August 08, 2016
The night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue. I had been worrying about the humidity all week, but that night dry, cool air drifted in through an open window. It was the 150th anniversary of the club, and Jameson Whitaker, the club’s president, had requested pistachio baked Alaska for the occasion. Since he asked while he was still lying on top of me, under the Italian linen sheets of bedroom 8, I agreed to it—even though I was fairly certain that baked Alaska would not have been on the menu in 1873. But Jamie was a sucker for a spectacle, and his favorite thing on earth was pistachio ice cream, which his wife wouldn’t let him eat at home.
I added sugar to the egg whites, a spoonful at a time. As they whipped up into a glossy cloud of white, I leaned a soft hip against my butcher-block worktable and surveyed the kitchen. Now, I’ve wielded my rolling pin in trendy city restaurants, macrobiotic catering companies, and hotels both grand and not so grand. You would think a Boston Brahmin private club like the Emerson, with its dim lights, starched linen, and brass-studded leather chairs, would have a deluxe kitchen. But no matter what the dining room (or what we in the business call the front of the house) looks like—even if we’re talking duct-taped Naugahyde benches hugging tin-rimmed Formica tables—the back of the house, the kitchen, is always the same: a sea of stainless steel. Tables, bowls, freezer all gleaming in a cold gray. Whisks and spoons hanging in orderly rows. A mixer with a hook the size of my arm bent to beat bread dough. It’s comforting. No matter how many times I changed jobs, I could always count on the kitchen: the order, the predictability, everything familiar and in its place.
I was swirling the last slope of meringue across the layers of ice cream and cake when I heard the champagne corks pop in the neighboring Jefferson Room. Glen, the GM, sprinted into the kitchen.
“Almost ready, chef?”
I held out my sticky fingers. “Hand me that blowtorch.” The blue flame swept across the meringue, leaving a burned trail of sugar in its wake.
A swell of baritone voices thundered through the swinging door, pounding the Emerson Club anthem into the kitchen.
“That’s our cue,” Glen said.
I ran my fingers through my freshly dyed curls. I had gone with purple this week. Manic Panic Electric Amethyst, to be exact. Not historically accurate for a chef in the nineteenth century, but it’s not like I was a guest.
With my thumb across the lip of the bottle, I doused the confection with 150-proof rum and hoisted up the tray. “Light me on fire.”
Glen lit a match and carefully set the flame to the pool of rum in the hollowed-out eggshell tucked into the top. In a flash, the flame caught hold and spread across the waves of meringue. Glen raced in front of me, holding open the doors. I stepped into the room to the last notes of the anthem. The crowd burst into applause.
The tray must have weighed forty pounds. Silver is heavy, and they don’t call it pound cake for nothing, never mind the ten gallons of pistachio ice cream. But I stretched my mouth wide into a smile and walked about the room, squeezing between the closely set tables and standing with the members as they snapped pictures. The flames were dying down but not quite out. Jamie stood at the back of the room, by the floor-length windows, his arm wrapped tightly around his wife’s waist. Their children were by their side, miniatures of their parents, one in a dark suit, the other in a crinoline dress. A light sweat broke out across my brow. How strange that the flames were getting smaller but I was growing hotter by the second. The room was crowded. Members were packed in small groups on every inch of carpet. Somewhere, I knew Glen was counting heads and mumbling to himself about maximum capacity. I elbowed my way through, my biceps straining as I carried the tray above my head, trying to avoid catching anyone’s gown on fire. The club treasurer put his arm around my waist, his palm resting lower on my hip than was respectable. “One for the newsletter,” he said. My smile widened. I tightened my grip on the tray. Jamie looked over at me then, his eyes vacant, skimming over and then past me. He whispered in his wife’s ear. She laughed, glancing in my direction. It was the last thing I saw before the tray slipped from my fingers and hit the floor.
After the abrupt end of my shift, I stopped by my apartment just long enough to stuff some clothes into a canvas bag and pick up Salty, my chunky Irish wolfhound mix. I drove north for three hours, fueled by the desire to be called “hon,” blasting the heater to dry my sprinkler-soaked hair, which was sticking to the back of my neck like seaweed. Salty, who just barely fit in the backseat, pressed his cold nose to my ear and sniffed. The scent of burned velvet clung to my skin. A slow-motion video of those last moments in the Jefferson Room played over and over in my head. A tablecloth had caught fire first. It might not have been so bad if it hadn’t been the tablecloth under the four-foot ice sculpture of a squirrel sitting upright with an acorn in its outstretched paw. The flames caused the squirrel to melt rapidly. When its arm snapped off, the sculpture tipped over, taking the table with it. A wave of oysters, clams, and shrimp flew into the panicked crowd before hitting the floor. The flames caught the edge of one of the antique velvet curtains, which ignited like flambéed cherries. And that’s when the sprinkler system kicked in.
At the sign for exit 17, I pulled off the highway and into the glowing parking lot of the F&G truck stop. Inside, I lingered by the hostess stand, watching dozens of pies rotate in their glass display case: sweet potato, maple walnut, banana cream. A waitress in a pastel uniform seated me in a corner booth away from a table of rowdy truckers, but even from across the room their gruff laughter felt comforting. My dad would bring me to the F&G for lunch whenever he let me tag along on his delivery route from Boston to the Canadian border—mostly just on school vacations, or if I needed a mental-health day. The last time I had been there with him was to celebrate having passed my driver’s exam. I leaned my head back against the booth, staring at the tractor-trailer wallpaper, yellow with grease, age, and smoke.
Half an hour later, I forked the last piece of pie into my mouth, chocolate pudding thick on my tongue. The waitress refilled my coffee mug and grabbed my debit card and check. I dug around in my purse, pulled out my cell phone, and, sliding down low in the booth, dialed my best friend Hannah’s number.
“Hrmph?” Hannah groaned into the phone.
“Hann, it’s Livvy. I’m at the F&G.” I scanned the dining room. No truckers were giving me the “get off your cell phone” glare.
“What flavor did you get?” Hannah paused. “Livvy, what time is it?”
The waitress’s lace-trimmed apron filled my view. I looked up to see her mouth set in a rigid line.
“Just a sec,” I mouthed.
“Declined,” she said, waving my card in the air before slapping it on the table.
“Livvy, are you still there?”
“Sorry, Hann.” I pawed through my messenger bag and pulled a couple of crumpled dollar bills out of the bottom. “Listen, can I come over? In about an hour? For a few days?”
Hannah made a clucking sound. “Bring me a piece of key lime.”
My black Wayfarers could block out the beams of sunlight that stabbed at my eyes like little paring knives but they couldn’t block out the smells. Earth, onions and herbs, and the pungent aroma of goats and ground coffee challenged my ability to keep last night’s piece of black-bottom pie in its place. I wasn’t hung over, exactly. That fine line between still drunk and sobering up was more accurate. Hannah had woken me at seven, despite the fact that I had arrived at her house at one thirty in the morning. She met me at the door bleary-eyed, traded the bottle of Jack Daniels that she kept solely for my visits for the key lime, and went wordlessly back to bed. I opted to watch Vermont Public Access—a repeat of a sheep-shearing contest—while polishing off a tumbler or two. But today was Saturday, farmer’s market day, and Hannah insisted on arriving before it opened.
The Guthrie Farmer’s Market was held every Saturday from eight in the morning till one p.m. in the high-school parking lot. Four aisles of white tents stretched across the pavement. By the entrance, between tents, an elderly man dressed in hunting gear scratched out dance tunes on a fiddle.
Hannah was on a mission. She headed straight for a display of sunflowers, walking as fast as a person can without breaking into a run. I took a slow meander through the tents in search of coffee, Salty in tow. Ceramicists hefted thickly glazed mugs. A pair of knitters, needles clicking, turned the heels of socks. A wood carver stood whittling away at a scene of a black bear and her cubs in the pine trees.
Hannah, clutching a bouquet of sunflowers to her chest like she had just won the Mrs. Coventry County pageant, found me in an herbalist’s tent, rubbing lavender-scented lotion into my palms. I leaned over to her. “They should name this Eau de Grandmother.”
She looked over my shoulder at the herbalist to make sure he hadn’t heard me. We strolled from tent to tent, Hannah filling up her wicker basket with vegetables. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look pale.”
I sighed. Arriving at work before dawn and finishing after the sun went down did give me a vampirish hue. Hannah, however, still had a healthy summer glow. I was pretty sure the Clinique counter had something to do with it. I slipped the tips of my fingers underneath my sunglasses and rubbed my eyes. “I’m fine.”
“Honey, spill it. Why are you here?”
I leaned my head on her shoulder. “Because you’re my oldest, dearest friend in the world and I missed you?” Hannah was the one person I could always count on. She was the kind of friend who showed up when you were too depressed to get off the couch and would proceed to clean your apartment and return your overdue library books before sautéing you a pile of vegetables for dinner.
“And you drove all the way up here in the middle of the night? In your work uniform? You were here five weeks ago.”
“How about I was desperate for a piece of pie and ended up at the F&G, and it seemed like a shame not to visit when I was so close to Guthrie?”
Hannah looked at me with practiced patience. “I’ve known you long enough to know that after your shift you crave beer and French fries, not pie.”
I glanced down at my hands. They were veiny, like my grandmother’s.
“I may have caused a small fire at work.”
“Oh my goodness. Was anyone hurt?”
I thought of Jamie’s wife. She had on an exact replica of the dress Ginger Rogers wore in Top Hat, the white one with all the feathers. “No, no. Not hurt. Just wet.”
“Jesus, Liv. Do you think you’ll be fired? Could the guy you’re seeing help?”
Hannah knew I was seeing someone from the Emerson, but when she pressed for details I just told her it wasn’t serious. She wouldn’t have approved of the fact that, at sixty-four, Jamie was exactly twice my age. Plus the fact that he was married. “No one ever really gets fired from the Emerson,” I said as I nervously ripped the husks and silk off random ears of corn. “More like encouraged to ‘take a break.’”
She scanned the parking lot. After a few moments she linked her arm in mine. “Let’s go see if there are any sticky buns left. They’re award-winning.”
The deeper we elbowed our way into the mass of hungry townsfolk, the harder my head began to pound. My stomach did a little shift as the smell of manure-caked work boots reached my nostrils. I really should never drink whiskey.
“Uh, Hann? I’m going to have to sit this one out. Get me something greasy.”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. “How can you eat grease with a hangover?”
“It’s healing,” I said as I headed out of the fray.
The fresh air was delicious. I found a quiet spot under a tree on the edge of the parking lot and plopped myself down, leaning my back against the rough bark. Salty sniffed at the grass, turned around three times, then finally lay down beside me, stretching his legs out in front of him.
It seemed like the whole town was at the market that day, and half of it was in the sticky-bun line. Hannah had explained that the market was the only time the farmers ever saw one another during the harvest. Between customers they traded seeds and service, exchanged news of crops and births, and gossiped. Apparently, the rest of the townspeople were there to do the same. I watched a tall, slight man unloading wooden crates of apples, plaid shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow. Sharp-nosed and thin-lipped, with dark eyes framed by black plastic eyeglasses, haircut and shave long overdue. He felt familiar. Then I realized I was remembering a man in a Walker Evans photograph taken during the Dust Bowl.
I scanned the crowd for Hannah and found her speaking to an older woman with her hands on her hips whose sky blue cardigan hugged her narrow shoulders. She frowned. Hannah patted her arm and pointed to me, her expression cheerful. The woman looked over and studied me, her lips pursed.
My cell phone, which I had jammed in my back pocket out of habit, vibrated. Here in the mountains my cell service was spotty at best—six missed calls. I felt like I had swallowed a biscuit whole.
“Livvy,” Jamie shout-whispered on my voice mail, “Where are you? I’m worried. Call me.”
“Olivia, it’s Glen. Just making sure you’re okay. The club is going to be closed for a couple days at least while they assess the damage. The fire marshal has a few questions. Call me on my cell.”
“We’re having trouble lighting the grill, chef.” It was one of the prep cooks. “We thought you could help us start the fire.” Howls of laughter in the background before the message clicked off.
Hannah’s perfectly French-manicured toes appeared in my line of vision. I pressed the off button and threw the phone into my bag. When I looked up, a cinnamon roll the size of a hubcap had replaced Hannah’s face. Creamy white glaze glistened on the curls of pastry.
“Here you go,” Hannah said, handing me the sticky bun..
I tore off a hunk and popped it into my mouth, chewing gratefully.
Hannah took a dainty bite. “Hmmmm, I haven’t had this much sugar in months.” She slipped the pastry into a waxed bag, then licked her fingers. Hannah will tell you that she counts carbs, but I know the depth of her sweet tooth. She reached into her purse, pulled out a cloth napkin and wiped her fingers, then drew her skirt around her legs and sat down next to me. “So, how long were you planning on staying?”
I eyed her sideways. “Not sure. Are you worried I’ll still be here when Jonathan comes back from the conference?” Hannah’s husband and I have agreed to disagree on just about everything. It upsets her sense of equilibrium to have us both in the same room.
“No, no. You can stay as long as you like, you know that. Besides, he isn’t due back for a few more days. No, I was just wondering if you could stay until at least Monday night.”
“Well, sure. Believe me, I’m in no hurry to get back to Boston.”
“Good. I just need to see when she’s available.” Hannah reached into her purse and pulled out the wax pastry bag. She twisted off a large chunk of roll and shoved it in her mouth.
“See when who is available?”
“The woman I was talking to in the sticky-bun line, Margaret Hurley. She’s the owner of this fantastic inn. She told me that she had to let her baker go, and I mentioned you, about your experience and the awards you’ve won, and she seemed really interested.”
“Hannah,” I said, trying to come up with the most polite way to say, There’s no way in hell. “I can’t really see myself—”
“Listen, I know it sounds like a big step, but I think you would love the place. It’s called the Sugar Maple.”
I looked out over the rows of tents. Vermont. Full time. “Don’t get me wrong, you know I like visiting you and all, but . . . I’m not sure exactly what I would do here.”
“You’d do exactly what you do in Boston—bake.
Only when you get off work it will be pretty, peaceful Vermont instead of loud, ugly Boston.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. Sure, I complained about living in the city all the time, but it felt like she was making fun of my little brother.
“What I mean is, what do you really have in Boston? No house, no family, no boyfriend—not really, I mean . . .”
“Jeez, Hann, don’t hold anything back.” I lifted my hands in surrender. At the mention of Jamie, my mind had flashed to the night before, the way he’d looked through me before I started the fire, like I was just another one of the help. “Besides—where would I live? God knows I can’t live under the same roof as your husband.”
Hannah snorted. “I’m pretty sure the position comes with housing—the last baker lived at the inn.” She glanced at me hopefully. “I’d be right down the road. We could hang out all the time. It would be like college all over again.” Hannah was referring to the one semester I had gone to state school, before dropping out to go on tour with the Dead Darlings.
I thought about my rejected debit card at the F&G. If the Emerson did indeed decide to have me “take a break,” I would be out of a job and, with all the back rent I already owed my landlord, a place to live. Salty wouldn’t be too happy about living in the station wagon. “I might consider it.”
“I’ll call her when we get back. Just go look at the place.” She beamed at me, looking satisfied, as though she had done her good deed for the day. Off the hook. “You’re gonna love it.”
LOUISE MILLER is a writer and pastry chef living in Boston, MA. She is the author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking). Louise is an art school dropout, an amateur flower gardener, an old-time banjo player, an obsessive moviegoer, and a champion of old dogs.
From The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller, published on August 9, 2016 by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Louise Miller, 2016.
Author photo: Nina Subin