Spice World


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Scene Title Spice World
Synopsis Elliot meets the local Erin to discuss post-apocalyptic food preparation.
Date June 13, 2021

Siren's Song

Vegetables, like the A Good Man of long ago, can be hard to find here. Growing space and fertile soil are even harder to find in this city than it was in the previous iteration, and the water, though everywhere, is not even potable, let alone well balanced for nourishing plants that don’t want to crisp up and die of sodium overdosing. Erin Gordon, a specialist in agricultural science who once worked on problems of soil quality in a previous life, is now tackling the problem of how to grow vegetables when the sun is plentiful and the other conditions lacking. Much like the idea of potatoes on Mars, it is doable, but it doesn’t necessarily taste good.

She is in the Siren’s Song today to meet a potential collaborator: someone with whom she can discuss not just plants and growth, how to capture their flavors, how to preserve them, and where to find the things that are harder to find. Rice is her current experiment. Picking at a thin spot in a faded blue flannel, she pulls the box of samples closer and stares idly out of a large glass window at the setting sun, coffee before her long chilled and low in caffeine value.

It doesn’t take Elliot long to spot the target of his search. Ten years of divergent circumstances have left everyone changed, but he can clearly remember the woman who just recently stole his buffalo wings. He hasn’t had a lot of sleep, but he’s operated with less. As such, he doesn’t look as haggard as he feels when he approaches this world’s Erin Gordon.

“Erin,” he says as he comes to the table, “Thanks for taking the time to meet me.”

Erin looks up, bemused, holding the elder milk crate with a protective arm over the top beforethe realization dawns on her that this must be the traveler she’s here to meet. “Oh…” A tilt of the head, mirrored by the canine at her side. “Funny. This keeps happening with you guys. Even if I haven’t met you, I feel like I’ve met you.” She gestures at the seat in front of her. “Sit. Please. Don’t mind Colin, he’s a good boy.” And indeed, the Aussie has an aged pink Korg in his mouth that looks something like rubberized body viscera from years of concentrated playtimes.

“For you, a cook? I have these. Silas and I tried them out recently, but I won’t tell you what he thought.” Out of the milk crate Erin fishes some old vials, cracked and worn, with hand-scrawled labels: saffron (hard to find), basil (hydroponic), cardamom (its success is still a mystery). “I also brought some seedlings, in case you’re of that ilk, but I won’t be offended if you don’t take them.”

Thin, work-worn hands place each vial delicately in front of Elliot, and then she makes eye contact, leaning back and steepling those fingers underneath her chin. “I hear you have something of an experiment you’re trying? You want rice? Or do you want to know growers? Or do you want to join me in figuring out how to make the food here seasoned and enjoyable instead of just…the gross bland paste it mostly is?”

Elliot happily takes a seat, allowing Colin to sniff his hand but not offering to scratch his head. “What the fuck, man?” Wright asks. “Did you seriously just not pet that dog for my benefit?”

“The two of us were in close proximity at the Salty B the morning we arrived,” Elliot says, ignoring his incensed partner. “You may remember me from such hot-takes as ‘watery mac and cheese.’ We’ve also met where I’m from, but if you’d rather not hear about it I would understand.” Who wants to know how much better their life is somewhere else?

He watches the samples get laid out with great interest. “My purpose here is twofold,” he says. “I’m looking for some rice to cook in the very near future as an apology of sorts to someone I inadvertently offended.”

“The other is, as you say, an interest in not eating bland food,” he explains. “I cook for my own pleasure and have a knack for flavor pairing. So being able to track down preserved foods of any kind would be a blessing. As for seedling, I don’t know how long we’ll be here before moving to the mainland.”

“Oh, hey, yeah! Watery mac and cheese! Gross. These people. Brine doesn’t fix everything and they just don’t seem to get that. But I’m not much of a cook myself. Just an agricultural scientist.” Erin shakes her head, places plastic cover back on the tray of seedlings nestled safely in the milk crate, and gently lowers the whole container to the floor beside her seat, whence Colin immediately curls his body around it. “What I really miss is a good everything bagel with cream cheese, but good luck finding any of that here.”

Wright stops chewing her onion bagel with cream cheese out of guilt.

She steeples her fingers and nods to the sample vials. “You can keep those. I’m happy to spread the joy and those particular plants are doing quite well in spite of everything. The saffron in particular, ironically. I guess it’s less of a delicacy here and now. I’ve been trying out a lot of growing of not only Mediterranean spices but also those from the Indian subcontinent; the climate has become rather more similar and, personally, I just like those foods best. Not only are they easy to make vegetarian, but they’re also tastier. Anyway, I’d like the vials back if you get a chance but no rush.”

And now to business. “With rice, you are in luck. I actually have been growing some myself. I have a bit of a rig behind my houseboat. It’s wild rice, though. I also have some sacks of white rice, but they’ve been in my pantry for a while so they may need some…deworming. It’s fine. They’re not lethal. They’re just worms.”

A frown now. “What variety are you looking for? If you’re okay with wild, we just need to find someone to mill it and it’s all yours. If you want white rice, well, we’re on an adventure together now. And brown? Fuck brown rice, that shit’s nasty.”

“I do love spice,” Elliot says. “I have a soft spot for South Pacific cuisine, but Indian is always good. I made a curry just before we came here which was well received.” He can still taste it, having eaten it repeatedly in a time loop on purpose

He opens each spice container one at a time to take in the scent, or taste a fragment. It’s soothing to experience something other than brine and gruel. “I was hoping for sushi rice,” he says, eyes still distant. “White would work, wild as well. More of an it’s the thought that counts meal preparation. Hope’s out for rice vinegar.”

“Mm, yeah, sorry. None of that here,” Erin laments. “I could probably start a ferment but that would take…” A pause. “Actually, I have no idea how long. I was never one of those Sandor Katz cultureheads. But maybe you could try it with a white vinegar and throw in something or another, I think that’s how you make sushi vinegar anyway. I should say that I’m not much of a cook myself, I just know the food things.”

She takes a prodigious mouthful of the remainder of her cold and awful coffee and stands. The contents of the swallow are too large for her throat and it makes a painful bubble on the way down, to which she grimaces. “We can try a few things if you don’t mind avoiding stranger danger and heading back to my boat. Are you…trying to make this for someone? Is there a timeline? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I’m handy with stranger danger,” Elliot says with a laugh, “So don’t worry about me. I was hoping to have something in a week or so, though I understand that reality may need to be contended with.”

“I have a habit of putting my foot in my mouth, as you may remember from the Watery Mac moment,” he says, more chagrined. Not enough people appreciate wry, apocalyptic humor. “So this would be for an apology I owe somebody else I offended not too long after that.”

“What’s your current growing set-up?” he asks. “I’m generally handy if you need unconventional repair and modification work done.” Well, he has internet access.

Erin laughs heartily. “Oh, don’t worry. I am, like, the supreme regent of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth.” She taps her nose. “I bet I’m like that on the other side, too. What can I say? When the world’s this far gone, you either worry too much about what’s going to offend someone, or not enough. Both are unproductive, which didn’t make me many friends in academia. Best to be honest. Watery mac and cheese is gross.”

They find their way to The Colin, the namesake of whom has bounded happily onto the deck and rolled onto his back, less for pets and more for itching. It’s a modest houseboat, clearly retrofitted for weird purposes, with a haphazard greenhouse built onto the roof – precariously perched such that it easily could blow away on a windy day – shuddering in the breeze but covered with green within, and, as they tread the well-worn deck to the stern, she points down at an extremely makeshift rice paddy.

“That’s where I’m attempting to grow my own rice, ‘attempting’ being the operative word here.” It’s an eight-by-eight frame of weathered cedar, filled with the sea water but with some sort of makeshift salt filtration mechanism built into a tarp punched with holes that’s been submerged a few inches down. It is within this frame that some anemic looking grasses are peeking out, some yellow and some green. “This is actually sushi rice in its adolescent form. They’re not…super happy with all the salt, but there are some salt-tolerant species out there. I just have to, uh, find them. I’m good with soil density, you know, figuring out what nutrients to throw into it, but I’ll be honest, hydroponics was not what I originally got into so I’m sort of trying to make myself valuable by trial and error. If you’ve got any ideas, I’m glad to hear them! Otherwise, we can just go to the galley and start fucking around.”

“Is the soil inland unusable?” Elliot asks, looking across the structure and its various contraptions with interest. Wright spins her chair back toward the conference table, running searches for water desalination techniques in survival situations as Elliot looks on. “Bare in mind that I haven’t been within spitting distance of land in a while, I assume there’s a lot of gnarly shit going on there.”

He inspects the plants with attention and care, tracing his fingertips across tendrils. He imagines the state of the garden at home, knowing the smoke and ash is coming soon. Anything that grows in this place must be hearty. He should get as many viable seeds as he can before heading to Alaska, just in case that’s the place he spends the rest of his life.

“Inland? Truth be told, I’m not sure. I was looking for an excuse to get out of academia, and so I just kind of took Colin and sailed away when the time came. I’d heard about some people living out here and felt like my particular skills and knowledge could be more useful on the surf than the turf.” She bites her tongue thoughtfully and stands still a moment, ceasing a mobile rumination around the quasi greenhouse afloat, and squats down by the rice padlet, and gently strokes a small leaf between her fingertips. Life here, especially, feels so soft and delicate. She squats to get a closer vantage to the delicate new ecosystem she is attempting to nourish and grow.

“I’m sure the soil is fine, though; it’s not like a nuclear bomb went off or anything, that I know of. On the other hand, for all I know, the storms could have leached up nuclear waste underneath Three Mile Island and we’re all headed for The End anyway. Why? Are y’all planning on going somewhere with trees and land? Would it be more useful to take some seedlings than to try and make an apology dinner?” She smirks. “We can, of course, do both.”

Elliot smiles warmly, chuckling before scrubbing at his tired eyes. “Apology dinner needs to happen either way,” he says. “Kind of time-sensitive. But the plan is to take a mainland route across the continent to Alaska, so I wouldn’t turn down any seeds you have high hopes for. As far as I know it’s an open-invitation convoy, so should you be considering a return to academia, you’re welcome to take Colin back the other way with us.”

“You know,” Erin says, rising out of the squat and rubbing at her tired quads, “I think I’ll take you up on that, assuming you’re talking about the dog and not just the boat. I’m getting a little cagey here and feel like I could do more good on the road. We’ll see how things look then, eh?”

She turns back to regard Elliot. “Okay. We’ve dawdled long enough. You have a quest. Let’s get to it. My spices are yours, and hopefully the rice in the cabinet doesn’t have too many beetles in it.”

They proceed down the deck and into a kitchen, densely packed with edible plants: from the ceiling, from the floor, over the doors and windows, on the counters, under lights and in the dark. “Take your pick. Literally, if you’d like. All I ask is you give me the straight dope on whether or not it’s any good and bring me some of that sushi rice if there’s any left. And here,” she rummages under the counter and pulls out a small jar packed with orange obs and presses it into his hands, “take some pickled plums, too. These are the last plums I got from the farmer’s market up in Ithaca. Enjoy them.”

“God damn,” Elliot says, honestly excited to accept the small jar. “I’m sure I will.”

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