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by Beth LaBuff
12/28/2015 / Cooking
A voice articulated, "Each of you must create a culinary masterpiece. You will be allowed to gather ingredients from the pantry. You each have an hourglass to help gauge your time. Before the hourglass empties, you must bring your masterpiece to the judge. If the judge is satisfied, you will be allowed to continue through. If not, you will be eliminated. There are instructions at each workplace. Your time starts now."
My eyes encompassed the butcher-block countertop as I searched for the instructions. I only saw utensils: wooden spoons, a whisk, a grater. I noticed that each station had a book and a crudely wrapped box. Since the hourglass had started, my mind began to plan my chef-d'oeuvre, my crowning culinary achievement. An overflowing larder awaited me as excitement percolated inside me. In the pantry were tables that teemed with plump fruits, root vegetables, and racks of spices. Glass-doored refrigerators revealed fresh seafood, meats and cheeses.
I'd construct my masterpiece in layers. I made a trip to the pantry and selected flour, salt, shortening, and almonds. The bottom layer would be a crust.
As I cut the shortening into the flour, I looked at the man laboring in front of me. He was a wizened specter with a stooped back and tufts of white hair. Each falling grain of sand seemed to further burden him. His lopsided culinary work was crumbling. Its edges were charred and it had a rancid smell. His hourglass had nearly bled out. But, I'd not waste my time and pity him. He had earned what he would receive.
I grated the almonds into the dough to add texture, then rolled it out into a rectangle and placed it in an oven to bake. A savory layer would be next. I headed back to the pantry and perused the abundance of meats and sauces. I selected deboned chicken, coconut milk, soy sauce, curry powder, and red pepper.
In my peripheral vision, a fellow approached several challengers, engaging them in conversation. Many appeared angry as he pled with them. Some threatened him. I stayed focused, hoping he'd bypass me.
I had just shredded the chicken when he reached my workplace. I really didn't have time for his chatter. He pointed to the book and said it contained the instructions and explained the judge's requirement of perfection. He had some fool claim that the judge, himself, had provided for each challenger the perfect masterpiece. It was contained in the plain wrapped box. All I needed was to present that box to the judge and he would be satisfied.
I scrutinized the box that contained this "masterpiece." It had an ordinary, unappealing wrapper. This man's babble grated on me. I didn't need a ranting zealot and this "proxy masterpiece." Fed up, I yelled, "I'll do this my way."
Sorrow shrouded his face; he turned away then approached the stooped, elderly man. Good! Old Specter needs help with his shambles. Like a man dying of thirst, he gulped in the message. As his last grains of sand trickled down, he abandoned his mess and grabbed the plain wrapped box. He hobbled to the judge as fast as his bent figure allowed. I chuckled to myself, there's one born every minute.
I returned to the pantry and meandered around the tables. I selected strawberries, thick cream, and a chocolate bar.
When I returned, I was shocked to see how little time I had left. My masterpiece had cracked. Disheartened, I raced to engulf it with whipped cream rosettes. Finally, I grated the chocolate and sprinkled the shreds on top. This was my culinary magnum opus, truly a masterpiece.
I needed to plate my creation for the judge. Oddly, there were no decorative platters available. I grabbed the stained and frayed towel that I'd used throughout the challenge. I centered my creation, then pulled the edges around it and rushed forward. The hourglass emptied. I had finished it!
Breathless, yet confident, I set my culinary masterpiece before the judge. The towel, which was nothing more than a filthy rag, fell away and exposed my work. My masterpiece dribbled onto the table, though some parts still appeared pleasing. I only hoped the good parts outweighed the bad.
I raised my eyes and saw behind the judge those who'd been allowed through. Dumbfounded, I saw the elderly man, no longer the gaunt apparition he had been.
Understanding unfolded while anguish overwhelmed me. I hadn't read the instructions. It was I who had fallen short of perfection.
Copyright Beth LaBuff 2017
Before Beth LaBuff and her husband, Tilman, moved to the high desert of Arizona, she lived most of her life surrounded by the cornfields of Adair County, Iowa.
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