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Quick Cuisine Panning Out for Desperate Duo

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Beverly Mills’ epiphany came, appropriately, in the kitchen. She was pregnant. Her 18-month-old son was clinging to her lower leg, and she had to drag him as she moved from sink to stove.

And once again she was faced with the nightly question: What’s for dinner?

“The words ‘desperation dinner’ popped into my head,” she says. “They came to me like an electric current.”

Fast-forward about 10 years to 1998. Mills and her business partner, Alicia Ross, now have a column in more than 80 newspapers, a cookbook and even a television show offer, which they rejected. And “Desperation Dinners” has gone from a lowercased idea to an uppercased commodity in the marketplace.

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In their “Desperation Dinners” column and cookbook, Mills and Ross offer recipes that can be completed in 20 minutes--including preheating the oven.

Their partnership began in 1994 when they sent out sample recipes with the idea of starting a column. Two newspapers--the News & Observer of Raleigh and the Arizona Republic of Phoenix--bit right away, and the column began in November 1994. Within a year, they had a book contract, and two years after that, “Desperation Dinners” hit bookstores.

They didn’t begin their business partnership lightly. They were friends who met through their children. Their husbands liked each other, and they vacationed together once a year. So they had a heart-to-heart talk and agreed on protected areas: their families and their friendship.

“If either one of those starts to suffer, it’s not worth anything the business could bring,” Ross says.

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Mills describes herself as the one most likely to go off willy-nilly while Ross provides the stability. Take the time they were offered a TV show on the Television Food Network. They were flying home after being wined and dined for two days in New York. Mills had her legal pad out, trying to make the schedule work, because they would have to spend one week a month in New York.

And Ross asked: “What would you do if Anders [Mills’ husband] became a traveling salesman and told you he had to be gone one week a month?”

Mills: “I’d kill him.”

That ended their plans for TV fame.

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Although they’re cagey about the details, Ross and Mills do say that their publisher, Workman Publishing Co., has plans for some Desperation Dinners spinoffs. The promotional aprons have been a big hit on the book tour, for example. And Mills wants to design a Desperation Dinners skillet, although she says no one takes her seriously.

It’s a long way from that moment in the kitchen when the words “desperation dinner” first occurred to Mills. At that time, she felt she was living something of a charade. She was a food editor and restaurant critic at the Miami Herald and a self-syndicated columnist by day, and a frantic, frustrated mother and wife by night.

“Here I am, editing stories about food, my whole day centers around food and all these recipes, and I couldn’t do it at home,” she says.

It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to cook. Mills, the daughter of a home economics teacher, was cracking eggs by age 3. She was baking her own bread long before bread machines and could make a perfect pie crust. She once washed dishes at two cooking schools so she could take classes for free.

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But she no longer had the time or the energy for such extravagances. “Dinner was out of the question. It wasn’t physically going to happen,” she says.

Her family went through a familiar cycle each week: Chinese takeout, pizza, frozen dinner, pizza, frozen dinner, Chinese takeout.

Then the concept of desperation dinners sent her on safari to the grocery store, where she found items such as minced garlic in a jar, frozen onions and gourmet spaghetti sauce worth eating. She discovered there was a middle ground, but kept her new information secret because she thought other mothers were cooking dinners from scratch every night and she was the only one unable to cope.

The serendipity began with the two women--both frantic, both former cooks feeling guilty and both with journalism backgrounds--meeting through their daughters. They were at the end of Ross’ driveway--Mills was in her car with her window down as they talked.

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It was almost 6 p.m. Ross’ husband, Ron, would be home soon. Her children were whining about being hungry. Ross looked at Mills desperately and asked: “What are you fixing for dinner?”

Mills’ response: “What you need is a desperation dinner.”

And she drove off, humiliated to have clued in someone else to her own inadequacies. (“She just looked so pitiful,” Mills says, explaining why she uttered the words at all.) And Ross was bewildered, still wondering what she would cook for dinner.

Through badgering, Ross found out what Mills meant by desperation dinners--simple, home-cooked meals that take advantage of the “convenient” foods in grocery stores now.

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Ross convinced Mills they had the makings of a weekly newspaper column. Newspapers agreed. Right away, people started asking for a cookbook. They found an agent through Mills’ questioning of authors whom she interviewed for her parenting column.

Now in its second printing, Workman has printed 85,000 copies of “Desperation Dinners.”

The authors say they worked hard to get just the right tone for the book. “Desperation could really be depressing. Our message is they’re desperate, but they can handle it,” Ross says.

And they’ve discovered their cookbook appeals not only to frantic families, but to busy college students and to retirees who want out of the kitchen.

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When they’re not promoting the book, the women meet every Friday in Ross’ kitchen. Ross cooks while Mills meticulously takes notes on ingredients, amounts, appearance and other details.

At other times, Mills snoops in folks’ refrigerators and pantries and reads grocery lists left behind in carts. What the women typically find is that there’s cereal and toilet paper, but people don’t have real food in their houses.

There are no cans of tomatoes or beans, no chicken broth, no pasta, nothing for those nights when you’re too tired to go to the grocery store, much less sit through dinner in a restaurant.

“And if you don’t have groceries in your house, you can’t cook,” Ross says. “We don’t have a solution for that.”

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