It started with stew. A simple stew, bubbling away on the hearth. Leeks, carrots, green beans, peas, and other assorted vegetables swirled in the strong, sweet smelling broth.
But I wasn't very happy to be sitting, in the stifling heat of the fireplace, stirring the stew. I hated stew. Everything about it. If ever there was a boring meal, it was stew. Besides, I should be off in the field, tending the vegetables with my brothers. How was I ever going to learn anything sitting in here cooking? My brothers already thought I was enough of a failure, without knowing about my... domestic chores.
I lifted the smooth wooden spoon to my lips and took a small taste. Ugh, it really was as awful as I remembered. It wasn't that it didn't all taste good together, but there was no imagination! I sighed and looked across the room to the kitchen counters. Anything was better than staring at that infernal stew.
Tcheas. My eyes focused on them. I thought of the complex, sweetly bitter taste of the Tchea. It would mix with the slightly bitter vegetables and sweet broth perfectly! Excitedly, I peeked around the room, trying to look casual. No, Mother wasn't back yet, and everyone else was in the field. I ran silently into the kitchen and quickly cut two Tcheas in half, scrambling to get back to my place by the hearth, lest anyone should come in and discover me "contaminating" the stew.
With growing excitement, I squeezed the Tchea halves over the stew. I saw the light blue juices disappear into the brown broth. It didn't even change colors as I squeezed the last half in. No one would know what I'd done... Tcheas were picked for free, so no one kept track of them. And if it went bad, well, at least I'd never be left to keep track of it again.
A new smell wafted up from the big iron pot. It was tantalizing. Sweet and strong. Carefully, I dipped the larger stirring spoon into the stew and took out a mouthful. I blew on it, cooling it to taste. Closing my eyes, I took the first bite.
Flavor exploded in my mouth. Somehow each vegetable tasted more like itself than it should. A simpler, more sumptuous version of itself. And all those flavors combined to make the most savory thing I'd ever tasted. I took another spoonful, savoring each bite. I couldn't taste the Tchea juice, and yet I knew that it was that which had made all the flavors combine unto this unique and delicious taste.
I sighed happily. Finally, something with a little flavor would hit the dinner table. I couldn't quite explain why, but our boring dinners had always bothered me. When no one was around, I'd experiment with different meats and cheeses on my sandwiches. There wasn't much choice, but I'd find new combinations all the time.
I was careful to keep these experiments a secret. After all, I was supposed to be focused on growing good vegetables and fruits for our farm. That's what young neopets did where I come from- you did as your father had done before you. Of course, some deviated from that, if they were especially talented one way or another.
And how I had longed for such a talent! Anything to take me away from the back breaking labor of the farm. My brothers enjoyed the hard work, but I hated to even have a blister at the end of the day. But, unless some talent magically appeared, I would have this to look forward to for the rest of my life.
Tamor came in the front door, swinging his long blue tail, startling me out of my reverie. I jumped up away from the pot. Best not to let Tamor catch me stirring the pot, or there'd be no end of trouble. Tamor spotted me and came striding over. "Hey, little brother," he said, grabbing me in a headlock.
"Mrrrf mrrr oootm," I tried to get out, indignantly.
Gerran walked in just in time. "C'mon, Tamor, let him go. Dad'll be in a bit and you know he doesn't like us mussing up the brat."
Tamor let me go with a dark look at Gerran. Generally, Gerran would join in the torture, but my father was not one to mess with when it came to rough housing. "If you are not tired enough to engage in a quiet activity, you must not have worked hard enough in the day," he was fond of saying, "So, I'm sure we can find you something to get your energy out."
My father valued hard work above anything else. Of course, running the largest vegetable farm in both Shenkuu and Altador, it was no wonder. Our family worked hard and we had a prospering business.
It was assumed my brothers and I would just take over the business when Father was too old to run it anymore. Gerran as the leader, and Tamor and I would just do as we had always done. I just went with it, slightly bored with the whole thing, but without a thought to do anything else.
Father came in and we hastily set the table. The stew boiled in the pot, and he sniffed over it delicately. A faint frown of puzzlement crossed his features, but he shrugged and came to the table.
We were already seated. We could set the table in the blink of an eye. Father insisted that everything we do be done quickly, in order to get the most done in the least amount of time. And while we didn't exactly fear our father, we did always do as we were told. He just had a sense of commanding us, and we never thought to question him or his decisions.
Mother ladled out the stew. We all sat quietly as she quickly doled it out and served us each a piece of bread. We all picked up our spoons and scooped out a large bite. Working in the fields hones your appetite like little else can.
Everyone tasted the soup at the exact same time. I knew it was amazing, so little like what we usually had. Everyone's eyes widened, and there was an intake of breath.
"Ninalee, what did you do to this stew?" my father said quietly. We all looked to my mother.
"Nothing. I made it as I usually do."
"This tastes nothing like it usually does."
"He was supposed to be watching the stew!" Tamor piped up, pointing at me.
"Son?" My father turned his eyes on me, "What happened to dinner?"
"D-Do you like it?" I asked, tremulously.
"What happened?" His tone said he would take nothing less than an answer.
"I just added Tchea juice to it."
His eyes widened. And then, my father did something he never did before. He smiled. "Son! This is a wonderful dinner! I have been worried about you. The fields don't interest you, you don't roughhouse with your brothers, you don't seem to have any interests. But this... this is a masterpiece."
Tamor looked about to wet his pants. Gerran nodded and smiled at me. Mother looked relieved. And father just tucked in, slurping and chewing loudly.
A million things flooded my mind as I watched my family eat the altered stew. They were murmuring appreciatively and eating quickly. And then I knew... I knew this was my calling.
Bonju: Chef Extraordinare!