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The Wages of Food-Play

a short story
by Anna Tambour

In a spasm of excess inspiration, after God made everything else including bluebells, salamanders, Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & by Anna Tambourvomit and excreta, artichokes, and Eve, he carved himself a little hang-out at a location no one has ever before revealed--a place where he could think in fragrant gardens, with a cooling breeze and a great view. And, from the eyrie of this green resort, he watched over all the creatures of this world, sang to himself in his hoarse voice, had his favorite birds play tunes with their throats and wings, and refreshed his palate with his favorite food.

Blue-skinned with the iridescence of a hummingbird, clear-fleshed with a brilliancy that makes a waterdrop shine dull; crunchy, tender, sweet, tart, smooth--a perfection of complexity with an aftertaste of simple, unadulterated joy.

This fruit is the most perfect fruit that the world has ever known. Only, the world didn't know it. Only God did, and only he partook of it.

It was the last fruit God made, and he planned to give it to Adam and Eve after they passed their first test. Now, everyone knows that it only took a few meals in the first and best restaurant, the Garden of Eden, for the First Couple to get bounced out.

As for the Best Fruit, God decided to keep it to himself for the time being, as he watched over the ripening of our kind of creatures. He looked forward to the time when we would give him such delight as he had planned; and he could, in turn, thrill in the pleasure of sharing this marvelous gift with us by scattering its seeds to the far curves of our world.

Recently, people have seen God's garden; only now it is covered with forbidding snow, a place of challenge and death, something to "conquer," not at all the place of idyll it was originally, a few hundred years ago in fact. Today, Mt. Everest is visited by the toughest of our kind, and only for the briefest visit can they withstand its inhospitality.

But such was not the case when God twiddled his toes in his hideaway's sweet grass to the songs of his feathered minstrels, and loudly crunched a mighty handful of his best fruit as he watched the tiny humans of the flatter world bear their own fruits, toil, love, war and celebrate to our wits' content.

The first time his forehead creased with a rather ominous-looking chasm between the eyes, was in watching the pernickety Confucius. This god amongst men left cooks trembling, at best, if he could still identify his royal repast. "Mince it, marinate it--above all, disguise my food," he screeched. "And serve it with the right sauce. It must be properly clothed. Or Else!"

"Does he think he's too good for my cooking?" God asked himself.

He uncricked his neck to bend over and look down the other side of the mountain. The crease between his eyes relaxed, but his eyebrows shot up over the Romans' garum, that sauce of rotted fish that became the first essential condiment. He thought it a poor and disgusting end to the silvery, bright-eyed creatures that he'd thrown into the waters to splash their enrichments upon us with such abundance.

But God, despite some who have billed him otherwise, was a pretty tolerant soul. Confucius, he made personal plans for, but otherwise decided that the people in that area of the world were mostly acting in an appropriately appreciative manner. As to those living in the land of garum, he observed--with nothing more than a shudder. Watching us eat, he considered some of the combinations surprising and somewhat stomach-turning. He gulped at those strange marriages of honey and all the salty things.

Soon, he also boggled--at the wealthy Romans' vomiting feasts. They were dismaying and more than a bit off-putting; but, he said to himself, that's just the passing fad of a few oddities--or maybe growing pains? He sucked the juices from his fruit, tasting his confidence in the soon-to-dawn day when we, his people-creatures, would share this delight.

As the Romans progressed, the vomiting few grew to be almost little gods themselves. He began to feel little prickles in the back of his neck, the first manifestations of feeling disturbed. Am I being petty? he grumbled, or should I feel properly offended by this lust for artificiality? God's head hurt as he heard Apicius, emperor of all who aspired to the rank of those with taste, praise--above all, things that were not what they looked--"Anchovy without anchovy." The highest art as Apicius decreed it, was when "at table, no one will know what he is eating."

God watched people worship the words of Apicius and try to make foods in the image of his taste. And God developed a whopping migraine. I made anchovies to be anchovies! Herbs to be herbs! He'd given brilliant colors to different foods to give delight to our kind and joy to himself at his creativity. And what do the Romans do!? Dye them. Have whole dinners dyed the same color, whole dinners where no diner could guess properly: Did this slither? crawl? prance? twine its tendrils? before ending its days as a banquet trifle.

Still, God threw no lightning bolts, slayed no errant sinners. Did, in fact, sweet nothing but rub his neck, mutter in his beard and look on. The birds in God's garden twittered ultra-sweetly, with tiny arpeggios of fear.

God craned his neck this way and that--and with the suddenness of one of his own plagues, he saw: everywhere that men had the luxury to lounge, they got this urge to turn honest food into a lie--this great lust to adulterate. He had thought it an adolescent outbreak in humankind, but in all the places where some people could live off the many with the biggest problem in life being the boredom of ingestion and entertainment, he saw the same scene: those with the means, found a million ways to abominate His kitchen creations.

Forever is nothing to God, so he bided his patient time. Fortunately, the Romans did themselves in, and the Chinese and other empires had their ups and downs, too. The rich corruption that eventually spread its spores over the entire upper crust of society had the same effect as a bad earthquake on a rich cake baking. Palaces cracked and fell, or were eaten away by inelegant brutes with unpicky digestions, who could still carry away the crumbs.

God appreciated the charm of barbarism, as it had the effect of making cookery turn for the better, completely stripping the leisure that leads to adulteration, what with the ensuing hunger and primitive living that almost everyone subsequently experienced.

God sang happily in his terrible voice, his birds happy but trying in vain to keep him in tune. His ballads were interrupted by great slurping sounds as he feasted on his favorite fruit. Over all, people were now behaving themselves ... Maybe the time would soon be at hand...

Unfortunately, this mood did not last long, as some of our kind got on their feet again, in the only way that rich people have: by propping greasy elbows on the backs of the many, who themselves consume the little they can get their mouths around, with no excess energy to do anything other than sucking a bit of sustenance out of anything that can be chewed and swallowed.

The few started in these various places around our crowded ball, to bake new, more advanced civilizations; and seemingly as necessarily as adding leaving to bread, began again to fiddle with their food.

In Europe, gross festivals became all the rage; usually in the form of putting a thing that flew into another thing that flew into a bigger thing that flew into a thing that walked into a bigger thing that ... and so on. Sometimes, a knife would be put into the belly of the ultimate Thing, and hundreds of bewildered birds flew out. These humans, he thought, are sometimes just crazy. He made them, but did he understand them? No more than why the sky had turned out blue.

He tolerated the Stuffed things. At least they were recognizable. The extent of Royal Spectacle was unseemly, but then he understands spectacle. Why else would he have invented peacocks, programmed the Antipodean bowerbirds to collect bright-colored objects and make displays of them? What was the purpose of zebras that, stripped of their stripes would be condemned to the dunness of donkeys; of the jeweled-veiled dance of the squid; the sudden furling of the lyrebird's harp-tail, than a celebration flaunt? God recognized a bit of himself in these Royal commanders of the Show, who also couldn't help themselves. Most of the pomp was boring, but he forgave the spectacle of dining as he recognized the thrill of a good display.

A fit of yawning overcame him as he peered into a hovel. Watching a peasant eat his tiny allotment of grub wasn't comparable to the frisson that ran over His back like a flight of mice, when an unexpected blizzard of startled doves flew free from the stomach of a roasted ox. So he dove his hand into his bowl for another fruit...

God never did go in for any BC or AD, and he never could keep all those Louises straight, but I can tell you that by our 1700's, he enjoyed the odd chuckle as Louis XV took display into the realms of high theatre. The disappearing table and other mechanical witticisms now spiced the Royal act of eating, and some of the tricks were damned clever. But if one listened carefully, it would also have been possible to hear a certain thunder--His burps of annoyance. It gave him indigestion that gluttony and display had gone one step further--into the backwards lands of Confucius, the Romans--the Grand Artificers.

Adulteration thrived again. Falseness was de rigueur. Pulverize! was followed as if it were a Commandment--as if gazing upon anything in its natural whole state were an Original Sin. With religious fervor, food was smashed till it resembled nothing that God had ever made. Pretence was raised to the highest of regard. And a rampancy of new epicures infested the dining rooms wherever good food was supposed to be served. Cuisine they called what they revered--and this cuisine repulsed him.

Why did I make lobster? Surely not to be made into an unrecognizable paste. If I had wanted to put purées, timbales, coulis, forcemeats, pâtés on the earth,, these creatures would have flooded legless over the plains and flowed like vomit through the seas.

He saw that once French epicures got hold of food, they needed no teeth. Everything was smashed to the state of baby's first solid food, pre-masticated by its mother. Which was just as well, he noticed--as the dietary habits of these gourmets turned a mouthful of ivory into a condemned row of blackened rotten piers.

He fumed and watched in a trance of horror. His head pounded like a stampede. He couldn't bear to watch, but was unable to look away. The birds observed him ... silent.

God was, to be blunt, sick to his stomach. He decided to speak.

"Voltaire," he whispered, and at that time it was one o'clock on a moonless morning in Paris. But since God was never good at whispering, that suave and revered philosopher He had addressed so simply, shot out of bed with the strength of a flea. Voltaire's sleeping cap fell off as he bent in the shame of soaking his nightdress with fright.

"Voltaire, this is God speaking..." and suddenly this champion of reason became a milksop of a miracle-believer.

Voltaire passed on God's message, but stopped short of saying, "God will get you all for your evil ways," as his friends would lock him up as a madman. Instead, he warned that unnatural food preoccupations "would eventually numb the faculties of the mind." And in a spate of fervor unmatched by any crutch-discarder at Lourdes, Voltaire hunted out every last hoarded pot of his very special stock of foie gras, and pressed them onto the first passing beggar-woman, who spent the rest of that day spooning her first meat in years. "Tastes funny-like" she muttered, but beggars can't be...

However, as Scottish grandmothers say, "There's na so deaf as those who willna hear," especially when the smacking of lips drowns out sound.

God gnashed his teeth in frustration, and still did nothing. Instead, he bent his neck the other way and peered into another Imperial Palace where a terrifying tower, the six-foot-two Emperor Ch'ien-lung, presided over his flock of many courses. Peacocks of unimaginable vegetable, seafish, and crawling-creatured parentage splayed their imitation fantails: fishes shiny with the scales of many former beasts, curled on trays of seaweed made of no seaweed God had ever created; flowers and forests born from nothing similar made a fantasy world on the emperor's table--all crowded one beside another to glory to the art of the conjurer, and eventually reside with awesome waste, in His Emperialness's stomach. A daily parade of ever more extreme falsenesses could not quench the easy ennui of this silk-swathed destiny-maker of starving millions. As God watched Ch'ien-lung, he felt a sharp little pain in his chest. This watching the powerful was becoming unhealthy...

God turned again, and looked out on the plains to the south. He saw the little people eating dahl, pulses, grains, and vegetables almost as he had planned. He didn't understand the spices, but he had given them out, and so could not disapprove when their pungent odors assailed his nostrils. In the hotter climates especially, he had not accounted for the fact of food spoilage; so this was good, creative thinking of these creatures, who could not live by bending a head to the sweet grass or scooping up a fresh fish in the mouth while cruising a watery world. God sat up straight now, the pain gone from his chest. His breathing took on a more gently modulated timbre, but his face was somber.

He had been planning to give our kind his greatest chef's creation, to see our joy when we experience the most wonderful fruit of all kind. But now he knew that most probably, the poor would never eat it, and the rich would abominate it by turning it into something that he did not have the perverted creativity level to explore.

By now, it was just before the French revolution, during the last corruption-laden years of Ch'ien-lung. The very air smelt artificial when he sniffed the well-to-do. This creature's pimples had come, and should have gone by now. People were people. And would continue to be, God saw, until he acted more drastically. But he wasn't ready yet, for that.

He took all the birds and plants from his eyrie, and transported them to a new home with him, not on our earth. Then he commanded wind to blow and snow to fall upon his now-deserted garden, and flew away.

Now, only the bitterness of God's disappointment in us lives in that highest place. Only a trickle of the brave and foolhardy visit. Never to taste the delights of the musical garden and the most delicious fruit ever made, but to say that they actually lived through a few-minute visit to the most forbidding site on earth, where even the air is begrudged to man.

And down in the concrete castles of the peopled world, how do we fare? First, one doesn't mourn what one doesn't know is lost. Second, we have progressed wonderfully over the centuries. Science has taken us places that mere art never could, and all who can afford more than pulses delight ever more in what we are now able to do to our foods.

So now you know the story, and I for one am glad that God kept His Best Fruit for himself.

I mean, how do you think He would feel watching a consumer taste test, given a choice of a fruit--any fruit including That Fruit; vs. a bowl of crispy snackfood slathered with a canful of cheese-flavored spread; or a "strawberry" thick shake; or when you bite into a choc cupcake, that white stuff that oozes from its heart...

© Anna Tambour 2003.
This story first appeared in Quantum Muse, November 2001.

"The Wages of Food-Play" is reprinted in Anna Tambour's Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales &, published in September 2003 by Prime; ISBN: 1894815947.

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