“Kissed with hope and possibility . . . the sort of book that makes you believe in the magic of everyday life and love.” —Daisy Whitney, author of The Mockingbirds
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
S T E WA R T L E W I S
author of YOU HAVE SEVEN MESSAGES
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
KEEP READING FOR A SNEAK PEEK . . .
Every day is sunny in Los Angeles, but it’s not exactly paradise. Yes, there are movie stars and palm trees, but there’s also an area downtown called “skid row” where people live in a city of cardboard boxes, and it looks like some sort of war is going on. Bell, who is one of my dads, owns a restaurant, and sometimes we drive by skid row on our way to get the ﬂowers that go on the tables. He named the restaurant FOOD, following the somewhat annoying trend of creating simple one-word names for places. It’s sandwiched between a bookstore called Book and a coffee shop called Bean. A different approach might have been more interesting, like a Laundromat called Not Responsible for Lost Socks. There actually is a Laundromat near the restaurant, where I’ve been doing my whole family’s
laundry since I was eight. It doesn’t have a sign, just a big brown triangle with a box of what looks like vintage detergent painted on it. Bell’s been letting me cook the special at FOOD every Saturday, and lately, as I’ve been expanding my palate and my menu, my dishes have become more popular. Some customers only come in on Saturday, and although Bell’s deﬁnitely proud, and doesn’t do much of the cooking anymore anyway, I think he’s a little jealous of my success. The current chefs don’t really mind—in fact, they get a kick out of it. One even asked me for my coleslaw recipe (shh, it’s the jalapeño). Bell has loved cooking his whole life, but he’s been struggling with the restaurant for some time now. After the recession, people lost their taste for ﬁ ne cuisine and, due to ﬁnancial necessity or lingering prudence, are continuing to choose quantity over quality. The In-N- Out Burger on Sunset always looks like a rock concert, while you can hear crickets in the little boutique eateries. I’m not sure how bad the situation really is, but the other night I went into FOOD to prepare a marinade and it seemed like no one was there except the janitor. I realized I needed basil, so I headed for the walk-in cooler, opening the heavy silver door to ﬁ nd Bell crying on top of a crate of potatoes. “Dad?” “It’s the onions,” he said, both of us knowing that was a lie—the onions are prepped in the morning by the dishwashers. I took Bell’s hand and walked him out of the cooler, sat him down at the chef’s table, and poured him a
glass of the cheap cabernet I was using for my marinade. I knew things were pretty bad, because even though he isn’t rich by any means, Bell rarely drinks cheap wine. By his second sip I caught a hint of a grin. The thing about Bell is, he hardly ever says what he means, and I’m beginning to notice this pattern in other people as well. Everyone seems to have this duality about them: how they feel as opposed to what they’re saying. Sometimes words are only clues—you have to put them together while reading the maps of people’s faces. I’m pretty good at it when it comes to my family. After he ﬁnished his wine, Bell stood up and held out his arms. I put down the lemon I was zesting and let him hug me, breathing in the musky scent of his cologne mixed with a hint of garlic—home. “Are they going to take it all away?” I asked him. He looked at me with his big brown eyes and shook his head, as if everything was ﬁne, but I knew that was not the case. I had heard my dads ﬁghting about the mortgage more than once, and I knew the bank people had come into the restaurant. For the ﬁ rst time in my life, I didn’t know if Bell could make everything good again, if he could protect us from the world.
My name is Olivia, but everyone calls me by different nicknames. The only time anyone in my family uses my real name is when they’re serious, or mad at me, which is
not very often. I’ve always gotten good grades, and I’m not one of those teenagers who act out. I’m sixteen going on seventeen, like the song. When I was little, Bell and I used to watch The Sound of Music all the time, and I always thought my mother, who gave me up when I was two days old, might have looked like Julie Andrews. I have reddish hair and blue eyes like her, but I’m deﬁnitely not an actress. Bell says I’m like a ﬁ ne wine. If you want to get to know me the right way, you have to let me breathe ﬁrst. My older brother, Jeremy, is the opposite, very in-yourface. We’re not blood related, but Bell adopted us from the same agency one year apart from each other. At the time, same-sex parents couldn’t adopt as easily as they can today, but he got approved pretty quickly both times, as one of his former employees ran the agency. Bell moved in with Enrique, my other dad, soon after he adopted Jeremy. Enrique is not always the most reliable person, but he has many wonderful qualities. When you live in an imperfect, mismatched family like mine, you understand that love is about more than just blood. My dads raised me, took care of me when I was sick, taught me to walk, and read me to sleep every night. They are in my bones, a part of who I am. I can’t imagine loving my birth parents any more. Still, lately I’ve started to feel like something’s missing. I’ve found myself wondering what would have happened if my mother hadn’t given me up. It’s hard to picture not being with my family, but it’s easy to imagine myself in
another life, in a more conventional household in the suburbs of some city where the lawns are manicured and I go on mother-daughter excursions with Julie Andrews. Bell always says we don’t choose our family, and even if I had a choice, I’d choose Bell, Enrique, and Jeremy. But if I could change one thing, I would add a mother, even if only for short periods of time— someone who could, I don’t know, take me to get my hair cut or something. Instead, the closest thing I’ve had to a mother is Enrique. Even though he’s technically a man, Enrique is very nurturing. When I was ﬁve, I stepped on a stingray at the public beach in Malibu, and it changed my life. I haven’t been in the ocean since, and it sort of formed the person I was growing up: shy, a little different, and slightly removed in a city in which the ocean is such a big part of everyone’s lives. Bell didn’t seem to understand and took a passive approach to the Stingray Trauma, as it came to be called, but Enrique knew instinctively what I was going through and what to do. And not just because he grew up on the sea in Mexico and had a similar experience with a sand shark. From then on, whenever we went to the beach, Enrique would come up with all these elaborate games to play, none of which involved swimming. And he would take me to his friend’s pool in the Hollywood Hills as a gateway to get me into the ocean again. It didn’t work, but I did learn to swim well, and those afternoons in the pool with Enrique, nothing could touch me. Watching the valley below, sipping iced tea, ﬂoating on the inﬂatable
rafts . . . I usually felt a little left of center, but being there with Enrique and the way he would look at me with pure, open love made me feel like the center of the world, which I guess is what mothers do.
I just ﬁnished my junior year at Silver Lake High. It’s the ﬁrst day of summer and, I hope, the day I ﬁnally get a job. In the past, I’ve waited tables for Bell, but business isn’t exactly booming this year, so he doesn’t need the extra help. I’ve been interviewing at different retail places, since I ﬁgure I should get something to put on my résumé that doesn’t involve food, but I never seem to be a “good ﬁt” for them. Maybe because my only work experience has been in Bell’s restaurant. I have this feeling, though, that today is going to be different. Today, I have an interview that Enrique set up, at a casting agency his friend runs. I get out of bed and walk over to the window. This morning my room has an orange glow to it. When the ball of red sun peeks over the horizon line east of our hill, it tends to wake me up— especially when I forget to shut my blinds. I slide the window open and hear the familiar sounds of birds and cars whizzing by in the distance, on the 101 freeway. A strange juxtaposition, but they seem to balance each other out. If someone asked me what L.A. sounds like, I would say birds and trafﬁc. I walk over to my dresser, slip on my vintage dress with the little blue ﬂowers on it, and grab the champagne6
colored sunglasses I bought at the Gas N Go for $3.99. They’re a little indie rock for me, but I do look very Silver Lake, the area between Hollywood and downtown where we live. It’s an offbeat, mostly Hispanic neighborhood that has a certain beauty, like a colorful but shabby reallife version of a montage from a hipster ﬁ lm. With the crazy mix of musicians, leather queens, yuppies, Mexicans, and bohemians (and some people who are all these in one), there’s a feeling of acceptance. And Silver Lake is just known as being a cool place. I go downstairs and ﬁnd Enrique sleeping on the couch, which makes me a little uneasy. He was a dancer for the Mexico City Ballet, and his mangled feet are sticking out of the blanket. People think dancers are so elegant and graceful, and they are, but there’s an underbelly to it all. He’s had two operations on his knees, and his feet, well, let’s just say they’re not too pretty. I cover them up and quietly shufﬂe toward the kitchen. I start to boil some water for eggs, and I feel my uneasiness begin to drift away with this familiar act. Poaching eggs is harder than you might think. The key is to put a little bit of vinegar in the water, to keep the egg from losing its shape. And I know it’s a cliché, but this is a case in which timing is everything. I decide to also make what I call Red Is the New Black Potatoes. I take lots of fresh garlic and sauté it with extra-virgin olive oil. Then I slice some new red potatoes so thin they’re just slivers. I fry them slowly until they’re blackened at the edges. There’s a ﬁne line between blackened and burnt, and I know where
that line is. It’s all about texture. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing worse than undercooked breakfast potatoes. You know, the watery, tasteless kind you get in a diner? “Quelle horreur,” Bell would say. Enrique’s phone rings, and I can’t believe how quickly he gets it together, answering like he’s been up for hours. I can tell it’s a work call. He’s a freelance stylist now, which means he buys clothes for actors. Sometimes I go with him, and he lets me pick out stuff too. The shows he’s involved with are pretty low-budget, but once he worked on a movie that was shot in Hawaii and starred Demi Moore. We all thought his career would take off after that, but he just went back to doing bad reality shows and working with his soap opera clients, living paycheck to paycheck. If you ask me, I’d say Enrique was in his prime when he was dancing all over the world. Being a stylist is just something he ended up doing. He doesn’t even like nice clothes for himself—he basically wears khakis and polo shirts, which seems like an obvious play to defy stereotypes. His name is Enrique, not Biff, and even though he looks the part, he will never go sailing in Nantucket. He comes into the kitchen and picks at my potatoes. “Ollie, these are dreamy-like.” “Thanks, Papá.” Even though Enrique has been in America for almost twenty years, he still has his own way of speaking. Most people ﬁnd it charming, but Bell tends to correct him. I place my poached eggs on seven-grain toast, garnish them with fresh Pecorino, sprinkle some rosemary on my
potatoes, and sit down by the kitchen window. Every time I ﬁnish cooking a dish, I feel this swell in my chest when I look at the ﬁnished product, at this thing that I’ve created. We skimp on everything in our house except food; I need my supplies if I’m going to do what I do best. Enrique makes a smoothie, pours us each a glass, and joins me. A few minutes later, Bell comes in and goes straight for the coffeemaker. His hair seems to be living in a different area code than his head. Thick and wavy, it has a little gray in it, but Enrique says it’s one of Bell’s best physical qualities, and he always has his hands in it, though not as much recently. Bell doesn’t look at either of us and just says, “Monday, Monday.” I need a job, not just to help out with money, but because, as much as I love our little house, it can also feel like the walls are closing in, especially when my dads are acting distant toward each other. And now that Jeremy has moved out, I have no one to roll my eyes with. Jeremy is eighteen and thinks he’s going to be a rock star. He’s been playing gigs since he was ﬁfteen, basically anywhere they’ll book him. He’s roommates with his drummer, a janitor named Phil who Bell calls “a real winner.” Neither of our dads were too happy when Jeremy announced that he was deferring college for a year to try and get a record deal, but they’re doing their best to be supportive. Jeremy practices all the time, and his latest demo is actually pretty good. He also had a decent crowd the last time he played at Silver Lake Lounge. Bell kisses my head, then heads out to the restaurant. I
asked Enrique not to tell him about the interview in case it doesn’t work out, so he doesn’t know to wish me luck. Enrique is running out too and gives me a secret thumbsup sign and mouths “Go for it.” I ﬁnish my breakfast and leave my dish in the sink. One thing I don’t like about cooking is doing dishes. But the great thing is if you cook for someone, they will most likely beg to do the dishes for you. And although Enrique always leaves dried toothpaste in the sink and his polo shirts draped over all the chairs, he loves my cooking and is pretty good at “washing up,” as my best friend, Lola, would say. Lola’s from England and knows a lot more about the world than I do. I’m meeting her for coffee before my interview to take my mind off it. Before I leave, I go to my room and switch to my black sunglasses. If I’m going to get a job, I need to look a little older and exude conﬁdence. I look in the mirror, trying to see a different side of myself. When I was little I didn’t talk much, but one day in third grade, when we got to make cinnamon rolls with the sixth graders in home ec, my teacher told my dads I wouldn’t shut up. That was when Bell started cooking at home with me. The next day we made pastries from scratch, and for the ﬁrst time, something clicked, and I became fascinated by how incredible it is to make something from practically nothing. I realized that almost everything starts in a bowl, with ﬂour and eggs— it begins with the human hand. My whole outlook on food changed. Ever since then, cooking has felt
like the most natural thing. It’s also a way to get out of my head for a while. Some people ﬁnd it tedious, but for me, it’s an escape. Plus, when I see someone’s eyes slowly shut in bliss after a bite of something I made, it makes me feel like I can do anything.
Our street is called Maltman Avenue, and it’s so steep it could be in San Francisco. The houses are painted colors like butter-yellow, sky-blue, and burnt orange, and there are always kids playing and barbecues going, international spices hovering in the air. Our house is a two-bedroom bungalow, which is another name for “very small house.” But we do have a garage, where Jeremy lived through most of high school, practicing his electric guitar and drinking too much Red Bull. Before that, we shared a room, which was beyond cramped. Being in junior high and sharing a room with my brother was pretty much a nightmare, but we somehow got through it. At the bottom of our street is the eastern part of Sunset Boulevard, not the famous part with the shiny billboards
and tourist traps. There’s the 99-cent store, a Korean tailor, and a place called Mack Video (which Bell calls Crack Video because of the sketchy people who congregate in the parking lot next to it). I pass the trendy new Indian restaurant and several retro-themed cafes and vintage clothing stores that seem to have popped up in the last few months. I meet Lola at the coffee shop on Sunset and Fountain, and before I have a chance to sit down, she starts ﬁlling me in on her current crush, the Asian kid who works at the taco place. “Duality,” I say, kind of under my breath. “What are you on about, Livie?” Lola grew up in London but has lived here since she was twelve. I love having a British best friend. It makes me feel intercontinental even though I’ve never left California. “I’ve just been noticing duality in everything lately.” “Well,” she says, wiping her upper lip, “as you should.” Lola’s mother runs a yoga studio in Atwater Village, and her dad is a documentary producer for the BBC. She always has way more money than I do and pays for everything. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but she’s not the type to hold it against me. Apparently, her father still gets his salary in British pounds, which go way farther than the dollar. Especially when you’re buying ﬁsh tacos, which we do on a regular basis, not only because we like them, but because they are served by her crush, a guy named Jin.
“So what is it about him, anyway?” I ask her. “He just seems like he could clean up well, you know? Put him in a dinner jacket, and he might just hit the mark.” “Lola, he’s like, ﬁfteen.” “A girl can dream.” I smile, thinking of Jin serving tacos in a suit. “And I know it’s a bit of a stereotype,” Lola says, “but he seems very intelligent, you know? Like he’s solving math theorems on his breaks from . . . tortilla rolling or what have you.” “Kneading.” “Right. Well, what you ‘knead,’ darling, is a job.” So much for keeping my mind off my interview. “Yeah. I saw an ad for a babysitter—” “No offense, Livie, but you’re a bit on the mellow side for that, don’t you think?” “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. When I called, they said they wanted someone who had experience with children. But actually, I have a lead on something way better. Papá set up an interview for me with a casting agent who needs an assistant.” “Now we’re getting warmer. You’re always on about nuance. You’ll need that for casting, don’t you reckon?” This is why I love Lola. She always seems to say the right thing. And even when she doesn’t, it still sounds great in her accent. I pull out the address Enrique gave me and look at my watch. “I’d better get going, the interview’s at eleven.”
“Right. Why don’t you come by the studio after? I’ll be taking roll for all the pudgy ladies at Mum-yoga. We can go get tacos!” I try to leave some money for my chai, but Lola waves my hand away. “Okay, we can get tacos only if you let me buy them,” I say. “We’ll just see about that. Good luck, Livie!” She kisses me on each cheek as we get up to go, then leaves in a ﬂourish, her scarf trailing behind her. Lola is glamorous, funny, and so naturally beautiful that some people ﬁnd her intimidating. I’ve had a fair amount of friends growing up, but she’s the ﬁrst person who really got me. When she transferred to my school two years ago, all the popular girls wanted to become her friend because she’s British. But she didn’t really care for them. It’s almost like she has this X-ray vision that can see through fakeness. We became lab partners in science, and when I named our frog Toast, she took a shine to me. I invited her over after school and taught her how to make oatmeal cookies from scratch. I added dried cranberries, which she thought was the coolest thing ever. Even though it’s only been two years, I can’t imagine my life without Lola in it. It’s like I used to live in black-and-white, and when Lola came along everything was suddenly in color.
Walking up Sunset toward Vermont Avenue, I pass a random schizophrenic discreetly talking to himself, a Hispanic family, and a couple of twentysomething dudes with guitars on their backs. When I get to the building, I realize it’s the tallest one for miles. The lobby is shiny and stark, with hard sofas that look more like warped benches. I slip my sunglasses onto the top of my head and step into a huge elevator with white walls and a metal ceiling, and press 17. It stops at the twelfth ﬂoor, and a woman is revealed, as if the automatic doors were theater curtains dramatically drawn. She’s probably early forties, draped in loose-ﬁtting, earth-toned clothes. She has a clear complexion and alert eyes. There’s a streak of gray in her otherwise black hair. She clutches a small leather bag. “Going down?” she asks. “No, up to seventeen.” She draws a circle in the air with her ﬁ nger, as if calculating the journey, and says, “Oh well, I’ll take the scenic route.” The doors close with her inside, and I can immediately smell her. Cloves and lemon. As we ascend, I notice her perfect posture. She stands so straight you can almost imagine a wire pulled taut from the bottom of her spine to the crown of her head. Lola’s mother has it too. She does yoga every day and only eats blueberries for breakfast. I usually don’t talk to strangers, so I’m surprised to hear myself say, “Do you do yoga?”
Before she can answer, the elevator stops abruptly. After a few seconds, we both realize we’re not on a ﬂoor. “I believe the word is practice, but yes,” she answers sweetly. I look around the elevator stupidly, like there’s a trapdoor or something. The woman is very calm, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. We decide to wait a minute or two before pressing the emergency call button. “Maybe it’ll just start up again,” I say, trying to be positive. The woman pulls out some grapes and offers me one. I take it to be polite, but then realize it has seeds—awkward. She notices my discomfort and says, “You can just crunch and swallow them, like a nut. They actually have more nutrients than the grape itself.” A grape doesn’t have a self, I think. But instead I say, “Good to know,” and stare at the red button. The woman steps closer and puts her clear eyes on me acutely, and suddenly I feel exposed. Since we’re trapped, I can’t really claim personal space. “I was only stuck in an elevator one other time,” she says, crunching on a grape seed, “and believe it or not, it was with the queen of England.” Yeah, right. “Really?” “Yes. I was hired by her estate manager to do some channeling work.” There are a lot of bohemian types in Silver Lake, and
I’ve heard about channeling— basically when people summon spirits of others who then speak through them— but it still seems a little far-fetched to me. “You’re a . . . channeler?” She gives me a look so sharp I wouldn’t be surprised if darts start shooting out of her pupils. I move out of her way just in case. “I like to say visionary. I do psychic work, but I also do guided meditation and past-life integration. I get called to consult with, well, powerful people.” I think of Enrique and what he’s always saying about the class system. “So the fact that you’re a psychic for people with money makes it more credible?” I can’t believe I’ve said something so rude. I reach out to push the red button, but before I can, she grabs my wrist, not too tight, but enough to make me tremble a little. “Hang on a minute,” she says. I wonder if this is some sort of setup, if she knew we’d be here all along. I try to remain calm and wait. She looks at me like she’s examining a lab rat, and I can feel my forehead getting moist. Then she says something that makes everything else disappear. “I know what it’s like not having a mother.” I feel a dropping sensation in my stomach, and a tightening in my throat. “What?” I slowly back up until I reach the elevator wall and sit down. Even though I’m freaking out, I can almost hear
Bell laughing. He’s never bought into the whole New Age thing. “How did you know that?” “It’s what I do,” she replies evenly. I decide to test her. “Okay, how come I don’t have a mother?” A look of pity colors her face, as if my test is too easy. “She gave you up for adoption.” I stare at her and realize my jaw is slack. “Um, this is getting a little creepy,” I say. “Can we press the button now?” She sits down directly across from me. I do my best to remain calm. “I’ll tell you what,” she says, arranging herself into a cross-legged position. “While we’re here, why don’t you let me read you?” “Look, I don’t believe—” She holds up her hands. “Take what you want from it. I usually get thousands of dollars for this, and I’m offering—” “No, it’s okay, really.” “No charge.” Her gaze softens a little, and I think she’s going to smile, but suddenly her expression goes blank. “You have an older brother. There’s ﬁre in him.” I can feel my heart banging on the wall of my chest. I try to think of Bell, who would still be laughing at this point. Or would he?
“He will soar.” I put my head in my hands and pretend this isn’t happening. But when I look up and see her pure, honest expression, something tells me to trust her. “Okay, just do it.” She studies my palms, writes down my birth date in a little notebook she has, tells me to stick out my tongue (I laugh a little during that part) and look her in the eye for as long as I can. I last several minutes, then lower my gaze to my sneakers. She takes my hand and holds it gently. “This summer.” “What?” “Last summer there were some changes for you?” I think of Jeremy moving out, and my breasts suddenly appearing. “Yes.” “This summer will be different— pivotal.” I try to smile at her to lighten things up, but nothing seems to crack her concentration. She becomes visibly emotional, like she’s holding back tears. “You must be aware of your choices. I know you’re young, but you’re an old soul. Please remember— all your choices are connected.” A single tear falls from her left eye and makes a tiny splat on the elevator ﬂoor. For some reason I think of William Hurt’s fake tear in Broadcast News. Bell’s always quoting the old movies we watch together, and he does a pretty good Holly Hunter. “Yours is a delicate spirit, but it will get stronger, and
fast. I see your roots taking hold. You will have guidance from someone in the past. I also see a young man. And I’m not sure why, but food is important somehow.” She stares at me for what seems like an hour, then ﬁnally pushes the button and goes back into stranger mode. As we wait for the maintenance guy to radio in, she barely looks at me, until the elevator ﬁnally starts to move and we reach the casting agent’s ﬂoor. “Do you have a card?” I ask. She lets out a quick, hearty laugh and says, “If you need me, I will be there.” “Okay, well, thanks,” I say, but it comes out as more of a question.
This is a work of ﬁction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used ﬁctitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Text copyright © 2013 by Stewart Lewis Jacket photograph (girl) copyright © 2013 by Linda Brownlee All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc. Visit us on the Web! randomhouse.com/teens Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Lewis, Stewart. The secret ingredient / Stewart Lewis. — First edition. pages cm Summary: “After a chance meeting with a psychic, Olivia, a teen cook living in Los Angeles with her two dads and misﬁt brother, ﬁnds a vintage cookbook with handwritten notes inside and pieces together a story that turns a normal summer into a search for her birth mother”—Provided by publisher. ISBN 978-0-385-74331-0 (hc) — ISBN 978-0-449-81001-9 (ebook) [1. Self-realization—Fiction. 2. Mothers—Fiction. 3. Cooking—Fiction. 4. Los Angeles (Calif.)—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.L5881Se 2013 [Fic]—dc23 2012027203 The text of this book is set in 11-point Sabon. Book design by Trish Parcell Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
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