Tiffani Thiessen Wants Us to Pull Up a Chair and Enjoy Home Cooking

          Only six or so when she started helping out in the kitchen, Tiffani Thiessen grew up in a family where dinners were a gathering time to enjoy great cooking and conversations. She upped her game from traditional American fare when she and other stars from “Saved by the Bell” toured in Europe.

          “It definitely impacted me,” says Thiessen who played Kelly Kapowski on the hit TV show and was 16 at the time. “I learned all about wine, cheese and all types of different foods when we traveled in France, Italy and Holland.”

          This love of food and conviviality was so intense that though Thiessen continued with her acting career (she was Valerie Malone on “Beverly Hills 90210” and starred for four years in the series “Alexa & Katie”), she also segued into cooking, hosted both the long running “Dinner at Tiffani’s” on the Cooking Channel and now“Deliciousness,” the MTV show that looks at food blunders, restaurant fails, and other funny food and drink moments. As if that wasn’t enough to keep any mom of two young children busy enough, Thiessen spent three years writing Pull Up a Chair: Recipes from My Family to Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $30), which was released several years ago but remains as fresh and innovative, warm and inviting as ever.

          Describing cooking as therapeutic as well as artistic and creative, Thiessen’s recipes include new dishes, those she collected through the years and family favorites, some that she tweaked including her mom’s beef stroganoff which the family ate once a week when she was young.

          “I wasn’t a big fan,” says Thiessen, adding that her mom’s stroganoff was very traditional and included stirring sour cream in at the end so that it took on the appearance of dog food—her words not ours, Mrs. Thiessen. Tiffani’s tweaked it into a beef and mushroom Stroganoff with creamy polenta, spinach and a touch of brandy. The sour cream is served on the side.

          Did that hurt you mom’s feelings? I ask.

          “No, I have one of the most supportive families,” she says.

          There’s also a cowboy twang to some of her dishes such as the short rib beef enchiladas and three cheese queso, since husband Brady Smith is a meat-loving Texas boy. Her son Holt gobbles up her mac and cheese and Thiessen says Harper her eight-year-old daughter loves to decorate pizzas.

          “I don’t think of myself as anything but a home cook and my recipes are easy but everything I cook is with love and passion and that’s what Pull Up a Chair is all about,” says Thiessen, who, during our phone interview, calls me sweetheart and dear.

          That friendliness as well as the sumptuousness of her cookbook—125 recipes and lots of full page color photos of both luscious-looking food and family (and yes, her husband is handsome and her children adorable), makes me long to get an invitation to dine at her house.

          Since that won’t be happening, I did a little pre-interview stalking watching videos of Thiessen cooking in her kitchen and then displaying part of her cookbook collection.

           “I love cookbooks, I love the look, the aesthetics of them” she says when I mention my sleuthing. “Most people I’m close to would say I have a problem.  I don’t use some of them that much, as my husband points out, but there’s just something I like about having them around.”

          I can identify with that having heard similar comments from both my husband and daughter. Another reason to get that dinner invitation. But until then, I have the cookbook and can create the recipes in my own home.

Pickle & Potato Salad

Serves 6

  • 1½ pounds tricolored small potatoes
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the potatoes
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup chopped sweet pickles
  • 3 tablespoons pickle juice (from the jar)
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
  • ½ medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
  • Paprika, for garnish

Place the potatoes in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch and a generous pinch of salt. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and let them rest until they’re cool enough to handle. Cut each one in half.

In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, sweet pickles, pickle juice, mustard, salt, and pepper.

In a separate large bowl, combine the halved potatoes, eggs, and red onion and toss with the dressing. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and garnish with the parsley and paprika.

Honey-Ginger Chicken Wings

Serves 6 to 8

  • ½ cup honey (preferably wildflower or mesquite)
  • ¼ cup tamari or soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced, plus more for garnish
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lime, plus more zest for garnish
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 16 chicken wings (about 4 pounds), tips removed, drumettes and flats separated

In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, tamari, sesame oil, ginger, scallions, garlic, lime zest, lime juice, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Reserve ¾ cup of the mixture in the fridge.

Pour the remaining marinade into a 2-gallon zip-top bag. Add the chicken and seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage the marinade into the wings. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. Before cooking, let the wings stand at room temperature for about 2 hours.

When ready to cook the wings, preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove the wings from the marinade, reserving the marinade. Season the wings with salt and pepper and place them skin-side down in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Spoon some of the marinade over them; discard the remaining marinade. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and flip the wings, basting with the pan drippings. Rotate the pan and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the honey has caramelized and the skin is a dark amber color.

In a small saucepan, bring the reserved ¾ cup marinade (from the fridge) to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the liquid turns into a thick, syrupy glaze, about 4 minutes.

Coat the wings with the glaze, arrange them on a serving platter, and garnish with scallions and lime zest.

These recipes are excerpted from Pull Up a Chair © 2018 by Tiffani Thiessen. Photography © 2018 by Rebecca Sanabria. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

If These Walls Could Talk by Reggie Brooks

        “I wouldn’t have been so open if I had written my book five years ago,” says Reggie Brooks, author of the just released If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2021, $17.95). “But Covid showed me how important it is to share. There were many people in my life who helped get me to where I am. I also learned that we’re here to serve others and not just ourselves.”

        In many ways his book is a behind the scenes look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish but for those who groan at the thought of another football book, Brooks wants you to know it’s more than that. He discusses both the highs and lows of his life and career, offering a human look at being a gridiron star as he takes us on his personal journey, often peppering his book with humorous anecdotes. That includes the time he scored a 20-yard touchdown against the University of Michigan in 1993 while unconscious.

        “I didn’t even know I was knocked down,” says Brooks about the incident where, after catching a pass, he was able to break through six Wolverine tackles—the last knocking him out—and still managing to make it across the finish line before falling face first in the end zone.

“I didn’t really know about the play until I saw it on Sunday during our film session and team meeting,” he says.

        Brooks, a Notre Dame tailback, ended his senior year with  1,372 rushing yards, averaging about 8 yards a carry and scoring 13 touchdowns. He was named an All-American, finished fifth in the voting that year for the Heisman Trophy and was selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL by the Washington Redskins. But after a stellar first year in the league, his career started stalling, in part, he believes by a disagreement he had with the management over the team’s use of his image.

        Welcome to the NFL. For Brooks, it seemed that he had upset the wrong people and paid the price for doing so. But he’s self-aware of how he responded. Feeling as if he were drowning he retreated into himself and didn’t avail himself of the help he was offered.  Brooks’ experiences in the NFL reinforced his realization of how important Notre Dame had been in his life.

        “It allowed me to see more clearly how special my teammates at Notre Dame were and what it meant to be a college football player,” he writes. “It’s the maturity you have to develop and the care for the others—even if you do not consciously think about it.”

        He also saw the power of the Notre Dame network and how it opened doors for him when he was struggling—how the kindness of those he knew there helped him find his way.

        When I ask what impact he hopes his book will have on readers, Brooks responds that he wants to show how his life and Notre Dame intertwined.

        “I also want to get people to realize the value of ‘you’ and what ‘you’ bring to the community,” he says.

        His father was his first coach and taught him the importance of treating others well. The emphasis was not on football as a way make a lot of money (though no one is arguing that isn’t nice) but the impact you can have on others.

        “I still struggle with fandom,” he says. And we laugh about the old saw about never believing in your own press clippings—in other words not letting the hype change who you are.

“Those who are just starting are as important as the most famous,” he says.

Married to his college sweetheart, Christina Brooks, the couple have five children. Until recently Reggie Brooks worked for Notre Dame as the university’s Director of Student-Athlete Alumni Relations/Engagement and participated in after game shows. Recently he accepted the position of executive director of Holtz’s Heroes Foundation which precipitated a move from South Bend, Indiana to Prairie View, Texas. But that move was in part participated with his wife getting a job in Fort Worth and it was time, he said, to support her as she had always supported his career and many moves.

Still there was a sense of loss about leaving. Brooks had followed his brother Tony, who also played football, to the university after high school, played there throughout college and then returned. He loves the school’s values. When I tell him my brother taught accountancy there for 30 years and never ever was pressured to give a break to an athlete, he laughs, saying “You go to class, you do the work, that’s what makes it Notre Dame.”

He makes sure to complement the university’s accounting program as if wanting to assure me that it’s just as glamorous and important as their fabled football program. It’s just what makes him Reggie Brooks.

What:  Reggie Brooks book signing

When: Saturday, October 23 at 12:30pm CT

Where: Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, 1 Eck Center on the Notre Dame Campus in South Bend, Indiana

FYI: 800-647-4641; http://www.bkstr.com/notredamestore

Tune in Tomorrow to Hoosier History Live as I Discuss America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

If you have time, tune in tomorrow Saturday, October 23rd when I talk to host Nelson Price of Hoosier History Live about my new book America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or you can stream audio live from anywhere during the show.

A Line to Kill

Anthony Horowitz is plotting a murder.

That’s typical. After all, Horowitz has authored more than 40 mystery novels including several James Bond novels commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate. Oh, and did we mention he’s also screenwriter, adapting mysteries such as Midsomer Murders into a long running English television series.

That’s a lot of homicides and this week he’s adding a few more to the tally with the release of A Line to Kill, the third in his Hawthorne and Horowitz series–think former police detective Hawthorne as Sherlock Holmes with Horowitz writing himself into the role of the bumbling Watson.

Little wonder he’s always thinking of murders particularly when taking his dog for long walks, something he does several times a day.

Unfortunately, the murder under consideration right now is mine.

“I start with a bullseye,” he says explaining how he produces his plots. “That’s the murder.”

It turns out I’m the bullseye.

“Think about it, you say you’re in the U.S. and I say I’m in England, but we really don’t know where either of us really is,” says Horowitz during a Zoom call.

In other words, at any minute Horowitz could appear behind me while I’m thinking he’s an ocean away.

“But why would you want to kill me or why would I want to kill you?” he muses noting that takes him to the next step in his writing process—motive. “The secret for me is the motive. It needs to be original, beautiful, striking, and something out of the usual.”

“Maybe you think I’m going to write a critical review of your book,” I respond, foolishly offering a reason for the crime.

Murder is definitely Horowitz’s business and obsession but when he was ten and living at a boarding school, it was a way to survive.  

“Are those English boarding schools really as bad as everyone says?” I ask.

“They were back then, now they’re stricter laws,” he says. “At the time it was a horrendously damaging place.”

To escape the harshness Horowitz delved deep into reading and began to spin yarns to keep his school mates entertained—many of which were about heroic kids escaping from the school. From there, he says, it wasn’t a big jump to write his tales down.

A Line to Kill takes place during a literary festival on Alderney, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of England. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Horowitz discovered the island when he attended a literary gathering there.

“It’s a beautiful small island with an awful past,” he says, noting that the Germans controlled it during World War II and built prisoner of war camps. For the fictional Horowitz, it’s a bloody place because of the many murders that occur while he and Hawthorne are staying there.

As for me, not to worry. Horowitz was in England while we were Zooming and I definitely recommend reading his book.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

A Norwegian farm girl, her family so poor, they often went hungry, is seduced by a rich landowner’s son. But despite her dreams, he has no plans to make her his wife. Abandoned, she sees only one path forward or she’ll sink into the black hole of her family’s poverty. But her first goal is revenge and after the landowner’s son dies a horrid death amidst whispers of poison, she boards a boat and sails to America. Norway’s gain is America’s loss.

Her name changed through the years but after the mysterious deaths of two husbands, numerous men, women, and children, she goes down in his as Belle Gunness.  An entrepreneur whose business was murder, Gunness felt no qualms seducing men for their money and dispatching them with her axe—filling her farmland with her victims.

As her crimes were about to be discovered, her solid brick home burnt to the ground and workers battling the smoke and flames discovered the bodies of her three children and a woman without a head.  Was it Belle  or did she get away with one more murder, absconding with close to a million dollars. It’s a question the world has been asking since 1908.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness (Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Oct. 4, 2021; $20).

What people are saying about America’s Femme Fatale.

Ammeson uses astute research and punchy prose to chronicle Belle’s transformation from destitute farm girl to one of history’s most egregious female serial killers. . . . Compact and captivating, this salacious tale of murderous greed during the early twentieth century will be devoured quickly by true-crime fans.– Michelle Ross ― BOOKLIST / Amer Library Assn

It’s a mesmerizing cautionary tale I had to keep reading despite the late-night hour. . . . Ammeson writes narrative nonfiction with a sense of drama to propel us along the unbelievable.– Rita Kohn ― NUVO

America’s Femme Fatale is the detailed story of Belle Gunness, one of the nation’s most prolific mass murderers. Ammeson recounts the horrific events with dry wit and corrects many errors found in previous accounts. Gunness stands out in an infamous crowd because she was a woman; she killed men, women and children rather than choosing from among one narrow section of victimology; and her murders seem to have been rooted in greed rather than lust, the serial killer’s usual motive.– Keven McQueen, author of Murderous Acts: 100 Years of Crime in the Midwest

Jane Ammeson will be on Hoosier History Live talking to the show’s host Nelson Price about Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or stream audio live from anywhere during the show. For those who miss the show, it’ll be available by podcast as well.

Capote’s Women: The Story of the Writers’ Swans

“There are certain women who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich,” author Truman Capote wrote about the beautiful, well-dressed, and style-setting women he called his “swans.”

The ultimate arm candy for the wealthiest and most powerful of men, these women of the mid-20th century were trophy wives before the term existed. And they counted Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and creator of the true crime genre with In Cold Blood, his chilling recounting of the brutal murders of a Kansas family, as their best friend.

In Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer takes us back to a time and a world where jet-setting, making the best-dressed list, attending and giving A-plus list parties, and dining at the most wonderful places whether in New York, Paris, London, or wherever your yacht happened to be moored were what these exalted women excelled at.

Obtaining their lifestyles depended upon a confluence of beauty, wit, moxie, and marrying and knowing when to discard husbands as they worked their way up and up. At times, divorce papers were barely signed before the next wedding was held.

“You have to enter into their lives,” says Leamer, explaining how he so succinctly captured the personalities of the swans: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Hayward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill who constantly seethed because of the attention her older sister, Jackie Kennedy, always received.

“Even though,” Leamer points out, “unlike Jackie she didn’t want to do the hard work that it takes to achieve something.”

These women knew how to climb to higher heights. Gloria Guinness had transitioned from a childhood of constant motion in Mexico and marriage at age 20 to a man 27 years older to marrying a German aristocrat and a romantic involvement with a top Nazi during World War II. Her third marriage was to the grandson of an Egyptian King and her last, the biggest prize, was to a scion of the Guinness beer family who was also a member of Parliament. Other wins were modeling for big time designers and the best of the fashion magazines as well as being on the International Best Dressed List for several years.

But ultimately, she wasn’t happy says Leamer who believes she committed suicide.

There was also Barbara “Babe” Paley whose mother raised her   three daughters to marry money. Paley, who had been badly injured in an automobile accident when young, spent her life in considerable pain. Her husband expected perfection in all things and so she never slept in the same bedroom, so she could the loss of her front teeth.

But being the best wasn’t always the answer to happy life. The swans may have had uber-wealthy husbands, but they didn’t have good husbands. Frequently husbands and wives were flagrantly promiscuous, and the swans often led separate lives not only from their spouses but also their children.

“For them, to be a mom was to be hands-off,” says Leamer. “And the children often paid a price. They didn’t necessary learn to do anything because they were going to inherit a lot of money.”

Ornamental to the max, these were women who did nothing but did it extremely well. And Capote, despite his great literary successes, spent a lot of time doing nothing with them. He listened to their secrets and ultimately decided to write a book revealing what he had heard. When an article he penned revealed some of those stories, the swans all turned against him, and he was exiled from the society he craved.

“I went to a family wedding recently,” says Leamer noting the warmth and connectiveness that everyone had. “These women and Capote never had this.”

It’s such a cliché to say money doesn’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it certainly is delicious to read about the lives of women who many thought had it all even though they didn’t.

Online Book Event


Join Laurence Leamer in an online event hosted by the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago when he reads from and discusses his new book.”

When: October 13 at 6:30 p.m.

How to Join In: This program will be hosted online via Zoom. To register, visit americanwritersmuseum.org/program-calendar/laurence-leamer-capotes-women/

Join us for a free event when Edelweiss Presents Mystery, Murder, and Mayhem on October 13 at 2 P.M. ET


Don’t miss Walter Mosley, Richard Osman, and more of your favorite mystery authors at a FREE virtual event tomorrow, October 13th! Starting at 11:00 AM ET, log in to the Mystery / Thriller Community Hub to access sessions, engage in Community Conversations, and explore the books being featured during the event.

Kicks of at 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM ET Award-winning authors Walter Mosley (Blood Grove)
and Kellye Garrett (Like a Sister) join moderator Gabino Iglesias (The Devil Takes You Home) for a ground-breaking conversation about crime, justice, and the search for truth.

Test your mystery knowledge at The Immersive Q&A Experience at 2:00 PM ET. Think you’ve got what it takes to make it through this interactive and immersive experience? Join your fellow mystery / thriller aficionados in an interactive guessing game for a chance to win prizes!
This event is FREE for members of the Edelweiss Mystery / Thriller Community.

Click here to become a member and access sessions on October 13th. 

Whose Life Am I Living: Author Explores Cutting Edge Technology in New Thriller

Imagine walking through a door and into another life. That’s what happens to striving Chicago artist Kelly Holter on her 29th birthday. Suddenly she’s back in her hometown in Michigan, married to a man she barely knew in high school.

She’s completely disoriented, because suddenly she has memories from both of her lives, and she needs to make sense of why this switch happened and whether it can be reversed.

A speculative thriller exploring cutting-edge technology, “The Other Me” is the debut novel of Sarah Zachrich Jeng, a web developer originally from Michigan who now lives in Florida. The following is a Q&A with Jeng and Times correspondent Jane Ammeson.

Can you tell our readers where the idea for your book came from?

The idea came to me while I was thinking about wish fulfillment and the classic “guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy moves mountains to get girl” narrative. These kinds of stories are often told from the man’s point of view, framed as romantic and wholly positive. I wanted to look at it through a slightly darker lens and from the woman’s perspective, so I used a sci-fi trope that completely takes away Kelly’s choice in the matter. Whatever happened to make her fall in love with Eric, her husband, it has already happened in this new life she finds herself living.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

I researched the art world and women artists through both the 20th and 21st centuries to get an idea of what qualifications and training they would need and what a woman artist just starting her career would be up against. Kelly is not from a privileged background, so I had to give her a scholarship to art school, which in real life probably wouldn’t come close to paying her way through. However, I wanted there to be some tension between her drive to create and the necessity of making a living, so I took a bit of creative license.

I have some experience of startup culture, but things are always changing, so I read up on that. Much of what made it into the book is exaggerated, but some, unfortunately, is not. I also did research on the capabilities of artificial intelligence, as well as some armchair physics. The tech depicted in the book isn’t possible (at least not that we know of!) but I wanted to have enough background knowledge to let readers suspend disbelief. I was less interested in completely accurate science than exploring themes of identity, fate, and choice, and I hope any physicists or AI experts among my readers will forgive me!

It must have been complex trying to keep straight what happened, what didn’t happen, the new life, the old life — how did you do that?

Spreadsheets, lists, and an ugly hand-drawn diagram or two. I had timelines written out, as well as lists of small changes in Kelly’s life and the ripple effects they might cause. I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I started, and it’ll probably be a while before I write a book like this again! (Famous last words.)

%d bloggers like this: