Friday, January 20, 2012


Bobby Derie

The first course was a pallid broccoflower, the semifractal whorls on the twin hemispheres giving a disconcertingly accurate imitation of a human brain, served raw in a chrome fondue pot shaped like a human head. Dr. Cruciferous and his guests dug into the soft off-white bloom with long-stemmed two-pronged forks, and dipped their morsels into the bubbling liquid cheese in the heated pot. I came to write an article, a love letter to the cruciferous vegetables for the edification and enjoyment of foodies everywhere. Dr. Cruciferous had promised us six new cultivars and hybrids, never before seen or tasted, prepared by six of the greatest chefs in the world. Like a fool, I allowed the honeyed words to whet my appetite. Now I was trapped in the den of an insane horticulturalist, a throwback to the primeval geneticists of a thousand years ago, a mad man who would bend the Triangle of U into strange, unnatural geometries in his pursuit of the perfect cabbage…

The Isle of Dr. Cruciferous was in the most desolate and isolated areas of the world…when he found it, it was an abandoned outcropping of recently-congealed lava and tuft in the contested exclusive economic zones of two maritime powers, claimed briefly by a Chinese billionaire with delusions of micronationality, before the deadly doctor had somehow wrested control and dedicated the new island to his own experiments. The scientific community tutted and voiced mute outrage in their journals and blogs, but all watched with terrible fascination and, yes, jealousy as Cruciferous re-enacted the ancient hybridization first theorized by the Japanese, the interbreeding of cabbages, mustards, and turnips which had first given rise to rutabagas, rapeseed…so many of the edible plants that humanity had cultivated and subsisted on since the dawn of primitive man in the same family…so many indeed, where the same species, but the individual cultivars were so different from one another, they would almost appear alien—brussel sprouts, broccoli, collard greens, turnips, radishes, mustards of ever color.

The micromustard was served next, on tiny gold saucers, mixed with cold black caviar, and tiny spoons that allowed only a few of the golden yellow and glistening black spheres on each dip. Dr. Cruciferous ate nothing, merely watched the reactions of the assembled guests with scientific detachment. I swished the mixture around my mouth before two errant molars came together and cracked a mustard seed—the flavor that exploded in my mouth brought tears to my eyes, and a tiny burning grittiness that almost made me vomit, but I swallowed. Tongues of flame etched their way down my esophagus, and then a bloom of fire erupted in my belly, a palpable heat that caused me to gasp and release a tiny belch of yellow-tinged smoke. Beside me, Jian Choi, the Wasabi Sensei appeared in incommunicable ecstasy, tears pouring from his eyes. Several food journalists of lesser constitution simply collapsed, and were taken away by Cruciferous’ lab assistants-cum-waiters.

The Rain Cabbage Forest occupied the western third of the island, a plain of flat sandy soil imported from somewhere else. Here, in an artificial tropical climate that protected them from freeze, woody cabbage-stalks could reach ten feet high—some speculated the doctor used the highly developed root systems for graftings, to race new plants to fruit without needing to grow their own nutritional infrastructure. But here, the mad doctor had outdone himself—crafted a true rainforest, the great hanging leaves of the rain cabbage vast beyond anything seen on any farm field. He took us out there, only five left after the micromustard, to enjoy a constitutional stroll through an early afternoon rain so that we could appreciate the shadowy coolness under the canopy, feel the wet dripping as water rolled off the leaves to the strange salad greens on the ground. Dr. Cruciferous’ lab assistants, still in their full-length black gowns and masks, harvested full, heavy green leaves from a fallen rain cabbage “tree,” the broken veins leaking white puddles onto the ground. The third course were those leaves, stuffed with pork and rice, baked under a mound of coals on that imported beach on the edge of that alien forest by a half-naked Hawaiian master chef. We ate as the evening darkened, and the stars came out, and the tide came in.

We never saw where the blackleaf grows; I think there must have been something about the environmental conditions even Cruciferous was wary of exposing us to—some chemical composition of the soil, perhaps—but he did allow us to see the chef as he prepared the gothic salad, stripping the strange black cabbages of their leaves and feeding them into the pot with herbs, spices, peppers, tomatoes, and vinegar. I never learned that chef’s name, but he was a twisted and old oriental that could have cracked walnuts and dug trenches in rocky soil with those bare hands, and he handled the chopping blade with the deftness of a master. I thought at first we would be looking at some soup, a derivation of Korean or Vietnamese, but what he brought out was closer to sauerkraut or winter kim chi. Under the influence of the acids, the blackleaf had broken down and blossomed a glorious shade of crimson. The doctor joined us for this meal, wielding a pair of ivory chopsticks that would have gotten him thirty years or more in prison if he’d tried to smuggle them into any civilized nation, diving into the tiny dish with relish. Those of us who remained ate sparingly, wanting to save some room for the final courses.

All the beauty and exoticness of the four previous vegetables was absent from the gloriously plain tung. Cruciferous warmed a little as he spoke of its nutritious properties, its hardiness and ease of cultivation, the potential to enable month-long space-flights to Mars or Venus. It was a pale, ugly pink thing, which in some distant past had been a turnip or radish, but was now a bloated root of excess, like the farm curiosities of arrogant Americans “competitive farmers” with their 5-kilo potatoes. Dr. Cruciferous donned an apron, gloves, and toque to prepare it himself—apparently, the cook he had invited here had not met the doctor’s stringent expectations. The great root was separated from its lush greens, and as the doctor sliced the root itself into chips, I found myself staring longingly at those greens, imagining them as part of the soul food in the devil’s kitchen, the boiling pig fat that would flavor them replaced with that of an unbaptized child—where the morbid thought came from, I do not know, unless it was part of the sinister atmosphere of the place, or the last drags of the mustard burning its way still as its indigestible oils settled in my colon—but I was brought back to reality by the sudden flash of flame and the sizzle of cooking oils as Doctor Cruciferous pan-fried the tung chips in an enormous cast-iron dish that must have been stolen from some ancient pizza restaurant of yore. Crisped to a light golden color, with just a hint of their native pink flesh, they were delicious and chewy, not at all like potato or banana crisps.

We settled heavily at the table—I had not seen the others disappear, but I gave little thought to my companion-competition. I would survive this diabolical feast and write the truth of Dr. Cruciferous, even if it killed my taste buds and wrecked my guts. We sat at the chef’s table in one of the ancillary kitchens—a clean and prosaic place, all white Italian tile and stainless steel, like any modern kitchen installed in any old building, though I knew this was an affection, as all structures on the island were less than five years old. The chef herself was a pretty, willowy blonde thing—a salad master if there ever was one, I doubt she had even tasted meat in years. She brought before us the Flower of Paradise…and I can think of no better word for it, for even though the fleshy pod had yet to bloom into a true flower, already its multi-coloured leaves fanned out around it. I looked but could not place it—there was hints of blue cabbage and red, bok choi and Boston lettuce, the strange spiraling fractals of Romanesco and tapering cress-like fronds. Indeed, so vast and dazzling was the array I could not help but stare at it, for all the different leaves and florets seemed to grow into and around each other. It was, without a doubt, a single plant, but it seemed to contain within it something of all other cruciferous vegetables that I had ever known or heard of…and more besides.

I wondered for a moment how it would be prepared, but the chef came towards it wearing a pair of heavy leather gloves, tiny kitchen-blades attached to the fingertips, still smiling the beatific grin that made me shudder and think dark thoughts of cannibals and those who cooked for them. With exaggerated care and a delicacy that put to shame Freddy Kreuger, Edward Scissorhands, or the Wolverine, she trimmed away the excess foliage, revealing to us the great heart hidden by the folding leaves. With a slice, she halved the roughly oval heart crosswise, holding it out so that we could both see the cross-shape at the very center. The chef laid the hearts on the plate, with tiny bowls of ginger dressing, and retreated. Eating with our fingers, Dr. Cruciferous and I dug in, crunching our way through the heart of the Flower of Paradise. I could hardly concentrate on mine, each thin layer had its own distinct flavor, which mixed and matched and contrasted with the others; each bite was a discovery that I never grew tired of, thought I quickly gave up on the ginger sauce. The damned doctor, for his part, appeared to be enrapt. In the end, we sat there, dabbing at our mouths with napkins, not a shred of greenery remaining.

I wished to say something to Dr. Cruciferous then, whether praise or damnation or a simple question I do not remember, for the world blackened at the edges around me. I remember seeing through the goggles he perpetually wore to the very tired eyes—just for a moment—as the natural sedatives took hold and I lost consciousness. I regained it only to find that I had been returned to my home, with almost no trace that I had ever left, even my notes taken from me, but I sat and typed this tale of madness and gastric debauchery, the terrible culinary wonders I have witness on his forbidden island…I do not know if they will print this, or what happened to my colleagues. Even now I feel a twinge in my gut, as if that mustard had never wholly left me, and I have never been able to taste things quite the same since. The lonely and wilted arugula sits in my fridge, but I can hardly stand to look at it…for it seems as I stare at it that I can trace the nefarious doctor’s art and science in the shape of that green life, to remember some hidden garden where he showed me the rows of blackleaf and the terrible hybrids he locked away, so they would not spawn and continue their generations, the silent greenhouse where mutant brussel sprouts were kept and nurtured so that their curious aberrations could spawn new generations…and I fear for the men of later years, who may never again know the pure taste and crunch of an honest cabbage, or the mild tang of an ordinary mustard, once the dread crops of Dr. Cruciferous finally come to their grim harvest.


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