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Agonizing Mercy

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Excerpt from Vito Halle’s Bestselling Book, “The Punk Chef Reveals All”

The top 1% of the world’s economic elite truly see themselves as a different species than the rest of us lowly tax-payers. They have different rules for when they break a law, for instance, as long as their lawyers remember to argue for an acute case of “affluenza” clogging their client’s mind.

They have a different definition of the phrase “hell on earth-” for most of us, that would be homelessness or jail. For the super-rich, they’d use that to describe a suburban Holiday Inn Express with a noisy ice machine and a scratchy duvet. No VIP perks anywhere.

We have different thrills when eating out. For us unwashed proletariat, we’re happy to- depending on our levels of disposable income – either just not do the dishes, or, on a spendier night, be entertained by a charming atmosphere and staff. With enough money on a payday, we might even be delighted by varieties of food that we don’t know how to cook for ourselves.

Those pedestrian perks of eating at a restaurant aren’t enough for the “people of means,” as one anti-tax think tank insists the super-rich should be called. This super-sophisticated group need more. They need to know that they have indulged in something that the rest of us don’t have access to. They need to do things so decadent, they have to hide their face from God.

I present, dear readers, the Ortolan Bunting. It is a dish of kings and beheaded French aristocracy so decadent and sinful that its consumers really did exactly that.

The legend goes that the guest drapes a cloth over their shoulders as they crunch down on a sauteed, liquor-drowned, fattened, whole songbird. The liquor drowning death of the bird is considered cruel in these sensitive times, so it has been banned in many countries, including its homeland, France.

This dish was still available in New York City, if you knew the right person, who knew the right person. Such people include my friend, “Chef X,” who runs a Nouveau American, French-inspired restaurant which shall remain nameless for the rest of this chapter.

I am a former punk junkie dishwasher. I usually try to stay true to those working-class roots, but I couldn’t deny, that I had risen in the ranks since my early days of working among the hot flames of professional kitchens. My next gig was as a cook, then, a chef, and then, I became a bestselling author with my first book, “The Punk Chef Speaks”. That book opened up my career even more, netting me a deal for a food-based travel show on The Culinary Network, “The Vagabond Guest”. That was in its sixth season now.

I was curious if I had risen up the ranks enough to be deserving of such an exquisite delicacy. Could I get past the velvet ropes kept in place around this illegal dish? It was a journalistic duty to my readers to see what the 1% really was hiding behind their cloth drapes.

One night after a long evening of new cocktail trials at Chef X’s restaurant’s bar, I blabbed about my interest in the Ortolan Bunting. His eyes lit up with excitement, and he invited me to come back next week, to try his version of it.

What prestige-grasping TV star could resist this temptation?

* * *

I walked into the restaurant at the start of dinner service. The tables were full of the movers and shakers of the business world, in their aggressively laid-back, business casual outfits. The host recognized me from TV, and almost blushed, before he escorted me to the back room.

The Ortolan Bunting service must be reserved at least two business days in advance, in order for the chefs to acquire and prepare the birds in time. They are endangered, and are supplied by an unnamed source. The service also only occurs in a dimly-lit back room, where Chef “X” was waiting for me as I arrived.

He greeted me, and offered me a snifter of brandy. It was of the same type they drowned the bird in, to complement the meal. I sniffed it, and sipped. It was pleasant, if a bit sweet for my taste. I would have insisted on a straight scotch, if it wasn’t so gauche to resist the Chef’s pairing.

The amuse bouche was a crispy fried acorn flour chip, drizzled with crystalized balsamic vinegar. It was alarmingly modern and local, compared to the 18th century, Continental dish I was about to consume. This was a bold choice. This signaled that this was going to be the chef’s own, New American take on the infamous dish. I was primed to experience what else he had changed from the descriptions I’ve seen of this delicacy from food history books.

As Chef X and I waited, a young, fair-skinned woman in an apprentice chef uniform came up to the table. She was visibly nervous.

“Mr. Halle, allow me to introduce Ms. Rose. She is my top apprentice, and has prepared the Ortolan this evening.”

I stood up, and shook her hand. Her delicate fingers barely moved in mine, and she was staring at me, starstruck.

“Mr. Halle. It is an honor. I am a great fan of your books and your show,” she said meekly.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Rose. I look forward to seeing this new preparation Chef X has taught you.”

“Yes, it’s his more contemporary, American take. I just hope you enjoy it,” she said, blushing. She left the room quickly.

My ego was thrilled with displays of fannishness like this when it was brand new. Now that it’s happened hundreds of times, I just try to make it as painless as possible for the person. It really is sweet. I remember how awkward it was to be starstruck when I met my favorite chefs as a young culinary institute graduate. Unlike some of those stars, who were rude to me, I hoped to play a good role in young chefs’ stories. I never want to be a villain to them.

A few minutes later, a stoic waiter swiftly placed two plates in front of Chef X and I.

An entire small, wet bird, about the size of a local NYC sparrow, was curled up on each plate. It looked like it had been plucked and lightly fried. It didn’t resemble the photos I had seen of the dish from other restaurants, which had a golden breading coating them. It looked like a plucked, undercooked chicken on a smaller scale, surrounded by brandy and local herbs.

“Mr. Halle, don’t eat that,” Chef X said, and took the plate away himself.

“I am so deeply sorry. It seems that this preparation was incomplete. I believe the saute station is at fault. There is a new apprentice under Ms. Rose at that station tonight.”

He handed both of our plates to the waiter. They hurriedly took them back through the swinging doors to the kitchen. The Chef followed the waiter, and I listened, eavesdropping on the screaming match that followed. I doubted if either Ms. Rose nor her unnamed saute cook – really, he no longer deserved the title chef – would keep their job after a gaffe like that.

I was disappointed. But I knew Chef X was true to his word. He wouldn’t leave me hanging.

A week later, he invited me back, on a phone call at 1AM on a Tuesday. These are normal hours for chefs to call people they know in the industry – after dinner service is finally over.

“I understand if you would not accept my second invitation, after what happened last week. But I came up with an even better version of the dish, and I, myself, will be preparing it for you, and supervising each station, this time. If you would be so gracious as to accept, I believe that you would find it thrilling.”

I had to see what he changed about the dish this time. We agreed on my returning to the restaurant for the second draft of his creation at the end of service on Thursday night.

I showed up, and the dining room was empty. The host greeted me alone at the entrance, and took me back, to the private dining room where we had tried to do this once before. I sat down again at the red-curtained table in the center of the room, with two place settings. The lights were even dimmer than the first time.

Chef X and the same stoic waiter as before came through the swinging doors at the back of the room.

“Hello, Mr. Halle,” Chef X said. “Would you care to indulge me in a culinary history lesson?”

I nodded. His waiter handed me a straight bourbon in a rocks glass. I gladly accepted.

Now we’re talking.

Chef X walked to the table, and stood next to it, as he spoke at me.

“That bourbon is from the O’Malley Distillery in the blue hills of Kentucky. Bourbon is one of the few culinary inventions unique to America. The following new version of Ortolan Bunting is another entry to the short list of home-grown food innovations from this sullied and needy nation. We’re always clinging for artistic clout in this place, since we artists must strive to outdo the traditions our European predecessors.

That is what I did here.

The whole appeal of Ortolan Bunting of its time was the cruelty. Knowing that you held a whole former life in your mouth, which you could bite down on, skull and all. There is nothing more thrilling to one who subscribes to the European Colonial-Era mindset, than this act of total domination over something beneath you on the great chain of being.

Times have changed, though. In the 18th century, there was still a reverence for animal life. A curiosity about their souls, an enticing charm to their behaviors. People of the time were more sensitive than we are to animal suffering. In this era of factory farming, a tortured, drowned songbird is, to most of us daily meat-eaters, nothing to get upset about.

I had to go further than the Europeans had before. I had to innovate, American-ly.

This new version of this dish now shares only a name and theme with its predecessor. Its main ingredient has changed. This version has no songbird.

I hope that you enjoy,” he said with an air of finality, and walked back through the swinging doors.

I had never heard such a long speech before a dish. I sat in my chair, trying to predict what he meant by going further than the old recipe had. The anticipation built in my chest like a pressure. I sipped on my whiskey, and played with the napkin and chopsticks at my setting.

He came out a few minutes minutes later with a large tray in his hands. Two large white dinner plates, with metal domes on top of them were balanced on top, along with one more glass of bourbon. The still-faced waiter from earlier removed the plates from the trays, placing them in front of the two settings, and handed the bourbon to Chef X. The waiter then removed the now-empty tray from the chef’s hands, and left back through the swinging doors, leaving Chef X and I alone at the table. He sat down.

I expected him to continue his soliloquy from earlier, but instead, he gazed at me with pride, and simply gestured to our plates.

“What, do you want to say grace first? Let’s start.”

I smirked. I knew he was a staunch atheist, like me. That was one of the things that we bonded over on the night that he first invited me to these creations of his.

I looked down at the dome on my plate. It’s such an old-fashioned tradition to serve food hidden under a metal cover. Catering halls only do it nowadays for sanitary reasons. The only reasons it’s used in an artful place such as this is to contain scented smoke, such as from burning rosemary, or to hide something for dramatic effect.

I lifted the dome, expecting fragrant smoke to waft out. Instead, there was a perfectly clear Tom Collins glass in the middle of the plate, tall and cylindrical, almost as tall as the dome. At the bottom of it was a white and pale shape, raw-looking, reminding me of the color of white cotton.

Was he serving me a scrap of fabric?

I leaned in, to look closer. It was not a scrap of fabric.

It was a tiny human figure, crouched in the bottom of the glass, covering its head with its hands, facing away from me. It was wearing an apprentice chef’s uniform.

“Bottom’s up!” Chef X called from across the room, and tipped his Tom Collins glass into his mouth. I watched what looked like a tiny squirming doll, dressed in an assistant chef’s outfit, slide down the edge of the glass and past his bearded face, into his mouth. He swallowed it quickly.

I had to get a closer look at mine. Was the movement that I thought I saw in his glass a clever mechanical trick, the way the air-light bonito flakes on top of Takoyaki wave as a result of the heat rising from the fried dough beneath them?

I broke the cardinal rule of not dissecting food at the table, and I grabbed the glass. I tipped it into my hand. In front of my astounded face, a two-inch tall woman fell into my palm, and sat up.

She sat up. Like a living thing. I moved it closer to my past-middle-aged eyes, and, even in the oddly dim light of this sinful dining room, I still managed to recognize that it was a woman whom I had met recently. She stared at my face for a moment, a horrified expression on hers, and then shirked away, covering her head with her arms, while turning her back to me once again. Her tiny apprentice chef hat had fallen off during the slide into my hand. She had straight, long red hair, going down past her shoulders, tied in a tight ponytail.

It was Ms. Rose, the apprentice chef who was in charge of the disastrous preparation here last week. I had to guess that the live human person who had just disappeared down Chef X’s gullet was the scapegoated saute chef from the same culinary disaster.

“Really?” I asked Chef X. He was staring at me from across the table, and smiling peacefully. He only nodded silently.

“Ms. Rose,” I whispered. She turned around, and looked at me cooly. The fangirlish adoration I saw in her last week had now been replaced with dread.

I could smell a few drops of bourbon. I realized the glass she was in had been misted with it. A subtle note of the spirit worked to pair this part of the dish with the accompanying drink.

I sipped half of the remaining bourbon from my glass, nervously. The tiny woman in my hand stared at my throat as I swallowed the liquor. I think she knew that she was next.

Or was she? Should I do this? Should I kill this woman, or spare her?

What sort of life would she live, if she was this pathetically small, but spared? What would be worse, for the sort of strong-willed, independent thinker who had already become a woman chef in this bullyish boys club industry: to live for 40 or more years as a freak in some hamster cage? Or would it be better for her to die quickly? At least she’d live forever in my memory as the first woman I had swallowed whole. At least she’d make it into this book.

I grabbed her between my fingers, and turned her over, my eyes taking in all of the tiny details. She was a marvel. She looked away from me, closing her eyes. She was squirming, as if trying to slip away from between my index and thumb.

“Don’t look away,” I pleaded. “Don’t you love my show?”

She opened her eyes, and looked at me with confusion. I pulled her away from my face, realizing that, with all her hiding her gaze, and with my different-sounding voice to her tiny ears, she might not even have noticed who I was. I kept her at the edge of my reach for a moment, and I saw her face change from fear and confusion to recognition. A calmness took over her movements, and she stopped squirming.

“Yes, it’s me, Vito,” I whispered. I brought her a little closer so I could see her face again.

I cupped her in my two hands, and moved her to beneath the table for a moment, so I could speak at a normal volume to the insane culinary artist sitting with me, without hurting the woman’s tiny ears.

“Chef X, is this shrinking effect reversible?”

“No, Mr. Halle. It is permanent.”

“Thank you.”

I brought her back up to my face, and opened my hands. She looked dizzy from all of the movement, but stared at me expectantly. I whispered again.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Rose. You’re a charming woman, and I’m sure you have some culinary talent, to make it this far in this harsh industry. But, this shrinking is permanent. You and I both know that there’s no way you can have a normal life anymore.” She shook her head. She was shouting something, but she was too tiny for me to hear anything.

I shrugged, and gestured to my ears with my other hand, shaking my head.

“I can’t hear you, but I’m sure you’re disagreeing. Don’t worry. I won’t chew,” I said, flashing my smile.

She yelped at my grin, and turned away again.

I didn’t feel like swallowing cotton.

“Please take all of your clothing,” I said, holding my palm still, and prodding her with my opposite hand’s finger. She was the length of a sashimi slice: the perfect height to swallow whole. To my surprise. I started salivating as she stripped. She dutifully took off first her tiny apprentice chef’s uniform, and then, a nothing of a tanktop, a sliver of a black bra, and a feather-light pair of red, sporty women’s hipster underwear.

Every woman I’ve met who wore tomboyish underwear like that was a complete freak in bed. Melancholy sparked in me, knowing that a person with such potential for chemistry had been reduced to this. Too late now. I had no urge to hook up with someone the height of a hen’s egg.

“Thank you, Ms. Rose,” I said, and took a whiff of the now-naked tiny woman. I smelled the bourbon, mostly, and a slight hint of lime peel, along with what I thought might be a few molecules of panicked sweat.

Now that I had mentally re-classified her from a person to a piece of food, I felt self-conscious of my table manners. One does not slurp food off one’s hand in a fine dining establishment. I blushed, and looked over at Chef X, who was watching me with an amused expression.

“Excuse my manners,” I said.

He nodded amicably.

“I understand the desire to explore this dish in a tactile way. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed – this is meant to be experimental. However, if you would like to feel more refined, feel free to use the chopsticks.”

He gestured to the pair of black wooden chopsticks that were at my place setting. I had already forgotten about them. I picked them up with my right hand and moved them towards Ms. Rose on my palm. She backed away from the sticks, horrified, and looked up at my eyes. She shook her head no, and gestured up toward my head with praying hands. She was begging for her life.

“Think of it this way, Ms. Rose. You’ll become part of your favorite basic cable TV star. Maybe your energy will become a neuron spark that will give me my next big book idea.”

Dear reader, I wasn’t lying. This experience with Ms. Rose was the first chapter I wrote of this book.

I grabbed the miniscule chef around her waist with the chopsticks. Each were as thick as her naked torso. She leaned forward, and slammed her fists against the wooden rods, the futile tantrum of a sentient appetizer that, until recently, had a remarkable position in the world of normal-sized-people.

I brought her to my lips, and hesitated. Once she’s in, she’s not coming out this way again – I was not uncouth enough to spit out food at a fine table like this.

I opened my lips wide in front of her, and she started screaming in mortal terror. In one continuous motion, I placed her onto my tongue, brought the chopsticks away, and closed my lips. I could no longer hear her screams with my mouth closed.

I tasted a brief hit of the bourbon, which was more of a scent than a lasting flavor, the lime essence, and a tiny amount of her salty sweat. It was – overall – a mild flavor.

The more exhilarating part of this mouthful was the feeling of her panicking against the inside of my jaws.

She tried to stand up. She failed. I dropped my palette and jaw behind my closed lips, to give her more room to stand. She pinched against my gums painfully, like a misplaced toothbrush swipe, and slammed against the back of my parted front teeth, with her sesame-seed-sized fists.

I pinned her to the roof of my mouth with my tongue, amused by how I could feel her tiny acts of resistance. I kept her pinned there with as little pressure from my tongue as was effective, and I felt many angry, tiny kicks against my palette.

I’ve always been an empathetic person. It’s why I’ve found no trouble connecting to new people in foreign cities in “The Vagabond Guest.” My deep humanitarian instincts kicked in, and I thought of her as a person again. I imagined the relief she’d feel if I released her from my jaws and dried her off. I pictured bathing her in gratitude and relief instead of stomach acid.

I followed the thread of the fantasy in my mind. To keep Chef X’s secret, I’d be in charge of her, and I’d have to take care of her every need. I knew that, now that I have come this close to destroying her, me being in charge of her would mean she would always be living in terror of me, her only companion. Or worse, she’d be neglected, if I let my guilt about the threat I am doing to her now interrupt the care she deserved as an intelligent, feisty, adult human being. I knew I would fail her, even if I tried my level best to be a good freak-keeper.

Her life was in a state of cosmic limbo in my mouth. She was Schrodinger’s snack.

She kicked harder, struggled more. She was getting desperate.

It tickled.

You go, girl. Down my throat.

I kept my promise. Unlike the traditional way of crunching on the French Ortolan Bunting dish, I kept my teeth off her, and swallowed her whole.

I felt her go down my throat, still kicking and squirming. I added the last half of the bourbon pour as a chaser to the homicide I had just technically committed. My heart started pounding, thinking about the moral implications. I couldn’t tell if it was exhilarated panic, or her last desperate movements that fluttered in my stomach now.

Chef X stood up to get more bourbon for me. He then raised his glass, toasting. We clinked them together.

“To Ms. Rose, and the Saute Chef,” I said. We both downed the aged bourbon from our crystal glasses.

“What did you think of it?” He asked.

“That was truly an encapsulation of the American spirit, Chef X. It was morally debased to its core. I salute you, you crazy genius.”

“Cheers!” he cried triumphantly, toasting our glasses together again, before asking the waiters to bring out the second course.