When I first started baking challah, it came out looking like pita. I was pregnant and we’d moved to Colorado Springs. I had to go to the library to look up high altitude baking (this was in the eighties) and while I was there, I picked up an old book on a display shelf. I stood there reading about an eccentric detective in NYC who liked growing orchids, reading, and eating gourmet meals prepared by his personal chef. It was Rex Stout, and it was riveting, but I didn’t borrow the book. I considered myself to be a reader of literature, not mysteries.
I learned how to bake challah at altitude and ended up borrowing four novels that day. I’d always loved reading and usually read between forty and fifty books a year. Mysteries were iffy because they often included violence or disgusting discussions about the trajectory of blood and the placement of body parts. Mysteries, I thought, were a lower form of literature, like romances. I was a reading snob.
While becoming known for my fluffy challah during those years, I also used to jot down thoughts, stories, poems, and little songs to sing to my babies. My second daughter was twenty months old when my marriage collapsed. I’d been working in Denver, so we moved up there. When I wasn’t working or taking care of the girls, I wrote a lot; mostly songs about being lonely and hurt, revenge stories and depressing poetry.
The girls and I lived in one of those ugly developments built next to the highway. We could hear cars roaring at all hours. I still baked challah on Fridays and would invite other young families to our sabbath dinners, but it was hard to do it all by myself.
We rarely ate out. I made foods the girls could help with, like pizza dough or peanut butter balls. The older one ate everything, but the little one was picky, so I started adding seeds and vegetables into foods to increase their nutritional value. I’d use the food processor to blend zucchini, parsley and other green vegetables until it was almost a puree. I’d add the mixtures to soups and sauces. The girls couldn’t tell, especially when they were distracted by my dumplings or my soft, sweet challah.
I didn’t become a master of subterfuge until a few years later after I’d remarried my now husband of many years, and we had a son together. That son, who still doesn’t like vegetables as a grown-up, was the inspiration for an all-out campaign. Everything I cooked or baked was filled with secret ingredients. He liked dipping things in other things, so I created dips out of all kinds of vegetables or beans that, when smooth and spicy, were perfect for dipping crackers or tortilla chips.
I grated apples and pears into cakes, stirred mashed bananas into quick breads, pulsed chopped parsley and mashed beets into bread. As the months passed and the girls grew, I kept writing longer and longer pieces. One manuscript dragged 400 pages but didn’t hold together. Another one was going to be called Tales of Huffman, a nod to Offenbach, but it was terrible. I kept trying.
Some years later, when the girls were already grown and the boy had just gone off to college, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I had to stop working when the chemo made me too sick to function, and I spent a year having devastating treatments, recovering just enough from each treatment to move on to the next.
Suddenly, I didn’t have the bandwidth for reading novels. The only thing I liked to read were mysteries. I sought out Nero Wolfe, the orchid growing detective in the Rex Stout novel, the homebound one with the personal chef. I liked the puzzle of solving mysteries and enjoyed reading about food when everything tasted like metal in real life. I read some excellent books by Donna Leon and Louise Penny, Andrea Camerelli and Martin Walker, but mostly I read the silliest, most idiotic mysteries you can imagine.
There was usually a heroine who owns a pastry shop or a catering business of some kind, usually set in a small tourist town or a lovely little mountain village. She usually has a love interest or two. The people surrounding her are caricatures of real people. She inadvertently finds herself needing to solve a suspicious murder. Nothing seems real or possible, and everyone stuffs their face with cupcakes or donuts all day. I hated when ghosts or little animals helped solved crimes, but I loved reading those cozy mysteries.
I vowed that if I survived, I was going to try to write a mystery. I wasn’t aiming to write the great American novel – I was going to write a cozy, where nobody’s carpet is ever ruined, and you don’t lose a minute of sleep worrying about an escaped convict or a child molester. I was going to combine two things I loved: food and mysteries, into an actual book. I was going to write about a smart woman whose husband left her to raise the children on her own. She was going to have a best friend whom she envied but loved. There would be twists and turns, and I’d follow most of the rules of mystery writing, but not all. And it was going to be set in a café that I dreamed about. The Whipped and Sipped Café.
The seasons changed. I recovered. And then, I wrote that book.
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