in today.”
I blanched. I certainly didn’t want him to think I was a clock watcher. Or avoiding him. It just couldn’t be helped. “Sorry, it’s just that I want to make it in time…”
“For the end of her twins christening party!” Hilda finished for me.
“You have twins?” His eyebrows floated to the ceiling.
“No, my sister does. I have god-twins.”
He threw his arms up in the air. “Then what in the world are you doing here?”
“You had me booked since Christmas. Besides, you haven’t scheduled me for anything else.”
He hung his head. “Quick, get going so you see them before they have their first beer.”
I ran for my coat.
He hollered after me. “You want some fruit trays or breads to take with you?”
Hilda answered for me. “Chef, she’s fine. Mina catered.”
“Well in that case, maybe you want some empty hotel pans to take with you, to bring back the leftovers?”
Jenny came rushing in. “Where’s the half-and-half?”
“Pitcher’s in the walk-in,” Hilda answered.
She shook her head. “They’ve gone through that. I can’t find the unopened cartons. They’re missing.”
Hilda flapped her arms in exasperation. “I just put them in last night.”
I waved bye-bye to no one in particular and stepped out into the freezing drizzle.
I ran to the Doo-doo and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. I turned on the radio and tried again. Zippo.
Aside from my van being some kind of religious zealot, she’s never given me a problem. Except for not having any AC or heat. Now, her starter wouldn’t start. I banged my head on the steering wheel a few times, and heard the admonishments in my head I knew my family would give me for refusing to own a cell phone.
There was a tap at my window. I jumped so high I hit the headliner. Chef opened the door. “I wanted to give you some leftover Baklava for your party. Really, I’m pretty good for it.”
I responded by bursting into tears.
I explained between sniffles.
“Not a problem, don’t worry. Stay here.”
I looked at Doo-doo’s dashboard and slapped it. She’d kicked me in the butt and I wasn’t happy. But I wasn’t happy with myself for hitting her, either. I rubbed her steering wheel and apologized.
Chef came back into the picture with a set of keys and pointed toward a van.
“Here, Hector won’t miss this van today. Just make sure you get it back early tomorrow morning, okay?”
“Thanks lots.” I took the keys and scurried into the van with the baklava.
Unhappily for the vans, Hector got inspired by the squirrel-wedding-couple-chain-saw-art. This translated itself into plastic versions of Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel mounted on top of each van’s roof, attached firmly in wedded bliss. It was far more humiliating than driving the Doo-doo.
I made my way across town toward Auntie’s in the freezing drizzle. An Amish horse and buggy were in front of me. I waved at the kids bundled in the seats. They pointed at the squirrels and laughed.
The SUV behind me flashed his high beams, and tried to pass us both. The horse cantered nervously and pulled into the oncoming lane. The buggy slid.
I responded by cutting-off the SUV, putting on the van’s hazards, and taking up the width of both lanes.
After a tense moment, the driver got his horse and family settled. They turned right at the traffic light near the outlets. I looked out the rear view mirror at the arrogant driver fuming behind me, and giving me the finger. I smiled and waved a finger back as he sped into Target.
I came to a red light and noticed the funny, bearded man again. This time he was holding a bright green umbrella over his head, shielding him from the slushy weather. I thought he was waiting to cross the street, until two heavy-set men heaved a gigantic stainless-steel stove out the side door of Wickles Wares. I watched as the little man raised his walking stick in the air, waving it in conductor-like fashion, as the men hefted the stove up the loading ramp of the Keyes Piano truck. That was strange. But who knew? Maybe the guy worked at Keyes and was borrowing the van. Which would make sense with his being a music conductor, yes?
The man peered toward me, staring up at the squirrels on top of the van. I waved. He closed his umbrella with a huff and hopped into the truck.
The light changed and I crept toward Auntie’s. I parked on the street — I wasn’t too keen about driving in reverse down the length of her humongous driveway. I grabbed the baklava and hoofed it.
I let myself in through the garage door and got hit by waves of laughter, warmth and kitchen smells. Life was good.
Everyone was eating or sipping or passing around Aaron or Arwin. Norman took my jacket, while Bauser happily relieved me of the baklava.
K. rushed over. “So glad you’re here – I’m just a wreck!”
“The theft at Fabric Frenzy of course!”
“Bolts of upholstery — gone! Just vanished!”
“That’s too bad.”
“I’ll say! I special ordered some for a client’s dining room chairs. Now that project’s delayed for weeks.”
“Yes. And it took me months to talk her into redoing them.”
“What’s she got now?”
“Zebra. With red plastic and beaded fringe.”
I patted K. on the back and took stock of Auntie’s dining room.
“Everything’s delicious, by the way. At least I can drown my sorrows in canapés.”
I made my way around, replenishing the spread. Eventually, I noticed a baking pan that didn’t belong to me sitting ominously on the sideboard, far, far away from the rest.
I peered at it. Large chunks of kielbasa lay cold in a nest of what appeared to be creamed sauerkraut. Clumps of brussel sprouts cowered in the corners. On top of all that was what appeared to be some kind of ‘rustic’ blend of fresh beets: that is to say they were unpeeled and somewhat chopped, complete with roots, greens and all. This was all covered by a thick, pink blanket of sauce.
“Pretty fancy, huh?” Vito asked.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry Toots. Didn’t mean to scare youse.”
“No problem,” I fibbed. “Yours?”
He beamed. “My own invention!”
“What do you call it?” I had to ask. Besides, Auntie was motioning at me wildly from across the room with vivid neck-slicing motions, while holding her nose: do not consume.
“Creamed Kapustka Verde!”
My mind did a quick inventory of what I vaguely knew about Polish cooking and church suppers gone bad.
“It’s like a pepped up cream of cabbage stew! I threw in some beets and brussel sprouts for oomph!”
I nodded. Anyone consuming this would certainly be able to set forth on their own oomph.
“I wanted to throw in some beans, for fiber, but Miriam wouldn’t let me,” he pouted.
I glanced ceiling-ward and thanked heaven for Miriam. “It might have been overkill.”
“Hey, that’s exactly what she said!”
“Whaddayaknow?” I faked a smile and headed in search of a grown-uppy beverage, quick.
I found Trixie, who handed me what looked like an extra fancy Cosmo in a wonderful- looking martini glass. It was rimmed in a rock-candy like sugar, and filled with a frothy pink liquid. Trixie plopped a toothpick stabbed with gummy candy hearts in the middle.
“Garnish!” she yelped, chomping on a handful of them.
I sipped and almost spat it out.
It tasted like a peppermint pink nightmare. I wondered where my mother was – the Cosmo Queen. I looked across the room to see Ma waving at me to not drink the Pepto-Swill. This was some christening party. My first break and I get served poisoned food and drink.
Ma held up her glass and pointed to a flower vase. I thanked Trixie and headed toward Ma.
“The bathroom, quick.”
I sighed at the waste of good liquor and dumped my doomed drink into the sewer system where it belonged, rinsed and returned.
Ma lifted up the vase and poured me some of her stash.
“How come you’re not making the Cosmos?”
“Trixie can be pretty determined sometimes. Especially since she quit smoking. But that’s great, right?”
“If she still has a tooth left in her head. Or doesn’t become diabetic.”
“I guess she has put on a little weight lately.”
“Trixie’s a good girl. I like her. But if she keeps this up, all we’ll need to do to send her home from Muriel’s is give her a good shove down the driveway. She’ll roll.”
I glanced at the buffet and found it still brimming. Between the Episcopal baptism and the Jewish wedding, I’d had a fairly diverse day. If I’d helped cater a Quinceañera and a New Orleans funeral, it would have been almost all-inclusive. Which was too bad, since I’d apparently made enough food for them all.
I was going to have to ask Chef about that. I mean, seriously, how many canapés do you budget per guest? Or dip? Or open-face filet sandwiches? Or meatballs? What if someone’s hungrier than their fellow party pals? What if other party goers just drink? Or what if someone will only eat meatballs? There has to be a formula. In all honesty, while I’m constantly kidded about erring on the generous side of the equation, I would be horrified if I ever came up empty. It sometimes keeps me up at night.
Auntie joined us and began surreptitiously refilling her Cosmo from the flower vase.
Ethel munched on a tea sandwich. “Maybe we can switch Trixie to pouring wine?”
Auntie swallowed. “I tried. But Miriam and Vito actually like the stuff.”
We shrugged and toasted the twins, who were now napping in their car seats in a guestroom.
Miriam joined us. “Lovely party! I’ve never been to a christening before! This is so much fun! That Trixie sure knows how to shake a drink!”
I gulped my contraband cocktail and studied a spot on the floor.
“Hey, how come yours aren’t frothy?” Miriam furrowed at our glasses.
“Our candy hearts melted and changed the color,” Auntie lied.
“Oh, that explains it! Gosh, I ate mine right away! They’re just so yummy!”
Ethel stared at me, deadpan. “Did you get anything to eat since you got here?”
I shook my head.
“Well c’mon! Excuse us, Miriam. But the cook should sample her own wares.”
“Oh my goodness, yes! You better eat something with all this hooch, or you’ll fall on your canetta!”
Ethel hustled me into the dining room, and popped a mini-quiche in my mouth. “Chew. Don’t talk. And for God’s sake, don’t think. Trust me, I know about this. I’ve been here for hours without the benefit of Cosmos. Stupid nursing.”
“What have you guys been doing with Trixie’s vats of Pepto-swill?”
“I pour half down the sink when she’s not looking. When she is looking, Vito and Muriel help themselves. I’m kind of worried.”
“You think Vito and Miriam are going to wind up on their canettas?”
“No, there isn’t enough booze in it to worry about. It’s mostly non-dairy creamer and grenadine and a shot or so of vodka thrown in for decoration.”
I stared, horrified. What a waste of Wodka.
“I’m mostly worried about how strong their stomachs are, because they’re the only ones eating Vito’s casserole.”
I shook my head. “Believe me, they can take it. Their date nights are spent tweaking ‘boring’ recipes.”
“I know I’m going to regret asking, but how do you know this?”
“They bring me their leftovers.”
“Double yick. They’ve discovered more ways to ruin cabbage and kielbasa than you can imagine.”
“Maybe there’s a reality show for them, to help get this out of their system?”
“I don’t think anyone would want to watch something called, Bletch! do you?”
“Maybe not. By the way, how are your non-date nights going?” Ethel picked up a smoked salmon and cucumber canapé and chewed.
I shrugged. “They’re okay. It gets me out of the house. He seems like a nice guy.” My usual litany of reasons for going out with my other part-time employer, James.
James is Aunt Muriel’s massage therapist. He used to be an investment broker, and learned massage therapy to help calm down his lingerie model girlfriend. That is, until he found out she was dating another lingerie model girlfriend. He got out of the markets for investments and models, and became a licensed massage therapist. Since then, he’s aided and abetted my catering disorder with catered massages.
Anyway, since he started setting me up with his clients, it seems he may be setting me up with him. Sort of. Wednesday nights are usually open for him, and they certainly are for me, so we’ve kind of fallen into the habit of grabbing burgers and beers at The Barn Door, a local watering hole. Wednesday at The Barn Door is BOGO night. So, I usually meet James there and he’s nice enough to pay, even if my beer and burger are technically free.
Which is the confusing part. I mean, he always offers to be the host and pay. So, that’s a date, right? But technically, I’m a freebie on Wednesdays at The Barn Door (which, for some late night patrons, becomes The Darn Boor, depending on how many BOGO pitchers of beer you consume.) But he never picks me up; I always have to meet him there. Is that a date? You tell me. My somewhat rusty girl-friend-o-meter says if he drove, I might take that as a hint. Or if he wanted a nightcap. Or, if he held my hand, or tried to smooch me, or…you know.
“So far, it’s just beer and burgers with my buddy.”
“Hey, that’s great! It’s nice that he actually likes your company.”
“Scuse me?” Technically I could take that remark a couple of ways. I took the high road. “That’s true.”
“How come he’s not here? Didn’t you invite him?”
“Of course I did. But he had clients booked today, starting at noon and going thru most of the evening.”
“Wow, who’d have thought?”
“He said couple massages are pretty popular around Valentine’s Day.”
“Gee, I wish I’d thought of that for me and Ikey.”
“If you want, I can set you up for the next time you visit.”
“That would be great! Wait ‘til I tell Ike!”
I nodded and sipped. Well, that tagged up everyone’s Valentine’s holiday but mine.
Norman wandered in and refilled his plate. “Nice party.” This was an exceedingly enthusiastic reaction, considering Norman.
Ethel smiled at him. “Thank you so much for the ponies!”
“Don’t mention it.”
“You gave the twins ponies?”
“We already had the ponies. The girls found them through a horse rescue and wanted to keep them. So we decided to give the twins lifetime pony rides, once they’re old enough, of course.”
Wow. How do you top ponies?
“And thank you for the silver utensil sets.” Ethel gave my shoulders a hug.
I found two identical antique silver baby utensil sets at a garage sale, and brought them to a jeweler to be engraved. It took a lot of convincing to get ASS inscribed on the handles, but I was determined to put silver spoons in their mouths.
Norman swallowed. “I’m going to have to get going soon. I’ve got to pick the girls up from volleyball.”
“Wait a minute!” Trixie screamed from the kitchen. “I’m making coffee! I bought a christening cake!”
He stared at me. “You know, I think I liked her better when she was full of nicotine and not sugar.”
“Yeah, she’s gotten a little scary lately,” Ethel agreed.
I sighed. I was going to have to have a chat with Trixie about her hypnotist. But it was going to be tough to figure out at what o’clock she hadn’t already consumed four liters of corn syrup.
I found Trixie in the kitchen, standing on a step stool and pouring water into an industrial- sized 32-cup coffee percolator.
“Are you sure we really need all this coffee?”
“Yes! It’s for the sheet cake! It’s in the garage!”
I stared at her and felt like I was looking in a fun-house mirror. I wondered if my meal mania was contagious. Aside from hoping she wouldn’t consume any more sugar, I prayed she wouldn’t wash it down with most of the coffee.
Norman and Bauser wandered in. I shrugged. Bauser helped Trixie load buckets of water into the percolator.
“You want me to bring in the cake?” I asked.
“Yes! But you’re going to need help!” she poured a couple of tins of coffee into the basket.
Norman and I went into the garage. There, lying across the hood of Auntie’s Lexus, was a sheet cake. That is to say, it covered the hood entirely.
“How are we going to get this inside?”
Norman scratched his head. “You go inside and help Trixie, I’ll grab Bauser.” This was understandable, since the cake had to weigh 80 pounds.
The back door crashed open and they grunted inside, shuffling the box toward the dining room. “There!” They dumped the cake with a thud. It sat in its entirety, taking up the table.
We leaned over and peered at it. It was covered in lime green and electric blue lard roses. In the center was the inscription, “Bon Voyage Betty and Barney, We Will Miss You!”
“Huh?” I wondered aloud.
“There was a sale!” Trixie yelled from the kitchen.
Aunt Muriel looked at the cake and gasped. “Good Lord, this is more cake than we’ve even served at the Brethren Breakfasts!”
Well, that was a first. I wondered about poor Betty and Barney and hoped they hadn’t missed their party cake because they’d unexpectedly set sail upon their final cruise. Unless someone else had really, really missed the Flintstones? I also wasn’t so sure about second-hand desserts for baptisms, and hoped we weren’t chancing bad cake karma.
The coffee brewed, we cut the cake. Norman took a slab large enough for his family, the volleyball team, and the opposing team on his way out the door. The rest of us sat around with huge slices on our plates, complete with a blue and green rose apiece. We drank our coffee and ate our cake and one by one fell silently into saccharine stupors.
Except for Trixie, who had seconds and became very, very alert. Before we knew it, she was washing and stacking dishes like nobody’s business.
Aunt Muriel hustled into the kitchen after her.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” she shrieked and assured Auntie she was ready and well on her way for work. Although she’d been the demonic mixologist for the baptism brew, she hadn’t consumed any on account of her upcoming shift at the hospital. Which explained a lot. About the cocktails, that is. If Trixie had actually tasted one, we would have been switched out for shots of her favorite vice, Southern Comfort, tout de suite.
Trixie whooshed out the door and we were left in a sugary trail.
“You know, you must address this,” K. advised.
“It could be worse,” Bauser offered.
“She could be into some really weird macrobiotic thing.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I think they eat mostly seaweed,” he said, washing away the thought with a swig of his Krumpthfs beer.
K. gaped at him horrified, his lips outlined by blue and green icing. He resembled a fish.
As concoctions of seaweed wrapped sheet cakes danced through my head, Bauser and K. bid their adieu and fled. But dutifully took proportionate slabs o’ christening cake apiece. Thankfully, we were left with cake remains that were only the size of a spare tire.
I heard snoring from the living room. Ike sat on the sofa with a twin tucked inside each elbow. They snored, too. Clearly, they took after daddy. Ethel gave me the high sign, and I cuddled Arwin while she scooped up Aaron and we brought them back into the guest room.
Their car seats lay occupied with a slumbering Yorkie apiece, dressed in corresponding pink and blue baptism Rattie-wear. Hansel clasped his light-blue bow tie with both paws. Gretel’s matching pink hair bow flopped over her nose.
“I’m really glad I got the twins changed for nighty-nights early,” Ethel said.
“Shhh!” I hissed. We prodded Hansel and Gretel out and thrust the twins inside, before the dogs could ace them again.
I went back to the kitchen and saw Aunt Muriel soaking her blender in the sink.
“Do you think it will recover?”
She shook her head, and threw more dishwasher detergent inside.
Ike snored from the living room.
“More coffee?” she asked.
“Sorry, no, I have to go. It’s almost dinner time for Vinnie and Marie. Besides, I’m driving the company van as a loaner.”
“What happened to the Doo-doo?” Ma asked.
“It wouldn’t start.”
“Did you put on a religious station?” Ethel asked.
“Wow, that’s a puzzle.”
“But I’ll be here for breakfast tomorrow, before you leave.”
“Better get here early. Ike says he wants to try to leave around nine, if we can.”
I exited Stage Left and slid down the driveway, literally.
I crossed town as another wintry mix kicked in, peppered with hail. I pulled up Mount Driveway, remoted the garage door and began to pull inside. I heard a loud clunk and stopped. I got out to find the Squirrel Couple nose-to-nose with my garage wall. Suddenly, I got hit on the head by hail the size of a golf ball. I dodged inside, rubbing my head and looking at the van. The squirrel couple continued to smile sappily at me. So far, so good – no visible damage from our tap. But clearly they weren’t spending the night inside my garage. I’d have to hope for the best.
I opened the back door and Vinnie came running down the hallway to greet me, as usual. “Aw-gright! Mif-yew!” he trilled as he slid into me.
I reached out and gave him some petty-pets. He stood up on his hind legs, hugging my waist and nuzzling my tummy. Then he hopped down, trotted toward the kitchen, and looked over his shoulder. Apparently I wasn’t following fast enough.
“All right, all right, just a minute. You’re not starving, you know.”
Marie shrieked hello from upstairs. She’s my cockatiel who was once a long-ago ex’s pet. For the record, she’s the closest he ever got to feathering our nest.
Vinnie sat impatiently at the end of the hallway. Marie shrieked some more.
“First shift, second shift, right?”
Vinnie shook his head and stalked into the kitchen, sat in front of his bowl, and muttered to himself.
“I’ll be right back down.” Truth was, I really wanted to get out of my service duds. Cozy clothes felt right about now.
I opened the door to Marie’s room, and turned on the light for her. She stretched a wing, a feather at a time, in lazy avian greeting. I gave her some strokes, ruffling her cockatiel “cocktail hat” feathers on the top of her head.
“Okay, which is it? Fred and Ginger? Or Cary Grant?”
I’m still not sure what she means. So I picked “An Affair to Remember” and popped it into the DVD player. Marie chomped happily on her sunflower seeds. She was all set — dinner and a movie.
I was scurrying to change into a clean pair of jammies when I saw the light on my answering machine winking at me. I wondered if I had another catering client, or another shift at Squirrel Run Acres. Better yet, an interview? I pressed the button.
“You have one new message,” mechanical voice lady said to me. I took up my ballpoint and message pad, to jot down hopeful details.
“Hi Mina, this is James.”
I began auto-thinking menus, event date, time, party — the usual.
“Sorry I can’t say that I have more catering events coming your way, yet, but I did want to confirm our Wednesday dinner. I’m out of town from tomorrow until then and didn’t want you to assume I’d forgotten.”
Blah, blah blah.
“Anyway, I did want to confirm our date. Will touch base later. Bye.”
Date? OMG. Had he actually been considering our non-dates as dates? Or maybe it was just date, as in like, date on the calendar? But what if? Okay. This would require a complete overhaul in re-thinks. I’d have to call Trixie. After she came down off her sugar high. Hopefully sometime before Easter.
I erased the message and padded downstairs with Vinnie leading the way, chattering about timeliness and hunger and he didn’t have all night, you know. I went into the kitchen and pulled out his Finicky Fare choices.
“Okay, do you want ‘Barnyard Bonanza’ or ‘Salmonesque Surprise’?” I held out both cans to him.
He stood up, sniffed one can, and then the other. He patted the top of the can of ‘Barnyard Bonanza’, and gave me a silent meow.
“I don’t blame you. There’s probably a lot less risk involved in ‘Barnyard Bonanza’ than something salmon-esque.”
I placed his meal before him and wandered across the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine. In my house, this means pouring wine from a box and drinking it out of a coffee mug. I still haven’t gotten around to buying proper wine glasses, since the unemployment thing has kind of hampered discretionary retail purchases. That, and getting kidnapped a few times. I took my mug o’Merlot, shuffled into the living room and turned on the TV.
The local news sprang on. “Police are investigating a suspect painting sale that gallery owners claim is a theft,” said a short, stout brunette. She must be new, since the usual anchorwoman was a tall blonde. And the usual anchorwoman had two eyebrows. This woman wore a dark brown uni-brow.
“Owners of the Rooster’s Walk, located in the Gallery Row section of Prince Street, claim that a receipt for a painting’s sale is false, and that the painting is missing,” Uni-brow invoked. “Manny Epstein and his wife Priscilla reported that a painting by local artist Harriet Spighe was stolen. They claim the sales receipt is false, because the amount of $15 is far below the actual sales price of $1,500. Police are investigating.”
An image of Adam Appletree, the detective who used to date Trixie behind his wife’s back, popped up. “Of course, we’re looking into this for the gallery owners; they are obviously very concerned,” he said. “Unfortunately, since the owners admit the receipt is written in Mrs. Epstein’s handwriting, it appears to be a clerical error more than an actual theft.”
“You mean, the price was actually $1,500 but was written up as $15?” a tall blonde man asked, shoving a microphone into Appletree’s face.
“So, I guess this is a kind of moral theft?”
“We’re hoping that once we locate the buyer and explain the situation, they will pay the gallery owners the difference, or return the painting.”
“But what if he, or she, refuses?” the reporter probed.
“There’s not much we can do. If someone pays less money than you wanted for your merchandise, and the owner willingly accepts those monies and provides a receipt… ” Appletree held up his hands.
The reporter nodded and faced the camera. “Well folks, we’ve all heard the saying ‘let the buyer beware’ – now, especially in these economic times, we advise sellers to be savvy. Live from Gallery Row in Lancaster City, back to you, Bernice.”
Bernice – the Uni-brow – glared sternly into the camera while the station flipped to a commercial break.
Vinnie sauntered into the living room and sat in front of the TV for his post suppertime wash. I pulled out a new cookbook I got for Christmas, and settled happily under an afghan. All was well until the phone rang. I groaned and disconnected from my cocoon.
“Ohmigosh, did you just watch the news?” K. greeted me.
“You mean about the gallery painting theft?”
“Another theft! You’re not going to believe this, but the same thing happened to one of my vendors last week!”
“Poor Phillip, at C’est Moi’s.”
“He found a discrepancy in the books, of course. After he spent an entire day going through receipts, he realized the amount he’d written on the receipt was correct. However, he sold the item for the wrong amount.”
“Is that such a big deal?”
“It is when you’ve sold a $76 lamp for seven dollars and sixty cents.”
“Ouch. But can’t he contact the guy and explain the error?”
“Oh no, you would never do that. That would make a very bad impression. Besides, the customer didn’t leave his name and paid in cash.”
“Ugh. But that still doesn’t make it a crime. Maybe it’s just this time of year. Post-holiday stress?”
“That’s exactly what I tried to tell poor Phillip, to calm his nerves. He really thought he was losing it. I mean, he wrote the receipt himself.”
“Well, good thing he works for himself, so he doesn’t have to explain it to a boss. And at least it wasn’t something that cost $700.”
“True, it could be worse. What are you doing tomorrow?”
I told K. about breakfast and bye-byes at Auntie’s in the morning.
“Look, I’m not working at any client’s tomorrow. The weather’s far too uninspiring. If you’re not working, why don’t I pick you up, and we’ll go out for a bite?”
Lizz Lund loves Lancaster. Since 1999, she’s been having a terrific time here and thinks everyone else should, too. She is a newlywed and head-over-heels about her chef husband; she made him move from New Jersey, too. Kitchen Addiction! is her first novel of the Mina Kitchen series. Lizz grew up in Glen Rock, New Jersey and still hasn’t recovered. She holds a BA in Musical Theatre from Syracuse University, but has never learned to waitress – although she knows it’s an art.
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