Sorry for the delay today! I'm pleased to have Mary Jo Burke here as my guest to talk about cooking skills:
I inherited my cooking ability from my mom. In other words, I don’t have one. She preferred to have someone else prepare her meals or go to a restaurant. When we attended bridal showers and the invitation called for a recipe for the bride-to-be, my mother would write on the card, “Make reservations.” I can follow directions and offer an eatable meal, but no rave reviews. I did follow my mom’s lead by marrying a guy who likes to cook.
On the weekends, the kitchen was my father’s domain. He did the weekly grocery shopping too. I sat at the table and watched him. He prepared the basics: a roast beast, potatoes with gravy, and a vegetable, corn or green beans. My mother saw potential in my interest and recruited me to be the weekday dinner maker. I followed my father’s instructions and cooked five meals a week. And I hated it. I questioned his choices and pushed for macaroni and cheese, fresh from the box. One time he bought fish, still sporting their heads, and I drew the line there. I’d cook, if I got to pick some of the menu items. I introduced salads, steamed vegetables, and rice to the mix.
At twelve, I attempted to bake and chose the classic chocolate chip cookie recipe on the back of the semi-sweet morsel bag. I found all the ingredients in the cabinet, except baking soda. For some reason, we kept an open box of it in the refrigerator. I was unclear on the concept of the odor eating ability of baking soda. That initial batch was tasted and tossed in the garbage. The next week all the baking ingredients were replaced and I was encouraged to try again. I triumphed and still bring the cookies to family parties.
Do you have a signature dish or do you leave the cooking to others?
Here’s an excerpt from Spicing Up Trouble where Alexia Hale explains her love of spicy food.
"I bow to your expertise," Ben said to me.
"We'll have stuffed mushrooms, encrusted tilapia, and house salads," I said.
"Excellent choices." Tim took the menus and left.
"Do you cook or write or model or fend off interviewers for a living?" Ben asked as his fingers filtered through my hair.
A hum vibrated down my spine as I tried to concentrate on his words and not his mouth. Before the fog hit my brain, he asked about my profession choices. I pretended men always caressed me in public.
"I entered a cake contest on a whim. One of the judges worked at Chicago News. She needed an assistant who could bake. I didn't win, but I got the job. I haven't decided what I want to be when I grow up."
Our salads arrived, and mine included an extra plate of chopped jalapeños and orange habañero chilis.
Ben spied the hot peppers.
"You could eat a plate of peppers by yourself?" he asked as he released my tress.
"Yeah, they add so much to the crisp greens and offset the sugar from the carrots. Mixed with the balsamic vinaigrette, the flavor stings the back of your tongue."
"And sets fire to your nasal passages. Mind if I try a few?"
He scooped some off the plate with his fork, then speared a couple and put them in his mouth.
"My sisters used to call me Peter Piper because I ate so many pickled peppers."
Ben didn't respond as his eyes teared up. He drank a full glass of water.
"Would you like some milk? It helps to soften the burn," I said. He shook his head as he picked up my water glass, draining it. "I'm sorry, they are pretty strong."
"They're delicious, but not by the mouthful. I'll pace myself," he said as he signaled for Tim who returned to fill the water glasses. "Please bring the lady a fresh one. I gulped hers down too."
We finished our salads, and I ate the remaining peppers. The main courses arrived, and my usual bottle of hot sauce was included.
"More spice? Your insides must be lined with fire extinguisher foam," he said.
"Maybe I like it hot." I meant the sauce, but I was flexible about connotations.
He stared at me, took the bottle, and shook it.
"I like to make sure all the flavors are properly blended before I indulge," he said with a challenging smile.
"This is my recipe and brings out the richness of flavor in the fish," I said, pouring the sauce on the tilapia.
Ben placed a dot of it on his plate, cut a piece of fish, and dipped it. He put it in his mouth as his hand went for the full water glass. My nerves were on edge as I awaited his verdict.
"Outstanding, forget writing about food, design it," he said as he poured more sauce on his plate.
I didn't realize I was holding my breath until I exhaled. I discussed choosing items for the menu. His attention never wavered from my face.
"I hope you saved room for dessert. I'm trying to leave Irene with a big bill," he said.
Spicing Up Trouble
Mary Jo Burke
Publishing, 332 pages
Alexia Hale works as a test kitchen writer for
the Chicago News. But she gets her big break toward reporting
"real" news when she's given the opportunity to interview the world
renowned artist, Benjamin Nance Cobb.
The catch: to get it, Alexia
has to pose as a nude model for Ben. What begins as an awkward assignment
quickly turns into a real friendship...and possibly more. But when a photograph
of Alexia is leaked to the press, their private life suddenly becomes very
public. Ben's father isn't pleased, Alexia's sisters are shocked, and now she's
being hounded by the press.
Dating a celebrity has its
challenges and rewards. The only question is, which one will outweigh the
Alexia is not the outgoing, strong woman like her sisters, and she's not like any woman Ben has met, dated, or painted before. She even knows all the books his mother wrote. This book has everything - problems with the press, the "uncle" who is out to bring Ben and his father down, family feuds and conflicts, hot steamy sex, dreams, and sweetness and compassion. All in all, a feel good read.
The Internet offered few details
about Benjamin Nance Cobb's work. I needed to visit Chicago's Art Institute to do some research.
In the morning, out in front of the
museum, I rubbed the paw of one of the lions. "Wish me luck," I
whispered to the stoic predator and hurried up the stairs.
Once inside, I cheated and asked a
docent to direct me to the Contemporary Art section. He
pointed at a tour group, and I followed them. We entered a
large foyer. The guide began to speak, and I saw my chance to escape.
Farther down the hall and to the
left, two canvases took up an entire wall. First, a nude woman reclined on her
back. Her lush black hair splayed on the pillow beneath her, her right hand
laid in the tangles—eyes half closed, her lush lips pursed, her left hand limp
against her side, her knees pulled together and slightly bent. Her whole body
sated. She just had great sex. The plaque beside it read, "Satisfied by Benjamin Nance Cobb."
Next, a woman sitting on a bed, her
back positioned toward the artist, the sway of her hip revealed the top of her
butt, her arms and legs crossed in front of her, a hint of right breast showed,
her face in profile, her eyes glanced over her shoulder, and her blonde hair
mussed. I read the plaque, "Anticipation
by Benjamin Nance Cobb."
How about Striptease for Benjamin Nance Cobb?
The paintings carried the same
message: goddesses with an attitude. Power radiated from them. They owned the
men who sought to possess them. Confident in their appearance and sexuality,
the viewer of the portrait felt like an intruder, stumbling into the intimate
setting. The discomfort was for the outsider looking in. I imagined being free
not to care about others' opinions, living by one's own rules. Easier said than
A small blurb about the artist hung
on the wall. I didn't get much passed his age, thirty-five, because next to it
a photograph almost stopped my heart. The man himself glared at the camera. Not
a posed shot, one stolen on the street by paparazzi. Black hair, ice blue eyes,
nose and chin chiseled like a bust of a Roman god.
I stumbled away a little shaken by
the portrait of the reaper of women.
Would I be released by my editor
from this assignment? No. Would I gain the self-confidence required for public
nudity in two days? Double no. Would my sisters ever let me forget I chickened
out? Triple-dog no.
Not only my likeness would be
captured, Cobb might prove capable of reaching down and finding my true self,
ready to be exposed. Could this opportunity remake me into one of those women
proudly displaying their attributes to the world? Was I willing to risk all for
a taste of confidence like my sisters wore every day?
The new expressive me lay trapped
inside the old mousy me. Where there was a will, there was a way, but no graceful
I dodged my sisters' phone calls
and focused all good karma on Wednesday. I arrived early for my exhibition; I
mean appointment to a nondescript building with no sign or address, no names on
the mailboxes. Subtle message, if you weren't invited, you shouldn't be here. I
pressed the doorbell, heard footsteps coming to the door, and prayed I wouldn't
The imposing oak door swung in, and
the grail of my quest stood before me. The men of my dreams were book
boyfriends. Men conjured up from another woman's imagination who yielded to her
will. All were tall, muscular, ruggedly handsome, and smelled wonderful. Like
them, this guy was all those myths come to life. Now I'd add a few revisions to
include sparkling blue eyes enticing me to jump into those pools for a slow
swim, full lips, and thighs like tree trunks. Forget breeders' hips, the sight
of Benjamin Nance Cobb made my ovaries explode. He assessed me up and down then
smiled. A slight dimple formed on his unshaven cheek. A kiss would fit perfectly
on that indentation.
"I'm," he hesitated and
stared at me.
He knew I was a fraud. Who would
believe I was a model?
"I'm sorry, I'm Ben Cobb," he said,
pushing the door all the way open to the wall. "You must be from the
"Yes, I'm the model."
Of what, I didn't know.
"You look familiar. Have you
posed for print ads?" His cordial tone sounded as if he had just parked my
What if he asked to see some
credentials or my portfolio? I should have taken Eleanor's crazy advice about
head shots or shots to the head. Right now, I was a bit confused as my fear and
flight impulses beat against my brain. As a result, I stayed put and proceeded
in. I didn't dare speak again, my voice hid under the covers, waiting for me to
come to my senses.
"The changing room is to the
right, I mean your left. There's a robe in there on the wall. On a hook on the
wall. No, it's on the door," he said as he scratched the back of his head.
"I apologize. I'm sure you're a professional and can figure it out."
Professional fraud at the moment.
"No problem, I'll find it."
I strolled down a hallway.
Was he upset or nervous? Did I
scare him? He probably thought, "How am I supposed to work with her?"
Should I apologize in advance?
I found an open pink door. It was more of a
renovated closet with a full-length mirror, an embroidered chair, and an ornate
hook on the back of the door with a flimsy yellow robe attached.
I bit my lower lip as I began to
undress. I tried to focus on why I put myself in this situation: a career boost
and a chance to get in good with the new bosses. I forgot about impressing my
sisters, they would be questioning my sanity about now.
Getting him to talk presented the
why do you paint nudes?"
you pay them or do they pay you?"
a fan of your mom's work."
Helen Nance Cobb's books were
special to me. They reminded me of my childhood before my parents died. Adele's Armoire, Benjamin's Bike, Celeste's
Closet, and Daniel's Dugout were
the first four books I could read by myself. Prose and illustrations
represented all twenty-six letters.
A soft knock at the door brought me
back to the present. I gripped the back of the chair.
"Is everything all right in
there?" he asked.
If I shook anymore, I could make a
smoothie. Yesterday I waxed, exfoliated, moisturized, and steamed myself. I
wished I could pump up my courage too. Exhaling slowly, I opened the door to
meet my new outlook on life or die trying.
The floor creaked as I ambled
toward the easel where he stood, cleaning brushes.
"Where do you want me?" I
asked as my fist clutched the robe shut.
He stared at me again. I must be
the most hideous specimen to ever pose for him.
"When you're ready, take off
the robe, and lay on your stomach on the pillows," he said, offering a
I cautiously strolled over and sat
on the floor with my back to the wall.
If a guy jumped out with a camera
and yelled "Smile," I wouldn't be surprised. Being caught at the most
embarrassing moment of my life made perfect sense right now.
"How long have you been a model, Miss?"
he asked, shifting the canvas on the easel.
"I'm Alexia Hale. I've been
modeling for two years."
Did it sound believable? Should I
have used a fake name?
"Only with Perkins?"
Who or what was Perkins?
"I'm surprised they didn't
send you earlier. I've asked for a variety of women, especially without
endowments. Sorry, I mean a woman with natural beauty."
"My works takes me out of the
My nose was about to go Pinocchio
on me, and he noticed my breasts. My nipples hardened up and rubbed against the
polyester blend. Traitors.
"Where?" he asked.
All the places I would love to
"Busy girl. Photography or
This one didn't count as a lie. I
liked taking pictures, and I finger painted in kindergarten.
"Are you ready to start?"
I let the robe slide off of me and
flopped on the pillows. He didn't flinch or move for three full minutes. He
absorbed me into those piercing blue eyes.
"Excuse me," he said as
he hurried away.
The sight of the nude me made him
vomit. I stood, wrapped the robe around my shoulders, and sprinted toward the
dressing room. I'd grab my clothes and dress on the sidewalk. He must be
calling the agency to complain, and they would out me as a fraud.
He rounded the corner and almost
knocked me to the floor. The robe swirled around my legs and landed in a puddle
at my feet. My right arm went across my chest and my left hand fanned over my
"Beautiful," he said
under his breath as he swept my hair back behind my ear.
Me? I shivered from his touch. This
was why the women looked enraptured in his paintings. They had sex with him
before they posed. That would blow the wind in my sails, definitely a step out
of character for me.
"Excuse me, I'm being totally
unprofessional," he said as he leaned down, retrieved my robe, and handed
it to me. "If you're uncomfortable staying and want to leave, I'll
"No, I'm fine," I said as
I fumbled with the robe, trying to put it on.
"Okay, let's get started."
I followed him back to the studio
and pretended he didn't stir me up. I couldn't comment on my effect on him as I
resettled by the pillows. The robe melted off me this time because I wanted him
to see me.
"Please support yourself on
your elbows," he said.
I stopped trembling, pushed up, and
glanced at him.
"Like this, Mr. Cobb?" My
"I'm Ben. Mr. Cobb is my
worthless father," he swallowed hard, grabbed the back of his neck, and
I touched a raw nerve.
"Look at me." he said. I only shifted my
eyeballs, afraid to move anything else. "I'm going to tell you when to
change your facial expressions like be happy, pensive, sleepy, or sad,
"Please follow my directions,
and don't speak or move."
The artist had arrived and was all
business. Time for me to do the same.
About the Author:
Long before DVDs, Mary
Jo saw Gone with the Wind in the theater. She was ten. The
story never left her. She read the book three times. She saw the movie every
time it was re-released. GWTWwill be seventy-five years old this
year and is her favorite movie. She would only make a minor change: Leave
Ashley to Melanie and hold on tight to Rhett. Her writing sprung from reading,
watching, and always wanting to edit.
Mary Jo was born in Chicago and has never strayed far from home. She majored in
Accounting and received her MBA in Finance. She worked in the investment and
Mary Jo is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Chicago North RWA, and
Windy City RWA.
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