When 2020 and Covid-19 puts a damper on life as they knew it for everyone in New York, America, and the world, Like so many others, 54-year-old literary agent, wife, mother, and renegade foodie, Clarissa Berman looked at the dawning of a new decade with hope and maybe some change. However, when she and her husband of 14 years, Miles, begin to see little things in the news about a virus or flu in China, they’re both a little uneasy, but it’s Clarissa who can’t shake the foreboding feelings she has. Luckily, she has her best friend Melanie’s engagement and Barefoot in the City, an online Ina Garten fan page to keep her thoughts light, happy, and pretty focused on the kitchen. But when one of her favorite clients, geopolitical author, Tom begins working on a book about China and the virus, she soon realizes it’s worse than she thought.
Clarissa begins to notice little things. Some hospitals seem busier than usual, she sees nurses in trash bags instead of scrubs, and anything health-related from the WHO or CDC is buried in news crawl. She knows it’s not a sign of the apocalypses, but one of the horses is coming. With one eye on the news, Clarissa heads to the kitchen to relieve stress and figure out the kind of cakes to make for Melanie’s wedding. She’ll include her Barefoot in the City friends who always have great tips and recipes to help her along. As it becomes clear to NYC that something wicked this way comes, Clarissa uses the pan in pandemic, Ina, the members of Barefoot Contessa in the city, and a lot of love and patience to make her way through.
An excerpt from the beginning
BAREFOOT IN THE CITY
By Chamein Canton
It was a dark, cold, grey, January day in Manhattan. The city lost its holiday shine. Gone from the modern contemporary office lobbies across New York County were the trees, lights, and holiday decorations that made them sparkle. Now, they were more like a rich man’s trophy wife or girlfriend, beautiful to behold, but soulless and cold. At least that’s how fifty-four-year-old, Clarissa Berman felt as she walked through the lobby of her office building on Lexington Avenue.
At 5’8, Clarissa was too tall to be considered petite, but tall enough to be above average. A very curvy African American woman, she had big boobs, a generous butt, a smallish waist with a little more tummy than she’d like. Her long, curly, thick hair was a custom mix of Clairol light reddish and cedar red brown, that played nicely off of the red undertones of her brown bronze-like complexion. Clarissa was a recent convert to the natural hair movement at her mother’s suggestion. Although, it was rare for her mother, who she affectionately referred to as Her Mothership, to make suggestions. More often than not, her advice was the equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb, but it was still mutton.
Clarissa’s text notifications chimed. She looked at her cell. It’s mom.
I just picked Ingrid up from JFK. She went to North Carolina to see her grandchildren. Jimmy has the kids, but that ex-wife of his told Ingrid some sob story about being sick and Ingrid gave her $2,000. The girl wasn’t sick, she needed it for a boob job. Can you imagine that? I told Ingrid she’s too soft. A boob job at her age. Tiffany is damn near sixty and still dresses like she’s getting ready to climb a pole, any pole.
Her mothership had strong positions on most things, like strippers or décolletage to name two, and she wasn’t afraid to express her opinion. Although, she was almost two years shy of being eighty, her mothership was fit, had a smooth complexion with barely a wrinkle and a silver hair pixie cut. She could have gotten away with a little higher of a hemline, but that wasn’t her mothership’s style. Her mothership felt that at a certain age you covered up to be dignified and not an embarrassment to your children or grandchildren. The hemline moratorium included shorts of any length for women over forty and fifty. Even J-Lo’s ageless shape didn’t get a pass. Her mothership kept herself tight at that age, but never donned a pair of shorts. So, if she was too old, La Lopez needed to put a pair of slacks on.
Clarissa snickered. That’s not nice Mom. She typed.
It’s not meant to be nice. Jimmy’s mad at her and I don’t blame him. I told her not to give that girl any money. The money she got from selling her house isn’t going to last forever.
Okay Mom. So, you dropped her off at home?
No. We’re going to dinner.
Wait. Ingrid’s in the car and your Bluetooth is on. It’s reading your texts aloud in the car.
Yeah. I don’t talk behind anyone’s back. I believe in being direct.
You’re telling me? I’m not exactly new Mom. Clarissa shook her head. I’m waiting for my uber.
So, you’re not taking the subway. Good. I don’t know how you do it nowadays. I took the subway back in the sixties, it was kinda nice then.
I am fully aware that you haven’t taken the subway since 1971. I’ve got to run now. Tell Ingrid I said hi. Better yet, hi Ingrid.
Enjoy dinner ladies. Goodnight Mom.
Goodnight. Be careful. It’s dark.
I don’t know how Ingrid deals with her mothership. She’s nearly brought the woman to tears with her honesty, but she keeps doing things with her. I suppose that’s friendship or Stockholm syndrome.
Her mothership was born Mary Anne Stevenson-Cannon Burgess. She grew up loving hair, fashion, and makeup in a small town in South Carolina. Always a very pretty girl, she stood out as unusual because of her eyes. She was born with one blue and the other brown. Her eye color was almost as misunderstood as her parent’s deafness. When she was coming up in the 1940s and 50s, people used the horrible phrase deaf, dumb, and mute to describe the disability. Mary Anne and her older brother, Charles, were their parents, or more specifically, their father’s protectors. Mary Anne’s mother Annette was able to stick up for herself, and used the international sign for kiss my ass to make her point whenever she needed to. Clarissa could attest to that when her grandmother and mother would argue via sign language. Grandma Annette came from money. Her family was able to send her to the School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg, and it put her in good stead for her life. Clarissa never knew her grandfather Landy. Her mothership remembered him as a kind and gentle man. His family enrolled him in the same school, but couldn’t afford to keep him there. It was painful issue for her mothership and her big brother, but not for the reasons most people would assume. It was their father Landy’s trusting nature. It made him a mark for passing gypsies and some of the less than scrupulous residents in town. She and Charles would go toe-to -toe with the folks who’d duped their father to get his hard-earned money back.
Nevertheless, life in a small town wasn’t all bad. Mary Anne loved to roam the woods around town for wild berries, laugh at fun church picnics, and try out the latest dances at school socials. Clarissa was grateful that unlike her uncle Charles, who left high school to work in the steel mill and decided to build a life in South Carolina, her mother took a different route. After she graduated from high school, she left the bounds of her town, county, and South Carolina and made her way up the east coast to Maryland where she stayed with cousins in Baltimore. That was where she met Clarissa’s father, Ernest, a native New Yorker. They married and settled on Long Island. Although her mothership didn’t go to college, she landed a position at a women’s service magazine as they were known in the early sixties. It wasn’t fashion, but it concentrated on home fashions and interior décor, another area she was skilled in.
Mary Anne was a frustrated fashion editor, so she turned Clarissa and Elena into her living dolls, with about as much say as a doll when it came to what they put on or how many barrettes and ribbons were in their hair. Clarissa began to refer mom, Mary Anne as ‘her mothership’ when she decided it was in her best interests for the girls to get relaxers. Despite having seemingly won the battle of the barrettes, Clarissa realized that even as an adult, she and Elena would always be ladies in waiting when it came to the will of her mothership in some form. Even when she hit 50, her mothership weighed in on her hair. Now a relaxer was the enemy for a woman Clarissa’s age and her natural curly hair was better. Clarissa’s first inclination was to rebel, but in the long run, her mothership’s will be done. Not only did Clarissa go back to her curly hair, she also hadn’t worn a pair of shorts in fourteen years.
But fuss with her hair Clarissa did as she looked out the window for her Uber. You would think I just did this the way I keep futzing with my hair. It’s been four years, and I still haven’t gotten used to it. She sighed. Traces of frozen precipitation had begun to fall when a black Navigator pulled in front. Clarissa checked her phone. That’s it. She walked outside and got in the backseat on the driver’s side.
“Good evening.” She closed the door and buckled up. Again with the looking at my hair in the mirror. At least it’s shiny and doesn’t resemble the tentacles of a Portuguese Man O War. That’s progress.
Her cell rang. It was Clarissa’s best friend of over forty years, Melanie Vargas Hopkins. Their birthdays were separated by a mere few days. They graduated from the same high school and went onto Skidmore College together. The curvaceous Latina with lush brunette locks was divorced and dating a guy Clarissa set her up with a year earlier. But, before she could pick up the phone, she had to give the driver her customary explanation for why she uses the speakerphone. Clarissa was partially deaf.
She was born a healthy baby girl, but at three months old, her Grandma Cannon noticed that she turned her head to the right when spoken to. When she mentioned it to her son, it ticked her mothership off. To keep the peace, no one pushed the issue again until a routine hearing test in elementary school, led the audiologist to confirm she was deaf in her left ear. Fortunately, Clarissa’s right ear was at 99.1% and she could read lips .
To adjust for someone on her left, she’d subtly turn toward them. The volume on a landline wasn’t an issue. However, the busy, noisy streets of Manhattan were another story.
Clarissa looked at her phone for the driver’s name. “Excuse me, Bernie?”
“I’d like to answer this cell call, but I have to put it on speaker. I’m partially deaf. If it bothers you, I’ll send her a text and call her back.”
“No, that’s not a problem. Thanks for asking.”
“No. Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.” She hit answer. “Hey Girlie. How was Fiji?”
“It was fantastic. So beautiful, warm, sunny, and lovely all the time.”
“Aww, that sounds nice. Then you flew back to grey and cold reality. What a bummer.”
“Don’t I know it? I figured I’d buzz you before you went underground to get home.”
“I am ubering home now. I didn’t feel like descending into the arteries of the city today. The whole city is shrouded in a post-holiday funk, and it’s contagious.”
“You’re not kidding.”
“When do you have to get back to the hospital?”
“I’ve got another week or so off. I have a ton of accumulated time. I’m taking some of it. No need to rush. I have to give my body a little time to re-acclimate.”
“Good for you. Where’s Jordan?”
“He went to his place, but he’s coming back.”
Fifty-eight-year-old graphic art designer Jordan Chan was always in Clarissa’s orbit as an editor and an agent. Jordan was blissfully married for many years until a drunk driver ended his happy world. Clarissa knew that people who truly loved before were likely to find love again, it was always a matter of timing. Melanie’s marriage to Troy began like a dream but devolved into a nightmare after the kids were born. Troy was a serial cheater and lazy to boot. Melanie had the role of breadwinner for their twin daughters and son. After their divorce, relationships weren’t on her radar for a while.
All of that changed during the holiday season the previous year. Jordan finally decided to attend Clarissa’s legendary holiday buffet, instead of getting an after-party care package. She introduced him to Melanie. The attraction was instant. After a few dates, they were a bonafide couple.
“My goodness, Girlie. All of this togetherness. Why don’t you two just move in together? Or maybe jump the broom?”
“Jordan and I were just laughing about that. It’s too soon.”
“Too soon? Have you checked our sundial lately? We have no business waiting around in this section of the pool. The water is receding. There’s no time to waste.”
“I know. You make a good point.”
“Of course I do, but that’s beside the point. How did David enjoy his time with his big sisters?”
“He had a great time, and it’s going to continue. He’s going to be there for a few more days.”
“So you’re going to continue with that Fiji feeling.”
“Oh.” Clarissa laughed. “Don’t let me keep you. We’ll catch up later. Give Jordan my best. Take care and have fun Girlie.”
“You too. Say hi to Miles for me.”
“Sure will.” Clarissa turned and stared out of the car window. I knew Jordan and Melanie would hit it off. Now they’ve been hitting it often. My matchmaking skills worked once, and now I can retire with a high batting average. She giggled softly as her text notifications chimed. She looked down. It was from her assistant Tess Arnold. Hey Miss B. Don dropped by the office after you left. He wants a Zoom meeting on Wednesday. I know you’re going to be out of the office for the rest of the week, but Don will send a link. Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it beforehand.
She groaned. A Zoom meeting. I hate this stuff. What ever happened to having meetings in the office with a coffee cart, pastries, and tea? I never know if I have enough bandwidth or whatever in my apartment building. Technology. She sighed. Is it progress? To me, that remains to be seen.
Clarissa graduated suma cum laude with a degree in English. A book nerd from the time she was a kid, she gravitated toward a career in publishing. At twenty-three, she was an editorial assistant at one of the big five publishers in New York. It wasn’t long before she became a full-fledged editor at twenty-five. Her personal life changed too when she married music teacher Darren Campbell and had twin sons. By the time Clarissa was twenty-eight, she was one of the youngest editorial directors in publishing at the time. Still, the laws of the see-saw prevailed. While her professional life was on the way up, her marriage was on the way down to crash and burn. Darren wanted to do more than just teach music, he wanted to live it. So, he quit his job, joined a band, and succumbed to the wanderlust gypsy life of music, which left Clarissa holding the bag. Unfortunately, her grand title didn’t come with a grand salary, which would have been okay if Darren wasn’t a deadbeat dad. She was the sole provider for her sons. Later at a friend’s suggestion, she made the transition to become a literary agent. It was the perfect career for her, particularly since she could bring her long-standing connections to publishing houses big and small with her. Eventually, Clarissa landed at Trifecta Literary Agency, where within the first two years, she had Pulitzers, National Book, and National Book Critic award-winning authors. Not to mention a long list of authors who made the New York Times bestsellers list in fiction and nonfiction. Twenty-five years later, Clarissa was a vested partner, and the Executive Vice President of Trifecta.
Much of Clarissa’s success came from the way in which she maintained her working relationships. There were quick catch-ups over coffees at Starbucks, lingering creative sessions/lunches at Le Grenouille, a devil’s in the details discussion over tea at Alice’s Tea Cup, a good old celebratory steak at Peter Lugers, or we got a deal seafood extravaganza at Le Bernadin. She treated her clients and colleagues well. However, the most coveted invitation was to her table. Clarissa’s culinary prowess was well-known in publishing. Zoom meetings and teleconferences were efficient, but lacked the warmth and personal touch of having fresh baked muffins, cinnamon rolls, apple pie donuts, and bagels made better by New York’s famous tap water, and Clarissa’s twenty-year-old sour dough starter. The shift to the online netherworld as she thought of it, made her long for the days when publishers took on talented authors with great stories or intriguing voices. Now the industry looked to social media for their next blockbuster or best-seller. Personalities, influencers, and viral media sensations with a large number of followers, likes, and views on Instagram, Tik-Tok, and YouTube were getting first pick. Editors and agents had to work with this algorithm whether they liked it or not. Despite that aspect of the digital age, it wasn’t all bad to Clarissa. As someone who enjoyed cooking and who took solace in the kitchen, going online let her find new and old recipes to make at home. Moreover, she could follow her favorite television cook, Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, and it was where she stumbled upon an online group for Ina Garten fans, Barefoot in the City.
The kitchen was the main hub of activity in her life, and Clarissa had a vast collection of cookbooks to challenge herself and put her culinary skills to the test. However, there was more to it than just being a kitchen gunslinger. Whenever she felt stressed about work, the kids, or life in general, there was something about the order found in recipes that quelled her nerves. The tactile aspect of mise en place, sautéing, chopping, baking, braising, broiling, simmering, or grilling to name a few, helped blow the clouds from her mind. The discovery of the fan group brought her into a world of incredible posted food pics, recipes, and a community in a way that was unexpected. It wasn’t long before she began check it every day for the food posts, and pics, all with a great big helping of love for families and Ina, of course.
I have to go on Zoom for a meeting. Yuck. She sighed. What did I take out for dinner tonight? I think I asked Miles to take the salmon out.
The car turned onto East 96th Street on the approach to Carnegie Hill. When Miles was in the market for a condo before their wedding, Clarissa’s only requirement was a big kitchen. Luckily as a result of his work and connections, Miles was able to buy one of Carnegie Hill’s rare condos just before their wedding in 2006.
While there is no shortage of luxury apartment buildings rising up from the concrete of the Manhattan skyline, 21 East 96th Street, was a little gem of a boutique building. It wasn’t a high-rise, but it had nine whole floor units, 24-hour doorman, gym, bike room and private storage. Clarissa and Miles’ unit had four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Their master bedroom was its own suite with two walk-in closets and a luxe and large bathroom. The high ceilings and perfectly polished wood floors throughout the apartment allowed the sun’s rays to dance about and bathe the apartment in shades of yellow each morning, and orange at sunset. The décor was contemporary modern in different shades of blue, grey, white and black. The living room and dining room were big enough to entertain, and Clarissa had the large modern kitchen of her dreams.
Clarissa unbuckled her seatbelt as the Navigator pulled in front of the building. “Thank you.” Before her hand touched the handle, her doorman Fred opened the car door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Berman.”
“Good evening, Fred. Thank you.”
He closed the car door, then scurried ahead of her to open the door. “Here you go.”
“Thanks again, Fred.” She smiled.
“I see you didn’t take the subway this evening.”
“No. Even though January is almost over, I still have the post-holiday blahs. I needed to stay above ground to see the sky and breathe.” She took her keys out. “You know what I mean.”
“I get it.” He nodded. “By the way, Sandy wanted me to thank you again for all the treats over the holidays. My kids were in heaven and if I’m honest, so were we.” Fred patted his stomach.
“My pleasure. I love to do it. Once upon a time, I had teenage boys at home too.”
He laughed. “Your sons lucked out just like Alexia. Whenever she comes down, she always has a cookie, muffin, or something good.”
Clarissa laughed. “She’s a teenager, I love to keep the carbs coming.”
“I know that’s right.” Fred nodded. “Mr. Berman is a lucky man.”
“Thanks. I’ll be sure to remind him.” Clarissa stepped into the elevator and put her key in. “You have a great night. Is Ronald on tomorrow?”
“Okay. Enjoy your day off then.” She waved as the doors began to close.
When the elevators opened, Clarissa was greeted by her reflection in the mirror over the credenza of their apartment’s faux foyer. She let out a deep breath, took her coat off and stepped out of her black pumps. Clarissa wiggled her toes. “Oh, that feels so much better.” She picked up her shoes. “When will I learn. These pumps are pretty, but they kill my feet.” She walked into the living room, put her bag on the table behind the sofa, and walked over to the closet. “Hey Honey. I’m home.”
Her 5’11, brown haired, athletically built handsome husband, fifty-six-year-old Miles Berman walked out of the office. “Hey there, baby.” He put his arms around her and gave Clarissa a kiss. ‘“How was your day?”
“Better now. Not that it was a bad day.”
“Good.” He let his hand slide down to her butt. “I’m on a conference call right now, but I’ll be done in just a bit.”
“You’re on a video conference call now?”
“Why didn’t you say something? You didn’t have to come out just to kiss me and cop a feel.” She grinned. “Not that I minded, but I don’t want to get in the way of you taking care of business. I just wanted to let you know I was home.”
“I know.” He kept his arms around her. “But these guys are in the middle of belaboring yet another point with each other. It’s been going on for almost 2 ½ hours. I doubt they noticed I left the room.”
She laughed. “A day in the life of Miles Berman, Esquire.”
Miles served as legal counsel for a major corporation for twenty-years, before retiring from the suit and tie world to become a legal mercenary of sorts. He stayed busy with briefs, motions, consulting, and reminding seasoned, yet occasionally forgetful defense attorneys of what is and isn’t required in criminal court. Miles’ photographic memory allowed him to recall common and obscure sections and sub-sections of the Consolidated Laws of New York, the CPLR or the New York Criminal Procedure Law to name a few. He worked at his leisure, but he was always busy with one case or another.
“Yeah.” He scoffed. “I better get back in there before they get worse.”
“Sounds like you’re going to have to put them in the ring under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” He sighed. “I’m going back in.”
“Good luck. I’m going to change, then get started on dinner.”
Miles gave her a thumbs’ up before he went back in the office.
Clarissa changed out of her suit into comfortable yoga wear. She put her hair up in a loose top knot, and washed her hands like a surgeon before heading to her culinary ashram.
The kitchen had everything she ever dreamed of in stainless steel, a Sub-Zero fridge, three ovens, an overhead exhaust, six-burner Wolf range, and dishwasher.
She opened the fridge. “Hmm, the salmon’s not here. I thought I asked Miles to take it out this morning.” Clarissa paused to think. “No problem, I can work with it frozen.” She opened the freezer and took the salmon out.
Clarissa grabbed a sheet pan and parchment paper, then set both on the counter while she set the oven to 425-degrees. Long before Rachael Ray, she was a champion of thirty-to-forty-five-minute weeknight meals. She took the vegetables she prepped the night before out. The recipe unfolded in three ten-minute intervals. First, the baby potatoes went in, followed by the zucchini, mushrooms, and onions. Then finally, the chopped herbs, sliced tomatoes, and salmon.
While dinner was in the final phase of cooking, Clarissa washed the dishes, put them away, and wiped the counters down with Clorox cleanup. She grabbed her tablet, and sat down at the table to check her business emails. Clarissa dashed off a few return emails, flagged a few to follow-up on later, and deleted the junk emails. Once she took care of business, she switched over to the Barefoot In The City group for pleasure. She scrolled through the posts with images of fantastic dishes and recipes. Although the fan group was all about Ina, not all of the posts were directly Ina related. The people in the group shared a love of cooking in a relaxed, elegant style like the Barefoot Contessa herself. Clarissa found hundreds of kindred spirits who not only loved being in the kitchen, they looked forward to the change of seasons and menus as much as Clarissa. In the summer there were salads, seafood, cool desserts and grilling outdoors. When autumn arrived, they looked forward to apple everything, pumpkin spice, and hundreds of ways to make a Thanksgiving turkey with the same excitement as sports fans had for the NFL and NBA seasons. In December, Santa and his elves weren’t the only busy ones during Christmas time. Only Barefoot in the City members turned out cookies, cakes, and cocktails instead of toys. It was the height of food geekdom and Clarissa loved to geek out.
Naturally in January, some of the posts skewed toward everyone’s top New Year’s resolution, losing weight, and eating healthy. Ina fans handled the resolution with great aplomb. All the healthy food posts looked decadent and satisfying. Move over Jenny Craig and Nutri-System, this is how you take the die out of diet. Her kitchen timer went off.
Just as Clarissa grabbed a couple of oven mitts and got up, Miles walked in.
“Something smells good. Oh, salmon.” He paused. “Wait. You told me to take the salmon out of the freezer last night. I forgot. I’m such a yutz. Good thing you remembered.”
She took the sheet pan out and put the pan on top of the stove. “No. I forgot too. Anyway, it’s not a problem. This recipe works with frozen salmon too.” She got the serving spoon and fork.
“Cool. It looks great. Is this not Barefoot-worthy?”
Miles had gotten used to life with this fan group. In fact, he was the one who encouraged her to post her culinary creations, calling them Barefoot worthy. She liked the term and he kept it up.
She chuckled. “I think so. Can you grab a couple of plates for me, please?”
Miles handed her the plates, then got the cutlery a long with a couple of wine glasses. “How about a Chardonnay?”
“Perfect.” She put the plates on the table, then got her cell out to snap a few quick pics.
“That looks great.” Miles poured the wine. “Hefe filter?”
“It’s my favorite. I like how it enhances without looking fake.” She looked at the preview photo. “Voila.”
“Looks terrific, but I’m glad I get to actually eat these artistic edible creations of yours.”
“Me too.” She set her cell down on the table. “I’ll post them later with the recipe.” Clarissa sat down.
“I like how you always share recipes. Not to mention all the work you put into adapting the recipes for vegans, gluten-sensitivities, and low or no sugar diets. It’s a lot of work.” He looked away for a moment. “I don’t know why you don’t take all of those family recipes notebooks and turn it into a cookbook. People would buy it like mad.” Miles picked his glass up. “Not to mention, you know how to wear a blue shirt, sexy lady.” He winked. “I’m just saying.”
“You like the way I fill out a blue Oxford.” She shimmied a little, then laughed. “Okay, babe. I’ll think about it.” She sighed. “But you know I have enough to deal with these days with the cookbook authors I already represent. Then there’s the technical and social media bullshit I’m supposed to cope with at Trifecta.” She lifted her glass and sipped. “It’s a lot for one woman.”
“I know the goal is to bring talented people to the masses, just don’t forget you are just as, if not more talented.”
“I will. Thank you, my love. I’d better start eating before my head gets too big to hold up.”
“This is so good. There isn’t anything you can’t make.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do love to fuss over you and keep the menu moving.”
“I am one lucky guy.”
Photos from Loved Black Woman (WordPress)