The City Baker's Guide to Country Living@Louise Miller
The night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue. I had been worrying about the humidity all week, but that night dry, cool air drifted in through an open window. It was the 150th anniversary of the club, and Jameson Whitaker, the club’s president, had requested pistachio baked Alaska for the occasion. Since he asked while he was still lying on top of me, under the Italian linen sheets of bedroom 8, I agreed to it—even though I was fairly certain that baked Alaska would not have been on the menu in 1873. But Jamie was a sucker for a spectacle, and his favorite thing on earth was pistachio ice cream, which his wife wouldn’t let him eat at home.
I added sugar to the egg whites, a spoonful at a time. As they whipped up into a glossy cloud of white, I leaned a soft hip against my butcher-block worktable and surveyed the kitchen. Now, I’ve wielded my rolling pin in trendy city restaurants, macrobiotic catering companies, and hotels both grand and not so grand. You would think a Boston Brahmin private club like the Emerson, with its dim lights, starched linen, and brass-studded leather chairs, would have a deluxe kitchen. But no matter what the dining room (or what we in the business call the front of the house) looks like—even if we’re talking duct-taped Naugahyde benches hugging tin-rimmed Formica tables—the back of the house, the kitchen, is always the same: a sea of stainless steel. Tables, bowls, freezer all gleaming in a cold gray. Whisks and spoons hanging in orderly rows. A mixer with a hook the size of my arm bent to beat bread dough. It’s comforting. No matter how many times I changed jobs, I could always count on the kitchen: the order, the predictability, everything familiar and in its place.
I was swirling the last slope of meringue across the layers of ice cream and cake when I heard the champagne corks pop in the neighboring Jefferson Room. Glen, the GM, sprinted into the kitchen.
“Almost ready, chef?”
I held out my sticky fingers. “Hand me that blowtorch.” The blue flame swept across the meringue, leaving a burned trail of sugar in its wake.
A swell of baritone voices thundered through the swinging door, pounding the Emerson Club anthem into the kitchen.
“That’s our cue,” Glen said.
I ran my fingers through my freshly dyed curls. I had gone with purple this week. Manic Panic Electric Amethyst, to be exact. Not historically accurate for a chef in the nineteenth century, but it’s not like I was a guest.
With my thumb across the lip of the bottle, I doused the confection with 150-proof rum and hoisted up the tray. “Light me on fire.”
Glen lit a match and carefully set the flame to the pool of rum in the hollowed-out eggshell tucked into the top. In a flash, the flame caught hold and spread across the waves of meringue. Glen raced in front of me, holding open the doors. I stepped into the room to the last notes of the anthem. The crowd burst into applause.
The tray must have weighed forty pounds. Silver is heavy, and they don’t call it pound cake for nothing, never mind the ten gallons of pistachio ice cream. But I stretched my mouth wide into a smile and walked about the room, squeezing between the closely set tables and standing with the members as they snapped pictures. The flames were dying down but not quite out. Jamie stood at the back of the room, by the floor-length windows, his arm wrapped tightly around his wife’s waist. Their children were by their side, miniatures of their parents, one in a dark suit, the other in a crinoline dress. A light sweat broke out across my brow. How strange that the flames were getting smaller but I was growing hotter by the second. The room was crowded. Members were packed in small groups on every inch of carpet. Somewhere, I knew Glen was counting heads and mumbling to himself about maximum capacity. I elbowed my way through, my biceps straining as I carried the tray above my head, trying to avoid catching anyone’s gown on fire. The club treasurer put his arm around my waist, his palm resting lower on my hip than was respectable. “One for the newsletter,” he said. My smile widened. I tightened my grip on the tray. Jamie looked over at me then, his eyes vacant, skimming over