Fiction

Kitchen Mystic by Paulette Licitra

The Deconstruction by Karen Cantrell

Patisserie de Pakistan by Gregors Johnson

Meals of a Lifetime by Rebecca Keller

Ode to Risotto by Donald Newlove

Fully Committed by Doug Sovern

Biscuits and Gravy by William Blomstedt

Keeping It Tidy by Alan Linton

If I Knew You Were Coming by Alisha Lumea

On Your Only Day Off by Nicole Edwards

Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts by Ted Radakovic

Joseph Conrad’s Dark Linguini by Giovanni Berchtold

Missing Something by Jean-Luc Bouchard

We Love You, Mayonnaise! by Alona Martinez

Japanese Food by Esther Cohen

Raw Köfte by Hardy Griffin

Proust's Soup by Giovanni Berchtold

A Sacred Virgin by Paulette Licitra

on a friday evening by Keith Leidner

Ropa Vieja by Raul Palma

Deidre's Last Meal by Esther Cohen

Wired by Alan Linton

Chestnut by Katherine Gleason

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich by Patty Houston

Garlicky Greens by Lois Marie Harrod

First the Shell, Musical; Then the Custard, Irrevocable by Sarah Begley

Meals of Choice by Dorian Fox

A Low Table by Christian Aguiar

The Sylvian Fissure by Rosalie Loewen

Two Versions of Eating Potatoes by David Spiering

Conch Salad by Michele Ruby

Hopper by Michael Onofrey

Caution: Coffee is Hot by Gary Scott

The Fairy Part by Alberto Giuseppe

Foie Gras by Judith Edelman

Rosemary and Olive Oil by Gail Gauthier

Mario's Shoes by Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Cake by Marianne Villanueva

Retreat: October on Copper Mountain by M.E. Parker

The Sandwich Diaries by Angus Woodward

But There Was No Star Anise by Andrew Martell

Fruit Route by Susan King

Missing Something

by Jean-Luc Bouchard

December 2014    

Halfway through his first review, when still a self-described “amateur,” Isaac decided that the hardest part of pretending to be a restaurant critic had to be juggling the tasks of eating and jotting down comments without staining the paper. He was less than four minutes into his meal of ee fu noodles before his olive $1.97 Walgreens pocket notepad was splotched with oil and bits of Chinatown vegetation. Recognizing the necessity to adapt two-and-a-half decades of hard-learned dining etiquette, by the end of the meal he had mastered the essential routine—eat, wipe, write, repeat.

On his second attempt, Isaac, having gotten past the mechanics of eating and writing, discovered that, in fact, the hardest part of pretending to be a food critic was the timing of the whole endeavor. He had to be sure that the wait staff was in a position to see him write down his comments without revealing that he was aware of his audience. Dining soon became an exercise in waiting and listening for the quick, purposeful footsteps of Asian bussers from behind. And if he made eye contact during his notes?—why, he’d quickly and conspicuously slide the pad back into his breast pocket and continue his meal. Don’t mind me, his face would say. Nothing to see here. And these moments of note-taking had to be balanced alongside Isaac’s own personal desire to be observed while he applied chili sauce to his food. Several times a meal, Isaac stopped eating and made a point of exhibiting just how much chili he willingly enjoyed consuming, spooning healthy-sized portions onto his plate as a frumpy waitress walked past with a tray of empty soup bowls.

The decision to pretend to review restaurants would have struck anyone in his position, frequent post-work table-for-one enthusiast that he was. And although he made a number of sloppy mistakes in his first few reviews, he became steadily more proficient over the next few weeks. On his fourth review, he realized that he should always ask to keep the menu to look at; it showed that he wanted to check names and prices of dishes, and he could study it while waiters walked by and glanced down on the odd white man scribbling dish names and prices into a notepad. On his fifth review, he realized that he should always ask the server if there were any specials today, or if she/he recommended a particular dish (this would not only draw attention to Isaac’s interest in the restaurant, but also plant him in the server’s mind as more than just another customer). On his seventh review, he started tipping above twenty percent, because that seemed like something a food critic would do out of formality.

Revisiting his latest notes while lying on the couch one night (there was nothing good on TV), Isaac discovered that his most frequent comment on a meal was “missing something.” It appeared that a number of Chinatown restaurants were “missing something” in their dishes, a certain je ne sais quoi that probably had less to do with ingredients and more to do with the “soul” that French chefs and Bravo channel reality show judges loved to talk about. He wondered briefly if chefs always tasted their food before sending them out, or if that was a movie thing. He put his notes into the cigar box with the rest of them and taped the lid down.

Isaac split his time between pretending to be a restaurant critic, doing his job as a Junior Associate as a marketing firm, and going on the occasional date. When it came to dating, the restaurants were his “angle”—he learned early in college that he needed an “angle” when looking for dates. He would scout out a Chinatown restaurant ahead of time and, if it passed his test, he would suggest it to his date as a “cute little place I know. You’ll love it.” This showed that he was fun, kitschy. Bringing a first date to Chinatown was memorable, not particularly expensive, and potentially thoughtful in a romantic comedy sort of way. It demonstrated that, yeah, he was a Junior Associate, but that he was up for low-end kind of stuff. More importantly, having already tasted his meal once before, Isaac could comment upon dishes in the restaurant—“It’s nice what they do with cilantro,” “They’re putting clove in this, interesting”—which was another crucial part of the angle. It was a big hit with dates, who were always self-described lovers of food but who knew “nothing about cooking.” Set them up, knock them down.

But when Isaac wasn’t in a Chinatown restaurant, he had another way of subtly marking himself as unique: he would talk about the things that made him passionate. He did this with Nick, from Human Resources, on a Thursday morning in June during a coffee-with-Splenda break.

“My big thing,” Isaac said to Nick, who was still waiting for the Keurig to start pouring into his University of Delaware mug, “like, the one cause I really care about, has always been child abuse.”

Nick nodded and made his eyes impressed. “Wow, yeah.” The Keurig started up and he looked down to make sure his mug was centered properly.

“I mean, on a very basic level, not a lot really matters if the child, childhood, adolescence, you know the basic foundation for our personality and experiences and memories and all that stuff, is fucked up.” Isaac decided to start talking with his hands, which always made him feel like a silent movie character. “No major scientific advancement, government policy, whatever, is going to make a difference if millions of kids become adults who go around thinking that they deserved to be hit, ya know?” He tried to move his hands in a way that suggested physical contact, a sort of simulated, sexually-charged touch on the arm, without actually making contact with Nick’s skin.

Nick was transferring the half-full mug to the counter. His eyes seemed more impressed to Isaac. “Totally. That’s so true.”

Isaac ran a hand through his hair in what he hoped was a sign of humility and self-consciousness. “It’s sorta embarrassing, actually…”

Nick stopped looking for milk. “What?”

Isaac wondered briefly if, having ran a hand through his hair, he had accidently poofed it up and now looked like a turkey. He put a hand on his head, pretending to scratch his scalp, to check. “I just sorta, sometimes, when I see parents hitting or spanking kids in public, I sorta freak out. Like I can’t just ignore it. I gotta say something.”

Thank God, the hair was fine.

“I have to step in. I dunno, it’s weird…”

“No, I think that’s great,” Nick said, talking with his hands, too, and mimicking somewhat Isaac’s not-quite-touching arm pat motion. “More people should care.”

“Thanks.” Small smile. No teeth—he wasn’t desperate. “So, any fun weekend plans?”

Nick blushed and hesitated a moment before giving a small laugh and shaking his head. “Nope, same old, same old. Trashy TV and pizza, probably. What about you?”

“Well, there’s this cute little place I know…”

For his upcoming date with Nick, Isaac spent that night scouting out a little hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant called Xinh Café that served a curry chicken dish with baguette he figured was fun without being too over-the-top. The décor was just a notch above high school cafeteria, but the food was acceptable. More importantly, Isaac enjoyed the “feel” of the place—a word he hated but liked more than “vibe.” He had jotted down the word “feel” in his notepad as the inaugural comment that night. During his meal, a woman he assumed was either the owner’s wife or aunt or some ambiguous female relative was seated two tables away from him, talking non-stop to the loitering waitress while caring for an infant in a high seat. This was the fourth night of a grueling heat wave, and the woman was cooling down the infant by taking ice cubes out of a plastic sandwich bag and rubbing them on the girl’s neck. Every time the ice made contact with her skin, the infant would squirm and laugh, and the woman would smile and (Isaac imagined) think about how it felt to care for a child. Isaac thought that this was exactly the kind of scene someone would appreciate and decided to bring Nick here tomorrow night.

Nick and Isaac arrived at Xinh Café around 7pm on Friday and sat in a booth. They were the only customers in the place. Isaac wondered if the waitress would recognize him or if the fact that he was wearing a substantially nicer outfit than the night before would make it more difficult. Maybe coming back for a second night in a row would make him seem even more like a restaurant critic.

“I’ve heard good things about the curry chicken with French bread,” Isaac said, not looking up from his menu.

“Oh? I’ve never had that before. What’s it like?”

“I guess you could say that it’s like the kind of curry you’d get in a Thai restaurant, but probably with less coconut milk. More French influence on the seasonings, too, because of the imperialism, obviously.”

“Oh. Interesting…”

When the waitress came, Isaac ordered something he could put a lot of chili sauce on and Nick ordered the curry chicken. The waitress did not give any sign of recognizing Isaac but could have been hiding her surprise. Isaac and Nick clinked smudged plastic water glasses together and said “Cheers!” before taking small sips and talking about the company outing.

Five minutes after their food arrived, the older woman from the night before emerged from the kitchen with a toddler (this time a boy) and sat down at a table near the bathroom. She was still talking nonstop, but now it was directed at the boy, who was clearly more preoccupied with the loose button on his shirt than his auntie’s speech. He fiddled and squirmed in his seat while she recited some Vietnamese maxims at the top of his head.

The restaurant was small and Isaac and Nick had a clear view of the two of them.

“Aw, look at the little boy,” Isaac said, pointing with just the end of his pinky. “Isn’t that cute?”

Nick turned and smiled. “Yeah. He’s in his own little world.”

Everything was ideal. There was even a mirrored wall in the restaurant to avoid post-humbling-gesture hair poofing. Isaac was beginning to explain what was responsible for that “interesting” flavor Nick mentioned in his curry when the older Vietnamese woman began to yell at the boy. Isaac and Nick looked over and tried to piece together exactly what her problem was with the kid through her cryptic assembly of her finger wags and facial expressions. The boy had his head bowed and was clearly as uncomfortable as Isaac and Nick with the whole matter. The woman kept getting louder and louder, poking him in the chest with a thin old finger.

Nick looked sad. “Wow, harsh.”

“Yeah,” Isaac replied, trying to remember the correct pronunciation of “star anise.” Looking into the mirrored wall, he had a peripheral view of the woman and the toddler on the right, the empty hostess stand on the left, and a perfect view of the back of Nick’s head. Isaac wondered if the fact that he could see the top of his own forehead and hair over Nick’s in the mirror revealed some sort of previously-unknown, possibly hereditary, large-headedness.

And then the woman slapped the boy. Hard and quick, right across the face. The boy didn’t cry; he just sat there stunned, looking up at the woman like he had been told Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all imaginary at the same time. Nick’s mouth dropped open and he looked expectantly at Isaac, eyes wide. Isaac put a hand to his mouth and chin in what he hoped was a shocked but also mulling-over expression.

The woman slapped the boy again, screeching louder. Nick was shaking his head, somewhat copying Isaac’s motion and raising a flattened hand to his mouth. He was looking back and forth between Isaac and the commotion at the table near the bathroom.

Isaac assessed the situation. At the moment, it was only him, Nick, the woman, and the slapped boy in the dining room. The waitress had disappeared into the kitchen ages ago for God knows what. It was unclear if there had ever been a hostess to begin with. Nick was staring directly into Isaac’s eyes, both hands up to his mouth, expecting something. Isaac was looking back over at Nick, finger on his chin, presumably thinking this through. In the mirrored wall, Isaac could see the vague form of the older woman beginning to shake the boy and poke his chest, hard. Time started to feel sluggish in one of those love-at-first-sight, 60s romance film ways. Nick hadn’t blinked in what felt like two years.

As Nick lowered his head deeper into his hands, Isaac caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the mirror, with the woman and boy still in sight, and turned away sharply.

“What you’re tasting,” he said, pointing to the curry, “is star anise. It’s what’s giving it probably a sort of Indian-food flavor, I’m guessing. Used in a lot of South Asian curries.”

Nick was biting his lower lip. The woman was peaking and valleying in volume. Every now and then she’d shake the boy or smack his arm.

Isaac pointed to his own dish. “Now, this is fine, I’m enjoying it, but I prefer the way they do it some places where they put an egg on it.”

The Vietnamese boy and Nick snuck glances at each other for the remainder of the meal.

Later, walking back from the subway station where Nick had rudely rushed through his goodbyes without so much as a promise to see him at work on Monday, Isaac went through a mental checklist trying to figure out what aspect of the curry could have ruined what should have been a perfectly successful date.



  Jean-Luc Bouchard is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in PANK, NANO, Umbrella Factory, Specter, Danse Macabre, Eastlit, 100 Word Story, ExFic, and other journals. His story "Arm in Arm, March On" won second place in One Throne Magazine's 24-hour Story Contest. He can be followed @jlucbouchard, and his work can be found at www.jeanlucbouchard.com.

 

Photo used under Creative Commons.