Fiction · 11/30/2016

Food

The family’s stomachs have been rumbling for hours. They stop at one elaborate, well-preserved, ivy-festooned Victorian house after another requesting to be let in, but the chefs only shake their heads as they fasten the place down, muttering about the storm.

Outside the locked French doors, with their hands and faces spread and smeared over the windows, they marvel at the highly crafted ivory table cloths, the beige cloth napkins set just so, the assorted silverware, and the wine glasses of various sizes placed among the tables.

In the open kitchen, under the small but brightly shining lights, the copper pans hanging from the ceiling glisten as multifarious kitchen gadgets on the marble counter tops sparkle.

The family gets in the car. On the road back, the rain is more relentless than before, pounding them viciously. In desperation the father pulls the car over, and in a crippling silence the family sits as the rain and wind shakes them.

It’s the daughter who breaks the silence. “There’s still one up ahead. It’s not the best, but it’s the best we can do,” she says, looking at her list of restaurants.

The father nods his head slowly, the mother bites her lips. He restarts the car and they begin the slow drive again into the furling angry rain.

Their car crunches over the gravel driveway of another Victorian house. This one is not as glamorous as the others. It has a slightly bedraggled look to it. They spot the workers in their raincoats dodging out of the front door toward their cars. The family leave their umbrellas behind and jump out. They run and tap on their windows. They ask, “Is it okay to…?” The workers shake their heads. They’re clicking on their seat belts and starting their cars’ engines.

“But we came here for vacation,” the son says.

“We drove for hours,” says the husband.

“We just want to eat,” says the mother.

“Well,” says one, putting the car in reverse. “Come back another time.”

Another car drives by, inches away from their feet. The window squeaks down. “You need to leave,” he says. “We’re leaving.” The son jolts his feet backward as the car’s wheels squeal out of the driveway.

The family continues driving, the silence even more unbearable than the last time, their hunger pains turning into a jolting panic like the static lightening above them. A great heavy sadness that’s thick like the darkness surrounds them. Up ahead they see another restaurant, the lights still on.

“What about this one?” says the father, squinting through the windshield. “It’s Pop Joe’s. What about Pop Joe’s?”

The daughter looks over her list. “It got two stars.”

The father inches the car toward the restaurant. Pop Joe’s is painted an obscene hot pink color and looks like a rundown whorehouse. A man peers through the curtains. The storm shakes the car. The wind screams. The rain hammers. On the porch a sign with the restaurant’s menu topples backwards and blows off to the side into the darkness.

“What have we done?” the father cries.

“All we want is to taste the food, the delicious food,” moans the boy.

“Fine,” says the mother, clutching her purse against her chest. “We’re going in.”

She gets out of the car, slams the door shut and is walking up the porch steps. The door opens. She’s talking to the man who earlier peeked through the windows. She turns and waves to the family. In the thrashing rain they can barely hear her voice: “He says its okay!”

They stand inside Pop Joe’s. The walls are the same shade of hot pink as the outside. One of the overhead lights burns out. “I didn’t say it was okay. I’m heading home,” says the man. “The storm is getting pretty bad.”

“Nonsense,” says the father.

“No, it’s true,” says the man, pointing to the rain. “It’s all over the news. Didn’t you guys hear about it?”

“I’ll write up a great review for you,” quips the daughter.

The man considers this. “Print or web?”

“Both,” she says.

“I like print,” he says.

Without blinking, she says, “I can do that.”

“How wide of a circulation are we talking about?”

“Large,” says the mother. “She works on our town’s newspaper and they have connections with papers in other states.”

The four of them, wet and shaky, stare at the chef. Somebody’s stomach gurgles. Finally, he says, “I could use a good review.”

He leads them to a table set up in the middle of the room. The uneven floor boards creaks in protest. A sticky plastic cover barely fits the table. The silverware is unmatched. The plates are chipped. Peeling paint dangles from the walls. There is no open kitchen.

The man puts on his apron and gets to work. Soon, he lays the appetizers down on the table for the family. “These here are my Angry Mussels, lemon marinated, with raisins and pine nuts and some secret spices.” He pauses. “Like I’m ever going to tell you what that is.” He laughs. It’s a low laugh like a dog growling. “This here is my grandmother’s recipe for chicken liver pâté. It got bread and butter pickles. Some Dijon. This brioche. I just made it this morning so you’re in luck. You can use it to dip in the Angry Mussels sauce.” He places another plate on the table. “Here are white cheddar grits and pimiento cheese sandwiches.”

“It looks delicious.”

“It smells divine.”

The family pauses for a moment to admire the feast, and then they dig in. The flavors melt and electrify their tongues. They dip the bread into the sauce. The bread is dark and golden, flaky and soft. Goose bumps appear on their arms. A buzzing sensation builds up in the back of their skulls. They smile, grunt, and moan.

“I’m really glad you could come. I haven’t had anyone come for a while. And I would hate to waste the food…”

“No, we don’t want to do no wasting around here,” says the father.

“We watch a ton of Man Versus Food. It’s an awesome show,” says the son.

“But we don’t believe in waste,” adds the daughter.

“That’s why we’re here, we just want to have a try, have a taste. But it’s shameful. It’s almost like food porn with what they do on that show,” says the mother.

“I just got so dog darn tired of watching that show and watching all the delicious foods crammed into his mouth,” says the father. “You know like a five pound pulled pork sandwich going into his mouth and I’m asking why his? And not mine? You know? That’s what I’m saying.”

“I made a list. You were number thirty-six,”says the daughter showing the chef her paper.

The chef takes the paper from her and exams it. “I’d be up a whole lot higher if the man wasn’t against me. It’s all about people knowing people. And the money. It’s about the money, too. You got to keep yourself in the spotlight. I’m getting there. But nobody gives me a break. I’d sure appreciate you giving me a website review.”

“I could even do a YouTube,” says the daughter. “Do you have a YouTube spot?” The chef shakes his head. “Oh, you should,” she says,smiling. The pâté clumping on her lower lip falls to the floor.

“I don’t know much about all that stuff…”

“But you do know your stuff about food,” says the father.

The others agree. “Yes, he does.”

The chef beams. “I got more. I make it all from scratch and got my own garden. The fish comes from my uncle. It’s all in the family.”

“That’s what all the top chefs in them fancy restaurants are doing now days,” says the father.

“I know. I got that part down too. Just that…” He looks out the front window at the rain, his hands fumble with the loose strings on his apron. “I’m afraid with this rain. I’m afraid it’s all gonna be destroyed.”

“We don’t believe in destruction,” says the wife. “We don’t believe in food porn. We just appreciate food that’s all. That’s why we’re here.”

“It’s not just this rain,” he says. “But every time I try to make a garden, something happens. The temperature’s always fluctuating. It’s too hot and then cold and then we get a flash flood and tornadoes, always worst than the last. They’re always ripping apart my garden.” His hands leave the loose strings and roam around his apron until they find a stain. His fingers dig into the stain, scraping it and flicking it off. “It just seems like there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“This is one hell of a feast,” says the father. The chef sees that they finished the appetizers. “There’s more,” he says.

“More?”

He runs to the kitchen. He opens the fridge and pulls items out, putting them on the counter. Some items fall to the floor. His feet squish the plastic mayo bottle. He starts cooking. The bacon, cream, and spices sizzle and the scent wafts into the dining room. Sweat runs down his face and for a brief moment he forgets all about the pounding rain, his disappointments, his fears, and the raging storm outside. He brings the dishes and again lays them down on the table. “This here is a fish stew. It’s got white shrimp, mussels, and Carolina gold rice grits. Remember what I told you about my uncle? Well, you’ll have to thank him for that. This here is another of my grandma’s favorites: crispy pig ears with some sassafras pork ribs.”

“It didn’t come from China did it?” the boy asks, laughing.

The chef pulls the plate away from the table. His face turns purple. The plate is in the air briefly, then he brings the plate close to his chest. “No, it didn’t come from China.”

“Over half of the world’s pigs live in China,” says the father.

“This here comes from my great-great grandfather’s farms. It did not come from China! It comes from…”

“I’m sure it’s delicious,” says the daughter, grabbing the plate out of his hand. The family each takes a piece and eat. They’re chewing, nodding and grunting.

“Yep, didn’t come from China,” says the boy and the family break out in laughter. The chef straightens his apron. He smiles. “I told you. It comes from my great-great grandfather…”

The father’s waving his hand in the air. “We believe you, we believe you. Ignore the boy.”

“He’s a boy,” says the mother. Red BBQ sauce is smeared on her left cheek. “He doesn’t know anything.”

The chef looks at the boy. The boy’s teeth are tearing apart a pork rib. He swallows the meat down. He looks at the chef and winks.

The chef takes another plate and puts it on the table. “This is my pan seared sea scallops with apple-bacon cream sauce. Got some sweet corn cakes, too. This is a creation that I just made the other day,” he says, pointing to a large plate piled high with fried egg rolls. “It’s a mixture of collard greens, strips of chicken, and some Tasso ham. The sauce is red pepper puree, spicy mustard, and apricot chutney.”

The family digs in, getting grease over their fingers which run down to their elbows. Their chins and faces shine underneath the lights. Their eyes open and close as their mouths rapidly move, savoring every bite.

The chef stands for a moment immobilized watching them, but then he snaps out of it. “Dessert!” he says. Rummaging around the kitchen, he finds his items and takes them out to the family.

He sets the desserts on the table: sticky sorghum cake with cinnamon ice cream and poached peach tart with blackberries. “Those blackberries came from my uncle’s wife, the one that’s married to my uncle with the fish. That cinnamon ice cream is a funny story. It took me a while to get the hang of it. Can you imagine that?” He hears something. “Are those sirens?”

The family eats. The chef looks up in the air, his eyes roving to the left and to the right as if his eyes are chasing a fly. “It’s weird, those sirens being sounded. Don’t you think that’s weird?” He looks at the family. Their food-stained faces are close to the table; crumbs fall from their lips as their tongues flick out of their mouths, licking their plates. The chef nervously looks out the back door. The rain pounds the roof. The water’s seeping through the floorboards. The wind’s furious, slamming itself against the walls, opening and closing the window’s shutters. The back door rips off and flies away. “But we’re on higher ground. We’re okay. There’s a wall nearby. It’s built to keep out the water.” He notices the wife’s glass is nearly empty. “More white raspberry tea?” he asks.

She raises her head. Her eyes are glazed. Her hair is a wild tumbleweed. Her face is radiating and hot pink patches glow on her cheeks. “Yes,” she says. He takes the pitcher and pours white raspberry tea into her cup, filling it up to the top. Her hands wrap around the dainty chipped glass and bring it to her engorged lips.

“We’re on higher ground,” he says again. “We’ll be okay. It should be okay.”

“Higher!” says the husband. “Higher than heaven!” His face is also hot and flushed. The two children giggle in unison.

The chef hears a loud rushing sound. “Is that water?” he asks.

The family looks up briefly. Morsels of food fall from their mouths. “Water?” they ask.

“Shit!” says the cook. “I think that’s the water. The wall nearby. It must have broken. It’s the water.” He looks out back again toward the sound of the rumbling water. His hands fumble with the apron’s loose strings. He shifts, leaning his weight from one foot to the other. He scratches his head. He looks at the family. The family in turn looks at the table. Their hands dart out, touching the items they have not yet eaten. “Oh, the apple-bacon cream sauce,” the boy says, moaning. “It’s divine.”

“These sassafras pork ribs. So delicate. They fall apart in my mouth, “says the daughter.

“The water!” screams the chef.

The back door breaks open. The water comes. The windows crack and scatter. The water sweeps away the table and with it the family. They ride the wave. The chef rushes by them in the rough current. He sees his ham. The succulent ham that for days he marinated with the juice of pineapples simmering in sticky sauce with the warmth of brown sugar, vanilla and ginger, dripped with real homemade honey from the backfields of Atlanta, and topped with tart cherries from the local organic farm. His ham. The ham that came from his great-great grandfather’s farm. The ham he would not give to the family. “My ham!” he says. His hand reaches for it. He grabs hold of it tightly. Together they plunge underneath the dark waters.

The family, riding the wave, sees the table wobbling. Their hands grab the items that haven’t been swept into the raging waters. They cram their mouths, eating and swallowing without delay.

Another wave comes and their two children are swept away.

“Oh, the brioche!” says the boy, clutching a slice.

“Corn cakes,” says the daughter, swallowing the last of them. “Sweet corn cakes.”

“The grits. Those cheddar grits,” says the father, moaning. Dark water fills his mouth. His chair and his wife’s chair fall backwards and float outward in different directions. His wife swirls by; his hand reaches out to her.

“That poached peach tart,” she says, her hand touching his. “It was rich. So creamy. Tart and crispy.”

He doesn’t hear her. The roaring water fills his ears. “This is the best ever,” he says, the water gurgling up into his nostrils. She nods, tears fill her eyes, but another rush of water comes quickly, wiping them away.

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Xenia Taiga (http://xeniataiga.com/) lives in southern China with a cockatiel and an Englishman.