Mah-jongg meets murder at a hip Chinese banquet
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"I hate surprises." I do. Hate 'em.
My best friend and partner, Wesley Westcott, had just arrived at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market to meet up and buy supplies. He pulled off his backpack and propped it up next to a dark forest of fresh romaine and a spiky rustle of gray-green endive.
"You always say that," Wes said, "but this one is different."
"I don't think so."
Our breath misted when we spoke. Southern California in January. Who said we don't have seasons? But, of course, the day would warm up. As soon as the sun burned through the fog, we'd make it up to seventy degrees, warmer inland.
I put a crisp Chinese cabbage back down upon a perfect pyramid display of similar heads. "Really, Wes. I hate surprises."
Wes began to unzip the black bag now resting on the out-door vegetable cart. "Stop saying 'hate.' "
"Okay. I don't want to be negative. Negativity sucks. But..." A small man, examining some chard, looked up. His dark eyes gave me a once-over before they returned to their careful examination of greens.
I lowered my voice. "I just want to point out that surprises are highly overrated. In my opinion."
"You just like to know everything ahead of time. That's Jerrilyn Farmer the control freak in you." Wes pulled out a large package and began unwrapping it.
"Control freak? I am not." Really.
I picked up one perfect bunch of basil from the large selection of fresh herbs on display. This stand was but one of hundreds that made up the vast Farmer's Market held near Arizona and Second Street every Wednesday and Saturday morning. All around was a feast for the eyes. Ripe and juicy and picked at the peak of flavor only hours before up in central California's Conejo Valley, this produce rocked the senses. But then, you can probably tell I am wild for fresh ingredients.
Wait, now. There, on one inner basil leaf, was a teeny, tiny brown spot. I put the minutely damaged bunch of basil into a plastic bag anyway. Control freak? I think not.
The chard shopper shot another quick glance my way. I noticed the sun glint off his gold ring as he put down another tightly banded bunch of chard. I shifted my shoulder bag. I looked at the plastic bag. Quickly, I untwisted the twist tie and removed the slightly imperfect bunch of basil.
Wes caught my eye. "You were saying ..."
"I just have rather high standards for things, that's all."
"Right," Wes said, with his basketball-size surprise just about unwrapped.
"Excuse me. Totally different thing." Aha! My eyes were always darting around at the Farmer's Market. Who could tell where the next treasure was hiding? Now here was the perfect basil. The rich green, purple-veined leaves were large and moist, full and soft. I raised the thick bunch of basil to my nose. The heavenly aroma of the Mediterranean was intoxicating. I popped it into a fresh plastic bag, cheerfully twisting and tying.
I looked up.
Wesley stood there looking back at me, a breeze whipping his long brown hair back. Wesley Westcott is my best friend -- my business partner, actually -- and an excellent gourmet chef. Together, we have started a catering and event-planning firm called Mad Bean Events, which Wesley insisted we name after me. I thought we should call it Made-line Bean Events, because, you know, it sounds more dignified.
He didn't think dignity "sells" particularly well here in L.A. Perhaps he's right, because we are doing just fine as Mad Bean Events, catering Hollywood parties and planning a kicky range of ultra-high-end special events.
For Wesley and me, the Santa Monica Farmer's Market is one of our Wednesday morning rituals. It's something we've done since we moved down to L.A. from Berkeley nine years ago. We both love food and we both love to shop -- so this was just about heaven for us, if you didn't mind thousands of other shoppers elbowing you aside to get the last ripe Haas avocado.
The early-morning bustle on Third Street, closed off to car traffic, was getting thicker by the minute. Tight throngs of well-dressed Westside gourmets scoured the finest and freshest fruits and vegetables of the season. One could people-watch for hours.
There were the young couples, holding hands, their heads close together as they whispered about dinners they would share. There were men, serious home cooks, who shopped in silence. There were lots of attractive women -- young moms pushing tots, and media career types, and others we like to call forty-and-holding'everyone carrying designer water bottles and dressed casually, perhaps on the way to workouts with their trainers. All over the Market, you'd see them, lifting a melon up for a quick sniff, squeezing a lemon lovingly, and tucking their dawn buys into the latest lavender Kate Spade totes.
Shopping along with the neighborhood regulars, of course, there were a goodly number of us professional chefs, and we all knew each other. The outdoor Market was a natural place to meet and gossip in the chilly, overcast mornings, and then to vie like schoolyard bullies for first pick and special buying privileges from our favored grower/vendors.
"Excuse me." A young mom stepped up to the stall and grabbed a bunch of basil, and resumed t
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