A Cookbook Conspiracy
Recipes are included!
Savannah handed me the motley bundle. "Can you fix this? It's pretty old, but maybe you could clean it up and stick a new cover on it or something? I want to give it as a gift."
I slowly unwrapped the silky material and found an old book inside. Casting a quick frown at Savannah, I bent to study the book more carefully.
It wasn't just old; it was really, really, really old. Its faded red cover was made of a thin, supple French Morocco leather, the type that had been used for centuries to make personal bibles and religious missals. The binding style was known as limp binding, which made it sound sort of sad and saggy, but in reality, the slim, flexible construction allowed the book to be left open flat for easy reading without someone having to hold it.
I examined the spine and found it rippled in some spots and thinning in others. The gilding, while faded, was still readable. Obedience Green, it said.
"Obedience Green?" I rubbed my fingertip over the pale golden letters. Was that the title of the book or the name of its author? Maybe it was the name of the bindery that produced it. I opened the book, taking note of the dappled endpapers before I turned to the title page—and gasped. "It's handwritten. In ink."
"Yeah," she said, swirling her wine glass. "It's kind of hard to read in places, but it's cool, isn't it?"
I stared at the book's impressive title. The Cookbook of Obedience Green: Containing Three Hundred Curious and Uncommon Receipts and Including Miscellaneous Articles of Useful Domestic Information and a Brief History of My Life, by Obedience Green, many years Cook and Housekeeper to the Eminent War General Robt. Blakeslee.
Curious and Uncommon Receipts? I had no idea what that meant, but if Obedience had been a housekeeper, perhaps she'd recorded her household grocery receipts or something. I turned a few more pages to read an introduction written in the same fancy handwritten script as the title page. It was slow going, especially since every "s" looked like an "f."
I had no idea what the author meant when she promised to offer the most modern receipts presented in the most elegant manner. It wasn't until I reached the Table of Contents page that I realized what the author meant by receipts. My clue was at the top of the page where the author had written, Herein a bountiful listing of receipts and a practical bill of fare for every season, every month of the year.
"Recipes!" I looked at Savannah. "Because it's a cookbook."
"Duh," Savannah said, her eyes rolling dramatically as only a sister's could. "Can you fix it up or not?"
"Of course I can fix it, but I'm not sure I should."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The book might be too important."
"Oh, for goodness sake." Clearly annoyed, she stood and folded her arms across her chest. "It's just an old cookbook, Brooklyn."
"It's not just old, Savannah." I returned to the title page and searched for a date. I finally found it scrawled at the end of a long, run-on sentence that listed various contributors' names. MDCCLXXXII. I dug back into my grammar school brain and did a quick translation of the Roman numerals. M was one thousand, D was five hundred, and C was one hundred. So, one thousand five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred. Seventeen hundred. L was the Roman numeral for fifty. X was ten, so three X's after the L made it eighty. Plus two I's.
I took a few fortifying breaths until I could finally scowl sufficiently at her. "It's over two hundred and thirty years old." I showed her the date, then clutched the book to my breast. "That makes it extremely valuable just on its surface, never mind its historical or cultural value. And it's written by hand! It's beyond rare. Where did you find it? What are you going to do with it?"
Her shoulders slumped and I felt mine sinking, too. My sister could be so clueless sometimes. And right then, it was obvious that she thought the same of me. "What does it matter to you? Why do you always have to ask so many questions? Can't you just do as I ask? Just—" She fluttered her hand at me. "You know, do that thing you do. Dust it off and put a pretty cover on it."
I glared at her. "Do I tell you how to make a soufflé?"
She laughed a little as she held up her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. But if you could ... I don't know. Just fix it. I'll pay you whatever it costs if that's what you're worried about."
"You know I don't care about the money," I muttered, still too fascinated by the book to get completely riled up at her. I was used to people undervaluing books, especially these days when you could download a classic novel onto your phone for free. But it was frustrating to know that my own sister couldn't recognize the book's value. Savannah was many things: chef extraordinaire, bald as a baby, free spirit, vegetarian. But book lover? Nope, not Savannah. Not in this lifetime.
Ignoring her, I inspected the book's Table of Contents and couldn't help smiling at some of the old-fashioned terms used for the various chapters:
Mutton Flesh: A Primer;
Drying and Salting of Flesh and Fyshes;
Tongues and Udders;
Collaring, Potting and Pickling;
Syllabubs and Jellies.
I thumbed carefully through the pages, but stopped abruptly when I saw the words: I delivered a baby today. My first experience and possibly the only time I'll ever do such a thing, for it was frightening and messy.
"Hey, looks like part of the book is a journal." I paged to the beginning of the section.
8 March 1774. In high spirits. Today we set sail for America. Through the good graces of Miss Ashford at Budding House, I have obtained an apprenticeship with Mrs. Branford, cook and housekeeper to his Lordship General Robert Blakeslee, lately appointed Royal Governor of Massachusetts. Mrs. Branford has vouchsafed to instruct me in the art and science of food preparation, of which I confess to know little.
11 March 1774. Today Mrs. Branford scolded the ship's cook for adding garlic to the dishes. While happily employed by the French, she advised, garlic is nonetheless better suited to the medicine chest than to the kitchen.
I closed the book. "This is amazing." Skimming my hand across the aged leather cover, I felt a sense of the author's trepidation. She didn't know how to cook! I could relate to that, but not to the fear and awe she must have experienced traveling across the ocean to live and work in a strange land in the middle of a revolution. I couldn't wait to read more.
And I wondered again how Savannah had come into possession of this odd, intriguing cookbook. On the spot, I decided I would swing by the Covington Library tomorrow and show the book to Ian McCullough, my old friend and the Covington's chief curator. I so enjoyed making him drool with envy.
"Earth to Brooklyn."
"What? Oh, sorry." I set the book on top of the Pucci scarf. "Okay, look, I'll clean and repair it and I'll tighten these joints and hinges that have come loose, but I won't give it a pretty new cover." I held up my hand to stop her from saying something more snotty than she already had. "It wouldn't be ethical. This book is bound to be historically significant, which makes it extremely valuable in its present state."
She made a pouty face, but it was mostly for my benefit. "I suppose you're right."
I patted my heart. "Hearing those words? It never gets old."
"Nobody likes a smart ass."
"Look, why don't I make a pretty leather storage box for it? I can design a matching suede or leather pouch, too, for extra protection. It'll be cool."
The storm clouds disappeared from her eyes and she relaxed a little. "Really? Okay. Good. Can you make it sort of manly looking? Nothing frilly."
"Sure. I've got a fabulous piece of dark red leather I can use, and Derek brought me back some amazing endpapers from Brussels. They're beautiful."
"How romantic of him."
"Hey, he knows me."
She gave me a warm smile. "That's nice. Really it is."
"So when do you need it done?" I asked.
"Two weeks from tomorrow."
I wrapped the book in the scarf and tied the ends protectively. "Who are you giving it to?"
"Do you remember Baxter Cromwell?"
"Of course." I frowned. "Wait. There's no way you're giving this book to Baxter. Why in the world would you do that?"
It was my turn to roll my eyes. "Because he's a scumbag jerk?"
Baxter Cromwell was an old friend of Savannah's from her time in Paris. They had attended Le Cordon Bleu together and they'd dated for a few months. I knew that because I had visited Savannah while she was living in Paris where she had shared a flat with three other students, one of whom was Baxter.
I had begged for a place to stay for two weeks and Savannah had offered to let me sleep on her floor. I had seized the opportunity because even though I would be sleeping on the floor, at least I would be sleeping on the floor in Paris. With the money I saved on a hotel room, I could buy more baguettes, croissants, cheese, wine, and chocolate. It was a no brainer.
But one night while there, I awoke to find someone crawling into my sleeping bag. He already had his hands on me by the time I woke up and started screaming. It was my sister's so-called boyfriend, Baxter Cromwell. What a pig!
Despite my outrage, Savannah didn't take Baxter's betrayal very hard. Oh, there were a few rough days, but she finally brushed it off, admitting that she should've expected it. "That's what I get for hooking up with a charming scoundrel," she'd said. And yet, she had remained a loyal friend to him? It was a mystery to me.
After graduating, Baxter had taken his Le Cordon Bleu education and charmed a few money people into backing him and opening a small café in London. He parlayed that into a chain of upscale restaurants around the city, quickly gaining a reputation as a raging jackass. No big surprise. But instead of ruining his career, his outlandish personality helped turn him into a reality show star. A female producer for one of the cooking networks met him and declared his food better than Gordon Ramsay's—and Baxter was so much cuter! Not a particularly high bar to climb, according to my best friend Robin who was an unabashed reality show junkie.
Over the next few years, in addition to the television shows, Baxter worked relentlessly to expand his restaurant empire, opening new bistros and grand food palaces all over the world. Now the aforementioned scumbag was a household name. It wasn't fair.
I looked at Savannah curiously. "Are you traveling to London to see him?"
"No, he's coming here. He's opening up a place in the Mission."
"Really?" I shouldn't have been surprised. The Mission District was the latest San Francisco neighborhood to be dragged into gentrification. Don't get me wrong; much of the area was still seedy and it wasn't giving up its gritty underbelly without a fight. I always held onto my purse when I went walking around there.
But lots of cool new restaurants and hip boutiques were sprouting up daily along 18th Street and up and down Mission and Valencia, all the way over to picturesque Dolores Park and several blocks farther in all directions.
I tried not to make a face, but I was dismayed to know that I would soon be sharing my beloved city with the likes of Baxter. There was nothing I could do about it, though. Savannah seemed happy and I had to admit that the trendy but rough-around-the-edges Mission District was an ideal location for an opportunistic slug like Baxter Cromwell to make a killing.
© Kate Carlisle
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