It would be tempting to assume that Poe gave me the idea, but it’s quite the other way around. Still, I like an allusion as much as the next, even if my method is less barbaric. We each have our preferences.
Kennedy was my friend; I carefully selected him when I first heard about his burgeoning passion for molecular gastronomy. There were others before him, of course, and always my task was the same. I am The Cooper. I watch them until they reach the point of no return. It is in the interest of self-preservation, but I do enjoy the companionship and the challenge.
The first to stir up any real trouble were the alchemists. They were followed by that gaggle of women in the early 20th century: Lowe, Halliday, and Noble, kitchen witch academics poking around where they had no business. My dear Hervé came closest of all to discovering the truth, with the help of that Kurti fellow—the first of the truly scientific molecular gastronomists. With Hervé I learned not to let feelings get in the way of what must be done.
Friendships have never been hard for me to attain. I strolled into Kennedy’s restaurant with my reputation and fortune. I threw money around, offered praise, bought the ’79 Le Pin, and insisted that he sit down with me to share the bottle and discuss the evening’s menu. To refuse would have been discourteous, and we were fast friends by the bottom of the bottle.
I watched his rapid rise as master chef: first two then three stars, five diamonds, and top ratings from the finest guides and magazines around the world. Kennedy pushed the limits of what people would eat: foams of liver and pickled raspberries served in a syringe, dehydrated peacock tongue atop a cloud of regurgitated lemon flan and jellied calf ovaries. His technique was flawless and his inspiration seemed limitless.
Kennedy saved a seat for me at his kitchen-side table every Friday night, and I genuinely enjoyed our conversations about changing phases and hydrocolloids. It’s a rare delight to have someone with whom I could discuss the finer points of food chemistry. I watched with particular care as he cultivated the inevitable blood lust: graduating from spherified blood pudding of buffalo, to powdered pig’s blood atop pomegranates and slivers of coconut, to more elaborate concoctions like cotton candy made from a blend of cow and sheep’s blood whipped with maple syrup. I saw the wheels turning, watched as he researched new mammals and experimental gastrophysicial transformations. I knew that the end was near. It was time to invite him over to taste some of my humble vintages, before things got carried away.
It is the logical progression for carnivores. They eventually discover that more than texture and sensory experience; ultimately it’s the iron-rich life-giving liquid they crave. All cultures dabble with the cooking of blood, but the molecular gastronomists stretch too close to heaven’s gates and all its hidden secrets. That is why I am valued in my circles. I protect our secrets, because for us, it began with the blood.
It’s an obvious deduction, and though there are many who speculate how and why, those who claim lineage or write fiction are but high-profile poseurs. They are correct about the blood, but without a clue as to the how or why. It’s a matter of mu opioid receptors and glycoproteins, a permanent physiological state caused by the activation of those receptors in the brain transmitted by a permanently binding opiate. It’s neither a virus nor a curse. It’s part neuroscience and part molecular gastronomy. It’s why I seek out the food scientists, to ensure that they do not discover our secrets. Above all else, it’s a matter of taste.
Kennedy had just begun to experiment with Synsepalum dulcificum, the miracle berry, and that was why I chose to act. In truth, I had been hoping to delay for a while longer. I had grown fond of the young mandrake and our nights on the town. After closing, we would go in search of culinary inspiration, seeking the weirdest dining experiences we could find: barbecue over burning barrels in the junkyard, dark alley food carts at four in the morning, fondue of fruit and flesh over an open grave, silent lakeside fish fries with men in hoods and masks, Dionysian feasts in the forest preserves. We tried everything, arm in arm.
Our brotherhood could have gone on for years were it not for the miracle berry. I blame Kennedy’s wife. I told him to leave her, that she would be his undoing, but he refused. I suspect his wife purchased the berries as a dietary aid on her visit to South Africa, but perhaps her purpose was more insidious? Maybe she had a sixth sense about such things? Either way, once he discovered the fruit, it changed everything. He wanted to use it on every menu, to subvert the patrons’ expectations and create new flavor experiences. Kennedy had no way of knowing that the berry had the potential to mutate more than the taste buds of the person eating it.
The berry contains a glycoprotein they have named miraculin that temporarily disables some of the taste buds, tricking them into believing that foods ordinarily sour and bitter are actually sweet. Although amazing and underutilized, the miracle berry combined with Kennedy’s preoccupation with blood and molecular gastronomy could only yield disaster.
I found him tinkering in his private laboratory (he always chastised me when I called it a kitchen), preparing the berry’s blood red dilution in his favorite volumetric flask. That night he planned to combine it with beets, jalapenos, and goat’s blood to make an unusual borsch, topped with crumbled Limburger and crayfish shavings.
I said to him: “My dear Kennedy, tonight is the night I will open my newest cask of Port. It’s finally ready to sample. While I suspect it may not quite be perfect, you must indulge me.”
“I am on the edge of something, Cooper,” said he. “I can feel it. Maybe tomorrow?”
But I would not be dissuaded.
“If it is to your liking,” I said. “I intend to make a gift of my Port to your fine establishment.” I waited for him to meet my gaze. “I insist.”
He sighed and wiped his hands on his lab coat. “You’ll have to wait until after closing,” he said, pulling off the coat and hanging it on its hook. “Tonight we have several elected officials in to dine, as well as a true diva.”
He must have read my disappointment, for he said more gently, “Take a seat in the kitchen, and I will send over my favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Tonight I have found a way to make the sea sponge palatable.”
I watched him with a tinge of sadness as he dashed around. Always in motion, he supervised as his staff prepared the dishes, each one pure gastronomical perfection. That evening, he had outdone himself with his version of the trendy cake pop, except the cake was made with a flash-frozen edible sea sponge that had first been soaked with sherry, then coated in a glaze made from dark chocolate mixed with slow-tempered cow’s blood. It was a huge success, as table after table sent their compliments to the chef. Kennedy was glowing, and it made me happy that he would finish on top, with their praise ringing in his ears.
I liked knowing things about him that no one else did, not his doting mother, nor his beautiful Lebanese wife, not even his oldest friend, sous-chef Monroe: that Kennedy kept the skulls of every animal he served for a meal, arranging them on a memorial wall in the private laboratory/shed in the backyard of his bungalow (a place his wife was never permitted to enter); that before he began his daily experimentation, he washed his hands with French milled soap precisely three times every morning after his cold-pressed coffee (always black with one teaspoon of coconut sugar); or that he sometimes delighted in slipping in a single tiny egg of caviar into a random vegan dish because he believed their way of life to be blasphemous.
While the busboys cleared the tables and set up for the next day, Kennedy and I shared a bottle of champagne, a gift from the opera singer who promised to return someday soon with the monarch of her small Eastern European homeland. We laughed at the reaction of the patrons from Ohio who tried to eat the duck feathers intended only to cool a flaming scallop volcano with its lemon ash and avocado chili lava. There was always one table unprepared for the dining experience at his restaurant, and we delighted in mocking them. It did give Kennedy the idea to construct an edible feather, and I was sad to think he never would.
We stumbled home to my Romanesque greystone on the lake, and though his restaurant was only a short walk away, I had never before invited him over. I appreciated that Kennedy had never asked me why. There were parts of our lives we never felt the need to discuss. It made us better friends.
Though I have residences in other cities around the world, the Chicago greystone, with its delicate arches and carved facade, remains my favorite. The house was empty and quiet when we entered. Even my black cat, Fortunado, remained asleep on the radiator when the heavy oak door slammed shut. I insisted that we remove our shoes, a habit I picked up during my time in Germany. I pointed at a basket of slippers beside the door and went to pour us each a glass of my favorite scotch. Kennedy sat on the bottom step of my massive wooden staircase to put on a pair of scarlet felted slippers.
“Scotch before port?” he asked, furrowing his brow.
I shrugged, and he accepted the scotch and raised his glass.
“To your long life,” he said, and for a moment I wondered if he had read Poe, if he suspected my plan.
“To the miracle of food and drink,” I said, made more melancholy by the spirits. Then I asked, “Ah, my friend, why did you have to be so clever?”
“Isn’t that precisely why we are friends, Coop?” Kennedy asked. “Because you like my mad genius.”
We headed down to the cellar, and he followed close behind me, steadying himself on the stone wall as we descended down the narrow steps.
“My ancestor was like you,” I said, deciding that no harm could home of sharing the truth at this junction. “He was clever and slightly insane with his hunger for new tastes. The mythos places him in Romania or thereabouts, but the truth lies closer to the equator, in the place where time began, Teotihuacan.”
“I didn’t know you had Mayan, or is it Aztec blood?” he asked. “My Mesoamerican history is not as sharp as my science.”
“Yes, well, it’s one of those things,” I said with a dismissive shake of my hand. “He was a priest, a holy man, who fed the gods and prepared their weekly sacrifice. He wanted to please them with the most exciting sacrificial meals he could concoct, and the gods were pleased. During his service the people of Teotihuacan knew immeasurable prosperity. He would seek out the rarest of creatures and the most exotic fruits to please the gods—”
“So gastronomy runs in your blood!” Kennedy exclaimed, thumping my back for emphasis. “I should have known.”
“You could not,” I said, “but indeed it does. My ancestor had heard of a legendary berry that grew upon a sacred tree in the heart of the Pyramid of the Sun. It is the relative to your miracle berry, Kennedy. They said it grew in darkness fed by the bones of the gods. He wished to add it to his sacrificial bill of fare, and so he plucked it from the tree and tasted the fruit, bringing back a handful of the berries with him. Later, as he prepared the meal, he tasted the sacrificial blood and when it combined with the berry, his body was transformed. His blood was transformed.”
Kennedy was quiet as we passed through my corridor of piled bones, and his eyes grew wide.
“So this is why my skulls did not alarm you, sly dog!” Kennedy said, his eyes bright with the champagne and scotch.
“It’s true, they did not alarm me,” I said.
“But why all this talk of the miracle berry?” Kennedy asked, “and where’s this port of which you’ve been boasting?”
“Patience,” I said. “The tunnels are long and winding, in the style of my favorite catacombs in Europe. The skulls too are a touch from home. We are nearly there, and yet you have not followed my story to its logical conclusion.”
I continued, “We don’t know understand exactly how he was changed. It was not the same berry as your miracle berry, but they are alike enough to give us cause for concern. You see, we have figured out the science behind our proliferation. It begins with a glycoprotein that has similar properties to the miracle berry’s miraculin. In our case, the saliva transmits a simple, elegant cocktail of a glycoprotein our scientists playfully call vladilin, alongside a permanently binding opiate called caltabosh.”
I stopped and turned again to face him, taking him by the arm, “This part you’ll like, Kennedy, caltabosh means blood pudding.” I looked at him intently. “Are you beginning to understand?”
I could see that he was trying to make connections, but he was sluggish from the alcohol in his system. We walked through a large room lined with rows of giant wooden barrels. One of them dripped crimson. At the end of the room was a door that led into a much smaller chamber. Kennedy just grinned as I took him by the arm and led him to the smaller room. I led him to a chair and before he knew what I had done, I shackled his arms and legs, all the while still trying to explain. I felt I owed him an explanation, the truth.
“It stands to reason, that the vladilin first entered my ancestor’s bloodstream through the berry/blood concoction he consumed. While miraculin binds to the tongue’s taste buds, vladilin goes one step further to permanently mutate the shape of the sweetness receptors and render all other taste buds useless except for those mutated to respond to a particular sugar molecule. The source of that molecule is another piece to the puzzle.”
I pulled a leather ottoman in front of his chair, and I sat down to face him. The room was damp and cold, the only furnishings his chair, my ottoman, and the old steamer trunk beside me. The cold iron around his wrists and ankles, as well as the drab décor seemed to help speed up Kennedy’s sobering. I could see by his eyes that he was finally following my science and trying to figure out exactly what it meant for him.
“Excellent,” I said. “You are more present, my friend. All the better. When we are transformed, we are reprogrammed to seek out that particular sugar, and it’s found in the blood of course. By no coincidence, the sugar also stimulates our re-purposed mu opioid receptors. It’s elegant really. The interaction of the mutated receptor with the vladilin is known to facilitate our special type of endocytosis, the very thing that gives us our longevity, strength, heightened senses, and improved cognitive ability.”
Kennedy had cocked his head to the side and was watching me. He unconsciously stuck out the tip of his tongue in concentration, his brow furrowed, but he said nothing.
“So you see, I am a very old man after all,” I said, “but well-preserved thanks to the endocytosis. We relish the finest of things because of our heightened senses, choosing whenever we can to cultivate opulent lifestyles. So too do we gravitate toward the most cultured, creative, and well-read. As I said, it’s a matter of taste.”
I sat forward and took his shackled hands in mine and said, “Like you, Kennedy. You are the finest of your age. We always herd the chosen few into salons and communities, creating private clubs for the cultural elite. They are our cellars! Membership is coveted. Think of the most exclusive organizations. They are all ours.”
“Why are you buttering me up?” Kennedy asked. “Are you going to tell me there is no port?” He removed his hands from mine.
“There will be,” I said, slightly wounded by his action, but I could understand. I had chained him up in my cellar, after all. I opened the trunk beside us.
“Just not from the cask.” I said. “Did you know that we were the first to coin the term sommelier? In the beginning, it had nothing to do with wine. In the old Provençal dialect, a saumalier was a pack “animal” driver. We thought the adoption of the term to be appropriate.”
I poured him a glass of the dark red liquid, and then poured one for myself, setting both down atop the trunk.
“Please go on,” Kennedy said. “I would like to know where this is going, although I now have my wits and my suspicions.”
I hesitated, not yet offering him the glass. “The glycoprotein goes through our bodies creating a chain reaction in the antibodies, in the connective tissue. This may remind you of cancer, and the analogy would not be incorrect. Like cancer cells, our new cells do not easily die. We produce antibodies that target abnormal glycoproteins, and so the cycle continues.”
I grinned at him. Running my tongue along my teeth.
“The teeth do change,” I said. “The poseurs are not wrong in that regard. It is another of the mutations brought on by the glycoprotein. The surface of the tooth enamel attracts salivary glycoproteins and bacteria to create the pellicle layer. Vladilin targets and mutates the salivary glycoproteins, so that within minutes, the layer formed on the surface of the enamel extends the length of the canines, forming a pellicle icicle upon the tooth that creates the pointed appearance perfect for puncture and transmission of the vladilin/caltabosh cocktail.”
I studied his face for signs of fear or revulsion, but there were none.
“No fear, Kennedy? No concern? What is that expression on your face? Disappointment? It’s that word: puncture, isn’t it. A vulgar word. Strike it from your memory and use instead pierce or prick. The P sounds are notoriously provocative; it’s the puckering of lips, the puff of air. Almost like a kiss.”
Though his face remained calm, I could smell his sweat and hear the beating of his heart. Kennedy closed his eyes.
”When we undergo our transformation, the caltabosh travels to the brain, activating beta endorphin receptor sites, identical to the types of chemicals activated by morphine and heroin,” I explained. “It targets specific receptor sites, foremost in the periaqueductal gray region of the brain, but also in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. This affects our ability to feel pain and has the interesting side-effect of a slightly more pronounced Lordosis in women. Some speculate that this is one of many targeted sexual mutations brought on by the chain-reaction.“
At this he opened his eyes to meet my gaze, but he said nothing.
“The caltabosh changes our brain chemistry. We are essentially driven, and kept alive, by a sugar addiction. Thus the hunger. We experience withdrawal if we do not get the “sugar” into our system. Like the miraculin of the miracle berry, our taste buds are changed so that the blood tastes like the juicy, fresh sweetness of a ripe strawberry. Nothing can compare. Everything else tastes like ash. It is a seductive sweetness, with none of the metallic flavor, none of the salty bite of blood before our metamorphosis. Depending on the blood, it can taste like the finest of chocolate, the most luscious caramel, the light sweetness of meringue or heady richness of crème brûlée.”
He took a slow, deep breath in. I knew him well enough to recognize his envy and desire.
“Kennedy,” I said, handing him a glass, “We are transformed, each one of us, into judges of a sanguine Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. We are addicts.”
He took the glass and held it.
“To taste,” I said lifting my glass in his direction.
“To taste,” he replied, doing the same. He brought the ruby port to his lips and drank deeply.
“It’s wonderful,” Kennedy answered. “For a moment I thought it might be . . . blood. ”
“Nonsense,” I said and walked out of the room. There I hesitated. I was to decide his fate, as I had for all the others before him. Was he friend or fodder? They left it up to my discretion; they trusted my instincts.
I stared at the dozens of barrels, some over a century old. I had cellars in each of my homes, some filled with three times as many barrels. My friends were far fewer.
I returned rolling a massive oak cask, the wood worn, the hoops shiny. I placed it beside the trunk.
“I told you I was a cooper,” I said, removing the lid and setting it aside. “I made each of these barrels by hand.”
I watched him carefully for a sign, for something to sway my conviction: a clever appeal, a heartfelt proclamation, a promise. The man was brilliant with the soul of a mad poet, and yet he simply stared at me.
“Very well,” I said aloud and stepped closer.
“All your talk of blood and transformation, I thought you might try to turn me into some undead creature,” said Kennedy with a nervous laugh.
“Most definitely not,” I said, patting him gently on the head. “No such thing.”
I pulled him up from the chair and led him toward the oversized barrel, which lay on its size. Kennedy was intoxicated now, his movements clumsy and slow.
“What is all this?” he asked, his speech slurring. “Some kind of a game?”
“Not a game, Kennedy,” I said. “A sacrifice. Yours.” I pushed him down into the barrel, trying to be as gentle as possible. He struggled with frantic energy, but I quickly replaced the lid of the cask and sealed it shut.
“Why, Cooper? Why?” he asked, his voice muffled and panicked. He began to bang against the inside of the barrel.
“I said you were clever, but I did not say you were worthy,” I answered.
When I rolled the cask back toward the large room, he began to scream. I placed it in position, then walked away, stopping first to taste the red liquid that dripped from the adjoining cask. I could hear Kennedy’s cries as I walked through my corridor of bones.
“Rest in peace, my friend,” I whispered into the night and slowly walked back up the stone steps.
Valya Dudycz Lupescu is the author of Amazon bestselling novel, The Silence of Trees, and founding editor of Conclave: A Journal of Character. Valya earned her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her poetry and prose have appeared in several journals, including Gone Lawn, Mythic Delirium, Scheherezade’s Bequest, Abyss & Apex, Jersey Devil Press, Fickle Muses, Sentence, Danse Macabre, and The Pedestal Magazine. Valya is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc. Her second book, The Supper Club, is currently on submission. You can follow her on twitter @Valya and read more on her website: www.vdlupescu.com.
Inspired by local culture, music and other art forms, Mark Scicluna works mainly in illustration and concept art, varying his distinctive style from sketchy character designs to highly detailed graphics both in traditional and digital media. Responsible for several book illustrations, Mark won two Illustrator of the Year Awards at the Malta National Book Awards. Mark works as a lecturer at MCAST Institute of Art & Design in Malta and is also responsible for designing weekly cartoons for MaltaToday. His current projects involve drawing ‘A Space Boy Dream‘.