Cooking the Books: The Calamity Café by Gayle Leeson

This promising first novel in the Down South Café Mystery series introduces us to Amy Flowers—a smart, thoughtful waitress in the small town of Winter Garden, Virginia. After graduating from culinary school, Amy moves back to her hometown in order to be close to the aging members of her family.

She has ambitions to buy the greasy spoon she presently works in from its mean owner, Lou Lou, with plans to open a café that serves delicious Southern food alongside healthy, but equally tasty, alternatives. Unfortunately, the day after they serve each other notice, Lou Lou is found murdered in her office and Amy becomes the prime suspect. Determined to clear her name, Amy teams up with a handsome police deputy to sift through Lou Lou’s long list of ill-wishers to find the real killer.

The process is complicated by Lou Lou’s son insisting on selling the property to Amy in order to pursue his own ambitions. While she’s delighted to finally be able to realize her dream—even though it's not quite the circumstances she’d prefer—taking possession of the café unearths secrets long thought buried, including some that could bring Lou Lou’s killer after her next.

I quite enjoyed how Gayle Leeson layered her plot: I was never sure whom I could trust or whether one of the many plot twists pointed to the murderer or was just a highly entertaining red herring. Plot aside, what I really enjoyed about this book was how believable the characters were (though if I’m being perfectly honest, I did have some misgivings as to the murderer’s stated motive). None of the people described in this book were caricatures. Amy’s family and friends felt like people I might actually know in real life. Even her eccentric diner guests reminded me of people I had actually come across in my years working in the restaurant industry.

I was also impressed by the authenticity of the small-town life that she depicted, as well as by Amy’s determination to meld the best of her hometown with the vision she had for her café. This authenticity extended to the recipe section. I chose two of the six recipes to try out, likely the homiest of the lot. First up, a meat loaf recipe Ms. Leeson inherited from her own grandmother:

Grandmother’s Meat Loaf

*Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 ½ pounds ground beef

2 eggs

2 cups bread crumbs

¾ cup diced onions

1 tablespoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

½ cup cracker crumbs

1 cup tomato juice

Instructions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix all ingredients except tomato juice well. Add tomato juice gradually, making mixture solid enough to handle. Form into a loaf. Bake in a loaf pan for 45 minutes.

 

These fairly simple ingredients and really simple preparation create a delightfully moist meat loaf that had my family happily snacking on the leftovers. People sensitive to salt, however, should beware: I used unsalted crackers for my version and still found it on the verge of being too salty. The next time I make this, I’ll likely use only half a tablespoon of salt and experiment till I get it right.

That next time, I will also try out the serving suggestion Ms. Leeson adds in the About The Author section, which I had the bad timing of reading only after all the meatloaf was gone. She recommends making a sandwich with a slice of meatloaf, fresh bread, and yellow mustard—a combination I find quite intriguing.

After this crowd-pleasing main dish, I decided on a dessert for the second recipe:

Preacher Cookies

*Yield: 18-36 cookies, depending on size

Ingredients

2 cups sugar

1 stick butter

½ cup cream

2 ½ cups quick oatmeal

¾ cup peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

*For chocolate cookies, add one tablespoon of cocoa.

Instructions

Mix and boil for 1 ½ minutes. Spread into greased pan. Refrigerate.
 

I’ll admit to being perplexed by the idea of boiling cookies, but it turned out to be a fast and easy way to make quite a lot of dessert! Fast, that is, until it came time to cool them to a portable texture. I checked on the cookies after an hour and found them to be a little softer and inclined to melt on my fingers than I’d prefer. They were nice and solid after two hours, though.

Given that this cookie’s name came from how convenient they are to prepare for when you look out the window and see the preacher coming unexpectedly, I thought they’d be ready faster. Either the preacher likes his cookies runny or his visits tend to last for a while.

The Calamity Café’s story and recipes form a really terrific look at what life is really like in small-town Virginia, from both a culinary and (cozy) criminal standpoint. I’m very excited to see what Amy Flowers does next with her charming café, and Ms. Leeson with this series.

 

To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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