Food Network Backlot: Train to Flavortown

by Tabitha Blankenbiller

It was a light crowd for a Friday afternoon. In fact, the entire train car was empty save for Ferry and the woman sitting next to him. In another circumstance he may have bristled over the affront to his personal space, when a dozen other seats were vacant. But there was something quiet about this woman that lulled his nerves. Not just quiet. Poised. The way her back arced her shoulders to an even keel, even as the train slammed to a sharp stop.

“Grease,” he muttered.

“Excuse me?” Her eyes flicked from the opposite headrest she’d spent the ride staring at to catch him glance out the window. The hushed inside, the lurching outside—this wasn’t a slamma-lamma-ding-dong trip. Something was off.

“Oh, grease delay,” he repeated. The woman stared, not a muscle on her face twitching. Did she even blink? It was difficult to place her, like he could turn away for a moment and totally forget what she looked like. Ferry couldn’t hide. Not with the rough tics and the hands jabbing staccatos into every conversation. The attention kept him wheelin’ and dealin’, coming up with the steals and making the deals. He was a mack-daddy who survived by standing out.

“Grease delay,” he said once more. “We should be back to full-throttle in a jiff, but there’s a lot of grease paving the path to Flavortown.”

The woman did not nod, but tilted her gaze ever so to the left to see the view herself. No marinara monsoon, no blitzkrieg of bacon. Nothing but awesome blossoms as far as the eye could see.

“Everything looks on the money,” she said, and her eyes shifted back to the empty seat. Later he would rerun this line in his head, stretching and dissecting her cadence, trying to decide if she’d meant it as her own quiet joke or if she was giving him a hint, testing his smarts. But his mind was stuck on grease. Soppin’ and moppin’ grease. You don’t see grease, Ferry wanted to tell her. It ran down the track and through the roads, gave the slammin’ sammies their sheen and made the sauce boss. Looking out a window for grease was like doubting a gust of wind. It was elemental. It was ephemera. He knew this, thought everyone did. It was the goddamn town motto, engraved at brass Kid Rock’s feet: Love, Peace and Taco Grease!

“Have you ever been to Flavortown?” he asked, because yeah. Maybe she was a vegetarian.

“Mmmm,” she murmured. “Yes. A few times.”

“The train’s definitely the way to go, even when it gets a little bumpy,” he said. “I’ve been up and down the town every way that’s paved. Rocket launcher to Flavortown, space shuttle to Flavortown, the Zeppelin Crash to Corned Beef Hash…”

“That’s in the suburbs,” she cut in.

“Well, I’ve gotta be everywhere.”

“And why is that?” He chuckled, waiting for the ring of her laughter to harmonize his own. But she just sat, and stared, until he could belly-bray no longer.

“You… you know who I am right?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“The Mayor of Flavortown?” These words must cross his lips fifty times a day, but never as news. Never to someone who wasn’t trying to recommend him their favorite burger joint or local hangout, or stuff a smokin’ take on huevos rancheros down his throat. Never to a blank slate of a woman who now, at least, ticked the corner of her lips into the faintest smile.

“So you’re the Mayor of Flavortown, huh?” She shifted in her seat, tugged the cuffs of her cardigan sweater further down her wrists.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

He could feel a fresh dew of sweat slicking the sunglasses at the base of his neck. If she didn’t know who he was—really, truly didn’t know—why the seat next to the stranger when she had the pick of a whole empty car?

“Well Mr. Mayor, I guess that means you don’t know who I am, either.” Her tiny smile slid into a grin, and she tipped forward, giving her shoulders a shimmy-shake to free her sweater from her shoulders. Midnight slashes of ink gouged into her flawless skin and for a beautiful, perfect moment, he was in love. Until he focused. He always took too long to focus.

A skull with a chef’s hat, and the inscription in beloved Ed Hardy typography: KULINARY GANTSTA.

His hand shot up to the call button, but she only laughed. “Ferry, please. You still think a little grease delay stopped your train to Flavortown?” She stood up slowly, her sweater drooping to reveal the sickest, most shredded figure he’d seen this side of Restaurant: Impossible. “Then again, you don’t think about much, do you?”

“Who sent you?”

“Just because you’ve got burgers that could choke an elephant and 8,000-calorie pancake stacks doesn’t mean you have the monopoly on gut-busting, oversold, underheated food, you know.”

“Applebee’s,” he spat.

“All they wanted was an endorsement, and you turned them down. Made them chase after that limp noodle, steak in a cold pan, Tyler Bore-nce.”

“I tried to make it work! They didn’t like the contract!”

“What, you mean like they didn’t like you browbeating them into paying for a, what was it, private jet to Flavortown?! Bit excessive for a public servant’s compensation, don’t you think?”

Maybe she was waiting for a tic of remorse as she stood there with her wicked guns folded—an apology, a string of bargains. But all he could think about was that science video they made him watch in seventh grade, showing how the vascular system shut down. Years of plaque and fat building colonies in his veins, a million globs clamoring for space, jamming into rush hour bloodflow gridlock. Every plate, every bite stuffed into his anaconda jaw shoveling together, thousands of rice grains in the jambalaya of his doom.

“Wha… whaddya want?”

“You know what I want. I want what they want.”

“A commercial?”

“Oh please, Mayor. They’re way past being friends.” He could feel his mammoth heart in his eardrums, in his fingertips. “Wait, you really don’t know?” Her meticulous supervillain script had given him too much credit—he was a Kulinary Ambassador, after all. “The Donkey Sauce, you idiot!”

“You want Donkey Sauce? There’s an avalanche of Donkey Sauce in Flavortown!”

“THE RECIPE.”

“That’s bankruptcy! You know that’s the glue, right? What sends everything over the edge? I can’t make killer eats without that sauce!”

“You’re just dying to find out what I’m going to do to you, aren’t you?” Her voice pole-vaulted up a giddy octave. “You know, Mr. Mayor, I always thought it was funny that a man who elevated the diner to holy shrine-level hid his Kryptonite in breakfast. Is funny the word I’m looking for here? Or is it RIDONKULOUS??!”

“Please. Please. I’ll make ‘em the Donkey Sauce. I’ll send as much as they want over. Mayor of Flavortown Approved! They can put it on every menu they’ve got!”

“Too bad, but they’ve already got a face. Now they just need that middle America kulinary krack you’ve been perfecting. Chef Tyler might not have all the flair and funk that you do, but he can make the most perfect, transcendent…” she took a breath, and right on practiced cue stepped Tyler Florence in a Yumtrak chef’s coat, a plate of cumulous and sunshine balanced on his fingertips. “Eggs.” His heart, dumb lug, let out a whimper. He was toast. Toad in a hole.

“Now we can have Tyler set down this fresh breakfast platter he’s so meticulously prepared in the dining car in order to take notes,” she said, stabbing a sunny-side-up contender. The bile pussed from the wound, flooding the plate’s rim with liquid chicken. “But that’s your choice.”

“Ro-Gar.”

“Huh?”

“Roasted garlic.” The Kulinary Gangsta took the plate from Tyler and, as he scrawled, stuffed the whole desecrated fetus into her mouth. Don’t blow up, he begged his heart. Don’t blow up. Don’tbllowup. “Mayo. Wire-shire.”

“Wire-shire?” she repeated.

“You know, the wicked condi with the most sicktastic name in the game?”

She stared at Tyler. “Worcestershire?” he offered.

“That’s the one. Hot dog mustard, and a little SNP.”

“Salt and pepper,” said Tyler. “I took Flavortongue my freshman year.” Douche.

“And?” asked KG.

“And what?”

“The secret ingredient?”

“What secret ingredient?”

“You are the worst liar in the game,” she said, and in less than a breath her knee stabbed into his thigh, the plate quivering right beneath his nose. “So help me Cheesus I will puke up this entire plate of eggs and you’ll be brunching baby bird style.”

“GREASE!” cried the mayor. She loosened her jam but still hovered, the confusion mirrored on Tyler’s face. “Grease! Grease! It’s grease!”

“What kind of grease?”

“Any grease! Guy-Talian Fondue Dippers Grease, Big Bite Burger Grease, Parmageddon Wing Grease, Guido Taquito Grease… whatever’s in the traps, goes in the sauce.”

She stood back slowly. “I really might hurl.” His head lolled to his chest, wondering how long he’d dangle before the snap. The shot.

“HEY.” A rough shove to his shoulder. KG was inches from his nose, the sweater drawn around her shoulders like a shawl. “Somebody’s coming, okay? They had to stop the train, but there’s a helicopter or something on the way. Stay with me, yeah?”

He rolled his head against his shoulder, but Tyler was gone. Nothing but shadow. Cool, pure dark. An empty new road to the untasted, unclogged. Ungreased. His shoulders relaxed; the feeling sank to his toes. Time to head outta bounds.

 


Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in a number of journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart, Passages North and Brevity. She is also a noted hoarder of condiments and accomplished pint glass thief. For food porn and cat pics, follow her @tabithablanken.

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