One more week. Gina repeated the words to herself as she stood on the set, her makeup already starting to melt under the hot lights trained on her.
Five more days, two shows a day. Ten shows. And the season would be over. She would have two weeks to rest. Two weeks with no makeup. No heels. No cameras. She would let her jaw muscles relax. Not smile for fourteen days. No cooking either, she vowed, knowing immediately that was one promise she couldn’t keep. Right now she might be sick of smiling, sick of staring into a camera, sick of explaining why you had to let a roast rest before carving it, sick of chopping, dicing, slicing, and sautéing. But that would pass, she told herself. Just ten more shows.
“Ready?” Jess asked, from just off camera.
Gina took a deep breath and smiled up at the camera trained on her. “Ready.”
Her brow wrinkled in intense concentration as she carefully whisked the Parmesan cheese into the bubbling pot of grits on the front burner of the cooktop.
“Turn the pot toward the camera so we can see the label,” Jess said quietly from the table where she usually sat beside Scott, watching through the monitor on the laptop. Where was Scott, Gina wondered? Jessica DeRosa, his assistant producer, was only twenty-four, just a couple years out of film school, and she was probably quite capable of directing a show on her own, but Scott was such a control freak, he rarely let her.
Without warning, the gas flame under the pot flared up, and then just as suddenly died. Gina stared down at it, grimacing in disbelief.
“You’re frowning,” Jess commented. “Come on, Gina, don’t make it look so hard. Remember what Scott says. These recipes should look so easy, a trained chimp could fix ’em blindfolded.”
The cameraman snickered, and Gina looked up to give Eddie a stare of disapproval.
“Not funny,” she said. But it wasn’t Eddie, the overweight, balding veteran of three seasons’ worth of her shows, behind the camera. This cameraman was a kid, with a frizzy shock of blond hair sticking out from under a red bandanna worn piratelike, around his forehead.
Where was Eddie? she wondered. Were he and Scott in some kind of meeting elsewhere—maybe over at the Georgia Public Broadcasting offices?
“I’m not frowning because the recipe won’t work,” Gina said. “The darned stove is on the fritz again. The flame keeps flickering out. I thought Scott said we were gonna get a new stove before the season was over.”
Jess shrugged. “I guess we’re just gonna make do with this one for the last week. Does it make any difference?”
“Only if we want viewers to believe I know better than to try to cook grits on a cold stove.”
“Keep stirring,” Jess advised. “And smiling.”
Perky, that’s what Scott always insisted on. Nobody really cared how your food tasted, as long as you looked perky and happy while you were fixing it. And sexy. Which was why she was wearing a scoop-neck tank top that showed off her tanned shoulders and shapely arms, instead of the bib apron with “Gina Foxton” embroidered on it in flowing script that she’d worn the previous season, before Scott took over the show. And her career.
“Now add the cheese,” Jess called. “And tell us why you need to keep stirring.”
Gina made a show of turning down the burner, even though in reality, the burner was stone cold and now seemingly inoperative.
“Once your grits reach the boiling point, you want to turn the heat way down, to keep them from burning,” she said. “Now whisk in your cheese, which you’ve already grated, and if it looks too thick, you can add some more of the cream to make sure you’ve got the right consistency.”
She reached for the bowl of Parmesan and dumped it into the hot grits, stirring rapidly. But now, despite Jess’s directions to the contrary, she was frowning again.
She sniffed as her nose, always hypersensitive, alerted her that something was amiss.
What was that smell? She sniffed again and realized, with horror, that the aroma wafting from the pot was not the honest corn smell of her stone-ground grits, nor the smell of homemade chicken stock, nor the fresh scent of cooking cream.
No. This…this smell…resembled nothing more than the stink of melting polymer.
“Gina,” Jess said, a warning in her voice. “You’re frowning again.”
“Gawd, y’all,” Gina exclaimed, shoving the offending pot away, toward the back burner. “This stuff reeks.” As sometimes happened, usually when she was overexcited or totally aggravated, her carefully moderated accent-eradication coaching fell away in an instant. “Jeezus H. You-know-what,” Gina said. “What is this stuff?”
The kid behind the camera guffawed.
Jess blinked innocently. “What?”
Gina reached over to the tray of ingredients her prep cook had placed on the countertop, and grabbed the plastic tub of grated cheese. Without her reading glasses, she had to hold the tub right up to her face to read the label.
“Cheez-Ease? Is this what we’ve come to? Y’all have sold my soul for a tub of dollar-ninety-eight artificial cheese made out of recycled dry-cleaning bags?”
“Please, Gina,” Jess said quietly. “Can we just finish this segment?”
Gina dipped a spoon into the pot of grits and tasted. “I knew it,” she said. “And that’s not cream, either. Since when do we substitute canned condensed milk for cream?”
Jess stared down at her notes, then looked up, a pained expression on her face. “We’re having budget issues. Scott told the girls they should substitute cheaper ingredients wherever necessary.”
“He didn’t say anything about it to me,” Gina said, walking off the set and toward the table where Jess sat.
She hated to make a scene, hated to come across as a prima donna or a food snob. But you couldn’t have a show about healthy southern cooking, a show called Fresh Start, for heaven’s sake, if you started to compromise on ingredients.
“Jess,” Gina said calmly. “What’s going on around here?”
Jessica’s pale, usually cheerful face reddened. “Let’s take a break,” she said. “Everybody back in ten minutes.”
The crew scattered. Watching their retreat, Gina noticed for the first time that the cameraman wasn’t the only new face on the set. Jackson Thomas, her sound man, had been replaced with a chubby-cheeked black girl with a headful of dreadlocks, and Andrew Payne, the lighting engineer—sweet, serious Andrew, who approached lighting as an artist approached a canvas—had been replaced with two pimply-cheeked youths whose bumbling around reminded her of Dumb and Dumber.