A Neopian Feast
"Ophie! Wait for me!"
With a great trembling and crunching of leaves, a golden-furred Gelert crashed out from the undergrowth, panting and sweating hard. He was painted in the native Mystery Island colour, and had an assortment of bags, packages and utility belts strapped to his legs and body. Around his neck was a huge pair of binoculars, and strapped across his chest was a very heavy-looking leather satchel with some curious looking purple leaves poking out of the top.
"Rhej! Be quiet!" hissed a suddenly stern voice from somewhere above him. At the sound, the Gelert named Rhej froze stock still, and tipped his head back to look into the canopy of the trees.
His friend was sprawled out on a sturdy tree branch, cupping her pointed chin in her hands. Ophaon was a Faerie Krawk, and by no means a petite one, so even the thick branch she had chosen bent a little under her weight. Rhej sighed, and began to shrug off some of his heavier burdens.
"What did you drag me all the way out here for?" he grumbled, raising a hind foot to bat away a Mozito that had chosen his ear as a perch. "My back feels like it's breaking. What's all that stuff for anyway?"
Ophaon didn't answer, but reached down to grab the binoculars from around his neck, yanking Rhej upward as she did so. He whined in complaint and squirmed his way out of the strap.
His friend was now gazing intently through the binoculars at something about a hundred yards away. Rhej jumped up to try and see what it was, but the thick Island jungle meant it was near impossible to see anything except tangled leaves and vines. He contented himself with scrambling up beside her, making the branch groan even more with their combined weight, and waiting patiently until she was done.
Eventually she lowered the binoculars.
"Look at this," she said, passing them over and holding them to his eyes.
"Yeah... that's just a Gadgadsbogen feast. Happens every year. Mmm, that Juppie and Blunella stew looks amazing..."
Ophaon snatched back the binoculars.
"Don't you see?!" she cried, her face flushing with excitement. "The colours, the sensations, the dishes... I've never seen anything like it! We have to bring it to Neopia Central! I have to make these things for myself. I have to find how I can do that... evoke such feelings, make such wonderful stories! It's like... it's like painting with food!"
Painting with food? Rhej frowned. That sounded messy.
"But... Ophie..." He struggled to find the right words, not wanting to offend her. "Neopets don't want to look at their food. They want to eat it! Who cares what a Raptraphant Leg looks like? It tastes the same whether it's cut up into the shape of a flower and placed on a Faerie leaf or served raw on a plank of wood."
The Krawk maiden ignored him, swung herself down from the tree and began frantically scrabbling in the bags.
Rhej sighed, and hopped down to join her. "I know you want something new for the restaurant, but this just seems a bit of a roundabout way to go about it."
Ophaon didn’t reply. She and Rhej had owned ‘The Three Peachpas’ for three years now. It used to be a bustling establishment on one of the main boulevards of Neopia Central, a bistro-cafe in the daytime and a lively restaurant in the evenings. Now, though, customers were more interested in more exotic fare. The ultra-sophisticated 'kelp' was the in thing, even if you had to wear deep-sea diving equipment if you weren't a natural water-breather. The Golden Dubloon did a roaring trade from tourists, who were intrigued by the traditional currency and nautical cuisine. To stay ahead in the Neopian restaurant business, you had to have an edge – and the Peachpas just didn’t have that.
Finally she found what she was looking for, a leather-bound sketchbook and set of ink pens. Clambering back up onto her branch, she squinted through her binoculars and began to sketch.
Four hours later she was still at it. Rhej had curled up in the shade and gone to sleep. The noise from the feasting Islanders invaded his dreams – in his mind the voices became sentient Island fruits, lined up in a row for him to feast on, but when he reached out to grab one, it scurried away. He woke up just as a Doughnutfruit had grown six-inch fangs and opened wide its jaws to gobble him up, and found that the twilight had descended.
Ophaon had finished, at last. The feasters were packing up their things and heading back to their huts, and she too began to pack up. Rhej poked his nose at her sketchbook to see what she had drawn, but she pulled away.
“Not yet. It’s not finished. There’s so much more work to be done...”
Over the next few weeks, it seemed to Rhej like Ophaon was possessed. She worked feverishly hard in the kitchen, beating this, whipping that, boiling and sautéing and frying and stewing. Rhej had never been into cookery – he was more the front man of The Three Peachpas – so he tried to keep out of her way when she got into her frenzy. Each day she woke early, spent an hour or two mulling over her sketchbook, noting down quantities and measurement and planning out complicated dishes. After this was done, and after she’d had a good breakfast, she threw herself into the kitchen and stayed there for hours on end. A few times Rhej had sneaked a look into her sketchbook, but he could make neither head nor tail of any of her notes or drawings. Occasional repeated underlinings or capital letters seemed to indicate a particularly revolutionary idea, but what those ideas might be he could not guess.
All he could say was that the smells emanating from the kitchen at all hours of the day were incredible. Potent spices mixed with the heady tang of berries and fruits, while melted chocolate blended sumptuously with wood smoke and chilli powder. Each day he would sit outside the kitchen door, each waft of scent sending him into an olfactory rapture. It is well known that Gelerts have incredibly sensitive noses, and sometimes the divine aromas just became too much, and sent him into paroxysms of delight during which he could do nothing but lie on the floor, whimpering and twitching.
The longer Ophaon took in the kitchen over her culinary concoctions, the more Rhej looked forward to the evening, when he would be allowed to take a tiny sample of whatever it was she had been cooking that day. It seemed to him like she discarded most of the end results of her experiments, but there were usually a few morsels left for him to wolf for his supper.
Meanwhile, business was slow. A few regular customers came to eat in the early afternoon, elderly Neopets who lived just down the road, with their Petpets perched precariously on their laps as they sipped at lukewarm soup or ate cucumber sandwiches cut up into little triangles. Rhej served them all day, making up the simple dishes himself with minimal ingredients, all the while dreaming of whatever culinary wonders Ophaon was cooking up behind those kitchen doors.
Soon it seemed that the inspiration she had got from their trip to Mystery Island had run out, and she began to disappear off for days at a time with no explanation. When she returned from these mysterious journeys, she would lock herself in her room for hours, and when Rhej pressed his ear to the door, all he could hear was the scratch of her pen, and her occasional frustrated mutterings.
As the weeks passed, Rhej began to grow thinner and thinner. Ophaon was his main source of food – she cooked for him, while he ran the business - that was always the way it had been. Now he was forced to forage around in the kitchen for scraps – when he was allowed in there at all, that is. She kept most of the cupboards locked, and it seemed almost as if she had forgotten all about her friend. He crept around their home, trying not to disturb her, for she could get into foul moods these days and snap at him for the smallest of things, and an angry Krawk is not something you want to be faced with.
One day, Rhej was lying outside the kitchen door, breathing deep of the warm, scented air that was coming billowing out from under it, when Ophaon emerged. Her clothes were covered with various food stains, her fingers were nicked where she had accidentally peeled or grated too far, but there was a look of pure elation on her face.
“I’ve done it. It’s ready. Everything is ready!”
It was then that she saw the look on Rhej’s face, and his ribs beginning to stick out underneath his once luscious coat. Her face fell, and she quickly gathered the pathetic creature up into her arms and whisked him into the kitchen. He was too tired and hungry to protest. She lay him gently down on his own bed in the corner by the fire.
“Rhej, I am so sorry. I’ve been so preoccupied; everything has seemed so strange lately. It’s like I am unstoppably driven to cook more, create more, invent more. Soups, stews, tagines, casseroles, fondues, pizza, sandwiches, noodles, dumplings, cakes, tortes, mousses... anything I can think of, anything I can mix and match and make my own. I’d forgotten how hungry you must be, how hard you have worked...” As she spoke, she bustled busily around him, clearing away pots and pans, getting this and that out of the cupboard, a trail of wonderful scents wafting behind her.
“Here.” She set a great bowl of thick broth down in front of him, then pulled up a chair to sit next to the hearth. “Eat this, and I’ll tell you everything.”
Gratefully, Rhej began to lap at the broth before him. The thick liquid contained a variety of vegetables and some kind of delicious meat he couldn’t name – tenderly braised and infused with herbs that made his taste buds dance.
“I’d been thinking, long before we went to Mystery Island, about what we could do to reinvent the Peachpas. It’s gotten stale – our menu doesn’t offer anything new, it’s all ‘same same same’. Neopets today want surprises – they want mystery in their cuisine, exotic, never-before-tasted flavours. Even gourmet foods, things that used to be new and rare, don’t always cut it these days. Negg Soup? Pah! Yesterday’s news! Ghost Pizza? No dice! These old, outdated flavours offer nothing new to the sophisticated palate.”
Rhej closed his eyes. He’d just taken a bite of a large chunk of parsnip, and the explosion he felt in his mouth was completely unprecedented. A subtle glaze of honey on the surface of the vegetable began the experience, a usual start to such a thing, but beneath that... He struggled to identify all of what he could taste. A flash of onion, a wisp of thyme, the tiniest, merest speck of salt – and none obscured the flavour of the wonderfully cooked vegetable. Once he’d savoured every last bit, his tongue continued to explore every gap in his teeth to seek out anything that may have been left behind. Once it was all gone, he returned his attention to the rest of the broth, shivering with anticipation at what other wonders it might hold.
“And so, our customers travel in search of new and interesting meals to satisfy them. Ludicrous sums are spent by doting owners, buying more and more unusual foods. No longer is nutrition the basic goal of a meal – food has its own place in art, its own special magic. It’s possibly the most magical thing in all of Neopia – what else can you experience more fully than something you take into your body, absorb into your being? Food has its own wonderful mysteries, just like any novel, poem, or artistic masterpiece.”
His next mouthful contained a sizeable piece of that strange meat. The flesh was dark and moist, soaked with the liquid of the stew and yet still holding its shape. It resisted only barely as his teeth made their way through, and as the first of its inner flavours began to blossom, Rhej growled happily at the taste he was experiencing. It was most similar to lamb, but not as tough as lamb can often be. It was rich but sublimely light, sprinkled with cinnamon with a fruity aftertaste. It combined with what was left of the scent and taste of the parsnip to create something new, like a firework bursting out across his tongue. He wriggled happily as the last of the meat slid contentedly into his stomach.
“I want us to bring new flavours to everyone. All Neopets, young and old, rich and poor, should experience the great delights a true feast can bring. But it must be the best! Ours must be unique – nothing like it must ever have been seen before anywhere in Neopia!”
Rhej nodded – anything to get her to make more of this fantastic stuff. All that remained now of his meal was the liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Dark and inviting, it lay smoothly before him, swirling with deep reds and earthy browns, speckled with seasoning, still steaming hot from the stove it had only recently been removed from. Unable to help himself, he plunged his face nose-first into the soup, and drank it down like it was the last meal he would ever eat.
“We will create a culinary haven for everyone! A spectacle of lights, colour, sound and taste - banners streaming on every wall, tureens of all the wonderful dishes I have invented steaming on their own stands, begging to be devoured! Hundreds upon hundreds of fruits and sweetmeats, shellfish, cheeses, shredded meats, sliced Neggs poached in butter and Purplum juice, chocolate-stuffed Benyeroberries drenched in Azzle tea, Faerie kale drizzled in olive oil and crushed pomegranate, baskets piled high with baked Heart Fruits sprinkled with sugar then set alight! Anything, everything - nothing is beyond us! I have everything prepared, everything is planned. Rhej, this is my true purpose!”
By now, Rhej’s stomach seemed to be purring contentedly, and he lay on his side looking at Ophaon through half-opened eyes, a lazy smile on his face. Everything she said sounded wonderful. Food truly was all he wanted now. He gave her a wider smile.
“Rhej, this is wonderful! You’ll help me?” Ophaon’s face was aglow, and excitement seemed to radiate from every part of her. “You’ll see – there has been nothing like this before, and there never will be again. We’ll need to get everything ready. There’ll be musical accompaniment, with dancing Zebies and hovering Whoots waiting to take everyone’s orders. Sculptures – wood or stone? Both perhaps! Flowers strewn across the table, and all across the floor. The lights – candles! Bottled faeries arranged in pairs and threes! Quintilcs floating gracefully above, carrying menus for the guests. And the exploding cakes, of course.”
“Of course,” said Rhej, his mind elsewhere.
The Three Peachpas suddenly became a hive of activity, where before there had been nothing but slow brunches and early suppers. It was closed to all customers - ‘until further notice’ said a sign on the door – and so there was a great deal of speculation from the locals about what they could possibly be doing. The windows were hung with dark drapes so that no one could see inside – though that didn’t stop mischievous Grarrl-girls and Blumaroo-boys pressing their faces to the glass to try and get a peek. Ophaon floated in and out, giving anyone who asked her about the restaurant a mysterious smile and saying, “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
When the invitations began to arrive, there was a great deal of commotion in the neighbourhood. Hand-written on the finest Sakhmetian parchment, they asked all who wished to eat themselves into a rapture to come to the Peachpas at five o’ clock the following Friday afternoon. No reply was necessary and those who received invitations were encouraged to bring along as many guests as they would like.
The day before the scheduled date, barriers were set up so that the section of street that the Peachpas was on could not be accessed. Some grumbled, but really it only fuelled their excitement. What on earth could be so grand as to require so much preparation?
Neopets turned up in hordes outside the restaurant at the allotted time, and were astounded by what they found there. On the street outside the restaurant, coloured banners had been hung from streetlights and the edge of buildings to create a canopy that gave the illusion of an enormous tent. Somehow, they had opened out the front of the building – it looked in fact as if part of the wall had been knocked down – to create a huge open space. As Ophaon had promised Rhej, the ground was strewn with wild flowers, and a great roaring fire in the hearth made the place instantly warm and welcoming.
In place of the usual individual tables and chairs, a great long wooden table was set out down the middle of the space, with cushions, pillows and blankets piled around for those who could not find a seat at the table, or for those species who found chairs difficult to manage. Everyone found a place for themselves, marvelling as they did so at the small touches that had been added. Trained Zebies waited to pull out cushions to soften a hard seat. In the corners, bottled faeries shone with an otherworldly light.
A door at the back of the restaurant swung open, and a wave of fierce heat and wonderful smells washed over the guests. In the fiery glow of the kitchen stood Ophaon, a ladle in her hand held as if it was a magical staff – and to many there that night, who were ravenously hungry, it really did seem to glow.
“Friends! Thank you so much for coming this evening, the reopening and reinvention of The Three Peachpas. My wonderful companion and I have worked tirelessly over the past weeks and months building up to this – what we hope will become the culinary event of the decade. I hope you all enjoy yourself immensely, at least as much as I have enjoyed myself creating the menu for tonight. Let us begin – the Neopian Feast!”
As she finished speaking, a gentle breeze seemed to come from nowhere, carrying with it dozens of beautifully patterned Quintilcs – red, blue, green, and gold. Each one alighted gently on the table or floor before the guests, and spread its wings to reveal what it carried – the menu.
Contained within those pages was the most delightful, eclectic mix of dishes you can imagine: fresh-caught oysters steeped in milk and honey, with a side of lightly fried Negg fritters in a Tangella sauce; Blairnut and lemongrass chicken with jasmine rice and fresh Maraquan vegetables, steamed with clearest water from Terror Mountain springs and garnished with Mystery Island herbs gathered at the break of dawn; Shenkuuvian dumplings stuffed with mushrooms, cream and ginger, sprinkled with chocolate-chilli powder and drizzled with balsamic vinegar; and so many more. They cannot possibly be fully itemized, – but it can certainly be said that no one there that night had ever seen a single menu comprise so many different origins, ingredients and flavours.
The excited conversation quieted as a chorus of soft ’hoots’ came from above – perching among the banners and lights was a flock of Whoots. They glided gracefully down to perch on shoulders or table edges, and looked expectantly at the guests. It was a few seconds before they realised they were there to take their orders, but once one Acara began to make his choices, the others followed with increasing enthusiasm. The intelligent little Whoots seemed to nod when each was finished, and then they flew off in the direction of the kitchen.
A low hum of chatter followed, punctuated by loud stomach growls and many a glance toward the now closed kitchen door. It was not long before it opened once again, and silence fell. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation.
Rhej was the first to emerge, pushing with him a wheeled trolley heaving with plates, bowls and goblets. Ophaon was quick to follow, and together they unloaded the trays onto the table and went back for more. The smells emanating from the dishes were incredible, and many of the guests simply closed their eyes and inhaled for several minutes.
Once all the dishes had been laid out, there was a long pause. Neopets looked around at the banquet that had been spread before them. Desserts were mingled with savouries, bowls of fruit were set out between the main courses, and jugs of juice and water interspersed the other dishes. A tumult of sensation seemed to hit each guest, and they could do nothing but be still and appreciate it.
And then they began to eat.
It lasted hours – everyone seemed to want to sample a little of everything. A morsel here, a mouthful there, a dab of their neighbour’s sauce to go with their own bread or meat. Everything was shared, and all the while the Whoots sang soft songs conducive to good digestion.
When the first cake exploded, Ophaon laughed out loud at the expression on the unfortunate pets who had been spattered with icing and crumbs, and soon they all shared in the joke, though after that, they regarded anything vaguely cake-like with a little more suspicion.
The elated Krawk chef turned to Rhej, who was greedily filling his belly with the beef and sardplant stroganoff next to her. She grinned from ear to ear.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Mmmff mmmnnumm,” he replied.