Rabbit looked around the hot barn. He was in a small, sequestered part of the space with five plates of mac and cheese in front of him. He wondered how he had gotten roped into being a judge at the county fair. He vaguely remembered that Bill had been the first one contacted for the job, and then Jo, but both of them were far too busy combing the data that they had pulled from the latest iteration of DOROTHY to actually attend. The committee was tenacious though. They wanted someone from the award winning storm chasing team, and somehow everyone else had taken a step back to make it look like he had volunteered and now he was here. Five paper plates. Five scoops of the pasta. Five pristine score cards. He had spent the past hour listening to the head judge describe how to properly evaluate each plate. “Now, mac and cheese isn’t usually popular for some reason. I think it’s all the time and heat in the middle of the summer,” he said with a small frown. Rabbit doubted this. There were forty-seven pies awaiting judging. Those also took time and heat. He guessed that mac and cheese had somehow taken a dive, popularity wise.
He didn’t know why it might have lost popularity. It was his favorite. Lord, a woman that could make a mean mac and cheese would probably find him dragging her to the alter.
If he had to think about it, he would think that the real reason was that the head judge was kind of an asshole. He seemed to delight in tearing apart people and making them feel like dirt because they had the gall to enter a county fair contest without something that was Michelin level. He had probably made half the cooks in the county cry. There were probably only these five who either were made of sterner stuff or were about to learn better than to enter this contest again.
He sighed and took a bite of the first plate. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t anything exciting. The noodles had been cooked a little too long and were a little bit mushy. They had tried to do something interesting by adding some blue cheese, but it was a mistake. Not necessarily the blue cheese itself, but just the amount and in conjunction with whatever other cheeses they had picked. He couldn’t rightfully tell because the blue cheese overpowered them all. This one wasn’t hard to evaluate, and he wasn’t about to take more than the required three bites of this one, and even then, he made sure the second and third bites were much smaller than the first.
He ate a whole stack of saltines trying to get the taste of the cheese out of his mouth. He didn’t want the first plate to ruin all the others. He should have considered the ingredient list he was given more closely before deciding where to start. He had just thought, “this one is the furthest to the left. Might as well start there.” That had been a bad plan, but he was committed to it now.
Plates two and three were both just average, and, honestly, he was having trouble distinguishing them. He wondered if someone had entered the same dish twice on accident. Plate four was actually decent. It reminded him of the mac and cheese his grandmother used to make during the long stays he had with her while his parents were ignoring each other and, by extension, their only child.
But plate five? Plate five was a revelation. It had a little hint of spice, and this rich, earthy flavor that he couldn’t quite place, and wasn’t sure what caused it based on the ingredient list. It was cooked to perfection. The noodles were al dente and the cheese sauce creamy and not runny. He felt himself moan a little as he took another bite. Every other plate he had contented himself to just the three bites, not overly invested in ingesting more than that, but plate five? Plate five he wanted to consume him. He wanted to become one with the plate of noodles and cheese.
“God, whoever made this, I promise to marry them tonight if they’ll just say yes,” he said, taking the last bite from the plate. The other judges looked at him funny, but he couldn't’ help it.
“I’ll just take all those cards then and determine the winner,” Harold said, and Rabbit wondered how the man made even that sound almost like a threat.
Rabbit looked over at the other judges, “You all liked five the best, right?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine a world in which any other plate won.
“Errr, no,” said the elderly woman judge. He really should have learned their names. “I liked plate two.”
“Two?” he asked, befuddled. “The one with the overcooked noodles?” He looked at the woman again and wondered if she liked the mushier food for her teeth.
The woman scowled at him. “It had a good cheese sauce,” she defended.
Rabbit just barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. “You?” he asked the middle aged man that wasn’t Harold the Asshole.
“Plate one,” he said.
Had the world gone mad? “The blue cheese plate?” he asked.
“Blue cheese is my favorite, and it was certainly innovative.”
“Innovative and barely edible,” Rabbit countered. “I didn’t give it very high scores.”
The man sneered at him. “That’s because you have basic, unrefined tastes.”
Rabbit shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, more to avoid the fight. “But I also wouldn’t have people refusing to come back to my house again for dinner because I fed them that monstrosity.” Okay, so maybe he wasn’t avoiding a fight with that add on.
“You think plate five was that good?” the man asked.
Rabbit nodded. “I wasn’t kidding. Get me a priest an a willing cook and we’re getting married. Even only knowing about their ability to cook mac and cheese and I am ready for a lifelong commitment.”
The middle aged woman laughed at this. “You’re a strange man. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise though considering you’re a storm chaser.” She said “storm chaser” like it was some sort of swear word.
He wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. “Which did you pick?” he asked.
“Three,” she said, with a superior tone. “It was the perfect example of what mom used to make.”
“Well, maybe,” he agreed, “but why settle? I mean, I guess someone did because I see a ring on your wedding finger.”
What was wrong with him? Why had he said that?
The woman snarled and was about to hit him, he was sure, when Harold came back and gathered them all to the stage for the awards.
Rabbit sat in the uncomfortable folding chair and looked at the small crowd. After talking to the other judges, he had no idea which plate would be the winner. They all had such terrible taste.
Harold droned on about mac and cheese and it’s place in the world of food and the history of the contest at the fair before finally giving out the honorable mention award to the blue cheese plate, which didn’t fill Rabbit with a lot of hope about how this was going. Runner up went to one of the indistinguishable plates, and the winner was the overcooked noodles. Plate five hadn’t even placed.
“And for those of you that didn’t place, at least one of you has, well, I wouldn’t dare call it an award, but rather an offer. To the maker of plate five, if you are single and amenable, I have it on good authority that one of our judges would be happy to marry you tonight because that’s how highly he felt about your plate.”
“Which one is it?” a voice called from the back.
“The scrawny storm chasin’ one,” Harold said. What was with the way these people called him a storm chaser? They said it like it was a bad thing when they were the ones that hounded the team until one of them agreed to do this.
“I accept,” the voice said. And then there was a woman standing up from the back row of the small gathering. She had long, dark hair, glasses, and red lips. Well then. He certainly could have done much worse. Good mac and cheese and beautiful? It was practically too good to be true.
It appeared the whole thing was over, though only a few people had drifted away. Rabbit placed his hands on his thighs and looked at his fellow judges. “Well, it was a time,” he said before standing up and hopping off the small stage to make his way to the woman that was pushing her way up to the front.
“Hi, I’m Darcy. I made plate five.”
“Hi Darcy, I’m Rabbit. I’m appalled that somehow you didn’t sweep this damn competition. Honestly, who uses that much blue cheese and gets honorable mention? This entire thing was a crock. Do not let your lack of placement reflect poorly on you. I think it rather says a lot about my fellow judges and their lack of taste.”
She smiled at his words and it was so bright and beautiful that he could feel the moment he became smitten. “I don’t know why a catch like you hasn’t been snatched up yet.”
“Storm chaser,” he said as though it explained everything. And it kind of did. “My last girlfriend didn’t like that I up and disappear to track down dangerous storms. Seems to be a common theme. I am unreliable because I’m at the whim of the weather, and I don’t care enough about my well being enough to stay safe, though that’s not completely accurate. I just enjoy the chase and also the results. The data…” his eyes went a little hazy like they did whenever he thought about his career. “Well, it’s something else.”
“Oh, you and I are going to get along just fine,” she said. Her smile was wide now. “I’m an astrophysicist that chases down anomalies. I like a scary storm and an unexpected research trip.” She leaned up and kissed him on his cheek before grabbing his arm. “Now, about finding that priest…”