For the last in my series of stories featuring food and drink magic, we finally reach coffee, which I’m sure we can all agree is an inherently magical substance!
When it comes to ghosts, my grandmother has one solution: brew a pot of coffee. Like today, in Sadie Lancaster’s kitchen.
Sadie clutches her hands beneath her chin and stares at our percolator, her eyes huge. The thing gurgles and hisses as if it resents being pressed into service. My own reflection in its side is distorted. When I was younger, I thought this was how ghosts see our world.
In places with bad infestations, they swirl around the percolator. I can reach out, touch hot moist air with one hand and the icy patch of dry with the other. One time, a ghost slipped inside. It rattled around until the percolator sprang from the table and hit the floor, splashing scalding water everywhere.
I still wear the scars of that across my shins.
Katy’s family has always caught ghosts with coffee, but business is threatened when an out-of-towner shows up and starts up in competition… using tea. Wherever Katy turns, work seems to be going to the handsome stranger who’s offering free trials of his services and undercutting her at every opportunity.
For the next in my foodie magic series, I’ve picked up the first in a series of murder mysteries set in and around a magical bakery store.
“We’re going to sell a ton of these,” I said to Lucy as she came back into the kitchen, fuzzy feline safely ensconced back at her and Ben’s town house.
She peered over my shoulder and breathed deep. “Don’t I know it. But let’s add a little something to ensure that.”
“Maybe some bacon?” I laughed. “Because everything’s better with bacon, right?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of this.” She retrieved a Mason jar full of dried greenery from a shelf in the overflowing pantry. “Sage. From my garden.”
“Sage and cheddar are a great combination,” I agreed. “We should try that.”
The front door jingled open. Quickly, I wiped my hands on a towel and walked out front. Behind me, Lucy said something. I stopped and turned. She stood over my scone dough, crumbling dried sage from the Mason jar into it and muttering under her breath.
When Katie Lightfoot moves to Savannah to open a bakery with her aunt and uncle, she’s well aware that it will involve a lot of hard work. The appearance of a deeply unpleasant woman demanding they cater her event before the store is even open comes as a surprise, but it isn’t beyond the realms of her experience. But what she isn’t expecting is for that same woman to turn up murdered almost on their doorstep… or for her aunt to reveal that she’s a witch.
I am a Mistress of Spices.
I can work the others too. Mineral, metal, earth and sand and stone. The gems with their cold clear light. The liquids that burn their hues into your eyes till you see nothing else. I learned them alll on the island.
But the spices are my love.
I know their origins, and what their colours signify, and their smells. I can call each by the true-name it was given at the first, when earth split like skin and offered it up to the sky. Their heat runs in my blood. From amchur to zafran, they bow to my command. At a whisper they yield up to me their hidden properties, their magic powers.
Tilo has given up all worldly things to become a Mistress, a woman with the skill to manipulate the powers inherent in spices. This is no metaphorical sacrifice. Tilo is magically transposed into an aged, crooked body, a form she willingly adopts in place of her true youthful form. Not only that, but a Mistress lives solely within the walls of her shop, thence to dole out the various spice-remedies that others need to help with difficulties in their lives, committed to aid the local Indian community without getting too close to anyone.
It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.
My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.
How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches of twinned red cherries.
On the kitchen counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm- eyed mother were welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of brown- sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.
Rose is only a child, on the cusp of her ninth birthday, when her experience of food changes forever. Her mother’s chocolate-lemon cake smells irresistible, but tastes overwhelmingly of sadness and desperation. Horrified, Rose realises she is tasting the emotions of the baker, and that her mother’s surface cheer hides a heart filled with painful secrets.
Take care to chop the onion fine. To keep from crying when you chop it (which is so annoying!), I suggest you place a little bit on your head. The trouble with crying over an onion is once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop. I don’t know whether that’s ever happened to you, but I have to confess it’s happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.
Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, the cook, who was half-deaf, could hear her wailing. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labour. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic, and of course, onion.
According to family tradition, as the youngest daughter, Tita’s only role in life is to look after her mother into her old age. So when Tita falls in love and starts dreaming of marriage, her hopes are swiftly quashed by her mother. Mama Elena is a force of nature, whose wishes and plans cannot be questioned by her daughters; as the story begins, at least, Tita is nowhere near strong enough to stand up for herself. And the somewhat hapless Pedro, wanting only to be close to Tita, is persuaded to marry her sister instead.
I’m selecting books featuring foodie magic this month. The first, Flesh and Fire, was recommended to me on Twitter and focuses on the winemaking process.
The boy focused on what he was doing, but not so much that he failed to sense someone pause behind him, too close for comfort. He managed not to flinch as the older slave bent down to whisper. “Nice job you pulled, Fox-fur. Who’d you sweetmouth for it?”
The boy grunted, not wanting to talk, even to defend himself. Talk got you noticed. Notice was bad. Keep your face down, your hands busy, and your mouth shut, and survive. Those were the unspoken rules that everyone knew.
Growing up as a slave, Jerzy knows the intricate details of the grape harvest, but he’s forbidden from ever tasting the fruit of his labours. In the world of Flesh and Fire, wine is the stuff that spells are made of, making it valuable beyond measure. For a slave, even an accidental taste can mean death, leaving Jerzy torn between temptation and utter terror.