The Potato Festival
‘Mark!’ called a voice.
Mark, a red Kacheek, dimly heard the voice but could not identify its owner. He mumbled something and resumed his slumber.
‘MARK!’ the voice called, louder and more insistent this time. ‘Get up, you lazy Kacheek! UP!’
The blankets were pulled off him and he instantly felt cold for there was a chill wind blowing that morning. He curled up on his straw bed and grabbed at his pillows.
The voice’s owner began to pull at his legs and soon Mark found himself on the wooden floor of his bedroom in the cottage, wide awake and looking up at his elder sister, Elena, a blue Kacheek.
Elena was already dressed for a day’s hard work in the fields. She had on a rough-spun, unadorned shirt with the sleeves pushed up and blue shorts, as well as a straw hat perched on her head.
‘You are the heaviest sleeper I have ever met in my life.’ She shook her head mockingly.
‘I was having the BEST dream,’ Mark complained, begrudgingly getting up from the floor. ‘You just HAD to go ahead and ruin it.’
‘Oh, what was the dream then?’ she asked. ‘That we’re filthy stupidly rich? That we live in a huge mansion in Faerieland? With butlers and servants? Get real, Mark. The only way that would happen is if we won the lottery about five times in a row, and no one is THAT lucky.’
‘A Kacheek can dream, can’t he?’ Mark retorted, sifting through his clothes in the makeshift trunk at the end of his bed – his bed, namely, a bale of hay with sheets on it. The clothes all consisted of simple, rough shirts, shorts and pants and a straw hat.
‘We have a lot of work to do,’ Elena scolded. ‘Dad’s already started hours ago. We have to go and help him.’
Mark grumbled. He took his clothes into the outhouse outside his room and got dressed there, then he dumped his clothes in the pile of dirty laundry and trooped to the kitchen for breakfast. He rummaged around in the cupboards and pantry, and found nothing to eat. Not even a single biscuit. All that was there was a jug of now-cold hot cocoa standing next to the stove.
‘Hey, Elena, where’s breakfast?’
Elena looked a bit sad as she said, ‘The food ran out yesterday, and we – well, we don’t have much money for food. The bills are going to come in today and we need to pay that first before we buy food.’
‘Hmph,’ Mark grumbled, pulling a sour face at his sister. This wasn’t the first time they were in a no-food situation. Ever since Mark and Elena’s mother died two years ago, they were in this kind of situation at the very least twice a month. Until the bills were paid, they could not buy more food.
Mark found a wooden cup and filled it with cold cocoa. He drank it, then followed his sister out into the fields.
Their father, Jack, was already working at the beetroots. He was putting fertilizer onto the beetroots. He looked up as his two children joined him at the beetroot patch and smiled at them. He was a green Kougra, and there were glasses perched on his nose.
‘Nice to see you up, Mark,’ he said. Mark and Elena called him Papa, but his name was Peter.
‘Yeah, Papa,’ Mark said, smiling in return. ‘How’re the beetroots today, Papa?’
‘Doing wonderfully, my boy,’ Papa replied. ‘I’m almost done here. You can help me out with the potatoes.’
He looked a bit wistful as he said ‘potatoes.’ Elena and Mark knew why.
Every year, during the Fall, Meridell had the annual Potato Festival, and there were many potato-related contests, games and food during the Festival. It was good fun, and Papa always took them to play games and feast on the potato-foods there.
One of the contests was Best Dish Consisting Mostly of Potatoes. Their mother had always participated before her death. It was a sort of tradition that ran in her family, and it had been carried on for many years.
But when Mama died, Papa was too heartbroken to continue the tradition. Elena and Mark had tried to convince him to enter one of them for it, but he had always refused, and only took them to the Festival for the games and food, and avoided the Best Dish Consisting Mostly of Potatoes contest.
‘Papa,’ Elena began slowly and quietly, ‘Papa, can we enter the Best Dish contest this year? The Festival is in a week.’
Papa looked thoughtful. He breathed a sigh of sadness, and with tears in his eyes, he nodded at his two children, deciding that, just this once, he would allow his children to carry on the tradition that his wife had carried on.
‘Really, Papa?’ Mark exclaimed in delight. ‘Thank you!’
Mark turned to his sister. ‘I’ll help you with your dish,’ he said. ‘The contestants ARE allowed help from their family.’
Elena nodded. ‘This time, we will win! We could try and re-create some of Mama’s best recipes, or create our own.’
At that moment, Ruben, a family friend of theirs, came up the path and jumped over the fence surrounding the fields, making his way through the carrots to reach them. He was a red Kougra, and was the son of Papa’s best friend from Neoschool.
‘Good morning, Mark, Elena, and Mr. Peter!’ he greeted them brightly. ‘Guess what? I’ve just heard from my friend in the Castle. This year, the winners of the contests will receive prize money of at least ten thousand neopoints!’
‘Wow!’ Elena exclaimed. ‘That is great! If we win...’
‘That money would be enough to feed us for some time,’ Papa confirmed. ‘You must do your best, kids – not for the neopoints – but for your mother.’
Elena and Mark nodded solemnly, for they understood just how important winning the contest meant to Papa.
‘Speaking of potatoes...’ Papa said.
‘Ah, yes, the potato patch,’ Elena said. ‘Come on, Mark.’
They moved to the well-cared-for potato patch. Shipping vegetables and fruits to the Neopian shops and selling them to locals was how they made neopoints each day. It was just enough to keep them alive, but not enough for Mark to go to Neoschool. When their mother was still alive, she used to make extra money by doing alterations and selling pretty handmade clothes and things, for she was a wizard with the sewing needles.
Before this year, the Best Dish contest only had a prize money of around three thousand neopoints, enough to keep their bellies full for a month.
But this year, with ten thousand neopoints they could thrive for two months or so.
They HAD to win it.
After working in the fields all morning, the family trooped over to Ruby’s house for lunch. Ruben’s mother was a great cook and was the winner for Meri Acres when it came to the Greatest Mashed Potatoes contest. Ruben’s family was thriving better than Mark’s family, and they were quite generous enough to supply meals each time the bills came along.
As the three sat down at Ruben’s kitchen, Ruben’s mother served them bowls of soup, salad, sandwiches and chicken.
As Elena and Mark dug into the food, they discussed the Potato Festival – what games there would be this year, what food they’d serve, and if there will be a new contest of some sort. The two looked forward to this event every year – everyone in Meri Acres did.
After their meal, Elena and Mark helped Papa put all the freshly picked vegetables and fruits into boxes and take them to their stall at the Meridell marketplace. They deftly and quickly set up the stall and neatly arranged all the vegetables and fruits on the stall’s tables.
They made a good trade that day, making two thousand neopoints.
Elena and Mark had saved some of the potatoes for the potato-dish experiments that they conducted as soon as they cleaned up the stall and returned to their cottage for dinner.
They came up with all sorts of ideas and used whatever they had to create seemingly delicious potato dishes.
‘It’s a good thing the Best Dish contest has winners categorized by places in Meridell,’ Elena said to Mark as she mashed potatoes. ‘If not, we don’t stand a chance of winning something.’
The day of the Potato Festival duly arrived, the morning bright and sunny. From their cottage window, Mark, Elena and Papa could see Neopians setting up the stalls and tables and stages for the Festival. Crates and crates of potatoes were stacked to one side as the largest stage was erected in the centre of the Festival location.
‘I really hope we win,’ Elena murmured. ‘We worked ages to perfect our recipe.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Mark said.
‘Well, we should get dressed,’ Elena suggested. ‘We need to wear something remotely decent and nice to make a good impression on the judges.’
So Elena sifted through both her clothes and her brother’s to find something even remotely decent. At last, tucked away at the bottom of the trunk of clothes were the clothes that Mama had made – her nicest work.
Elena dressed in a colorfully knitted skirt and a lavender sweater. She folded up the sleeves and found a bow to put on her head, then gave Mark a slightly rough blue button-down shirt and dark brown pants.
They gathered all the ingredients and kitchen implements that they’d use to make their potato dish, then began to make their way toward the Potato Festival.
Neopians were still busy setting up things for the Festival.
Papa was busy in the potato patch, watering and looking after the potatoes and planting new ones, for yesterday’s sales of potatoes had been quite good, probably because of the upcoming Potato Festival.
The Potato Festival was not a Neopia-wide celebration, for only the Meridell locals came to the Festival. Besides the Potato Festival, they also had the Gruel Festival, the Meat Festival and the Squashed Food Items Festival. Of all these Festivals, the Potato Festival was most popular.
Mark passed a stall with many potatoes laid out on it. A yellow Kacheek dressed in what looked like a brown potato sack, shorts and a holey blue beret grinned at them from behind the stall. On the shelves behind him were an assortment of prizes – books, fruits and vegetables, pastries, clothing items from the second-hand clothing shop and tiny bags of neopoints that probably held no more than a hundred neopoints. It was then that Mark realized that this was the Potato Counter stall.
‘Good morning, young Kacheek. Would you care to count the potatoes?’ asked the stall owner.
‘Sure,’ Mark agreed. He loved to count things and Potato Counter was his ace favorite game during the Potato Festival. He laid down the things he had been carrying and began to count the potatoes on the table quickly.
‘Sixty-seven potatoes,’ he answered firmly after counting them all.
‘I see you are a great mathematician.’ The stall owner nodded. He reached up one of the top shelves behind him and took down a bag of neopoints. ‘You did it in thirty-three seconds, so you win ninety neopoints.’
Mark took the bag of neopoints from he stall owner and grinned happily.
‘We could get ourselves some potato souvenirs with this,’ Elena said observantly. ‘Come on, then, Mark. The contest doesn’t start for another hour, but we have to register for the contest and set up the stuff at our table before we can have fun going round the stalls.’
Mark picked up the sack of potatoes and whisk that he had been carrying and followed his sister to the second-largest stage at the Festival. A Skeith holding a clipboard and pen and wearing a suit and tie with a sash across his protruding belly stood at the middle of the stage, writing down names of Neopians participating in the contest.
As Mark and Elena approached him, they saw that the sash read “Head Potato Dish Judge”.
The two siblings approached the judge. He looked up at them from his clipboard and scrutinized them. From his eyes, Mark and Elena could tell he wasn’t one to mess with.
‘Your names are...?’ he said, tapping the tip of his pen against the clipboard.
‘I’m Elena, and this is my brother Mark,’ Elena said quickly. ‘We are here to participate in the Best Dish Consisting Mostly of Potatoes contest.’
Suddenly the judge’s hard, penetrating stare vanished and he beamed brightly at the two Kacheeks. He chuckled and shook his head, then wrote their names down on one of the papers clipped to his clipboard.
‘Of course I know who you are, young lads,’ he said. ‘Your mother always entered, and I did wonder why she broke the tradition last year. I meant to ask you what became of her when you came for the Festival games last year, but I was kept busy right ‘til the end of the Festival. What did happen to your mother?’
Mark and Elena looked down and Elena replied sadly, ‘She died, sir. Had a deadly serious case of Neopox. I mean, at her age... Neopox is fatal.’
‘Ah,’ said the judge. ‘I give my sincerest condolences to your family. She was a fine cook, she was. Please, me lads, call me Daniel. I do hope you tow have inherited your mother’s talents. Just because I know your mother well does not guarantee you a victory in this contest.’
‘We know that, sir – I mean, Mr. Daniel,’ Mark replied. ‘We’re doing this to honor the family tradition. Even if we didn’t win, it’d be okay.’
‘That’s good of you, lads,’ Mr. Daniel said, ‘but I daresay your family needs the prize neopoints.’
‘We do,’ Elena agreed, ‘but we are prepared to accept failure if we must. Though we surely hope it is victory that is to be accepted!’
‘Right then,’ Mr. Daniel said. He pointed at one of the tables that had been set up for the contestants. ‘That’s your table. Set up your things and make sure you are back in time for the contest.’
The two Kacheek siblings nodded and moved over to their table to set up their cooking items. Elena set out the yeast, pickles, salt, pepper, soup pot, homemade salsa and mayonnaise, while Mark set out the whisk, wooden spoon, mixing bowl, firewood, frying pan, and baby potatoes fresh from their patch.
When they had finished the preparations, Mark and Elena separated, each trailing off in different directions – Mark to the games and Elena to the Potato Sculpting contest, in which she had wanted to participate but her sculpting skills were simply no match for everyone else’s.
Mark played the various games stalls set up on the lush green grass. He won prizes and had good fun, and also got himself potato sandwiches, potato salad and potato water from the long, sturdy tables groaning with tantalizing foods, mostly potato-related, that stood at the foot of the largest stage in the Festival.
Elena sat herself down on the grass and watched as the adroit potato sculpting artists got to work, producing beautiful and amazing results. Someone had even managed to sculpt a miniature King Skarl on a miniature throne. Elena marveled at the beautiful potato sculptures and envied the sculpting artists who had such amazing skill.
Forty-five minutes later, Elena and Mark met up at their table. The contest was just about to start, and Mr. Daniel was seated with panel of judges on the stage. An orange Skeith in a robe was explaining the rules and regulations to the contestants.
When he had finished, he blew the gold whistle dangling from his fat neck and the contest started. All around them, cooks of all ages and species began to cook their potato dish.
Mark and Elena quickly began. Mark deftly peeled the skin off the baby potatoes and gave them to Elena, who put them into the mixing bowl and mashed them up. Mark pushed the potato skins off to one side and spooned a dollop of mayonnaise onto the mashed potatoes. As Elena mixed them, he poured in some yeast and started building the fire to cook the potatoes.
When he’d had a good fire started up, Elena spooned the mixture of potatoes, mayonnaise and yeast onto the frying pan and stirred the mixture over the flames. Mark peeled and sliced the tomatoes and diced the pickles.
Once the mixture had been cooked, Elena laid the results on their table – the yeast had caused the potato and mayonnaise to rise, making a sort of potato-and-mayonnaise cake. Mark cut the ‘cake’ into thin slices. It was just like flatbread, and this was just how they’d planned it. Elena put tomatoes and pickles and leftover potato salad onto the slices, smothered them in sweet-and-spicy homemade salsa (their mother’s original recipe) and rolled them up, the same way a burrito is rolled up. To finish off the ensemble, Elena neatly piled the burritos in a pyramid on a large plate and Mark placed the potato skins around the burritos.
An hour and thirty minutes later, the official blew his gold whistle, signaling the end of the contest. Everyone quickly finished off their potato dishes.
The panel of judges moved from table to table, taste-testing all of the potato dishes. Sometime there would be an expression of disgust on their faces, and sometimes there would be a surprised look, like they’d never tasted anything so good.
At last, they came to Elena and Mark’s table.
Each of the judges took a burrito and took a large bite.
‘This is wonderful!’ one of the judges exclaimed. ‘What do you call these?’
‘Potato Salad Burritos,’ Elena replied. ‘The burrito bread was made out of potatoes, mayonnaise and yeast, and we filled the burritos with sliced tomatoes and pickles and spread homemade salsa with potato chunks and also put in some more potato salad in.’
‘I must say it is quite tantalizing,’ Mr. Daniel said. The judges wrote something down on their clipboards and moved on to the remaining tables. At the last one, Mr. Daniel exclaimed, ‘My goodness! This is the best dish I have ever tasted in my life!’
Elena and Mark shared a worried look.
‘Do you think whoever made that great dish will win?’ Elena whispered to Mark.
‘I sure hope not,’ Mark replied.
After twenty minutes of discussion, the judges came to a decision. Mr. Daniel came up to the stage front to announce the winners.
‘It is my pleasant duty to announce the winners of the Best Dish Consisting Mostly of Potatoes contest,’ he said. ‘First prize goes to... Mrs. Weissheit, for her incredible Potato Roast.’
An elderly Wocky walked up to the stage, her wizened eyes shining with pride as she shook Mr. Daniel’s paw and received the first-prize money of twenty-thousand neopoints.
Elena bit her lip. Mark’s paw was balled up in a tight fist. They had not won first prize.
‘Second prize,’ Mr. Daniel went on as Mrs. Weissheit left the stage, ‘goes to Tina Leon for her delicious Potato Pie with Apple Filling!’
A young Xweetok walked onstage and gratefully received fifteen-thousand neopoints.
‘And,’ Mr. Daniel said, ‘third prize goes to...’
Mark and Elena were chanting magic words under their breath, hoping against hope that THEY were the third-prize winners.
‘Third prize is won by Sammy Jons!’
A handsome Lupe bounded onstage and accepted his prize of ten-thousand neopoints.
Elena and Mark felt mortified. They hadn’t even won third prize! How disappointing!
‘Well,’ Elena said, trying to cheer them up, ‘at least we honored the family tradition.’
‘Before I officially close this year’s Best Dish Consisting Mostly of Potatoes contest,’ Mr. Daniel said, ‘I would like to offer a consolation prize, which goes to... Elena and Mark Peter, for their tantalizing Potato Salad Burritos!’
‘That’s us!’ Elena exclaimed joyfully. She pulled Mark’s paw and bounded onstage to receive their consolation prize.
‘You did great, lads,’ Mr. Daniel said. ‘Here’s six thousand neopoints.’
‘Thanks so much, Mr. Daniel,’ Elena said.
When they returned home that day, they immediately told Papa what had happened.
‘Papa!’ they shouted, running into their cottage, waving the bag of neopoints. ‘We won a consolation prize! Six thousand NP!’
Papa smiled proudly at them. ‘I knew you could do it, kids.’
‘We didn’t win first prize,’ Mark told him, ‘but we won a consolation prize, and that must have meant our recipe was good, right?’
‘Of course,’ Papa replied. ‘Do you kids mind making us dinner? Make those Potato Salad Burritos of yours.’
‘With pleasure, Papa,’ Elena replied, going over to the kitchen.
‘Ah,’ Papa said quietly to himself, ‘if only their mother could see them now...’