“This week, we’re in Baltimore, home of America’s first umbrella factory! But will it be stormy skies ahead for our five amateur chefs as they compete for the $1,000 prize?
“Tonight it’s the turn of self-confessed Cougar, Caroline. Will her guests be tempted by what’s on the menu in what she calls her Love Shack? Er, maybe not, love.
“Then, later this week, we’ll be testing the hosting skills of hard-partying salesman J.P., not-so-young Buck the construction king, weirdy Winnie the psychic, and finally, headshrinker Hannibal and his collection of 300 pocket squares!”
“At this stage, we’d like you to discuss your first impressions of each other. Be brutally honest, guys. No point in holding anything back.”
The supervising producer, a rather brash young woman named Shana McCarthy (according to the business card that Hannibal had requested from her), gave them a thumbs up and retreated behind the camera.
The five dinner party guests, Hannibal noted with disdain, were now supposed to pretend that the intrusion had never occurred. They were just supposed to continue eating and act as if the topic of conversation had cropped up naturally. Whatever happened, Hannibal wondered, to creating ambience at a dinner party?
Caroline, tonight’s hostess, a sixty-year-old buxom blonde who owned a beauty salon, apparently shared none of Hannibal’s affront. She was quick to speak up.
“I’ll tell you my first impression of that hunk of meat sitting over there,” said Caroline, winking ostentatiously at Hannibal.
Hannibal stared at her for a moment before recovering himself. “Please,” he said pleasantly.
“Didn’t know whether you were a fancy man or a fancy man. It’s like. The story of my life. We get some customers at the salon and you never can tell. Gay or European. Gay. Or European. Am I right?”
Caroline broke into uproarious laughter and she was joined by the other guests – all except for Hannibal, who merely smiled.
“It’s true I was not born in this country,” Hannibal said, when their laughter had quieted, “but we must keep some of my proclivities a mystery for now. Otherwise, what would we have to anticipate over the course of this process?”
“Oh, he’s smooth. Ain’t he smooth?” Caroline said to her neighbour at the table, salesman J.P.
Caroline fluttered a hand against her ample bosom and Hannibal wondered how her lungs would taste braised.
“Smooth?” Buck replied loudly. “Faggy ain’t smooth.”
Ahh, Buck. The self-anointed Construction King seemed severely lacking in any regal qualities. What he did possess was an ability to interrupt whenever anyone else was talking and belch loudly after every few bites of the meal. He was also in command of an extensive lexicon of racist, homophobic and misogynistic remarks that he used in a scattershot manner similar to the way he sprayed spit when he talked.
“Let us hope Buck will share with us his own preferred method for seduction before the week is out,” Hannibal said mildly, running his thumb idly along the blade of his steak knife.
The idea of agreeing to take part in something and then going back on his word struck Hannibal as unbearably rude. However, the reality of Reality TV – and, indeed, the reality of attending dinner parties courtesy of Caroline, J.P., Winnie and Buck – tested his mettle considerably.
It was hard for Hannibal to pinpoint the worst moment of the four evenings that followed. Certainly, Caroline’s decision to stage a post-dinner fashion show would haunt him to the grave. On Monday night, she picked out an outfit for him: stonewashed jeans, a tight t-shirt that bore the word STUD, and a pink cowboy hat encrusted with diamantes. Then she played ‘I’m Too Sexy’ at full volume while Hannibal walked, with as much dignity as he could muster, down the “runway” that she’d set up in her living room.
In general, what passed for entertainment at the hosts’ homes was abysmal. J.P., who, on Tuesday night, told the table that opera was just “music for people who don’t have the balls for drum ‘n’ bass”, shared with them an original musical composition. It was hard to tell over the deafening bass line and enthusiastic euphemisms for women’s vaginas, but Hannibal presumed it was a love song.
(Hannibal wondered whether J.P.’s balls really were larger than average and, if so, whether they would be suitable for inclusion in a delightful testicle goulash recipe that he had at home.)
The mood and conversation also left a lot to be desired. At Winnie’s house on Wednesday night, they ate at a table covered with a plastic table cloth that was decorated with pictures of Daffy Duck. It was truly an experience Hannibal had never had before. The conversation, similarly, was an unparalleled first.
“You and I, we’re both healers,” Winnie told him, fixing her over-large, over-bright eyes on him.
“Quite. Yes,” he said, politely neglecting to point out that Winnie worked at a gas station.
“I believe in the power of crystals, don’t you?” she said insistently. “Such tremendous power.”
Hannibal looked down at the piece of rose quartz on the table that had been given to him as a gift from Winnie.
“Yes, I imagine crystals could provoke tremendous power in the right individual,” he replied mildly.
(Hannibal wondered how much tremendous power it would take push the crystal down so far her throat that she choked on it. Not very much, he imagined. However, he feared all her hocus pocus might seriously diminish the flavor of her brain, no matter how much wild rosemary he added to the dish.)
With a reasonable amount of willpower, Hannibal probably could have overlooked the dinner party atmosphere created by his fellow contestants. But then there was the food.
In the taxi home from each dinner party, Hannibal faced the camera and tried to give an honest appraisal of what he’d eaten.
“…While I applaud the fashionable nineteen-sixties aesthetic of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup being used as the sauce in the chicken dish, I do feel that the main course would have benefited from being served hot, with the chicken fully defrosted…”
“…The combination of marshmallows and bacon in a cheesecake was certainly individual…”
“…Regretfully, I did not feel that graham crackers made a suitable side dish on this occasion…”
Shana, the producer, dropped by around lunchtime.
“Slight set-back,” she told Hannibal, speaking thickly as she chewed on one of the cold cuts that Hannibal had offered her as a midday snack.
“Nothing terrible, I hope?” he replied.
“No, no,” said Shana. “We just haven’t been able to get hold of Buck. We think it’s just a bruised ego thing. Y’know, after Caroline threw her drink in his face last night. I’m sending a runner round to his house now.”
“I certainly hope he is able to attend this evening,” said Hannibal. “I have been anticipating having him for dinner.”
“What’s this?” he asked Hannibal, eyeing the cameraman as if he were concerned he might be armed.
“I am a participant in a television program,” Hannibal said. “I suppose you could say I am about to be famous for my dinner party offerings.”
“I’m afraid so.” As he spoke, Hannibal carefully trimmed the tongue he was handling.
“It was Dr Bloom’s suggestion. She submitted an application on my behalf. And I was certainly intrigued by the idea of participating in a cultural arts documentary about fine dining. However, I fear she may have deliberately misrepresented the type of program it is for humorous purposes.”
“Alana pulled a prank on you?”
Hannibal was sorry to see Will leave in order to make room for other, rather less courteous guests.
Served hot from the oven, Caroline proclaimed Hannibal’s ‘ox’ tongue dish “very tasty”. J.P. said it was “legit awesome” and Winnie declared it “full of positive ascension molecules” – both of which Hannibal took as compliments.
Indeed, though Hannibal was not prone to self-congratulation, he was inclined to agree that Buck was substantially more palatable dead than alive. Certainly, Buck would never again have the opportunity to accidentally-on-purpose pour onion gravy over Hannibal’s beautiful Burberry wool coat and then laugh disparagingly. So unforgivably rude.
“When you cook tongue,” the Hannibal-on-screen told the viewers helpfully, “it is of course important to source your meat ethically and locally.”
“Ah yes,” Dave Lamb, the narrator, added in a sarcastic voiceover, “grab those tongues locally. Never want to risk a bit of foreign tongue.”
“Don’t forget that you’ll need to shock the tongue after simmering it for a couple of hours,” continued Hannibal. “Immerse it immediately in cold water.”
“I’ve never shocked a tongue, personally,” said Dave Lamb. “I imagine ol’ Hannibal usually leaves that sort of stuff to his friendly neighbourhood dominatrix, although I wouldn’t like to presume.”
“Hannibal,” Alana whispered, gripping his arm, “I’m so terribly sorry. This was a joke that went too far.”
“Not at all,” Hannibal demurred, although he had already placed a mental demerit under Dr Bloom’s name. “I enjoy new experiences. New company, new tastes…”
As the narrator made yet another snide remark on screen, Hannibal sat back and pondered herb and spice combinations for Roasted Rack of Dave Lamb. After all, he needed to put the $1,000 he’d won to good use: what better than to host another dinner party?