Hope in a Jar

Beth Harbison

St. Martin's Griffin

HOPE IN A JAR (Chapter One)

When I was twelve, a fortune-teller at the Herbert Hoover Junior High School carnival said to me: "Gemma Craig, you listen to me. Do not get married. Ever. If you do, you'll end up cooking for a man who'd rather eat at McDonald's; doing laundry for a man who sweats like a rabid pig, then criticizes you for not turning his T-shirts right side out; and cleaning the bathroom floor after a man whose aim is so bad, he can't hit a hole the size of a watermelon--"

This man sounded disgusting.

"--make your own money and be independent. Having kids is fine, but get married and you will be miserable for the rest of your life. I promise you, the rest of your life."

This chilling prediction stayed with me long after I realized that the fortune-teller was, in fact, Mrs. Rooks, the PTA president and neighbor who always gave out full-sized 3 Musketeers bars on Halloween, and that her husband had left her that very morning for a cliché: a young, vapid, blond bombshell. Mrs. Rooks had four kids, and at the time, I thought of her as really old and I didn't quite get why she cared so much if she was married anymore or not.

She was thirty-seven.

I was thirty-seven last year.

But for the most part, I have followed that sage wisdom she imparted, whether it came from a place of deep inspiration or, maybe, from a place of bitter day drunkenness. It had an impact on me either way.

Dating was fine. I love men. I love sex. I love having someone to banter with, flirt with, play romantic tag with, and finally yield to. Many, many times I have thought, in the beginning of a relationship, that maybe this guy could be different and the relationship might last against the odds my young brain had laid out.

But inevitably things soured for me, usually in the form of boredom, and always within two months. Seriously. This was consistent enough for my friends to refer to it as two months too long.

The good thing about a breakup at two months is that there usually isn't a lot of acrimony or anguish involved. The bad thing is that it gets tiresome after a while. Honestly, I'm a normal woman, I'd love to be in love. I'd love to have a family to take care of and to surround me as I navigate the years.

But once I hit thirty-seven, I had to wonder if that was really in the cards for me.

And if that was the case, I was okay with that because I had a career I loved that allowed me some of the better parts of June Cleaver-dom, along with the ability to hang up the apron at the end of the day and be my own, single self.

I am a private chef.

Being hired to cook for people is really different from standing around a kitchen with friends, drinking wine and making snacks. It's different from making a whole Thanksgiving dinner for family. It's vastly different, even, from cooking for strangers at the soup kitchen, where the pride of creating something delicious is just as compelling but somehow...easier. Less judgmental.

Cooking for people in their homes can be like cooking for friends, but more often than that, it's like cooking for the meanest teacher in elementary school: someone you want to shrink away from, hide from. Someone you hope to god won't call on you or make you speak in front of everyone else. Someone you're pretty sure will yell and scream at you if you do one little thing wrong.

The many scenarios include--but are not limited to--taking the fall for a failed party ("the food wasn't good enough"), taking the blame for a neglected hostess ("you shouldn't speak with the guests even if they talk to you first"), shouldering the blame for the burden of unused ingredients ("I have to do something with the rest of these onions now, thanks a lot"), and other failures of life in general ("my husband doesn't want to come home on time for dinner, but if you made something he couldn't resist, then he would!").

Fortunately, most of the time I'm treated as if I'm invisible. Which is okay with me, except the dodging out of the way of people and not making eye contact can sometimes be challenging.

Still, I prefer that to being faced with accusations.

At first, I didn't see this coming. I always loved to cook, and got pretty good at it early on--though a few major mishaps come to mind (root beer extract in cupcakes was...a mistake)--but it never occurred to me that I could make a living this way. I guess that seemed too domestic for me at the time.

When I was working in Manhattan right after college, my mother tried to convince me, time and again, to meet a nice man and settle down. She wanted me to open a retirement account, and my legs, and start a future and family.

Not me. After what I'd been through, I think I was seeking some form of anonymity. What I would have said at the time was that I simply wanted to be free to go wherever the wind blew me. Like I was just a whimsical spirit, blowing through life and open to everything.

The problem was, the wind wasn't a reliable headhunter, so I moved from one go-nowhere job to another, proving my mother's fears more correct every day. Every time I found a job I liked, something happened to ruin it: like when I temped in the props department for a local morning show in the city, and I mistakenly got a Cat in the Hat costume out for a celebrity guest who was supposed to be Uncle Sam for a special Fourth of July segment, but in my defense, the electricity was out and it was very hard to see in the storeroom. (And who would have thought they'd have a Cat in the Hat costume at all? Seriously, how often could that have come in handy?)

When I hit twenty-six, I started to question if I was being irresponsible and immature by continuing my "free-spirited" ways. To my mother's delight, I settled into some good corporate jobs with excellent benefits. Three years in the research department at the local CBS affiliate led to two years at the Discovery Channel--and a routine rut that would have bored even the most patient yogi in Tibet.

But as I settled into a routine life and watched the years fly by like the calendar pages in a movie, I started to feel old. That was all. Not pious, correct, responsible, or anything else, just old. Suddenly I realized that actors and actresses and singers and even pro football players were younger than me.

Ten years ago, my life was I have plenty of time to figure out what I want to do.

Five years ago, I reached Hmmmmm.

Two years ago, I found myself teetering on the edge of Oh-oh, and looking straight down the barrel of Oh, shit.

I quit my tedious job, got myself a place that was tiny and modest but it was my own, and I followed my passion into a cooking career. I loved it. I love it. I'm my own boss, I meet interesting people all the time, I'm never bored, and whatever small part of me has a maternal instinct to take care of people is satisfied by nourishing them.

Then leaving.

Monday nights, I cook for the Van Houghtens. The pluses included: the location (Chevy Chase), beautiful kitchen (the marble counters, stainless steel everything, and one of those fridges that blend into the cabinetry), and the stability of the job. I'd been doing it for a year now. Minuses included Angela's attitude, and the fact that they had the ugliest pantry you've ever seen in your life.

Not cosmetically, it was the stuff inside it. Angela had very specific and spare tastes. Think of the fussiest eater you've ever known, and Angela makes them look like a glutton. Honestly. There is so much she can't--or, more appropriately, won't--eat that it is astonishing that the woman even has functional bones, much less any flesh on them. And really, there is very little of that.

No dairy. In fact, no "moo food" of any sort: no steaks, milk, sour cream, cheese, and check every package of bread for signs of whey, casein, and so forth.

No onions. Not dried, not powdered, not within three feet of anything she eats because "the essence will permeate it" and it will have to be thrown away.

No soy. Including soy lecithin, mono-diglyceride, guar gum, even citric acid.

No nuts. No nut derivatives. Nothing that was processed in a plant anywhere near nuts, even if the plant was in Georgia and Jimmy Carter lived five hundred miles away.

No honey. Nothing even vaguely connected with bees, including certain plants. So, yes, it was easy to avoid honey, less so to avoid anything Angela considered "honey related," but I did it.

No cinnamon or "warm" spice.

No garlic.

No fun.

Every time I looked at Peter and Stephen, her unfortunate and emaciated husband and son, I just felt an overwhelming urge to make them a pot roast with caramelized onions and a big ol' coconut cream pie.

"Peter," Angela would coo, narrowing her eyes and scrunching up her nose at him as he reached for another meager portion of romaine lettuce (beets were too sugary, radishes too "hot on the stomach," whatever that meant, and onions already established to be out of the question), "do you really think you need more?"

It was as if she were talking to her son and not her husband. Yet it didn't hold any maternal kindness. Just bossiness.

Once in a while he'd say yes, and eat it anyway, but for the most part, he'd set the bowl down with a dull thud and level a burning look at her once she looked back down at the bowl she was slowly working her way through. I like to think that was only when he had a witness--me--and that normally he'd tell her exactly where to stuff it. It's hard to understand why a smart, hot, successful man would spend his life being whipped by a switch like her.

Perhaps it was because of Stephen. How he had gestated in Angela's slight body, I cannot imagine. Maybe that was before she adopted her radical diet. But at six years old now, he'd never known any other diet, I'm pretty sure.

In fact, maybe the post-pregnancy weight was the reason she adopted her radical diet. I don't know. All I know is that in their pantry, where any normal American kid might find Oreos (or Newman-O's, I can be flexible about hydrogenated oils and organic ingredients), there was some kind of faux melba toast, made from spelt, and unseasoned almond butter. That was his after-school snack.

You just know if that kid ever went to a birthday party and got a bite of the manna that is sheet cake from Costco, he'd never want to come home. I can picture him there, in a wild-eyed eating frenzy, face smeared in icing, wondering why on earth his parents never told him of this bliss before.

It's like those people who grow up without TV. Move them into the real world and plop them in front of Wheel of Fortune, and they're not getting up until the national anthem is playing. If it's on cable, the only hope of having them move is if nature calls.

Believe me, I had a roommate like that once. I don't know how he managed to avoid TV into his thirties, but when I was watching The O.C., I'd feel him creeping up behind me, and he'd just stand there, eyes glued to the set, like he was a caveman wondering at the magic box with the tiny people in it.

"Want to sit down, Darryl?" I'd ask, because there's nothing creepier than someone standing behind you, rasping their breath through their perennially stuffy nose. Especially if you're eating a bowl of popcorn, as I usually was.

"No, no," he's say vaguely, eyes dilating like something out of a 1950s alien movie.

And there he'd stay.

"Seriously, Darryl. Since you're gonna watch, anyway, why don't you just sit?" Elsewhere. Anywhere. Not there.

"I'm on my way to the kitchen."

And forty-five minutes later, he'd finally make it the other three yards to the kitchen, where he would prepare some vile midnight snack along the lines of a bologna and onion sandwich. I'd like to think his distraction by the show was what caused this revolting food choice, but alas, it was just one more slightly off thing about him.

Anyway, Mondays at the Van Houghtons were challenging. To say the least.

But Angela Van Houghton was also the events coordinator for the country club where my most profitable work was--usually one banquet every other week, though sometimes it was more--and that made the pressure of working for Angela that much greater. I needed to keep her happy so she'd keep recommending me to people who were having parties.

Tuesday is a lot more pleasant.

Tuesday was Paul McMann, a lawyer I never, ever even caught a glimpse of, but for a long time I imagined him to look a lot like Fred Flintstone, based on his culinary tastes.

Paul--or Mr. Tuesday, as I like to think of him--is a big fan of June Cleaver-style comfort food. Pure back-of-the-box stuff: noodleburger casserole, onion soup mix meat loaf, beef pot pie, chicken 'n' biscuits, Philadelphia cheesecake, and so on. He probably would have been perfectly happy if I made him Hamburger Helper every week.

Butter, sour cream, white flour, cheddar cheese, canned Campbell's tomato soup, macaroni noodles...all that stuff that was missing on Mondays, I got to make up for with Mr. Tuesday. Even iceberg lettuce, which is nutritionally dull, but culinarily fun to slice and embellish, was A-OK with him.

I loved cooking for Mr. Tuesday.

He worked late all the time, it seemed. I never saw him, though I did arrive between five and six, and I suppose it was possible his workday started at noon. Nevertheless, he was a mystery to me.

For example, he was clearly a man's man: no frills, no fuss. It showed in his food tastes, his books, and especially in his choice of very spare décor. It works for me. I really kind of enjoy the clean wood and leather feel of his apartment. Decidedly masculine, but for some reason I find it reassuring. It's like sitting in an executive office, waiting for a big inheritance check from an elderly and unknown relative to be cut and cashed.

So, whereas I usually do most of the prep work for my people at home and take the food to their places to heat and serve it (no, this isn't strictly legal, since I don't have a commercially licensed kitchen, but no one really cares), I usually take all the raw ingredients to Mr. Tuesday's place in Friendship Heights and spend hours relishing in the glorious peace of it. Sometimes I'd take the remote from its usual spot and blast some Wham! through his mounted Bose speakers, and sometimes I'd just crack open a window and listen to the nothing outside.

Always--always--I would look forward to the notes he'd leave for me.

After I'd noted my disdain for peas, which I regard as fake vegetables since they are green but almost as starchy and sugary as Skittles, he wrote:

All I'm saying is give peas a chance.

His response to the appetizers I'd left for a party he was having for his office staff:

Everything was great, but I especially loved the things that I know weren't Snausages but looked just like them. Is it unreasonable to ask for them with dinner sometime?

They were chicken and sage sausagettes that I got from a local butcher and wrapped in homemade pretzel dough, minus the salt but painted with butter. They are incredible, so I gave him points for good taste and I gave him Chickens in Throws, as he later jokingly referred to them, in a freezer bag the next week so he could have them whenever he wanted them.

And on one memorable occasion, he taped a hundred-dollar bill to a broken Corningware casserole dish I'd left with him and wrote on a Post-it:

I hope this wasn't your grandmother's or some other sentimental antique. I also hope you're wearing shoes because the vacuum cleaner hasn't worked the same since I accidentally sucked up a toupee. Not mine. I'll explain over a beer if we ever meet.

My guess was that he probably had a lot of stories I'd enjoy over a beer if we ever met.

Other than that, though, the guy was a mystery. I had a pretty good handle on most of the people I worked for--if nothing else, you can tell a lot about people by the things they surround themselves with in their homes--but Mr. Tuesday had very few clues to his personality in the main part of his apartment, and I'd never been into his bedroom or anything. Essentially, it was like trying to figure out something about the last person in your hotel room.

Wednesday was a different story. Wednesday was Lex Prather, who was usually there for at least part of the time I was. Personality-wise, he seemed to be the exact opposite of Mr. Tuesday, flamboyant where Tuesday was understated. Social, where Tuesday seemed to just be working all the time. But Lex was almost as much fun to cook for, though his tastes were far more highfalutin.

Until a year and a half ago, he lived with his mother in this two-bedroom flat in the old Westchester, off Mass Avenue. She was like Perle Mesta, and he was Felix Unger--they must have been quite a pair. Anyway, when she passed away, he hired me to cook all his old favorites, which consisted of the kind of fussy white tablecloth dishes one might have found on the menu of the Titanic. Shrimp Louis, oysters Rockefeller, Waldorf salad, even the occasional molded Jell-O dish incongruously made it onto the menu. He apparently had no problem drawing the line at mint jelly, however.

Lex is tall and thin, and always impeccably dressed, which is appropriate, since he owns the venerable old Simon's Department Store downtown. It outlived both Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's department stores, though I believe its reputation might be wobbling a bit now in the shadow of Nordstrom and everything you can find in Tysons Corner and the Galleria.

Anyway, the movie version of Lex could be perfectly played by Tony Randall. He is of completely indeterminate sexual orientation--though by "indeterminate" I mean that I don't know if he's gay or completely asexual; straight does not appear to be an option, although it's possible I'm wrong about that, I suppose.

A social butterfly, Lex often had me cooking for his mystery book group or his annual Christmas, New Year's, May Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Halloween parties.

The upshot is that Lex had champagne tastes and a champagne budget. This made him pretty fun to cook for in and of itself, but he was also just a really great guy and I enjoyed seeing him every time. That's a luxury I don't always have with my clients, and it's particularly nice since work is basically the only social contact I have at all.

Which takes us to Thursday.

Thursday nights were with the Oleksei family, which was sheer chaos. Not really bad chaos, necessarily, just crazy chaos. The Oleksei family consisted of a grandfather, Vlad, who was clearly the patriarch of the family, often holding court in a mysterious back room I never saw but from which people would come and go at all hours, often leaving looking fearful or even in tears.

I half suspected that they were part of the Russian Mafia.

Seriously.

They made me a little nervous sometimes.

Vlad Oleksei's wife had died years earlier, leaving him with three strapping sons--now in their thirties and forties--and a handwritten recipe book I could not read, because it was in Russian. Fortunately, my sister's boyfriend worked in the Russian department at American University and was translating the recipes as best he could for me, though the metric translation was still a bit of a challenge for me.

The Oleksei sons--Borya, Serge, and Viktor--were all nice enough to me, and always politely appreciative of the food I prepared, but there was something...off about them, too. They owned a dry cleaning and tailoring store, which I knew from The Jeffersons could be profitable, but it was just hard to picture the three of them going into one little dry cleaner every day and whistling as they busily worked out a stain in the collar of a shirt.

Nevertheless, assuming that wasn't a cover for their actual work with the Russian mob, that was what they did.

Viktor was the only one who was married. His wife was American and stood out in that family like a sore thumb--blond, big-lipped, brash, and boisterous. It was hard to imagine how she lived in such a traditional old-world atmosphere. I could picture her much more easily in a football jersey, tailgating with a bunch of burly blond lumberjack types than this dark, moody family.

Fridays I had the Lemurras in Georgetown.

What can I say about Marie Lemurra?

For one thing, she was a social climber to the nth degree. In the short three months I'd worked for her, I'd watched her try to get in with politicians, a few former B-list movie stars who now lived in or outside D.C., and most recently, local famewhores on the D.C. True Wife Stories reality show.

For another thing, she seemed to hate me, though that had to be impossible, given that she knew me only in a professional context and even that involved me doing her bidding and not arguing. Nevertheless, she was a woman who didn't seem satisfied with acquiescence of any sort; she wanted it to include at least a small measure of pain. I think Marie Lemurra needed other people to be wrong so that she, herself, could feel right.

It wasn't an ideal work situation, believe me, but I don't think very many people among us would say their work is always 100 percent awesome.

Marie Lemurra, and those like her, was the price I had to pay for having a job I otherwise loved.

So that was my week right now: the Van Houghtens, Mr. Tuesday, Lex, the Olekseis, and the Lemurras. They ran the gamut, in every way.

With the banquet work added on the weekends, my life felt full and secure.

Famous last words, huh?

HOPE IN A JAR. Copyright 2009 by Beth Harbison