Category Archives: Carrie’s Notebook

“As Above, So Below”

Egyptian poet and short story writer Nada Adel Sobhi has a gorgeous blog Nadaness In Motion where she posts her work, book reviews and some of the most creative writing prompts I’ve run into. Takkayal, Arabic for “imagine,” is the name of her picture prompt series. I’ve been admiring the images for months and never took the plunge. Well, her current prompt captured my imagination and I had to give it a try. So here’s the image and my contribution. Does this painting awaken anything for you? If so, head on over to Nada’s site and add your comment here.

"As Above, so Below"

Takhayyal (writing prompt) 15 from Nadaness in Motion. Artist unknown.

 

As Above, so below

That’s what they told her.

As within, so without.

She’d understood this once. How everything is everything else, however much your eyes and ears tell you otherwise.  Your senses? They’ll try to fool you.

Remember, child, the key to the door with no lock.

She’d giggled at them then watched her laughter rise in waves of golden light, blowing here and there. Everywhere.

Of course, she’d remember. How could she ever forget?

“Melody Winters, pay attention!”

Melody gasped. Her eyes snapped open to meet Mrs. Tate’s glare. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom, geometry lesson scrawled on the board behind her. “Well? Care to explain yourself?”

Albert, who sat behind Melody, hissed in her ear. “You’re in for it now, Mousy Mel. The mean hag will double your homework.”

Melody took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tate…I…”

“Had your head in the clouds? Again? Well, we must help you with that. Mustn’t we?” The teacher’s red-painted lips stretched into an unfriendly smile.

Double homework alright. And a note to take to her parents. They’d have to sign it and send it back to Mrs. Tate. So unfair, Melody thought, as the cold November air bit through her thin coat. All around her the press of people, the cars with their loud horns and gritty exhaust  that stung her nose and throat, it all closed in on her. Melody reached the corner of her street and ran the rest of the way to her building, and then up five flights of steps. Slamming the apartment door behind her, she pressed her back against it, listened to her lungs fill and empty, fill and empty as she caught her breath. Her parents didn’t close their bookshop until seven. A short reprieve.

Melody changed out of her school clothes and padded to the kitchen. She toasted a slice of bread, spread it with butter, and climbed out the kitchen window onto the fire escape. Too cold, really, to be out here. And it’s getting dark. But this was her place, high above noise and crowds and snickering boys and teachers who glared.

Nibbling at her toast, Melody looked up at the darkening sky and…There…right there…at edge of her mind…a flicker… But it was like catching sight of something from the corner of her eye. Only no matter how fast she turned her head, she could never catch it. What is wrong me? Mousy Mel. Silly little girl with her head in the clouds. The endless clouds. In an endless sky.

Five stories below Melody, the first streetlamps flickered to life. One then another and another. Glowing golden amber. Illuminated jewels that extended down the girl’s street to the next and the next and the next.

The Story Behind the Story– Adventures in Culinary School– Part I

There’s an old saying that within every story lives at least a grain of truth. This is usually the case in my short stories and novels. While I believe in a solid line between memoir and fiction, I do draw upon personal experience to enrich my plots and develop realistic characters. Molly Price, the protagonist of my contemporary romance Knife Skillsis a newly hatched chef about to start her first job at a restaurant on her family’s Long Island vineyard. I grew up on Long Island and, from December 2001 until August 2002, I attended culinary school, ending the program as a pastry intern at a hotel-golf resort. My career in the food industry didn’t last long, but I did keep detailed journals, which became an invaluable resource as I transformed Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park into a modern tale of a young chef’s search for identity and a second chance at love.

This post is the first in a series presenting entries from my journals alongside snippets from the novel to demonstrate how life experience and imagination work together to create the heightened reality that readers count on when they seek to lose themselves in a good book.

Me in my chef's coat and puffy hat. Looking back, that coat needed  alterations. Short girls and rolled up sleeves make for some serious kitchen messes!

Me in my chef’s coat and puffy hat. Looking back, that coat needed alterations. Short girls and rolled up sleeves make for some serious kitchen messes!

12/13/2001–Cooking School, Day Four

Walking into the practice kitchen this morning…smelling herbs, tasting oils, taking in all the gleaming stainless steel…I felt at home. It stayed with me all day and carried me through the physical rigors, which were pretty torturous at times. Sore feet. Aching back. It’s the part they don’t show you on the Food Network!

From Knife Skills:

As usual Molly was the first to finish the written portion of the exam, and she enjoyed a surge of excitement as she proceeded to the kitchen and surveyed the cool stainless steel surfaces with pans in half a dozen sizes dangling from overhead racks. Thankful for a few moments of solitude, she took the opportunity to catch up with herself. The accident still bothered her. One thing she didn’t need was an increase in her insurance rate. And then there were the continuing problems with Antonio. Where was she supposed to get the money for her share of this latest bill? She needed help just making her rent each month.

Unless there’s a whiff of sensationalism, like a celebrity in trouble, or a political figure caught in wrong doing, “real events” aren’t dramatic enough to sustain reader interest over the long haul. Keeping a reader with you for two hundred pages or more takes major literary manipulation–attention to pacing and the ebb and flow of tension. Yet, used carefully, personal experience can provide key physical details and a hint of emotional honesty that bring a spark of realism to fictional characters and scenes.

Knife Skills

 

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It’s all burners on high for Chef Molly Price, about to start her first restaurant job on her aunt and uncle’s Long Island vineyard. They took Molly in as a child, and she’s determined not to let them down. 

But it’s hard to focus on the perfect bread pudding with a no-good ex who won’t leave her alone and a best guy friend who’s as cranky as he is kissable. 

Love, family, and career all come to a boil when tragedy forces Molly to reconnect with her troubled parents and she must step in to save her five-year-old sister. Molly soon learns that, though her sauces never break, the same can’t be said for her heart.

Travels in Fiction: Long Island Wine Country–Pt 2

During my wanderings on Long Island back in 2005, I had the chance to explore the region’s wine country and get a behind-the-scenes peek at the action at various vineyards and wineries.

Vineyards fit in beautifully with the rural landscape of eastern Long Island.

Vineyards fit in beautifully with the rural landscape of eastern Long Island.

This inside look allowed me to inject needed realism into my novel Knife Skills, which re-tells Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Wine grapes are grown on wire trellises set in wide rows.

Wine grapes are grown on wire trellises set in wide rows.

The secret works behind the winery...vats for first ferment.

The secret works behind the winery…vats for first ferment.

Translating a story set in Regency England to America in the 21st century wasn’t always easy. We don’t have many grand historic estates here or even the remnants of the class and social system that shaped Austen’s original work.

Oak barrels for aging.

Oak barrels for aging.

Tasting rooms are where the vineyard introduces the public to their vintages.

Tasting rooms are where the vineyard introduces the public to their vintages.

Long Island is a wonderful place to set a book. It’s an island of contrasts…the glittering Hamptons and older, working class towns…beautiful beaches and some of the most productive agricultural acreage in the country.

For visitors, tasting rooms provide a fun chance to sample new wines.

For visitors, tasting rooms provide a fun chance to sample new wines.

Using a LI vineyard–one experiencing a time of transition, the opening of a new restaurant–gave me both the physical locales and the scope of activity I needed for Chef Molly Price’s new version of Austen’s tale of love, family and self-discovery.Knife_Skills_Cover_for_Kindle (1)

 

Click To Purchase

It’s all burners on high for Chef Molly Price, about to start her first restaurant job on her aunt and uncle’s Long Island vineyard. They took Molly in as a child, and she’s determined not to let them down. 

But it’s hard to focus on the perfect bread pudding with a no-good ex who won’t leave her alone and a best guy friend who’s as cranky as he is kissable. 

Love, family, and career all come to a boil when tragedy forces Molly to reconnect with her troubled parents and she must step in to save her five-year-old sister. Molly soon learns that, though her sauces never break, the same can’t be said for her heart.

Travels in Fiction: Long Island Wine Country–Part I

When I decided to set Knife Skills,  my retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park on eastern Long Island, I had already moved to Las Vegas. I figured I’d have to use whatever photos I’d collected during my pre-writer days supplemented by maps and travel brochures. And that was fine. As Thomas C. Foster states in his marvelous How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form, “Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as real.” 

Fiction is all about making things up.Long Island NY 001

But, in the spring of 2005, an unexpected family emergency led to a three-week trip back to Long Island. During that time, I traveled the highways and byways of the north and south forks scouting locales like a movie producer.

The main action takes place on a vineyard in the small north shore town of Mattituck.  Below, hubby (On the right. Boy, he was young there!) poses with his mom and younger brother in front of the neighborhood grocery store.

Mattituck 001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up is the bakery that stands in for Delgado’s, my character Molly’s high school workplace and where her love affair with pastries began. Her big dream is to buy the place from Mr. Delgado and open her own tea shop.

Mattituck 002But her uncle, who raised her and put her through cooking school, has opened a new restaurant on his vineyard.

Molly can’t just up and leave him…can she?

 

 

What I love about Mattituck is its quaint, small-town feel.

Mattituck 005Mattituck 003Mattituck Marina 001Mattituck 006There’s a wonderful contrast between the town’s thriving business district and the wide open spaces surrounding it.

I wanted a town that inspired a sense of homecoming in Molly after the collapse of her troubled marriage and the grueling marathon of cooking school.

Mattituck is the sort of place that makes you slow down and take deeper breaths.

It’s also at the center of one of the region’s best kept secrets: what began as a patchwork of vineyards and wineries burgeoned over the past two decades into an industry producing  world class vintages that can be found at local eateries and in the finest restaurants in the Hamptons and NYC.

In my next post, I’ll offer a behind-the-scenes peek of a working vineyard and winery. From vines to fermentation vats to tasting rooms–it’s a view of Long Island you won’t want to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carrie’s Notebook: Sneak Peek at My Upcoming Novel KNIFE SKILLS

KNIFE SKILLS
By Carrie Ann Lahain

Chapter One

Fricassee, a stew of poultry or other white meat with a white sauce . . . Molly Price
repositioned herself under the shower so that the stinging hot water hit the tense spot
between her shoulder blades while she recited the five liquids chefs use in making white
sauces. She’d gotten through veal, chicken, and fish stock when there was a knock on the
bathroom door. Not now. “…Vegetable stock. Milk.”

Her Aunt Felice poked her head in. “Your cell phone is ringing.”

It was six in the morning. Who’d be calling her? “Just let it go to voicemail.”

Molly didn’t need the distraction. Closing her eyes, she let the shower spray course over
her back and down her legs. It was too bad that she’d had to drive out here to the vineyard
last night, the night before her big exam. But at least her aunt and uncle’s place had reliable
hot water. At her apartment in Huntington, taking a shower was like playing Beat the Clock.

After she finished, she wrapped herself in a towel and ran up to the attic bedroom, the
room she’d grown up in and where she stayed anytime she came home. She’d just closed
the door behind her when her phone rang again. Grabbing it off the nightstand, she read
the flashing blue screen. Antonio. What the hell did he want? Molly took a step back and
stumbled into her dresser, causing her collection of seashells to go flying.

The phone continued to screech. As usual there was no ignoring Antonio.

“What do you want?” Molly asked.

“Molly, hey. Where have you been? I must’ve called twenty times.”

“Two times. I’m busy. I have to get ready for school.”

“That’s right. You’re gonna be the next Julia Child.”

Oh, this was going to be bad. “Antonio, what to you want?”

“It’s not me, Mol-lita.” Pause. “It’s that hijo de puta at E-Z Storage. He’s out for our
blood.”

Our blood? She’d signed the divorce papers six months ago. “How much this time?”

* * *

Molly faced a seventy-mile drive from Mattituck back to Huntington. After dealing with
Antonio, she barely had time to throw on some clothes and run her fingers through her
damp red curls. Now they’d probably dry frizzy. Well, one Little Orphan Annie comment
from any of the cracked-voiced jerks in her class and she’d fillet him nose to nuts.
She was just in the mood for it.

Down in the kitchen Aunt Felice, still in her bathrobe, was scrambling eggs. “There’s
coffee in the pot, sweetie.”

“Thanks but I can’t.” Outside the kitchen window, the dark sky was already beginning to
brighten. Molly wrapped two bottles of Cabernet in newspaper and tucked them into her
backpack. Bedford Brothers 2007 Reserve, the reason she’d trekked all the way out to
Mattituck, after a last-minute inspiration that just might give her an edge in today’s
exam. “If I get stuck in traffic, I’m toast.”

Felice followed her to the back door. “Then make sure you grab something on the way.”

Clomping down the porch steps, Molly waved a hand behind her.

“I mean it, Molly. What sort of chef works on an empty stomach?”

The cold March air stung Molly’s nose. It was a strange time, early morning on the
vineyard at the tail end of winter. The heavy silence of night was pierced here and
there by a chirp or twitter. It had been four years since she’d lived here, twice
that if she counted going to college. Every time she visited she wondered why she’d
ever left. Long Island wine country. People wrote magazine articles about it. They
scrimped to pay for honeymoons here. But Molly couldn’t wait to get away, out on her
own to live a real life. Only the life she’d found hadn’t worked out that well.

Despite being behind schedule, she made good time on the Long Island Expressway.
That changed as soon as she left the highway for route 110. Cars seemed to appear
out of nowhere. The one in front of her slowed to turn into an office complex.
Just go already . . . Molly urged her aging Toyota forward, picking up speed
as the road descended toward downtown

Huntington. She registered a movement to her left but didn’t dwell on it. She had right
of way. Such technicalities didn’t matter much, however, to the driver of the battered
white pickup that turned in front of her. Molly’s brakes screamed as car and truck
collided. She flew forward in her seat, her shoulder harness digging into her chest and
ribs.

In the dense quiet that followed the accident, Molly sat bent over her steering wheel,
eyes squeezed shut. It took a moment before she noticed a man peering through her
driver’s side window. She watched his face flit between anger and concern. Anger?
He jumped in front of her. What did he have to be mad about?

He pounded on the window. “You okay in there?”

Molly reached down to unlatch her seatbelt when she noticed a sharp-sweet smell coming
from the backseat. Twisting around, she saw that her knife case and backpack had been
thrown onto the floor and now sat in a pool of dark red liquid. Molly blinked back
tears. Her Cabernet. There went her edge, seeping into the carpet. Now, Molly figured
she’d be lucky to make the exam at all.

A police car arrived. Her vehicle reeking of alcohol, she thought she might be in for a
rough time. Instead, the officer decided to believe her tale of culinary disaster. She
signed the accident report and traded insurance details with the other driver. Her car
still ran fine, a shock considering the state of the front end, and she made it to
school with not a minute to spare.

Molly burst through the front entrance and ran for the women’s changing room, where she
found her roommate Lynne discussing the difference between stewing and braising with
Kendra who, at fifty-eight, was their oldest classmate.

“What the hell happened to you? We were getting ready to call out the search dogs.” Lynn
flicked at a wisp of blond hair that had escaped from under her white chef’s hat, which
as usual sat perfectly centered and puffed over the crown of her head. Molly’s own hat
never puffed the way it was supposed to. By the end of the day it usually looked like a
squashed marshmallow decorated with greasy fingerprints.

“Search dogs?” Kendra took charge of Molly’s sopping backpack, setting it in the
sink. “Try a prayer to Saint Jude. He’s the one who looks out for the lost.”

“I know. . . . I know. . .” Molly wriggled into her uniform. The pants had definitely
gotten tighter since being issued to her nine months before. “Antonio called.” Molly
didn’t have to add that prick. By now both Lynne and Kendra knew it was implied. “As
usual the result was general catastrophe.” Glancing at her watch, she suddenly cried out.

They made it to class with Chef Roy hard on their backs. Late as it was, there were
three students still missing. Just then a trio of very young men—the puppies, Kendra
called them—blustered in, their noise and smart grins vanishing as soon as they crossed
the threshold and spotted the pile of exam papers stacked face down on Chef’s desk.

Molly took a deep breath and reminded herself that she’d spent the past two weeks
preparing for this morning. If she didn’t know her stuff by now . . . When she finally
received the thick sheaf of pages, she paused a moment before looking down at the first
question. Using relevant examples from your own experiences in the kitchen, describe
the difference between braising and stewing.

* * *

As usual, Molly was the first to proceed to the practical portion of the exam. They were
using the big kitchen that day, and she felt a surge of excitement as she surveyed the
cool stainless steel surfaces with pans in half a dozen sizes dangling from overhead racks.
Being there alone, she felt like an actress must standing on a stage in an empty theater on
the opening day of a play.

Molly was thankful for the few minutes of solitude and the opportunity they provided for her
to catch up with herself. The accident still bothered her. One thing she didn’t need was an
increase in her insurance rate. And then there were the continuing problems with Antonio.
Where was she supposed to get the money for her share of this latest bill? She needed help
just making her rent each month.

She forced herself to lock these thoughts away. There would be plenty of time for torturing
herself during the Easter vacation that followed the midterm. What she needed to do now
was prepare a Beef Bourguignon that would justify everything she’d put herself through in
the last nine months.

Molly didn’t like the station assigned to her for the day—half of the wood pastry bench. How
inconvenient, with the space below taken up by a mini fridge for cake and pie fillings, and
heavy electric mixers lined up like soldiers on the shelf overhead. Her knives and measuring
cups would steal a good chunk of her work space. This disappointment was nothing,
however, to the nasty surprise taped to her cutting board.

Molly stared down at a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, the full horror taking some time to sink
in. Beef Bourguignon had been the Spring midterm dish since Huntington Culinary Academy
opened its doors fifteen years ago. Molly had worked hard at refining her version. She took
a deep breath. Bourguignon. Stroganoff. Okay. She had no reason to panic. It still came
down to meat and mushrooms in a sauce.

Of course, the sauce presented the problem. After making the dish, Molly didn’t know how
long she’d have to wait for her turn in front of the grading panel. Every second that
passed increased the odds of the sour cream sauce–by nature unstable–breaking down
into clots of grease and curdled milk. Not to mention the added challenge of dressing
up a plate of food which, as savory as it might taste, had all the visual appeal of
lumpy wallpaper paste.

“Don’t look so glum, Miss Price.” Chef Roy came in, which meant that the rest of the class
wouldn’t be far behind. Indeed, they began to trickle in a few moments later, swinging their
knife cases and searching for their work stations. Chef Roy sighed. “Looks like it’s game time.”

Molly hurried to the pantry but, as she’d feared, there were no red or yellow bell peppers
to be had, the last few apparently having been used up by the evening students the night
before. What a shame. The bright contrast of scarlet and canary rings, blanched in boiling
water a few moments to heighten their color, would have helped relieve the bland
appearance of the stroganoff.

Molly sifted through heavy heads of cabbage and dark purple eggplants and pulled out a
handful of rough-edged kale. Sautéed with shallots and olive oil and accented with carrot
lozenges, it would make an attractive side to the entree. Almost as an afterthought, Molly
grabbed a bunch of tarragon and hurried back to her station, trying hard to block out the
sounds of clanging metal measuring cups.

She wished she didn’t have to work next to Erwan, known without affection by his classmates
as The Mad Turk. He muttered incessantly to his ingredients as he worked. “Oh, yes, leetle
green ‘sparagus . . . I got you now. Right where I want you . . . How you like this–” He
separated the stalks from their tough bottom thirds with a lusty chop of his knife.

Timing and order of operations meant everything in cooking. This particular stroganoff
recipe utilized a tender cut of thinly sliced beef which would take only a few minutes to
sauté with mushrooms. The sauce, though having questionable staying power, wasn’t
particularly complicated.

Feeling suddenly at ease, Molly weighed out the correct amount of flour and eggs for her
noodles. Before combining them, she added a quarter cup of chopped tarragon to the flour.
She used her fingertips rather than the heel of her hands on the delicate, yellow-tinted
dough—egg pastas didn’t react well to manhandling. The tarragon gave the final product
an interesting speckled appearance and savory fragrance which made her smile as she
rolled it out into a thin rectangular sheet.

* * *

The drama, so long planned for and dreaded, played itself out by one o’clock. Grades
wouldn’t be in until after vacation, but Molly’s sauce had held and the panel said that
her noodles were the best they’d tasted that day. Overall, Molly felt good about her work,
which she polished off for lunch before taking her turn as pot washer for the day.

“That’s it, Molly-Bird,” Lynne said as they changed back into their street clothes. “We’re
officially free for the next sixteen days.”

“I’m not sure free is the right word. You do understand my uncle is expecting us to
work, don’t you? Lynne?” They had a lot of work to do, actually, if her Uncle Tim’s
new restaurant was going to be ready for its grand opening over Memorial Day Weekend.
He wasn’t putting Molly through culinary school for nothing. Sure, he’d hired a
restaurant manager and an executive chef, but he expected her active involvement.
She’d have to meet with suppliers and help finalize the menu. Molly appreciated her
uncle’s confidence in her, but she already felt overwhelmed.

“Don’t you worry. I’m ready to do my fair share and then some in exchange for my first
vacation in years. By the way, you never said what Antonio wanted.” Lynne leaned against
her locker, arms crossed. “Let me guess . . . trying to make another date for coffee
and recriminations?”

Molly knew Lynne didn’t intend to be cruel. It hurt, though. The marriage had been bad
enough. Now she had to put up with post-mortem evaluations by friends and family.
Everyone, it seemed, had spotted Antonio del Castillo for what he was, though none
of them had seen fit to mention anything to her before the wedding. Almost none of them.
Ned, Molly’s best friend, had been more than generous with his warnings. But he’d never
liked any of her boyfriends, so she didn’t take as much notice as she should have.

“Well?” Lynne asked, still waiting for an answer to her question.

Molly sighed at the pale reflection staring back at her from the mirror and ran a brush
through her carroty lamb’s frizz. The past six hours seemed to have settled into a hard
knot at the base of her neck. Not good. If she broke this easily under pressure, how would
she survive working in a real kitchen?