Jenny Gardiner, Slim to None, and Banana Cream Pie

Another Foodie Friday Installment

I’d like to introduce you to writer Jenny Gardiner. Jenny lives in Charlottesville, Va., which is 30 miles over the mountain from where I live. We met through the Literary Ladies Who Lunch, a great group of women writers in the area. We hit it off right away. Jenny is funny, witty, smart, and is a solid person with a HUGE heart. Her skillful writing shows all that—and more. Besides all this, she’s a “home girl” with her roots in Western Pennsylvania. When I write about the food from home, she appreciates it in ways few others do.

Jenny has written an e-book that if you have an e-reader and love food stories you simply have got to check out. Today, I’ve posted an except from her book to entice you.

Here’s the premise:

In SLIM TO NONE, Abbie Jennings is Manhattan’s top food critic until her expanding waistline makes staying incognito at restaurants impossible. Her cover blown on Page Six of the New York Post, her editor has no choice but to bench her—and suggest she use the time off to bench-press her way back to anonymity. Abbie’s life has been built around her career, and therefore around celebrating food. Forced to drop the pounds if she wants her primo gig back, Abbie must peel back the layers of her past and confront the fears that have led to her current life.

From Jenny:

I loved the idea of taking this character who has to eat for a living and then make her not be able to eat in order to continue being able to eat for a living. You got that? The book is funny, sweet and poignant and I really hope my readers will be able to get hold of an e-reader to check this out!! Here are some author blurbs on it:

With a strong yet delightfully vulnerable voice, food critic Abbie Jennings embarks on a soulful journey where her love for banana cream pie and disdain for ill-fitting Spanx clash in hilarious and heartbreaking ways. As her body balloons and her personal life crumbles, Abbie must face the pain and secret fears she’s held inside for far too long. I cheered for her the entire way.

—Beth Hoffman, bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Satisfying as a Thanksgiving dinner at Mom’s. … Jenny Gardiner’s  heroine gives us a sarcastic but provocative look at our love-hate relationship with food. You’ll eat this up in one sitting.

Ad Hudler, bestselling author of Househusband and Man of the House

Jenny Gardiner has done it again – this fun, fast-paced book is a great summer read.

Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Opposite of Me

And here’s an excerpt:

I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food.

~Erma Bombeck

Chapter 1

A Teaspoon of Sugar

I miss my Spanx. I outgrew them about fifty pounds ago. Somewhere between the decadent foie gras at La Grenouille and the joyfully simple pigs-in-a-blanket at Payard Patisserie. It was like a seasonal transition: it happened so gradually I didn’t even notice it, until one day my control-top-pantyline-avoiding-God-Bless-America-for-inventing-these-things Spanx refused to oblige me by fitting comfortably.

No longer gently hugging my curves, respectfully holding all of me in, they’d become a boa constrictor and I their victim. Evidently Spanx are made for far thinner women than me. And so I graduated up to Flexees. But now, as I ready myself for yet another meal out by attempting to contain my expanding girth in my latest girdle of choice, it’s become abundantly clear that I’ve fallen into Flexee disfavor as well. I heave a sigh of resignation. What’s a girl to do when her life revolves around having to eat for a living?

#

“Jesus, this is a mess,” my best friend Jess says as she trails small heaps of greasy lupini beans across her plate with a fork, forming them into a smiley face with what appears to be tears streaming down its cheeks but is probably just excess oil. Jessie mocks the bean face with her own broad smile. Her blond hair, the color of farm-churned butter, softly frames her face in the flickering light of our table’s blazing torch. Jess’ truffle-brown eyes twinkle with mischief: my tasting assistant caught playing with her food.

I nod in agreement. So far what we’ve seen at Puka, the new pan Italian-Hawaiian-Greek restaurant in midtown Manhattan, doesn’t look too promising. I’d held out hope, what with the luau décor, tiki lamps aglow, and the bouzouki player plinking out a half-decent version of That’s Amore. How often can you get a taste of Hawaii, Greece and Italy in one sitting? I dip my pita bread into the complementary poi served in a dugout coconut bowl in the center of the table, hoping for a miracle. Instead, I choke on the soupy gray paste and reach for my water glass, which is still empty.

“Jess, gimme a swig of that!” I point to her glass of water, my hand around my throat for emphasis. I can’t wait for a reply and instead grab the water and throw it back, like Zorba tossing down a flaming shot glass of ouzo.

“Appetizers suck, they can’t even keep our water glasses filled, the signature tiki drinks haven’t materialized despite waiting over half an hour, and the freebie poi appears to be the key ingredient in the fixative that holds up the wallpaper,” I mumble as I jot down notes surreptitiously in my iPhone, mindful to be sure that no one is paying attention to my musings.

“Sure, it’s not exactly Le Bernadin, but seriously, Abbie, it’s all relative,” Jess says. “At least it’s better than the donor kebab I’d have been eating had you not called me at the last minute to come along tonight. But for you, yeah, I’d imagine this pretty much bites the big one.”

“At this place, I’m afraid to bite anything here, big or small. But seriously, I’m just looking at the silver lining in this stormy cloud. Without the bad restaurants, imagine how much fatter I’d be. At least here I have no desire to eat even the smallest of portions. So it’s a little diet in disguise.”

Jess laughs but just barely, and instead squirms in her seat, clearly hating my fat reference. She’s lodge pine-thin and could probably go on a week-long eating bender and still lose weight. That is if food really even mattered to her that much, which it doesn’t. I, on the other hand, seem to have assumed the uncanny silhouette of a beluga whale, while cursed with the sluggish metabolism of a three-toed sloth and blessed with the culinary palate of a Michelin reviewer. Not always a good combination if you savor your size-tens. Oh, wait, I’m in Manhattan. Make that size-twos. And I, Abbie Jennings, am most definitely not a size two. Maybe size twenty-two, perhaps, but I’ve lost count, so who knows?

“You can’t help it, Abs,” she says. “It’s not like you go around stuffing your face with donuts.”

“Yeah. Instead I ingest a steady diet of the world’s richest food.” I shrug. “Ah, well, occupational hazard, I suppose. As are restaurants like this. People are expecting me to rate this place, so I’ll review it. Sure, I always hope for good things from a restaurant, but I’m totally prepared to call them on it if it’s lousy.”

Our waiter arrives, his vision evidently obscured by the pile of leis stacked along his neck, and sloshes two martini glasses filled with something resembling transmission fluid before us. They’re on fire. How adventuresome. Jessie dips her napkin in what’s left of her water and blots the splash of alcoholic neon that has landed uninvited across the front of her white silk shirt. It looks like someone smashed a firefly on her boob. Lei-Boy returns moments later with our entrees: cold, congealed grouper for me and seared mahi-mahi for Jess that looks as if the chef used a blow-torch on it. A hardened heap of Minute Rice accompanies the entrees, with beans that in an ideal world would be green, but are instead a sickly shade of cadaverous ash.

“Bon appetit, I suppose,” I say, not at all looking forward to that first bite. I hate to be disingenuous, but at thirty bucks a plate, the kitchen could’ve at least tried.

Jess scoops a bite of fish with her fork and pops it in her mouth, just as Lei-Boy rushes over and wordlessly grabs her plate away. Fast on his heels is an angry-looking bald man in clogs, checkered pants, and a chef’s toque, hurling what must be obscenities in Greek, maybe Italian, but definitely nothing gently Polynesian sounding. He smacks Lei-Boy up the back of his head, dislodging a few leis onto my grouper.

An A+ for presentation, I jot down in my phone.

“What is up with them?” Jessie asks.

“Hell if I know.” I reach for my transmission fluid to quell the drought in my mouth. As it reluctantly washes down my throat I can’t help but elicit a hairball noise.

A swarm of hula dancers closes in on our table as the bouzouki music gives way to a pulsing luau thunk. If I am seeing properly beyond the blur of grass skirts–my God, how do they do that?–there appears to be an extra from South Pacific pounding a drum back there.

“Aloha, wahini,” the Greek chef intones through a volcanic crater-sized smile. His accent is deceptively French-sounding. “E komo mai. Welcome. Buona sera. Good evening.”

I expect him to throw in a Phi Beta Kappa just to incorporate all of the restaurant’s themes. “Ladies, zere has been a slight mistake in zee kitchen.” No thanks to Lei-boy, I’m thinking. “Pleeze, allow me to present you vees more better food.” Our Greek chef sounds like he must’ve apprenticed for a hell of a long time in Paris.

With this, our drinks are rounded up, and in their stead are placed two smoldering cocktails that appear to contain dry ice. I peer into the void of my thermally-reinforced cup (artfully disguised as a small volcano) and see through the rising steam something somewhat thick and orange-ish red. I look at the chef–the spitting image of Telly Savalas without the lollypop–for the go-ahead from him, wondering if one can actually ingest dry ice. I always thought it was toxic.

He motions with his hands to drink up. “Ladeees, ees gud. Ees a Lava Flow. Really, really good. You drink, no?” He rolls his “r” with such authority I feel this is an order, and I comply, placing the drink to my lips with apprehension and taking a tiny no-thank you sip, trying not to make a face, in case it’s disgusting.

I taste a slight dribble, licking my lips to catch the overflow. Not bad, actually. Sort of cool and warm at the same time, like Ben Gay on the rocks. I’ll give them credit: it’s certainly different.

Telly is on to the next order of business already, seeing that our new entrees are properly plated. Lei-boy and his assistant, Hula-girl bring out two heaping dishes of food, much of it unidentifiable but at least it’s piping hot. Telly Savalas leans forward, so close to me I can smell the garlic on his breath, and wipes a smudge of sauce from the edge of my dish with his towel. He adjusts the plate a quarter-turn and bows while wishing us buon appetito (why he didn’t say this in Greek is Greek to me).

“Whoa!” Jess stares at me as if she’d just witnessed the shocking conclusion to a weird movie. She takes a bite of something in front of her. “I don’t know what that was all about, but bring it on, baby. If we’ve gotta go through that to get some of this, I’ll volunteer to be the sacrificial lamb.”

I don’t know where to begin on my plate. Everything looks so unfamiliar, yet appetizing. I decide to aim for the starch first, and settle my fork into a generous portion of what turns out to be risotto with bite-sized pieces of suckling pig. I’ll take creamy risotto over that vile poi any day. The pork, so tender and juicy, has me humming Mele Kalikimaka, cause it feels like a Hawaiian Merry Christmas gift.

I next try the entrée, a tender, flaky and surprisingly un-oily mackerel sprinkled with feta cheese and olives and cloaked in taro leaves. I have to give Telly some credit, I didn’t know how this place could pull off merging three such divergent flavors, but somehow it works despite itself.

“I can’t believe how fantastic this food is,” Jess mumbles through a bite of her pineapple-balsamic glazed wild boar spare ribs with tzatziki sauce. “Who’d have thought you could actually assemble a menu with Italian, Hawaiian and Greek food? I honestly thought it was a joke.”

“Joke’s on us, cause this stuff is amazing.”

After dinner ends, Telly returns with a selection of desserts (including a baklava made with mascarpone cheese, coconut and pine nuts), a tray with sample shots of grappa, ouzo and okolehao, and a somewhat excessive appreciation for his customers.

“You like, no?” Telly asks me as he hands me a leftovers bag with more in it than we had on our plates, I’m sure, then straightens out my napkin in my lap. I really don’t like people fondling my linens in restaurants.

“It was wonderful,” I tell him, shooing his hands from my lap (after all, I don’t need old Telly to get an up-close look at my too-tight Flexee-induced bulges.) Despite the culinary false start. I might even have to give the place three stars.

“Meesees Jennings, on behalf of zee entire staff of Puka, I sank you for dining vees us zees evening,” Telly says as he bows repeatedly while backing away from me and disappearing into the kitchen. “Zee meal is on zee house, vees my undying gratitude.”

I look at Jessie and blanch. Meessees Jennings, he called me. Missus fucking Jennings. How stupid could I have been? I should’ve known! There was no mistake. The only mistake is that my look has become unmistakable. For the third time this month, I’ve been recognized in a restaurant.

“Son of a bitch,” I groan under my breath. “Mortie’s gonna kill me. He’s going to absolutely kill me.”

#

Shaken by the revelation that my food critic cover has been effectively blown, I leave Jessie to pay the bill and slip out a side door to hail a cab, handing my bag of leftovers to a homeless man on a nearby grate. Well, slip might be a gross understatement, considering at my size, I’m probably beyond the point of slipping out of anyplace with much facility.

I tip the cab driver too much, just grateful to be away from there and able to go home to ponder this most unfortunate turn of events. I plod up the flight of steps up to our brownstone and unlock the door, flicking on the hall light as I regain my breath from that exertion. Tartare, my beefy tomcat, weaves a few figure eights around my ankles before meowing as he always does to go outside, even though I don’t dare let him out on the mean streets.

“William?” I call out for my husband, who I’m sure was planning to be home tonight. I’d invited him along to Puka but he declined, saying he was going to catch up on some things. I’m beginning to suspect that being married to the food critic of the New York Sentinel holds very little charm to William at this point. It was never something he’d wanted for us, but he was willing to put up with it, if it made me happy.

If it was up to William, we’d leave Manhattan in a New York minute (excuse the pun). He cashed out years ago after the teeny little start-up company he worked for hit it big during the tech boom, and now only dabbles at his day job for fun, waiting for me to pull the plug on living in the city. He’d like nothing more than to escape the traffic, the noise, the excessive demands on his wife’s time. Maybe start a family. Oh, jeeze, the thought of me getting pregnant at this weight is one I simply can’t contemplate. Not without a fat finger of bourbon to help tamp down the hysterics that accompany such thoughts.

My Harvey Nichols pumps–optimistically purchased when I could lay claim to that size-ten physique–click with groaning desperation across my polished hardwoods. I think if they could talk they would beg for mercy. Please, give us a freaking break and don’t wedge your bloated feet into us, they’d say. We weren’t meant to haul so much weight; we’re not tractor-trailers, you know!

No, they’re not, but I feel like I am. A tractor-trailer loaded with cargo but out of gas on a desolate highway. I switch on the living room lights, peel off my unforgiving shoes and sink into the butterscotch leather sofa, which gasps like a dying man beneath my girth.

“What to do, what to do,” I ask Tartare, who is clearly unconcerned with my dilemma as he strains to escape my grip. I stroke him with one fingernail in his sweet spot at the curve of his chin and he relents, frozen with feline desire. I wish my problems could be solved by a little chin scratching.

I lay my head back and take in the living room. William and I argued for weeks on the color we’d paint this room. He wanted cranberry. I finally won the argument and chose a distinct chestnut shade. I actually brought a wedge of my favorite chocolate–from this amazing French chocolatier in the East Village–to the paint store because the color was precisely what I was looking for. I knew I could readily relax in a room that reminded me of Guillaume’s to-die for ganache.

“William?” I call again but get no response, so I hoist myself up and pad to the kitchen. The varnished concrete floor is cold on my feet, so I slide them into my banana split slippers, which I always keep nearby. Comfortable shoes are so important for cooking. I’m feeling very agitated by what happened at the restaurant, and decide that the only thing to take my mind off it will be to whip up something tasty. As I reach for the cabinet that houses my cookbooks I notice a note on the counter.

Abbie,

The house was kind of quiet so Cognac and I decided to get away. We hopped on the bike and headed down to the Jersey shore for a couple of days. Call if you need me. Or better yet, come join us. Maybe we can prowl the backstreets in search of a new restaurant. We’d sure love the company.

Love,

William

p.s. Don’t worry, Cognac is secured into the sidecar with his doggie seatbelt.

William keeps insisting Jersey is retro, thinking that will lure me down there with him. I had enough of Jersey growing up, thanks. I’m not ready to revisit my past, even under the guise of campy fun. I ball up the note and toss it in the trash, then send him a quick text message. I think I’ll keep mum for now about what happened this evening. No need to bother him with details, especially when I’m sure I can clear this all right up in the morning.

“Hi sweetie. Sorry u weren’t home when I got back. Have fun with poochie @ the beach. I’m off 2 bed soon so don’t worry about calling. Luv, me

I rifle through the cabinet and pull out grandma Gigi’s recipe box. For me, job stress–or any kind of stress, really–means concocting an old favorite from her collection. I leaf through the worn pages of Gigi’s recipes until I find precisely what I’m looking for. I pull out the card gingerly, as the corners are dog-eared and yellow with age. Albumen stains speckle it, as well as grease marks from her lard-smeared fingers. Grandma’s impeccable cursive sweeps across the card, even and angled, precise. Like baking: methodical and exact.

I pull out the flour, salt, butter, and shortening and begin to blend together the ingredients, putting a little muscle into it as I mix, adding ice water to consistency. Five simple ingredients that combine to sooth my nerves and please my palate.

Next I mix the pudding, then slice bananas. Crack eggs, separating yolk from white. Pull out the Kitchen-Aid mixer, whip the whites on high with a pinch of salt. Adding the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, a splash of vanilla for good measure.

I dust the granite countertop with flour and roll out two crusts: I think a pie might be just the thing to turn around Mortie’s mood when I break the news to him. Who can’t get happy over a banana cream pie? It’s the mother of all comfort foods, the comfort food of all mothers. At least for my grandmother it was.

As I slide the pies into the oven, I glance at the clock and realize it’s past midnight. I’ve been cooking for almost three hours. Just about long enough to forget that tomorrow I have to face my boss.

BANANA CREAM PIE

*this is a single recipe, but you might as well double it if you’re going to go to all the effort.

FOR THE PIE CRUST

Preheat oven to 375.

With pastry blender mix 2-1/2 c. Wondra Flour (it’s the only flour for this pastry) with one stick softened butter (8 tbl.) and 1/2 tsp. Salt

Then add 6 rounded tbls. Crisco shortening (do not under any circumstances use the butter flavored, and by all means don’t even consider using any other brand of shortening). You can use the Crisco shortening sticks, just cutting at the appropriate line.

Blend till mealy.

Add 5-6 tbl. Ice water, mix with pastry mixer until dough pulls together but is not gluey. If needed, add a little bit more water. If too damp, a small bit more flour.

Gently pound into a ball, and roll out on floured countertop or pastry sheet until 1/8” thick.

Roll gently onto pastry roller and ease into pie pan. Snugly roll crust up. Poke holes along bottom of pie crust with fork to allow crust to breath.

Place baking parchment on top of crust, pour rice or pie weights on top of parchment, to weigh crust down as it bakes.

Bake for ten minutes, then paint inside of crust with a mixture of one egg white and 1 tsp. Water. Replace the parchment pie weights and bake for another 5 minutes. Remove parchment with pie weights and bake another 5 minutes. Allow to cool completely.

FOR THE FILLING

Use two packages of Jell-O brand banana cream pudding mix (not the instant). Hard to find but worth the effort. You may have to track it down on the Internet. Cook as directed on package, using slightly less milk. As the pudding thickens, separate out three egg whites and yolks. Just before pudding comes to a boil, add about 1/2 cup of the pudding into the egg yolks, stir well, then pour in to the pudding that is just coming to a boil. Remove from stove and let cool. (by the way, don’t even bother making homemade banana pudding. It’s not nearly as good).

FOR THE MERINGUE (a vital ingredient to this pie’s success)

Using the 3 egg whites, whip with mixer on high with a pinch of salt. Add, one at a time, 9 tbl. of sugar (take that! South Beach!), then 1 tsp. vanilla.

TO FINISH PIE

Preheat oven to 350. Once crust and pie filling are cooled, line bottom of pie crust with banana slices. Add filling. Spread meringue on top. Bake for 15 minutes, till meringue is a light golden brown on top.

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