The Missing Ingredient
“The Good Host’s Book of Menus, Recipes and Household Discoveries”
By Tiana Kennell
Alicia Nelson is on a mission to become a proficient cook and impress her boyfriend with a delicious homecooked meal. After another failed attempt in the kitchen, she finds a classic cookbook for guidance. She bites off more than she can chew when she indulges in the secret ingredients that make the cookbook so special.
Chapter 1: Burnt Ends
To look at things from a positive point of view, at least Alicia Nelson knew the smoke detectors worked. The device blared from the living room ceiling. The smoke from her broiler-set oven wafted through her one-bedroom apartment with no way to escape. The second alarm rang as the charred cloud searched for relief down the hall, to no avail. No windows were open as it was a blustery December evening in Portland, Oregon.
Alicia fanned the air in a poor attempt to break up the smoke. She turned off the oven and every eye on the electric stove but the damage was already done. The asparagus was limp yet tough, the rice was clumped and hardened, and she found the barbecue chicken had blackened under the broiler yet was still pink inside. She dropped the hot pan on the counter and threw her oven mitts across the room. They were caught by her boyfriend’s face when he unwittingly walked into a culinary warzone.
“Alicia!” Troy Wilkes fumbled to catch the mitts before they onto the floor.
“Oh no! I didn’t hear you come in!” Alicia raised her arms wide to shield Troy’s delicate eyes from seeing the food massacre on the stove and countertop.
“How could you hear me with both smoke detectors ringing? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine! But dinner… Well…”
Troy went to the hallway and pulled the smoke detector down removing the battery before going to the living room to do the same. Alicia followed, admiring the way he didn’t have to use a step ladder or broom to reach. Her 5’2” stature could never reach without assistance, but his 6’1 frame was built for this kind of task…along with other things.
No time for that kind of thinking. Not yet, anyway.
Her plan to be a kickass girlfriend in the kitchen and bedroom and all other areas in his life was as scorched as the bottom of her rice pan.
Troy opened the living room windows letting the cold night’s air in. Alicia shivered and hugged her “Hot Stuff” apron to her body.
“I didn’t expect you to come by so soon,” Alicia said.
“My last patient canceled, and I was able to get my paperwork done earlier. Good thing I did. Babe, are you trying to burn the apartment down?”
Alicia balled up her fist and swallowed. “No, I was trying to cook you dinner.”
“Because dear, that’s what girlfriends do when they love their boyfriends. Everybody in my family knows how to cook. How am I the only one who’s never learned?”.
“Babe,” Troy crossed the living room and hugged her. He placed his chin on the top of her head then kissed her curls. “I don’t know how to cook either. See, we’re made for each other.”
“Not the answer I was looking for,” Alicia said. She wrapped her arms around his lean torso and relaxed into his hold. “But I’ll take it.”
Troy stepped back to look her in the eye. “I’ll order your favorite, pad thai. With spring rolls.”
She pouted. “I was going to make cookies, too. But I forgot to pick up flour.”
“We’ll walk down to get dessert from Cookie Chick Creations’ food truck after dinner.”
Alicia stood on the tip of her toes. He met her halfway and melted her with a buttery kiss.
Chapter 2: The Cookbook
After a steamy and unexpected date night, Troy whisked back off to the medical center to meet his early-bird patients. Dr. Troy Wilkes, M.D. was a shining star in the ob-gyn department.
Alicia had the luxury of an unconventional job as the manager of a talented, yet struggling, band. She didn’t have to be at the “office,” a warehouse turned rehearsal studio, until noon which was still two hours away. She decided to visit an arts district that she’d heard had great shops. She could kill time and get some of her Christmas gift shopping done all at once. Alicia entered a boutique, The Velveteen Kitten, that seemed to carry everything from contemporary home accents to houseplants to men’s grooming kits—all handmade, organic, vegan, and environmentally-friendly. It was Portland, after all.
A woman who stood near the front entrance spritzing some of the green leafy plants with a liquid substance in a bottle greeted her, “Hello, may I help you find something in particular?”
“I think I’m waiting for something to jump out at me.”
“Careful. My merchandise is known to do that.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Alicia saw several items she wanted for herself but resisted. She had little in the budget and couldn’t afford to be selfish until January, at the earliest.
“Is this part of the store?” Alicia called out to the woman. She peeked through a door past the register that opened onto a back patio.
“Yes,” the shopkeeper said. She had moved on to cleaning the mirror of a vintage vanity set.
Alicia followed the path of vined potted plants out to the patio. The roof extended to cover the space and a wrought iron fence lined the perimeter. An Oriental rug runner and tall bookshelves doubling as display cases created a homey ambiance.
Alicia chose a couple of ornate flower pots for her mother and sister. She was satisfied with her finds and ready to check out when a shelf of books caught her eye on the topics of gardening, cooking, and home remedies. The one that won her over was an old green hardback, “The Good Host’s Book of Recipes, Menus and Household Discoveries” by Gaiman & Pike Publishing, copyright 1922.
Alicia flipped through the pages and saw directions for setting a dining table, polishing silver sets, and illustrations for adding garnish to a serving platter and folding cloth napkins. She saw recipes and menus for all occasions. Upon further inspection, she saw many of the recipes had handwritten notes scribbled in the margins or at the bottom. Alicia read a note written in the margins of a pot roast.: “A hit with the family. Richard said he loved it more than his mother’s, though we would never tell her.”
At the bottom of the instruction listing, there was another note written in a different handwriting style: “Douse olive branch in olive oil and roast with the meat. Permeate with calmness. ‘Armistice Inamorato.’”
Alicia loved old traditions and rituals. She was getting a glimpse into the lives of the book’s previous owners, some who may have lived nearly a century before her.
“Finding everything okay?” A voice startled her. Alicia turned to see the shopkeeper.
“Oh! Yes. Sorry. I got caught up in this book.”
“My husband is an avid book collector, more so than I am, although I love them. He only allows a few to be sold. Our home used to be a disaster of a library until I made him move it all into a separate storage facility. His man cave, as it’s become.”
“This is your store?”
“Yes, and my husband, James. I’m Justine Elliot.”
“I’m Alicia. Nice to meet you. So how much is this one?”
Justine looked at the cover of the book. “Thinking about cracking a few eggs?”
“Yeah. Last night I tried to make this dinner from recipes I found online and it was an utter failure. I want to show Troy, my boyfriend, that I can learn to cook like his grandmother. Maybe I need to take it back to the basics.”
“Ah, I think you may have something there. They say, ‘the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ The same goes for a woman if you ask me. Hmm. James didn’t write a price on the cover. You know what? I’m a romantic. I’ll sell it to you for $5 if you promise to stop by again and let me know how things work out.”
Chapter 3: Fully Stocked
After a band practice that seemed neverending, Alicia could hardly wait to get to the grocery store. During rehearsal, she’d earmarked several recipes she wanted to try for a second-act redo for Troy that evening. She felt exhilarated while pushing her cart from aisle to aisle and loading it with raw ingredients instead of her frozen, instant, and “just add water” usuals.
It was 3:30 p.m. when she returned to her apartment. The mess from the dinner the night before was still cluttering the kitchen.
“Oh yeah. I forgot about you,” Alicia said. This was not going to work. She didn’t have time to clean and cook. Alicia returned to her car and drove across town to Troy’s house. It was a beautiful two-story home with three bedrooms and 2.5 baths, a backyard, and a large and underused kitchen. A perk of Troy being a doctor was he could afford to buy takeout often.
Alicia parked in the backyard and used her key to unlock the door closest to the kitchen. She made three trips to her car with arms and hands weighed down by bags of eggs, meat, vegetables, wine, and milk. And she remembered the flour this time.
Alicia thought about calling her mother or grandmother to let them know about her latest cookbook buy and dinner plan. Then she thought about last Thanksgiving. While visiting her family in Louisiana, she had attempted to make her grandmother’s dressing. She’d followed the directions perfectly but still somehow ended up with a pan of brown bland cornbread crumbs. Her family laughed, thinking it was all in good nature. She knew they didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. It was her own fault for not telling them years ago that their chiding packed a punch.
No, instead she would learn to cook. She’d call them for Troy to personally rave about what an excellent job she’d done. Maybe one day she’d even be interviewed by The Portland Scene’s dining reporter and tell her journey from burnt toast to dinner party host with the most.
Alicia propped the cookbook onto the recipe holder, which usually served as an iPad holder for when she watched “Modern Family” while eating a bowl of cereal.
Once the groceries were unloaded, she found an apron folded inside a drawer in the kitchen island. It was frilly with multicolored flowers and read “Cooking is love made visible.” She figured Troy’s mother, whom she’d yet to meet, had left it behind on one of her visits.
Curls pinned back, hands washed and the apron tied tight, Alicia sat at the island and read over the recipes for longer than the glance she had previously given them. Certain parts of the recipes didn’t make sense. What was most boggling was the last handwritten line of each.
For instance, Alicia decided to attempt a meal that consisted of lamb chops, roasted potatoes, creamy asparagus soup, cornmeal biscuits, and for dessert, cocoa cookies with rose jam. Each of the recipes had handwritten additions at the end. The lamb chops recipe ended with: “Wrap three strands of fresh rosemary with twine three times and hold it to the heart while saying“Amar Para Sempre.” Dip the bundle in red wine vinegar and place it on the plate of the intended before serving.” And the cocoa cookies recipe instructed: “To motivate intimacy, make a rose jam of sugar, fresh roses, water, and lemon juice. Jam can be used in the cookie dough or for more fast-acting potency, spread on top of the cookie and feed it to your lover. Jam can be used in the boudoir, as well.
There was much about cooking Alicia didn’t understand. But she was trusting her sisterhood of the time-traveling cookbook to see her through. If it took a few silly rituals to bring good luck, love, health, and passion, what could be the harm?
Chapter 4: Dinner, Well-Done
After following the cookbook’s explicit instructions for setting the table, Alicia looked at the spread of food and couldn’t believe she had prepared every dish and still had about 15 minutes to freshen up and change into a little black dress and low heels before Troy got home. He wasn’t expecting Alicia to be at his house because that was part of the surprise. She had even parked her car in the backyard to conceal her presence a while longer. Alicia lit candles and turned off the living room and dining room lights, leaving only the kitchen light for background illumination. She dabbed a tiny bit of the rose jam behind her ears and in between her breasts. She put on a pair of silver-studded earrings and her favorite pendant necklace with a stylized ‘A’ hanging perfectly at her cleavage. She was going to wow Troy before they even got to the table.
At 8:17 p.m. she finally heard his car pull up in the driveway. She took her place, seductively leaning against the back of the couch with a glass of cabernet in each hand.
“Hello, handsome,” she said, flipping her curls to give them more bounce. Her smile froze when he stepped in with a beautiful Latina woman behind him. Their conversation and laughs stopped when they saw they weren’t alone.
The silence may have lasted a few seconds in real-time, but Alicia was sure it took much longer for her heart to drop out of her chest and shatter on the hardwood floor.
“Alicia, hun, um, I didn’t know you would be here tonight,” Troy said. “This is Marissa.”
“Yes. She’s passing through Portland to visit family and she called to ask to pick up the last of her things from me. They’re in the garage. I was just going to get them. Um, you look beautiful!”
Troy kissed Alicia on the check. She forced a glass of cabernet into Troy’s hand, sloshing the red contents onto the floor and his white and blue striped button-up shirt. It was her favorite. Alicia took a long swig of her wine and stared at the unexpected guest.
“Alicia, it’s so nice to meet you. I am sorry for interrupting what I see is a special night for you both. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“What inconvenience? There’s nothing happening here but dinner. We’ve all gotta eat, right?”
“It smells amazing,” Troy said.
“Yes, did you cook?” Marissa asked.
Troy laughed. “Oh no, Alicia doesn’t cook. Where did you order from, babe? Angelo’s? It smells like his food.”
Alicia’s eyebrows furrowed. “No! I cooked, Troy!.”
“Oh, that’s just…wow,” Troy’s face strained. “Did you call your mom or sister to help you?”
Alicia spun around and took long strides to the dining room. “I need more wine.”
“I should go…” Marissa said.
“No! Come. Stay. Eat, Marissa,” Alicia called from the dining room. “You’ve come all this way. After all, this used to be your house too, didn’t it?”
Then a realization hit her.
That was her apron…
Troy and Alicia entered the dining room and admired the table setting.
“Alicia, this looks great. I can’t believe you did all of this yourself,” Troy said.
If Marissa wasn’t there, she would’ve basked in his compliment. Instead, she felt embarrassed that he was so surprised.
Alicia looked at the pair standing next to each other. She’d seen photos of Marissa on social media after doing a thorough, ahem, background check on Troy. He wasn’t active on the sites, but Marissa had a strong brand presence as an actress and singer. Her profiles looked like resumes or better yet advertisements of a young, spunky, talented, and accomplished performer ready for the spotlight at any moment. Alicia wanted to hate her, but if she weren’t Troy’s ex-girlfriend, she’d probably want to hang out with the budding starlet.
Now, she was back to claim what used to be hers.
Alicia flipped on the overhead chandelier breaking the ambiance.
“Marissa, would you like a glass of wine while Troy gets your stuff?”
“I’ll be right back. Are you sure you’re okay here?” Troy whispered to Alicia.
Troy exited quickly out the back door and to the garage.
“I have to drive to my sister’s so no wine for me. Maybe if you have sparkling water? I know Troy usually keeps them.”
Alicia nodded and left Marissa in the dining room. Of course, she knew what Troy had in his kitchen because it used to be her kitchen, her house, her boyfriend. The history of the house came flooding back to Alicia. A month into dating, Alicia asked Troy why he’d purchased such a big house for himself? It couldn’t have been cheap, considering Portland’s rising cost of living. He finally told her that he bought the house when he and his ex were together and never had the time to resell it.
Alicia was the first serious girlfriend since. Their seven months couldn’t compare to the seven years he’d had with Marissa. Alicia hoped he was over Marissa but all the doubt she pushed aside returned when she saw them together. There was still something there. That chemistry without trying. She saw the glow in his eyes when he laughed with Marissa when they walked in before they knew they weren’t alone.
Alicia cracked open a bottle of sparkling water and took a champagne flute from the cabinet. She looked at the cookbook on the recipe stand on the island. So much good it did her now. Her feast was growing cold and their “guest” had sucked all romantic possibilities out of the evening.
Then, she remembered, Troy hadn’t eaten the food yet. Alicia prepared the dishes and performed the rituals thinking that maybe a little magic could exist. If nothing else, it had made the cooking experience fun. She felt light and confident in the kitchen for the first time. She wasn’t the most religious but believed that sometimes things could be willed into existence; put out positive thoughts and get back positive results. She made the meal for Troy with love and that’s what she wanted him to get out of it. He just needed to eat.
And if there were recipes for paramours, maybe there were recipes for getting rid of the ex-girlfriend who came flouncing back to town?
Alicia pulled the cookbook from the stand and flipped to the section on beverages. She did a quick scan of the handwritten notes until she found something that just might work.
A minute later, Alicia walked out of the kitchen to find Marissa sitting in an armchair in the living room. She accepted the flute of sparkling water from Alicia.
“Thank you. By the way, the house looks great. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is,” she said.
“Thanks, but I can’t take credit. I don’t live here,” Alicia said.
“Oh, I thought…”
“No. We’ve been together seven months but I have my own place across town. Nothing as grand as this place. Did you like living here?” Alicia said.
“Well, technically, I never really lived in it.”
“No? Why not?” Alicia was interested in hearing her side of the tragic love story.
Marissa took a gulp of the water. “I’m sure Troy told you, but when he bought this house for us I had just returned from a big audition in New York City. We were sharing a small apartment up until then. While I was gone, he had all of our things moved into this house. He surprised me when I came back. Proposed. He didn’t know that when I’d landed at PDX, I had a voicemail telling me I’d gotten the part. It was a huge off-Broadway show with a theater known to launch performers on Broadway. I couldn’t pass it up. I told Troy I was moving to New York. I wanted to take my chance there before I settled down. So, I left and he stayed. He was just starting at the medical center and didn’t want to leave it. I’m surprised he kept the house.”
“Yes. He did. I guess he knew you’d return.”
Marissa took a sip of her water.
Troy came back with a large box with the letters “MM” scrawled in marker on the side.
“Sorry it took so long. It was in the back and there was a big collapse of other boxes. I guess you were right about me not needing to keep all of my childhood possessions,” Troy shrugged and shared a smile with his ex. “I’ll put this in your car for you so you can go.”
Marissa finished the water and put the champagne flute on the coffee table. She thanked Alicia and tossed in another apology for delaying their dinner.
“It was really nice meeting you,” Marissa said. “I’m glad Troy found someone special.”
Marissa left and Alicia watched from the doorway as Troy closed the box of memories in the trunk of the rental car and waved goodbye. He watched her car pull away and down the street. Alicia couldn’t bear to witness anymore. She closed the door against the cold breeze.
Troy came back into the house and found Alicia sitting at the dining room table. Their plates were made. “It’s not as hot anymore, but it should still be good,” she said.
“Great. I’m starving.” Troy sat down and put his paper towel in his lap. He pushed the twined rosemary from the top of his lamb chop to the side and sliced into it. He moaned when he placed the bite on his tongue. “Wow, babe, this tastes delicious. You learned to do this in a day?”
Alicia cut off a piece of the chop and ate it. Her eyes widened. It was good. Better than good. It was perfect. The couple ate in silence only breaking to give comment about how each new bite was savory, moist, buttery, and delectable.
When their plates were cleaned, Alicia had to stop Troy from going in for seconds. “Leave room for dessert.”
Alicia’s mood was back to where it was before the intrusion of what’s her name. She slipped away to the kitchen and came back with two pie plates with two cookies on each topped with rose jam. She’d thrown a few petals on the plates for effect.
They bit into a cookie, let out a collective sigh, and looked at each other. There, she saw it. A look of desire she hadn’t seen since they first started dating. Maybe even stronger, more longing. Alicia finished one cookie in the time it took for Troy to polish off both of his.
“Alicia,” he said. “I am so proud of you for being so dedicated. Thank you for everything. I loved it. I love you.”
Troy stood and walked around the table, leaned down, and kissed her with eagerness enough to almost knock her off the chair. He stood her up by wrapping his arms around her waist. Her legs shivered but he remedied that but wrapping them around him. She was lifted higher to put her arms around his neck and kiss him, silently begging him to stay hers.
An hour and 43 minutes later, Alicia slipped down the stairs to blow out the remainder of the candles and to collect the clothes scattered through the dining room, living room, stairway, and hall leading to his master bedroom. She tossed them in the laundry room before putting the leftovers away. She hummed happily as she whisked through the tasks savoring her success. Bluebirds could’ve flown into the kitchen and she would’ve sung and danced along with them.
Her tune was interrupted by the doorbell, which sounded louder in the dead of night. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Troy!” she called from the living room. He was already standing at the top of the staircase. He looked at her face illuminated by the flash of red and blue lights coming from the police car parked in front of the house.
Chapter 5: The Missing Ingredient
The police officers didn’t have much to go on. A rental car registered to a Marissa Mendoza was found abandoned two blocks away after seeming to veer into a hedge of bushes at the park. The damage to the bushes gave evidence that it was at low impact, so the driver wasn’t going fast. There was no visible damage to the vehicle to suggest that another vehicle had been involved in the crash. The part the police officers found most odd was that the car was still in drive, the doors were locked, the radio was on, yet there was no one in the car. They even checked the trunk. A purse was found in the front passenger seat with the wallet inside and a couple of $20 bills and bank cards–the normal items– so theft didn’t seem to be the cause. A box was found in the trunk with the initials “MM” written on the outside. The last person dialed and texted from Ms. Mendoza’s cell phone, which was left unlocked next to the purse, was for a Troy.” The missing woman’s sister had called the cell phone several times because her sister was more than an hour late arriving at her home, where she was to stay while in town.
The next hour was a series of questions and retellings of the evening and details Alicia didn’t know of the interaction Troy had with Marissa before their arrival at the home. He’d been in contact with Marissa for the past week. He knew she was coming into town and they’d planned for her to come by to pick up the last of her belongings left after their breakup.
No, there weren’t any arguments or altercations.
The police questioned Alicia.
“Did you have any hard feelings toward Ms. Mendoza?”
Alicia’s stomach flipped. “No. Well, no.”
The officers’ eyebrows raised. “But she is your current boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. You’re saying you welcomed her in with a glass of wine and a nice chat?”
“She had sparkling water. She wasn’t drinking. I had wine with Troy with our dinner. She only stopped by for long enough for him to give her the box. We saw her drive away.”
It was difficult getting to sleep that night. Troy went into his study and called Marissa’s sister. Alicia lay in bed thinking about her part in the disappearance. Could the water have done this? More so, the cookbook?
Earlier, she’d found a recipe for blood punch that called for the juice of a cactus to be added to banish a person or negativity. Troy kept a row of succulents on his kitchen windowsill. It was easily accessible, but challenging to cut a piece off and squeeze any liquid from it into the flute of sparkling water. She’d pricked her thumb doing so, and a tiny amount of her blood may have been swirled into the liquid before she’d served it to Marissa. It definitely had.
There was no way she was telling the police or Troy that she’d done witchcraft to banish a woman who’d gone missing. They’d lock her up in prison or a psychiatric home, or worse, Troy would leave her.
She didn’t want Marissa to disappear from earth to wherever she was. She just wanted her to go back to New York never to return to Troy’s doorstep. Had she made that clear to the…gods? No, she was pretty sure her rage and jealousy were set on “go away” with no specifics as to where or how or for how long.
No. Not possible. It was a $5 cookbook, not a spellbook. Sure it had spell-like things written in it. Ah, crap. Did I not learn anything from Harry Potter? Never repeat the spells of unknown authors!
Troy came back to the bedroom and looked down at Alicia. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry? To me? For what?”
“I should have let you know I had been talking to Marissa this week. I didn’t want you to get jealous. I didn’t expect her to call and honestly, I didn’t know how to feel about it myself.”
“It’s not. I brought her here and didn’t tell you. I can’t imagine how that made you feel. If roles were reversed I would’ve decked the guy if you brought an ex to your apartment.”
“You didn’t know I’d be here.”
“It doesn’t matter. I hid it from you and I shouldn’t have put you in that position. I almost ruined your dinner.”
Alicia sat up and pulled Troy to sit next to her at the edge of the bed. “I was mad. Everything you said is correct, but it’s okay now. I’m more concerned about what happened to Marissa. I hope she just wandered to a gas station or after the crash and locked the door behind her.”
“Leaving all her things? Her purse, cell phone, and keys? She was two blocks from here. She could’ve walked back if she was in trouble. What if—”
“Troy. Don’t jump to the worst conclusion. I’m sure she’ll pop back up with a plausible explanation and everything will be fine.”
Troy kissed her cheek, then moved over to kiss her earlobe, then the back of her ear where a hint of the rose jam was still fragrant. He licked his lips and kissed her mouth.
“You’re right. You’re my priority. You’re who matters, Alicia. You and only you.”
Alicia didn’t think she could get back to the place they were before the police arrived, but soon enough they were back in the throes of lust and love with nothing left between them.
The next morning, tired and frazzled, Alicia scanned the cookbook from the front to back covers in search of a reversal spell to bring Marissa back from who knows where?
Before, she’d skipped straight to the recipes. This time she flipped to the front pages. There she saw a handwritten addition scribbled in cursive at the end of the original introduction pages:
Use carefully and sparingly. No substitutions for the best results. Measure precisely. For remedies and countering, see book 2.
Alicia looks on the spine of the cookbook and sees it is the first of a two-part series.
“Dammit, there’s a second half.” She grabbed her purse and car keys and drove in the direction of The Velveteen Kitten.
No one ever reads the introduction.
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