Eleven Years Later
When Jake Newberry asked me to cook for him, I froze.
“Something wrong?” He swept a strand of silver hair out of his eyes and gave me his famous cool blue stare.
“I’m not applying for a position in the test kitchen.” I tried to keep the disappointment from my voice; the job had sounded so perfect. “I thought you were looking for a new executive assistant.”
“I am.” Then he added, “Didn’t anybody tell you I ask every candidate to cook for me?”
How had I missed that?
Jake reached down and patted the big yellow dog at his feet; the dog wriggled with pleasure, and I found that oddly reassuring. “Look, Billie.” Jake offered an encouraging smile. “You seem like a good fit for Delicious! You worked on The Daily Cal. It sounds like you know your way around a kitchen. And you’re even willing to leave school to take the job. I like that; it shows how much you want it.”
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I’d spent hours working on an explanation for dropping out; it had never crossed my mind that he’d consider it a plus. “You’ve said all the right things.” He looked down at the pile of manuscripts on his desk, and when he looked up again, his smile was crooked. “You Googled me, right?”
“Would you want an assistant who didn’t?”
“Good answer. But that just proves my point. I don’t find interviews all that revealing.”
Every article I’d read about Jake mentioned that he was a non-corporate guy, which was one of the reasons I’d applied for the job. Working at Delicious! sounded like joining a club, entering a little world of its own, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Needed. I’d spent hours preparing for this interview, studying Jake, chasing down every detail. Now it appeared that hadn’t been enough.
“What’s wrong with interviews?” I was playing for time. I really didn’t want to cook.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He was truly great-looking; the photographs captured his all-American looks, but they didn’t catch the humorous way his lips turned up or the watchful intelligence in his eyes. “You tell me you love the book, but, then, you’re hardly going to say you hate it.”
He’d lost me. Book? I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Ha! Another piece of the puzzle slides into place. You don’t know much about magazines, do you? In this business, magazines are always called ‘books.’ I don’t know why. What I do know is that every writer who comes for an interview is madly in love with this book. Then I ask what they’re reading, and they serve up the usual suspects: The New Yorker, and the most challenging bestseller on the current list.”
He pointed an ebony letter opener at me. “I have to admit, throwing Brillat-Savarin into the mix was a clever move on your part; nobody’s ever come up with that before.”
Not all that clever: It hadn’t taken much to find out he’d written his college honors thesis on the great French gastronome.
Jake was studying me, and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d be easier on me if I were one of the pretty girls, or at least a bit more stylish. Aunt Melba had insisted that I buy a black skirt and a white shirt, but I hadn’t bothered trying them on and the skirt was a little too short; now I tugged at it, trying to edge it closer to my knees. But it turned out Jake wasn’t concerned with the way I looked. “I’m trying to figure out if you knew I’d ask what you had for dinner last night.”
It had been a lucky guess, but if I were the editor of a food magazine, that’s a question I’d be asking. So I Googled around and discovered that Jake had a passion for Japanese food. Then I found some obscure new place in the East Village specializing in Kitakata ramen and went in for a big bowl of clear fragrant broth filled with broad, chewy noodles.
“Sounds great!” he said, when I described the tiny restaurant and the eccentric chef who ran it. “I’ve never heard about that place, and I can’t wait to try it. Thanks. The thing is . . .” He stopped for a moment to let a noisy truck go by. Delicious! occupied a grand old mansion, and on this hot September morning Jake had all the windows open. I looked around, noting what a mess the place was; there were so many stacks of manuscripts, it had been hard to find a place to sit down. “Here’s what I’ve learned about you: You do your homework. That’s good. But all it really tells me is that you’re smart and you want the job. We could talk all day and I’d still have no idea if you’re right for Delicious! But cooking’s different; it doesn’t lie. Is this a problem? Just humor me, okay.”
There was no question mark on the end of that last sentence. If I wanted to work for Jake Newberry, I was going to have to cook.
Why hadn’t I anticipated this? Because there was a problem: These days, simply thinking about cooking could bring on a panic attack.
Already I felt the clammy sweat popping out all over my body. Not now! I thought, willing myself to stand up, reminding myself to breathe. “Anticipatory panic is the worst part,” the therapist had said, and anxiety was pouring over me, making me woozy, as I followed Jake out of his office.
I tried to concentrate on the dog, who was running before us, jauntily waving his tail. In that moment I would have given anything to be him, to be so carefree. Go away! I pleaded with the panic, but now it entered me, expanding like a huge balloon, filling my body with agitation. My hands were shaking and the nausea was coming on, but Jake didn’t seem to notice. “I’m always eager to find out what people will make for me.”
“Gin–” I began, grateful to be talking. It might help. But Jake waved me quiet.
“No, no, don’t tell me. I like to be surprised.”
I followed him up the stairs, so focused on the panic that I barely registered the graceful carved oak banisters and soft wooden floors. Concentrate on the recipe, I told myself, trying to repeat the ingredients in my head: oranges, cardamom, pepper, sour cream. The words were slightly soothing; maybe it would be okay. But then we were at the kitchen and Jake was opening the door. The scent of sugar, flour, and butter wafted toward me, and it was so familiar that I felt the blood rush from my face as the dizziness claimed me. The panic was inside, choking me, and outside too, a great wave crashing over me.
“You okay?” Jake’s hand was on my arm. I knew I’d gone white.
“Fine. I’m fine.” I put my hand out and grabbed the counter, trying to steady myself. From somewhere far away I heard Jake say, “Okay, then. This is Maggie, our executive food editor. She’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need.” Then he was gone.
All I wanted was to lie down on the cool floor, but I glanced up, trying to focus on the woman in front of me. She was old and painfully thin, with a straight nose and short black hair that looked as if she’d chopped it off with a carving knife. She glared at me and muttered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Why’s Jake wasting my time? He’ll never hire her.”
Her unexpected meanness was like an electric shock, and it jerked me backward, jolting me into the moment. The effect was so immediate and so strong that the dizziness receded. It was like a miracle; I almost laughed. What was the worst thing that could happen? I’d faint? Scream? Make some kind of fool of myself? I straightened up, looked her in the eye, told her I’d need ginger, eggs, and oranges, and began ticking off the spices. She silently pointed to the refrigerator, the cupboard, the spice cabinet–staccato little jerks, as if she begrudged me every motion. The blood began to return to my head, and now I could feel the sweat drip down my face. I swiped at it with a paper towel when Maggie’s back was turned. Then I opened the refrigerator and reached in, grateful for the rush of cold as I grabbed the eggs. The nausea was still there, but it was bearable now, and the departing panic had left relief in its wake, so strong it felt almost like elation. I’d have a terrible headache later on, but I was going to get through this.
Maggie stomped off to the next counter, where a tall, older cook was rolling out pasta. The room was crowded–at least eight other cooks were in there–and the scent of baking cakes, roasting meats, and caramelizing onions filled the air. I gathered my ingredients and began to relax into the rhythm of the kitchen, slowly slipping into that flow where I was all alone. I grated orange peel, concentrating on the way the cool oil felt on my fingertips. I picked up a knob of ginger, losing myself to the rain-forest fragrance as I slowly shredded it with my knife. The scents swirled around me: cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, and clove.
Captured by the cooking, I picked up the pace, my spoon ringing against the bowl, my body vibrating to the familiar moves. I was so into sifting flour, greasing pans, and pouring batter that I didn’t even realize I was talking as the cake went in the oven.
“ ‘No earthquakes now’?” Maggie’s voice was belligerent. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s a California thing.”
She sniffed derisively and stuck out her sharp chin. She seemed to be searching for a cutting remark when someone shouted, “Taste!”
The word reverberated through the room, galvanizing the cooks. They all dropped what they were doing and went charging toward the sound, forks held out before them, like knights heading into a joust. They descended on a roast one of the cooks had just pulled from the oven, each jockeying for the first forkful. There was a moment of silence as they stood chewing, then a sudden rush of words as they deconstructed the dish.
“Needs more salt.”
“Reminds me of that Paula Wolfert dish, the one with warka.”
“Why’d you use achiote?”
Ten minutes later, they were still talking. I opened my oven door, and as the carnival scent of gingerbread came spilling out, they all looked toward me before resuming the conversation.
I turned the cake out of the pan and let it cool for a few minutes. I had just finished glazing it when Maggie stalked over. “How long do you let it cool?”
“I like to eat it while it’s still a little warm.”
“Taste!” she bellowed. I jumped back as the outstretched forks came rushing toward me.
“It smells incredible,” said one of the cooks.
Maggie, a practiced jouster, shoved his fork aside. “I’ll take the first bite,” she said, lopping off a chunk. She put it in her mouth and her lips twisted, as if she’d swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. For a minute I thought she hated it. But then she said, reluctantly, “Oh, God, this is fantastic. Jake’s going to love it.”
It was the gingerbread, of course; when Jake tasted it, he said anyone who could turn the world’s most banal cake into something so compelling–he actually used that word–belonged at Delicious! He said he had to hire me if only to get the recipe.
As if I’d give it to him!
Everything’s happened so fast. Two weeks ago I was heading back for senior year, and now I’ve got a job in New York, an apartment, a whole new life. If I let myself think about it, I get terrified, so it’s a good thing I’ll be busy: Jake said I’ll sometimes have to work till after midnight. And the pay’s so low. Dad says he’ll cover my first year’s rent, which is pretty serious, considering how much he hates me dropping out of school. And how much he’s going to miss me. Aunt Melba keeps texting me, reminding me to call him. She thinks he’s going to take this hard, but, then, she’s always worrying about Dad.
I found the most incredible place, a fifth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side. It’s like the place I’ve always dreamed of, so perfect I sometimes think I must have conjured it from my imagination. It’s tiny, but there’s tons of light, and it’s in a great old neighborhood. If I keep the windows open, I can hear people’s voices as they walk down the sidewalk, and if they’re loud enough I catch intriguing little snatches of conversation. It goes on all day and all night; there’s always something happening on Rivington. I love that.
My first night here, I went out at midnight–midnight!–to grab a bite at the little Chinese place on the corner. Then I went to the bookshop. Even that late at night, it was filled with people who looked like they led interesting lives.
I just wish you were here to share this. I feel so lonely. And then there’s the question of clothes. I’m heading off to my first day of work, and I’m hopeless. All those mornings I watched you getting dressed–if only I’d paid attention.
Stately, gracious, old, the Timbers Mansion seemed to soak up all the sunshine on the street. I walked slowly up the soft stone steps, taking in the worn bricks and faded marble columns. A hundred years ago, in 1910, when Delicious! magazine moved in, Greenwich Village must have been full of houses just like this, but now the mansion was the last one standing on this narrow tree-lined street.
Inside, the high-ceilinged lobby was dark and cool. The guard at the antique desk glanced up. “First day, right?” He waved me toward the staircase. “Jake’s expecting you. Second floor.”
The day of my interview, I’d been too nervous to notice much, but now I looked around, taking in the details. How amazing to be working in this gorgeous old house, surrounded by marble, carved oak, and chandeliers. There must be a fireplace in every room, and ancient windows with wavy handblown panes captured the sun and drew it inside.
Jake was waiting on the second floor beneath a silver chandelier. His dog was there too, leaping ecstatically to greet me as if I were his favorite person in the world. I reached down to pat him, but he jumped up, put his paws on my chest, and tried to lick my face. I laughed.
“Good thing you like dogs.” Jake pulled him down. “That temp they sent was terrified of Sherman.” He tugged gently on the dog’s silky ears. “But you didn’t think much of her either, did you, boy? The woman was a disaster. Poor Billie’s got no idea what a mess she’s walking into.”
Excerpted from Delicious! by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Reichl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.