Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2019 Results




Culinary Capers

Copyright © Phillip Derone 2019


Mayonnaises may have at times brought mayhem and dismay to the streets and citizens on the island of Majorca but were never a problem for its mayor, Don Joan Ramon Llull, who revelled in the region’s annual celebration of the world-famous dressing.

Except on just that one, and final, occasion.

The root cause for this near-perfect discrepancy was the annual ‘Most Competent Condiment Competition’, the florid flavour of the original Catalan title sadly losing much from its translation into the language of ketchup and HP Sauce.

For starters, there was the fierce rivalry with its smaller insular cousin, Menorca across the strait. Menorca claimed proprietorial as well as spelling rights to the saucy substance. To them it would always be mahonaisse, after its capital, Mahon, and the professed birthplace of the comestible concoction in question. The Menorcans also resented the Majorcans for establishing the competition before it had occurred to them to do so, as well as for being belittled as “Minor”, while their larger neighbour swaggered around as “Major”. Why not a distinctive name, like “Ibiza” for example, though they could never themselves agree on one? Each year the Menorcans would comprehensively and publicly boycott the affair while secretly sending agents across the ditch on sabotage missions. These sneaky infiltrators carried out undermining activities by, for example, adding alien ingredients, such as chilli, saccharin, wormwood, and even vegemite, to contestants’ entries. Once, one particular judge - a Sardinian from Alghero, the Catalan enclave in the north-west of that island, such imports being favoured adjudicators as biased towards their Catalan brethren while still technically registering as Italian - upon tasting one of these adulterants, was seen running berserk through the narrow alleyways of its capital, Palma, where most of the competition was centred, foaming at the mouth and screaming blue murder, or sacrebleu, to be precise. But equally, these Minor alimental insurgents were just as often caught out in such devious meddlement, receiving their just desserts, usually in the form of an English breakfast followed by a baguette whipping, before fleeing back to the safety of their cosy kitchens across the straits.

Other flies in the soup were the French entrants, well-known for not giving a stuffed aubergine for any alleged achievements of non-Gallic gastronomy. These culinary artists, culinaires or gastronomiques as they liked to term themselves, would arrive in their Parisian finery accompanied by large retinues, commandeer complete suites of hotels, dine at the best restaurants, decry the quality of the product and service, and parade around town in grand hauteur under banners proclaiming devotion to their countryman Marshal Richelieu, supposed historical entrepreneurial genius behind the sauce’s success.

Then there were the animal justice devotees who doggedly protested the abuse of chooks, filling the public places with their placards condemning the brazen theft and slaughter of the animals’ unborn offspring for base human gratification. Violence often erupted between the cuisiniers and the eco-warriors as a result, the animal rights activists pelting their adversaries with rotten eggs and receiving barrages of rotten tomatoes in return. Plans by the ultra-radical vegan types amongst them to take more direct action and cripple the whole affair inevitably descended into fractious internal disarray as factions within the movement argued about the various merits of their specific principles on the matter: the casual and relaxed flexitarians ridiculing the extreme stance of the sanctimonious vegans, the self-indulgent lacto-ovo-pescatarians lashing out at the politicising of it all by the zealous climatarians.

Participants from the Spanish mainland treated all sides with imperial disdain. Rumours abounded of their teams, aided by a fifth column of anti-separatist castillian nationalists, performing ritual beatings of hens hung by their legs from lengths of woven garlic rope strung between palm trees, held at secret locations in the island’s interior to thwart any attempts by animal welfare champions to disrupt it. This activity was claimed by the Spanish culinarios to encourage premature shellless* egg production, a prized and rare ingredient, and was defended as being of great historical and social significance, part of that nations’s cultural heritage as enshrined in its Constitution.

There were other international teams, of course, but none were taken seriously. The English were effectively ignored by everyone, except the madding English tourists, as they forlornly offered chips with mayonnaise, shepherd’s pie with mayonnaise, and bangers with mayonnaise, in the network of English pubs that infested the island. The Irish teams in turn offered from their pubs a mayonnaisey concoction that was heavily dosed with Guinness, though in reality they wanted simply to drink as much as possible of the pure stuff, and watch the football. The newest contenders, the Chinese, were not so much interested in the competition as gaining a foothold in Majorca which they saw as a potential stepping stone on the Belt-and-Road project route of global commercial conquest. The local government was keen to have them there too for the investments they might bring. and offered them inducements such as issuing them hotel rooms, car number plates and competition registration all with combinations of the number eight. In fact, the Chinese offerings were very popular, with variations on the theme involving Asian influences such as sesame or peanut oil, ginger, lime, soy, galangal and jalapeno, and novel combinations with noodles, tofu, dim sums and bamboo shoots, for example. The quantities they offered with such polite and efficient service, as opposed to the arrogance and parsimony of the Parisians, or the offhandedness of the local entrants, were much appreciated by the patrons. The other contestants, however, viewed them with intense suspicion, and there were whispered claims of certain other secret and illegal additives, such as MSG, and even opiates, being brought to bear for maximum effect in this calculated application of soft-power diplomacy.

The American contestants, naively sponsored by the Mayo Clinic on the basis of their wellness policies, of course applied all their genius for razzamatazz and marketing to the challenge, but their lo-chol, non-additive, GM-free, organically certified contributions in bio-degradable containers were universally scorned as tasteless gunk by other participants while still managing a small, dedicated, if rather eccentric following who could usually be spotted in joggers and spandex spooning themselves out calorie-correct quantities on the run.

Australian pretenders were regularly disqualified for refusing to call their product by its eu-sanctioned name, demanding that “yolko” (pronounced as in “Oh no!”) be accepted as the legitimate antipodean appellation. ‘Peach Melba with Yolko’ simply did not cut the mustard with the Europeans. Notwithstanding, the Australians normally turned up anyway, got roaring drunk, refused to believe there would be no bulls to run with, and routinely thrashed the local Rugby and netball teams.

A small New Zealand contingent always pitched camp adjacent to any Australian presence and made a point of offering Pavlova and lamingtons, with or without mayonnaise, decorated with sliced kiwi fruit on beds of silver fern. They would have liked to have stuck little national flags on the top but realised, accurately, that to foreign eyes it was virtually indistinguishable from the Australian national flag and would thus ruin the whole point of the exercise. At the same time it allowed them to spread the story that the latter was actually the new post-Brexit version of the British flag, the old Union Jack stuck away in one corner while the euro-stars flew off in the opposite direction. The Australians, shamefaced, could do little to counteract this telling slur on their nationhood.

All-in-all then, this was a recipe for a week of cultural chaos. Large marquees were erected in key spots around the island, best crockery unpacked, cutlery polished, special wines brought up from cellars, taste buds called to order, security measures quietly put in place, and clement weather invoked both by prayers to God and mammon, and by confident faith in the benign Mediterranean summer climate. The locals endured the inconveniences perpetrated on their casual holiday lifestyles with cool nonchalance, smug in the certainty their traditional version of mayonnaise with nougat and a finely balanced constituent mix was the supreme embodiment of the style, and that the festival ensured tourists would dump a shitload of moolah on them into the bargain.

And over it all hovered Don Joan, a symbol of calm, grace and excellence in all things Majorcan, as he toured around the island’s scenic spots, checking the venues, encouraging participants, and especially, glad-handing potential voters with a sly nod to an inevitable local triumph.

Except that one time. As the multitudes assembled under clear starry skies for the awards ceremony in the Plaça Major at the finale of the year’s festivities, the judges seated in full pomposity and hubris in the front row, the challengers congregating in their team colours waving flags and banners amongst the crowd, our portly luminary stood proudly in his civic regalia atop a podium decorated as an almond cake. A nervous young Majorcan apprentice chef, dressed in her pristine, gleaming white uniform, complete with apron and drooping oversized toque, scurried out from one side, handed Don Joan the sealed envelope and scurried away again. Don Joan, arms and hands in full flourish worthy of Liberace playing Flight of the Bumble Bee, opened it and read out the winner’s name. The winner was, quelle horreur, a commercial German food conglomerate. Menorcan saboteurs had struck again by stealthily and cleverly insinuating strict EU standardisation requirements into the rules, ensuring an inoffensive though unquestionably bland and insipid victor!

General commotion ensued. Simultaneously, and spontaneously it seemed, Brexit agitators, Basque terrorists, Greenland nationalists and Catalan separatists leapt onto the platform, squirting a cheap, popular, generic brand of mayonnaise from beige plastic containers all over the mayor, the infamous product running down his official robes and around his big-buckled boots to form a sickly-white vomitous puddle, an anaemic give-away of the shortcomings of its ingredients. He beat an ignominious retreat, licking his existential wounds, but vowing to return for the sake of personal, tribal and epicurean honour.

And while the expression ‘to have egg on your face’ had long before been hatched elsewhere, poor Joan at that moment tasted the bitter sweetness of its local application, and the EU be damned.

* q.v. Gary Rosenberg, malacologist, and his seminal work on shellless moluscs.