Chef had been right. It had taken some doing, but Valerie trained herself to endure, to go to her memories of Mrs. Angela’s kitchen when the guard spun her toward the wall. Maybe it was more than wishful thinking or a hopeful imagination, but it seemed his hands on her were less forceful, more mechanical, more clinical.
Chef was right about other things, too. In the general’s kitchen, they made do with whatever ingredients came through their door, whether that was prime rib or meat only fit for stewing. It could be difficult work, harder than Valerie’s culinary school classes, and harder sometimes than her service in the camp mess. In the mornings, a wiry red-haired man named Dominick brought the deliveries. Chef Svetlana’s sharp eyes glossed over them, no doubt gauging the quality as well as what permutations they could create. “It’s shit,” she’d ultimately say to him. “It’s all goddamn shit.” They’d laugh, then she’d slip him a few dollars from the tip jar, pat his shoulder, and say, “Luckily, we know how to work with shit.”
When the women were working quietly and smoothing the rough edges of whatever dishes Chef Svetlana had dreamed up, Valerie could almost trick herself into thinking she was back at school. Sometimes, watching her own hands as she chopped, mixed, or sautéed, as the scents of fresh herbs enveloped her, she could extend that mental magic all the way back to her family’s kitchen. “It was like you were born to cook,” Mrs. Angela often said, praising her efforts from the humblest lemon pound cake to the most elaborate meals, some the cook pronounced fit enough to place in front of her parents’ important dinner guests. If not for her encouragement, Valerie might not have developed a passion for food and cooking at all.
Like so many of life’s passions, it starts with a taste, an aroma, an opportunity.
For Valerie it began with licorice.
Every time her father returned from a trip, he would bring Valerie licorice candy. As a young girl, she hadn’t known his work was so dangerous or that the licorice was a promise, a way perhaps to soothe his own fears that he might not come home to her. But maybe she did know, in that way children know things. Why else would her mother lock herself in her bedroom and cry each time he left? Each time he even announced another trip?
As an adult, Valerie could look back on those years and paint a fuller portrait of the Kipplander household. Papa had chosen a high-risk career, and Mother had hated him for it. But when Valerie was very small, maybe four or five, her mother indisposed and the nanny’s hands full with her rambunctious younger brother, Valerie began seeking comfort in the kitchen. Mrs. Angela must have known her father’s departures upset Valerie, so the cook let her do small things to distract her. Mrs. Angela also knew about the licorice promise and kept some of the candies in a kitchen drawer; the scent reminded Valerie of her father and made her smile, made her feel like he was there with her.
Like he would always come home to her.
One day, Mother refused to leave her room, and Etienne was being an awful pest. Mrs. Angela gave Valerie a sharp nod and grabbed some cloth bags from the hook in the pantry.
“You will come with me today, mademoiselle.”
Alphonso drove them into town and escorted them to the market square—an area that was designed to be a throwback to another era. Under an awning stretched a line of old-fashioned stores—butcher, bakery, fishmonger. Valerie clung to Mrs. Angela’s skirt, taking in every detail, every aroma. The baker handed her a hot croissant, and she marveled at the pleasure of biting through the flaky crust into the warm, soft insides.
Then, the farmer’s market. Her eyes were so wide she thought they would pop out of her head. Her heart quickened as her fingers trailed over the many shapes and colors. It was autumn, the season of root vegetables and gourds, of rich and wonderful soups. That was Mrs. Angela’s aim, to make them something hearty and comforting, no doubt. She was brilliant at matching the mood of the house and the season with whatever she created. Bad days at school meant home-baked cookies; when her mother was shut up in her room it meant…well, all of her favorite things. Roasted chicken and fragrant cassoulets and peach cobbler and other dishes that made the house smell so good. When Valerie was older, she wondered if Mrs. Angela was cooking the things that gave herself comfort, too, taking a soothing bath in smell and taste, for working in the Kipplander household could not have been easy.
Valerie stopped in front of a display of odd-looking root vegetables. The potatoes, she knew. There were at least three different kinds in the bins. But something touched a scent memory. She circled around until she found it. It had an oddly shaped white bulb and frilly greens. Mrs. Angela said it was fennel. Not quite celery, not quite leek, and it smelled…like her father.
Like having him home.
Like lying on the carpet in his study, spinning his globe, hearing his stories.
He’d seen this coming. He’d seen it all: the secessions, the riots, the civil war, the foreign interference, the invasion; the government overthrown, eroded from within, assisted from without. He tried to stop it. He tried to warn them. But his critics thought he was an alarmist, a conspiracy theorist. It can’t happen here, they said. Kipplander is a crazed zealot, drunk on his own failed cause.
And he had died for it. They had all died.
Because nobody listened.
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