Megan Elder Evans
Nina sat at her desk rubbing her temples in small circles. Her expenses spreadsheet glared at her across the computer screen and a stack of bills lay sprawled across the desk. The power company had given her one week to pay the already overdue bill, and if it were not for taking on a roommate, Nina’s power and water would already be shut off at home.
How had this happened? It was August and Nina had already accumulated over $200,000 in debt this year. That didn’t even count the $126,000 she still owed on the second mortgage. When she bought the old dance studio and converted it into a bistro, she had big plans and high hopes. Six months after opening One: A Unique Bistro, offering a small yet satisfying selection of items ranging from classic American comfort food to Italian, to Mediterranean, to Pan Asian, all with a culinary school flair, business was booming. She had the best restaurant in Sacramento and had been voted the best chef three years in a row.
A year and a half ago Nina had only $20,000 left on her mortgage, she had twenty-five employees, an income of at least five thousand dollars a night, and a yearly personal income o at least $200,000 after everyone and everything was paid. Now she was in the process of filing for bankruptcy.
Worst of all was not the money, though. Since Nina hired a new head chef and retired from the kitchen to focus more on promotion of One and to find the perfect place to open a second location, forty people had been hospitalized with food poisoning from her restaurant. Luckily there had been no deaths, but after the first few cases, Nina found a new head chef. One after the other, chefs were hired and fired for the same reason. Nina couldn’t understand it. Each chef had come highly recommended, and most of them came from premier culinary schools in Europe. Yet, all of their training and experience and the fresh organic ingredients they used didn’t add up to much.
The restaurant was failing. No one wanted to eat at a restaurant where people consistently got sick, and the Sacramento live action news team would not let the public forget anytime soon.
Nina closed her books and shut down her computer. The staff were waiting for her in the dining room. She opened the safe in her office and pulled out a stack of checks, quickly thumbed through them, grabbed a handful of pens from the desk and exited her office. As she passed through the kitchen Nina glanced around. Not a speck of food or a bug in sight. She didn’t get it. She wondered for a moment if people were developing an intolerance for cleanliness and hormone and pesticide-free food. When she entered the dining room a heaviness in the air pressed down on her, laboring each breath, pulling strength from each muscle, slowing each heartbeat until Nina felt she might crumple to the floor like a rag doll.
The eyes of her employees stared at her. Young and old, new and seasoned, they all held their breath, waiting to hear if they would all be coming back tomorrow or if they would all be looking for new jobs.
Nina patted the stack of checks with the handful of pens. She bit her lip. “I know the last few months have been hard, especially for those of you waiting tables. Thank you for doing your best under the circumstances.” Nina looked around the room at her employees sitting erect and on edge. No sense in drawing out a long speech. She tapped the checks.
“I have decided to close the restaurant temporarily. It’s not permanent. Just two weeks until I can figure out a new game plan, talk to some financial specialists.”
Everyone shifted in their chairs. Nina felt their anxiousness grow.
She held out the stack of checks. “I’ve kept emergency funds on hand since we opened, which lately I’ve had to dip into to keep from being foreclosed on. And there is enough left to keep you all paid during these two weeks.” Nina addressed the wait staff. “Since you won’t have the opportunity to earn tips, I’ve written checks to match what our chefs make on average.” She laid the pens down on one of the tables and handed each check out. “I need you all to sign the bottom of the stub.”
When each check had been recived, Nina collected the stubs. “I’ll understand if you all choose to seek employment elsewhere.” Tears rushed to her eyes.
Bridget, one of the waitresses, stood up and hugged Nina. Bridget had been with Nina from the beginning and she wasn’t going anywhere.
One by one, the other staff stood up and joined in the hug. Nina smiled. “Thank you. This is only temporary. I promise.” She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Now, go home and enjoy your two weeks of paid vacation.”
As Nina boarded the plane for Georgia she wondered if there was any truth to what she had said; if it was temporary. She pulled out her appointment book. Today was Saturday. Monday she had a 9:00 a.m. appointment with Mr. Spinner, the bank manager and old family friend. He would go over her financials and help her consolidate her debt and create a new plan for getting back on her feet and restaurant back to making money. That still would not solve the damage done by the bad publicity or help her figure out what was causing all of the food poisoning, but that was where her mother would come in. Etta was always good at lessening a bad situation and solving mysteries that stumped everyone else. Some of the old white ladies in church had taken to calling her Miss Marple, although Etta was neither an old maid nor the town busy-body.
Nina leaned back in her coach seat and closed her eyes. She performed the deep breathing exercise her yoga instructor had taught her and created a new mantra: Mama will know.
I don’t know what to tell you,” Etta said. She handed her daughter a cup of coffee.
Nina took a sip. “That’s not what I needed to hear.”
“Your restaurant was doing wonderfully until recently, right? What changed?”
Nina shrugged. “Nothing that makes any sense. The food is the same as it always was, and I’m the cleanest restaurant in Sacramento. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve changed head chefs six times in the last six months….”
“You’re not head chef anymore?” Etta interrupted.
“No. I quit the kitchen to focus on trying to expand.”
Etta sat back and crossed her arms. She pushed out her bottom lip, lowered her chin, and stared over the rim of her glasses.
Nina stared. “What?”
“You know what.”
“Oh, come on. People are not getting sick because I’m not the head chef anymore. It’s just a coincidence that it all started then.”
Etta clicked her tongue. “I won’t sit here and try to convince you. You came for help and now you don’t want it. Tit for tat, though. You asked for help, now I’m asking.” Etta paused then continued. “The ladies at church are hosting a dinner for the seniors tonight and since I’m not that old yet, I’ll be cooking the food and I could use the help.”
“You’re cooking everything? For how many?”
“About a hundred, but I’m not cooking everything. There are five of us and we’re each assigned a dish. I’m doing corn soup.”
Great. Work was exactly what Nina wanted to do in the middle of her own crisis. “Okay,” she said. “When do we need to get started?”
“Now.” Etta stood up. “I already got everything we need.”
Nina followed her mother out to the garage and helped her load everything in her mother’s old utility van. It took longer to load and unload everything than it did to drive to the church. Nina clocked it. Five minutes.
“We could’ve walked,” she chuckled.
Etta only shook her finger.
Once everything had been brought into the church kitchen Etta asked, “You remember how to make corn soup?”
“Uh…corn and…water,” Nina grinned.
“My corn soup.”
“I know. I remember.”
Nina set a large stock pot on the stove and turned on the electric burner. She preferred gas, it heated quicker, but what could be expected from a church kitchen? Nina shuffled through a bin of utensils and seasonings until she found the salt—plain old iodized table salt, not kosher, or sea, or Himalayan salt—and black pepper—already ground into a fine powder and half its original punch and flavor gone. She sprinkled the salt and pepper over the stew beef chunks they brought with them. Nina returned to the bin and looked through it, tossing all of the bin’s contents in disarray.
Etta, who had been unloading the rest of the bags and boxes they brought in looked at Nina’s mess. “Child, what are you looking for?”
Etta chuckled and shook her head. “You said you remembered my recipe.”
Nina stopped. “Fat back.”
“Now you remember.”
Nina grabbed a chunk of fat back and rubbed the bottom and lower sides of the stock pot with it to keep the beef from sticking to the metal. She set the fat back aside and tossed the beef into the pot.
The meat sizzled and sent up an aroma Nina had not smelled in years. The melted pork fat combined with the beef and salt and pepper smelled like homemade sausage.
Etta looked in the pot and smiled. Nina stirred the meat until the sides were browned and just beginning to develop a nice golden-brown sear. Etta cut the remaining fat back into large chunks and tossed them into the pot. Then they each filled a pitcher of water and poured them in. Nina’s stomach began to growl. She had almost forgotten the flavor fat back brought to soup.
“Drool on your own time,” Etta said. “I need these peppers cut up.” Etta handed her daughter a bag of bell peppers.
When the peppers had been chopped and the soup had come to a boil, the two women added the peppers and corn kernels. Nina lowered the heat, brought the pot to a simmer and put the lid on. Etta set the timer. In two hours, the soup would be ready, the fat back melted and mingling throughout. All that was left to do now was wait.
As Nina washed the few dishes they had dirtied and Etta dried, Nina thought about her mother’s recipes—all the food she hadn’t had since moving to California five years ago. She had been too busy with her restaurant to come home even for the holidays.
“How often do you cook for the seniors?”
“This is my first time. The church elders used to ask Betty-Ann to do it all the time, but the sheppard’s pie she cooked last time gave a bunch of people the squirts. Even sent a few to puking. So this time they asked me.”
“Food poisoning.” Nina rolled her eyes. “I tell you I have problems at my restaurant with food poisoning, and then you ask me to help you feed a bunch of old people. Haven’t their bodies suffered enough?”
“Pshaw!” Etta waved a hand. “I told you why people were getting sick. You watch. These people tonight will walk out of here in better condition than when they walked in because you took the time to make it right yourself.”
When 6:00 p.m. rolled around, Nina watched the church elders and other seniors hobble, shuffle, and wheel their way into the dining hall. Youth members had been harassed into helping everyone to their seat and then aligning their walkers on a nearby wall, out of the way of other youth members who had volunteered to serve the food from the kitchen.
Nina got a whiff of the Bengay in the air and escaped back into the kitchen where the mixing aromas of corn soup, warm buttered dinner rolls, ham, green beans, macaroni and cheese, and apple and blueberry pies enveloped her.
“We eat after the seniors get their food,” Etta said, reading her daughter’s mind.
When Nina was still head chef, and even when she was in culinary school or working her way up the ranks in other restaurants, she always made a little more of everything just to taste, to make sure what she was creating was a masterpiece. She had not done that today, except to taste the soup, and the appetite she had lacked the past few weeks returned. Nina wanted to eat everything—not only what she and her mother made but what the other ladies made. She wanted that good old Southern cooking.
Joanne, who brought the macaroni and cheese and the dinner rolls peeked into the dining room. When the last table had been served she turned toward Nina and the other ladies. “Alright, let’s eat before they start complaining.”
Nina looked around at the nodding heads. “They complain about free food.”
“Honey,” Lisa, who brought the pies, said, “they complain about everything.”
“I don’t know why I keep doing this month after month,” Joanne said.
Helen spoke up. “We’re earning our seats in heaven.”
“Well, I’ve earned a seat at the right hand of God,” Lisa said.
“Blasphemy!” Helen pointed a finger.
Lisa waved it off.
“God help us we don’t end up like them.” Joanne grabbed some plates and handed them around to the ladies.
Etta took a plate. “What we do for them is a good service. It gives them a good healthy meal free of charge and a chance to spend time with their friends. And our food is the center of it all.”
The ladies all nodded their heads. The gratitude, or lack of it, wasn’t what mattered. All that mattered was that their food put a little more pep in the senior citizens’ steps. The ladies all ate their fill of the food they had made, complimenting Nina and Etta on the corn soup especially.
By 7:30 everyone had eaten and had time to relax and talk before Pastor Jenkins delivered his brief sermon on passing on traditions, wisdom, and knowledge to the younger generations. He motioned toward the young men and women who had been waiting on the seniors several times. When he had finished his sermon, before delivering the final prayer for the evening, Pastor Jenkins called Nina, Etta, Lisa, Helen, and Joanne up to the podium.
Joanne, Helen, and Lisa looked at each other. The pastor had never asked them to step forward before.
“Let’s thank these wonderful ladies for a wonderful meal. Joanne, thank you for the macaroni and rolls. Lisa, thank you for the pies. Helen, thank you for the ham and green beans. And Etta, thank you and your lovely daughter for that delicious corn soup.”
A low hum of approval and nodding heads accompanied his speech.
Nina watched the seniors as they stood up and exited, first the younger, more nimble ones. Then, Nina’s jaw dropped. One after the next, the old men and women who had hobbled in on canes or shuffled in on walkers tucked their canes under their arms and dragging their folded walkers alongside them. Even the few in wheelchairs were wheeling themselves out unassisted.
“Mama. Are you seeing this?” Nina looked at Etta.
A small smile crept across Etta’s face. “Let’s grab our dishes from the kitchen. It’s time to go home now.”
Nina stood behind the stove, tossing venison medallions, mushrooms, and ramps in large cast iron pan. She poured a little bourbon in the pan and lit the bourbon on fire. Flames shot up and Nina stood back and smiled. She had missed the pleasure that had brought her into a culinary career. Now that she was back in the kitchen she felt at home and the restaurant was making money. People loved the new menu too. After coming back to the kitchen, the second thing Nina did was get rid of the European and Asian influences. The menu was wholly American now. Nina determined only indigenous ingredients would be used.
She laughed to herself when the local food critics praised her for using “forgotten ingredients used before Columbus.” Nina didn’t know about forgotten—after all, her mother and grandmother still used the old ingredients—but before Columbus was damn sure.
These foods gave strength to the people before, and now the food gave strength again. Not only was no one getting sick, but every time she saw her customers return, they looked healthier, happier, taller.
Nina spooned the medallions onto two plates and carried them out into the dining room. Etta met her smile at a nearby table. Beside her sat a notebook labeled Recipes. Etta pushed the notebook across the table.
“For you and the restaurant—so you don’t forget.”
Nina smiled and nodded her head. A basket of hot fresh frybread sat on the table. She picked up a piece and dipped it in the bourbon sauce, scooping a few ramps on the bread. With food this good, how could she ever forget again?