I trembled in front of the firing squad in the most serious culinary competition on the planet, ÜberChef USA. I'd suffered enough in a cold water flat. Haggled with my landlord to lower the rent out of respect for the puny lock, roaches, low–grade plumbing. Debt. Why audition for a culinary contest in the first place, when you didn't know how to cook? Oh that's right, I reminded my frazzled blonde self. Because you couldn't find a real job and making a fool of yourself on TV would be easy money.
"Who are you?" Chef, the master judge, said, as if he'd forgotten where he was. He polished his sunglasses with his shirt cuff and placed them into his front pocket. I was vaguely aware of a hole in the armpit of my too tight blouse.
"Greta," came out in a whisper. "Greta Gupenheimer."
"What do you do for a living, Gupenheimer?" Slick, the second judge said, smoothing his trousers. A judge who'd remind us again and again that second judge did not mean second best.
"Nothing," I said. "Paint."
"Blank canvases." Cymbals clashed in the background.
"My family immigrated from Leipzig. I'm a first generation German American."
"The western part of Germany is better than the eastern part," Gram chimed in. Gram, our third and final judge, acted solely as tie–breaker.
Three suited men stepped from the shadows and nodded, indicating that my chance to establish a cultural bond with him just showed up. "Oh! Are you from the west side?" I said to Gram.
"Yes," Gram said. "The west side of Chicago." Cymbals.
"Do you always wear holes in your clothes?" Slick said.
"What have you got for us, First Generation?" Chef said, impatiently, "hole or not."
"Sweet and sour duck with oranges," I said, spooning sauce over it. At that moment I was proud of my dish. There was hope. Maybe I really could cook, but still I wondered if a meal spun from a bird and a piece of fruit can change a girl's life. Sure it can. It had to. Tar was about to become my home. A homeless girl with one less blouse. I swallowed hard and handed Chef my plate.
"Those are tangerines," he said. He lifted the plate over his head and studied the bottom as if he'd miraculously find a navel orange hanging around.
I glanced at the citrus. "I grew up around meat. My parents used to own a butcher shop in New York? But the business went belly–up."
"I can tell by that shirt," Slick said.
"Sequestration. Exordium. Abhorrent. Epistemology," Chef said.
"My parents abandoned ship in NY after they'd gone bankrupt. They tucked themselves safely back inside their motherland aiming for a better living, leaving me behind."
Three synchronous voices from the shadows said, "Turn to the audience and say it."
An appeal for violins. The camera hot in my face.
I turned to the audience as if I were remote–controlled. Public speaking was not my forté. A life–size pawn on a game board. I lifted my torn armpit, slightly up. Now a marionette. "I phoned my father, asking if I could come home. All he said was, It's not me. It's your mother. But before I'd had a chance to reconcile our differences, to convince them that I was better, that I was—clean, tragedy struck and they followed the trend of getting killed on a capsized ferry off the coast of a very foreign country."
No violins. Not even the clash of a cymbal.
"Sure that's duck?" Slick said. I remained wobbling in front of the camera. I knew I was wobbling because the cameraman made a motion as if he were bouncing an invisible basketball. The puppet master signaling me to become inert. The puppet master was remarkably handsome.
I turned back around. Slick's mouth was a faucet I couldn't shut off. A maelstrom of words. "Squab. A dirty bird. A fiasco. A debacle. A washout. A snafu."
"Duck. Sweet and sour orangey—duck," I said in a voice phlegmatic as death.
"Tangerine squab," Slick said. "And I'll pass." He rested his hands on his knees. His head bobbled like the ceramic doll my father didn't buy me at a Mets game once.
"I won't pass," Gram said. He lifted the fork up to his lips and faked a bite.
Chef sneered at Gram, "Did you save any for me?" but Gram didn't answer him because it was a rhetorical question. "You confuse me, Greta. You're German yet you cook Chinese," Chef said. He poked around the plate as he chewed. I stood there preparing myself for his expert analysis. "Sweet and sour," he said. He tilted his head. "The bill is a bit sticky." He pulled a feather from his mouth. "What did you think, Gram?"
"Turpentine," Gram said.
"It's sweet and sour duck," I said, defending my dish.
"It is what we say it is," Chef said to me. He turned to Gram. "What brand of turpentine crossed your mind?"
Gram glanced up while fingering his chin. "Talens Rectified 032, and yours?"
Chef stared at my plate, "Well, I was thinking along the lines of Winsor and Newton. Come here and settle the argument, will you Joe?"
"No," Slick said and folded his arms across his chest.
Chef turned to me. In a pedagogical tone, he said, "And furthermore Greta, you are a—how shall I put it?—a culinaria poneret clade." The men in suits shook their heads slowly, forcing Chef to revise his lines. "Stand to the side, Gupenheimer. Maybe we'll come back for you, depending on how the others do," he said, shooting his forever puzzled face at those men.
Playing hardball put Chef in the catbird seat. A game he could afford to play. His role as a judge spun platinum for SHAX network. Some would tune in just to see him bury Slick in their word slam, others to see the contestants get ridiculed while they cooked. My interest lay somewhere in between, but in the end it was gratifying to see who had risen above all the bombast and emerge as the season's ÜberChef.
The audience clapped as I sashayed a few feet away from the presentation counter. I mouthed to a woman close by, "Who are those men?" referring to the suits.
"The producers," she mouthed back. "The pro–du–cers," she mouthed again, as if I were eye-deaf.
The audience kept clapping and wouldn't stop and this scared me. No matter what, they clapped whenever the sign flashed. It flashed and flashed and flashed. I was self–conscious of everyone staring at me.
But it wasn't me they saw. And this scared me even more.