Excerpted from The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O'Neal. Copyright © 2008 by Barbara O'Neal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Magic of Restaurants
by Barbara O’Neal
I fell headlong in love with restaurants at the age of eight, when my grandfather, a charming rascal who looked very like Clark Gable, bought a diner in Temecula, California. He’d never run one, but then he’d never had a pharmacy, either, and he’d done that in Fort Worth. None of us had ever even been to California. My grandmother was mad about it for at least ten years, but she moved with him and together they operated Ed’s Kitchen.
The restaurant sat at the bottom of a hill, right on the main drag through town. We had to walk down there from my grandmother’s house. The land was rural, with horses and avocado groves along the way, and grass so tall we played hide and seek in it. My grandmother waited tables, and so did my mother for a time. They were both pretty and earned good tips.
A counter filled the center of the dining room, with stools that spun and had a little ring of chrome around the seat. I sat on them, swinging my legs, and watched my grandfather, looking swarthy in chef whites, cooking at the grill with a dark curl falling rakishly on his forehead. We children were not allowed in the kitchen, so this was as close as I ever got. On the counter sat a pie safe, three pies high, and although it was rare indeed that we ever got to eat any, I admired them daily: pale apples or jewel-colored berries spilling out of a buttery crust; pecans in tidy circle patterns over the clear middle. Pie remains my extravagance of choice, the wickedness I will most likely choose from a desert menu.
Everything about Ed’s Kitchen was enchanting: the customers and the bustle, the shouts of orders, the practically visible fragrance of coffee brewing. My mother shined. She was happy in that restaurant. My grandmother laughed when men flirted with her, practically the only time she ever did in those years.
My father pined for his mountains, so we moved back to Colorado, and I didn’t think about restaurants again until I was sixteen and looking for a job. The local mall had a Greek-run sandwich, ice cream and chocolatiers called Michelle’s. The waitresses all wore red or blue velvet caps with gold braiding and shiny black nylon uniforms with a white flounce at the neck. That hat was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, as medieval as Juliet, and I knew my long blonde hair would look fantastic beneath it. They didn’t need help when I began to apply, and I had no experience, but I was relentless–every week I went back to ask about my application until the manager finally gave in and hired me.
From the first day, I was smitten. Smitten by the presentation of a single slice of baklava, dripping with honey; by the soda fountain and the grill; smitten by Greek music playing in the background, and the companionable after-hours rituals of cleaning up. I loved my white nylon apron, and pockets heavy with tips and the smell of industrial dishwasher detergent. I never, ever let a coffee cup go empty because my grandpa told me people will forgive you for anything if they have enough coffee. It tends to be true.
Every restaurant is its own country, with it’s politics and structure, internal strife and power plays. After three years in the Old World land of Michelle’s, I landed in a high-end Mexican restaurant where I fell under the enchantment of chiles. Here, the honey was drizzled over sopapillas. Here, we had to take turns crushing the giant bags of hot red chiles that came in from New Mexico, learning how to avoid blistered fingers and seared sinuses. To chase away a virus, we ate the hottest green chile stew we could bear. It was at Papa Felipe’s that I learned to drink tequila, and where the doe-eyed cook from Chihuahua would send the starving students home with leftover sopapillas. In my long sojourn there, I gathered scars all over my hands from burns and broken plates and various other mishaps. It’s the way it goes.
There were other restaurants, placed I visited briefly, and each of them taught me something. There was the troubled seafood place, popular with the aging yacht club set, where I learned to make an old fashioned by crushing a cherry and an orange in the bottom of a highball glass with a teaspoon of sugar. There was the corporate regime of a chain restaurant that served a million varieties of hamburgers that taught me how to manage a rush. Others, too fleeting to recall.
All of them turned me into a writer in love with food and all the marvelous details that go into creating dishes, menus, restaurants, service. Food, like love and sex and children, is one of the most powerful cornerstones in our lives, and a great dish is a moment of pure love, prepared, offered, accepted and devoured.
And so The Lost Recipe for Happiness was born. Elena Alvarez is not me, though all of our characters are born of us in some way. She is the chef I would be if I were braver—brilliant and intuitive, fierce and kind. After a terrible accident when she was a teenager, Elena found her salvation in restaurants, and she’s battled her way to the top of the game as a chef who has lived and worked all over the world. Now, she has an opportunity to build her own kitchen and menu and staff, starting over in a failed restaurant in Aspen with an entire cast of characters who will, perhaps become a family she can, at last, call her own.
As I wrote, I cooked and cooked, learning the landscape of Elena’s world as I tested recipes and fed my beloved tidbits and scowled over things that didn’t work. As I cooked, a book was born and now comes to you. Perhaps you’ll read and cook, cook and read. Bon appetit!
Top Ten Favorite Foods
by Barbara O'Neal
1. Root beer floats with my grandmother at the A&W Root Beer. The long spoons, the milky suds, the sugary brown crystals on top of the ice cream, and my grandmother across the table, telling a story.
2. Roast rabbit, in a very small southern Italian village. I was not about to eat something so cute and fluffy, something you could cuddle, but the woman serving us insisted that I would mourn forever if I didn’t try it. It arrived with chicory and mashed fava beans and red wine. The chicory was too bitter for my tastes, but the rabbit tasted like summer, like a sunny grassy field. Rich and deep, broad and salty, a flavor that fills your whole mouth.
3. Goat cheese, fresh tomatoes, and cucumbers stuffed into a baguette; lunch on a hiking tour in the French alps. The air smelled of the wild thyme we had crushed beneath our boots.
4. Pork and avocado burritos at Los Tres, a family business tucked into a corner of the food court of the Pueblo, Colorado mall, everything served on paper plates with plastic spoons by the wife and the cousins and the sisters and brothers while a television plays talk shows in the corner. Local green chiles and slippery, mushy chunks of avocado mixed with slow roasted pork, and long-simmered, very spicy chile. It also smells heavenly.
5. Homemade sausage gravy served over his secret recipe buttermilk biscuits, as made by my children’s father every Sunday through their young years.
6. A picnic served on the sidelines of a grassy field where Indian computer geeks played cricket. The day was cloudy, the game incomprehensible, but my new boyfriend–who did not cook at all–had assembled the offering to show me what an English-style picnic would look like. There were dozens of dishes, each individually set out in its own container, crisp long Romaine lettuce leaves and sliced tomatoes and onions, tidy slices of bread and chunky Branston pickle and sliced meats and ginger beer. It started to rain, but my British partner was prepared for that, too, and we ate it all under a giant umbrella, watching cricket and eating cold cuts and shivering companionably in the damp.
7. Pears. All pears, even tinny-tasting canned pears in heavy syrup, but especially brown bosc pears straight out of the orchards.
8. A bagel smeared with Marmite and a hot cup of sweet milky tea poured from a thermos, served at the summit of Pikes Peak by the same slightly batty Brit. We had just survived a lightning storm and hours of hail while manning a water station during the Pikes Peak Ascent, an extreme trail run. Maybe the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
9. Bradon roast salmon with whiskey sauce, eaten on the freezing cold banks of Loch Fyne. I wasn’t going to try it because someone force-fed me salmon from a can as a child and I hated it. Our guide gently suggested this might be a lot different. It tasted of peat and smoke and the great salt sea and the cold winds pouring down Highland slopes and the musky dark heart of Scotland.
10. My own tamales, in all their forms. It took me a long time to master them, and it is a gigantic undertaking, a whole day of cooking, and smelling spices, and cooking the duck or the pork to falling-apart tenderness, and spreading masa just right on husks, and tying them closed, and steaming them, and then waiting and waiting, and eating that very first one out of the pot, rolling it out steaming onto a plate and taking the first bite and knowing it was worth every second. Every second.
1. What was your first impression of Elena as a character? What about Julian? How did your view of them change throughout the novel? In what ways did each of them surprise you?
2. Discuss the role of food and cooking In The Lost Recipe for Happiness. What did food mean to each of the characters? What meals left the strongest impression with you as a reader? What tastes were you reminded of? What do you think this added to the reading experience?
3. Consider the town of Aspen itself. It seems that each of the characters is there for a reason. What brings each of them to Aspen, and what keeps them there? Who do you think will stay, and who will eventually move on? Why is this a good setting for a book like this?
4. There are several secrets and betrayals in The Lost Recipe for Happiness. Was there any point where a secret, once revealed, shocked you? Were you surprised by any other character’s reaction to a revelation? How would you have reacted to each admission?
5. Why does Julian wait so long to disclose the truth about his screenplay to Elena? What does his reticence tell you about him?
6. Several times throughout the book, Elena and others discuss the three most memorable foods they’ve ever eaten. What are yours, and why?
7. Discuss the relationship between Patrick and Ivan. What do they see in each other? Do you think this is a relationship that will stand the test of time?
8. The Lost Recipe for Happiness is written mostly from Elena’s point of view, but we occasionally hear from the other characters as well. What did the chapters from Julian and Ivan’s perspective add to your understanding of the story?
9. As the child of an actress, Portia has some very real issues with her body image. Consider the argument she has with her father toward the end of Chapter 13. What did you think of her argument? Is it possible for an overweight woman to be truly successful? Is it easier for men in this sense?
10. Many of the characters in this novel have sustained some kind of damage–physical or emotional–from their childhood. In what ways does this manifest itself, and what does it take for each of them to move on?
11. Throughout The Lost Recipe for Happiness, there is discussion about the idea that each person has a soul mate. Do you think this is true in the world of this novel? What about in real life?
12. Elena carries some very real ghosts of her past along with her, as well as the metaphorical ghosts of her memories. How did you feel about the ghosts in the novel? What role did they play in Elena’s life? Do you think that Isobel will be back, or has she truly left Elena for good?