“When I started getting better…I thought that if I survive, I would write and publish a book.”
In G. P. Gottlieb’s debut whodunit, Battered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery, sleuth Alene Baron co-owns and -operates a café in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood with her best friend and old college roommate, the Jewish-identified Ruthie Blum Rosin. The two are known for turning out scrumptious yet healthful desserts in their art-filled eatery, but when one of Alene’s neighbors is murdered and the victim’s wife is subsequently attacked, she uses her formidable forensic skills to sniff out the crimes before her own family falls prey to the killer.
Over tea at a very real café in Lakeview, the 62-year-old Gottlieb waxed passionate on her foray into mystery writing, her lifelong love of Jewish music, and her quest for the perfect pastry.
Raised in a kosher, Conservative home in Chicago’s northern suburbs, Gottlieb, née Galit Pinsky (ergo, G. P.), was a piano-playing prodigy who aspired to a concert career. She was the rare child, she acknowledged, who practiced every day-without parental prodding-and did so with an ardent single-mindedness.
“We lived in a Chicago two-flat,” she recalled of her younger years, “and I shared a bedroom with my sister and maternal grandmother, Grandma Weiss. The only time I had to myself was practicing and reading.”
When Gottlieb arrived at Indiana University’s music conservatory, she recounted, she realized that she was not the best. She switched her concentration to voice, joined the elite Singing Hoosiers, and graduated with a degree in music and psychology. She soon found her way to Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a master’s degree in voice.
In Boston, and later in Colorado, Gottlieb served as a cantor at a number of Reform congregations. Along the way, she married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried-she and David Gottlieb have enjoyed 26 years of marital bliss-and had one more child. She also learned Ladino, made a number of recordings and wrote children’s songs.
When she and her family came back to the Chicago area about two decades ago, Gottlieb worked in music programs at the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School before signing on as the administrator of DePaul University College of Law’s Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies. She also perfected her skills as a stealth chef.
Because “Gabriel doesn’t eat fruits and vegetables,” Gottlieb said of her youngest child, now a 24-year-old flight engineer, she began experimenting with recipes in which she would hide produce: dates or a banana in a chocolate pie, for instance, or yams, zucchinis, and sweet potatoes in cakes and muffins.
But a focus on good eating has never been a sure ticket to continued good health, as Gottlieb learned five years ago, when she was stricken with a virulent form of breast cancer that necessitated a then-new chemotherapy cocktail.
“It was a very harsh treatment,” Gottlieb said. “I was so sick. While I was going through it, I read these absolutely ridiculous mysteries. Somebody would open up a doughnut shop, and the cat [would help solve the case].”
“When I started getting better,” she continued, “I thought that if I survive, I would write and publish a book.”
Over the past three years, Gottlieb said, she benefited from the expertise of Chicago Jewish writer S. L. Wisenberg, a fellow breast cancer survivor and author, who provided close editorial counsel.
After 67 rejections from book agents, Gottlieb hit the literary jackpot when a small independent press, D. X. Varos, Ltd., agreed to publish her book as a part of a literary prize.
Gottlieb is now participating in small, food-oriented events to promote her book, which includes 30 recipes for many of the dishes and desserts mentioned in Battered. In between completing her sequel, Smothered, and interviewing other fiction writers on her podcast on the New Books Network, she haunts the city’s cafés with a favorite great-niece to find the most delectable cookies, cakes, and pies. She also devotes one day a week to mitzvot, singing and playing her 1971 Yamaha guitar for patients at Saint Joseph Hospital. With a life now consumed by books and food, she said, “It’s the only musical thing I do.”
Recipe from Battered, reprinted with the permission of G. P. Gottlieb
Vegan Sweet Potato or Pumpkin Muffins
1 cup unsweetened almond or coconut milk
1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, canola, or coconut oil
15 oz. cooked, mashed sweet potato or 15 oz. canned pumpkin
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 cups all-purpose flour (or 1 ½ cups all-purpose and ½ cup whole wheat flour)
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking soda
Combine the first five ingredients in blender or processor-pulse until blended. Sift the last five ingredients into the blender and pulse three or four times only until blended. Pour into greased cupcake liners or greased muffin tin (about half full). Bake about 20 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (convection oven) until golden brown. Serve with maple syrup, berries, whipped coconut milk, or jam.
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Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.