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The fifth of seven children, born in 1957, just on the heels of the Baby Boom and smack-dab in the middle of the Cold War, Zola was an unlikely candidate for getting anyone to take notice, much less achieve the reputation she now enjoys. Brainy, farsighted, and cross-eyed, she began wearing pink glasses at just 18 months - not only to correct her wayward vision, but to draw attention away from the chaotic, uneven pixie haircuts that the local cosmetology school offered up at fifty cents apiece.

Dinner in the Gorgon family household was predictable, if not monotonous. The daily menu was inextricably linked to the day of the week; Monday was chicken, Tuesday was meatloaf, and so on. The meal-of-the-day approach wasn't just for convenience, but for sanity. For years, Zola's mother cooked two dinners a day - one for the residents of a local halfway house, and one for her own family. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the residents.

Meals weren't intended to stimulate the palate as much as nourish the body, and as such, they consisted largely of entrees and side dishes that were, for reasons unspoken, never allowed to touch each other on the plate. Zola suspected this was Dad's doing (a personal quirk of dining etiquette that didn't stop him from combining food items into a heaping mouthful on the fork) because when Dad traveled, the kids were treated to the ultimate combination of co-mingled ingredients, the casserole. So long as the casserole wasn't created with a foundation of rice - the universal barf-inducing ingredient that seemed to afflict all Gorgon children simultaneously -- most of them passed the kid-test.

In another family, Zola's kitchen appearances might have been relegated to drying dishes or scrubbing hardened mashed potatoes off the Fiestaware. Whether it was setting the table at the halfway house or baking chocolate chip cookies on snowy Wisconsin Saturdays or a Graham Kerr-inspired concoction or just her unwillingness to leave the house until she "grew breasts" (an event that, combined with weight loss and eventually straightened eyeballs, made the young Miss Gorgon observed with wide eyes by the town boys), Zola quickly developed a great comfort for the kitchen. Most days, it was the room with the greatest activity - so much that, upon completion of a kitchen remodeling project, Dad didn't even bother to put the doors back on the oft-opened-and-closed cabinets. By age twelve, Zola was cooking up a storm in her place -- experimenting, testing, mixing and trying again.

It wasn't until long after she'd left the house - after thousands of family meals; after wildly successful Dallas-and-dinner parties at her Chicago apartment; after countless first-conquerings of new recipes - that Zola experienced her first gourmet gaffe, an apple and mushroom casserole that caused her husband to complain of "way too much going on in my mouth right now."

It's a memory that still evokes laughter twenty years later.

* * * * *

Zola Gorgon is all of that. And none of it.

In reality, Zola Gorgon is unreal - an invention, an alter-ego, a double life of Madison CEO Sarah McCann.

Zola is what Sarah might be if she weren't running Apex Performance Systems, the internationally regarded sales training company she cofounded with her husband and partner, Chris Lytle, in the mid 1980s. Zola is the persona that Sarah adopts more than thirty times a year, hosting unique dinner parties for friends and colleagues in her Fitchburg home. Zola is the character Sarah allows to come out and play - just as an old football player becomes an armchair quarterback on Sundays in the fall. And Zola is always willing to share Sarah's ideas, recipes, and techniques with anyone who believes cooking should be more fun than work.

And believe us, Zola knows.

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