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Strong Stomachs

by P. S. Gifford

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Moments later another gentleman, looking like a younger version of Mr. Ellin, also dressed entirely in black, arrived at our table carrying a tray of two glasses of iceless water. Smiling, he placed the two drinks in front of us. With that, he also bowed and, without uttering a word, left them.

I watched him walk away, increasingly curious.

“The only drink they serve is tap water without ice,” Paul said, answering the question I was pondering in my mind.

He again winked.

I sipped on my water and noted a smudge on my glass. Resigning myself to my fate, I took another sip.

“That is straight Chicago tap water all right!” I said. “I could damn murder for a shot of scotch.”

A few moments later the waiter returned to the table, again with a tray. This time he was carrying two bowls of soup. He carefully placed one in front of each of us, seemingly deliberately to give a particular bowl to Paul. Once more, seemingly satisfied, he nodded silently and went to clear the plates from another table.

The soup, on closer examination, would be more accurately described as a broth. The two portions were in mismatched bowls. I noticed that Paul’s bowl was slightly larger than my own. My bowl was a muddy brown color, with an ominous crack in the side.

Paul picked up his own, larger, un-cracked bowl and began to eagerly drink. I followed suit. As I raised the broth, my nostrils were filled with the same tantalizing scent that I had detected earlier. This comforted me, so I drank.

As soon as the liquid met my taste buds, my mouth cried out for more. I found myself consuming the whole bowl in less than a minute. What a glutton I must have appeared, but no more so than any of the other diners, including Paul.

The broth’s subtle, curious, yet entirely agreeable taste lingered on gleefully as I licked my lips in anticipation of the main course. At this point I stopped worrying about the location, the masses of cob-web and dust. Even the cracked serving utensils no longer managed to distract me. On the contrary, in some strange way they were somehow enhancing my experience. I could not fathom what blend of magical, masterfully blended ingredients had given the broth such a unique and sublimely delicious quality.

Paul, with a grin reminiscent of the proverbial Cheshire cat, nodded at me knowingly. “See why I wanted to bring you here?”

It was a further ten minutes before any more food was presented to us. A few of the other diners had finished their main course at this point, and exited with a peaceful satisfied expression etched onto their contented stuffed faces. Almost as if they had experienced some transitional, life confirming religious experience. I too was convinced that by the end of the evening my perspective of the world, in some slight way, would never be quite the same again.

At long last my waiting was over. The waiter again appeared. This time on the tray were two plates, each covered with a silver dome. He expertly placed each plate in front of us, and again, without a word being spoken, pulled off the lids, bowed and left us to our meal.

Again that same tantalizing scent of my broth filled my eager nostrils. Only this time it was significantly intensified and even more intoxicating. I studied the dish. It was some sort of stew. In the rich brown broth were a medley of various vegetables, some I recognized and others I did not. There was also an abundance of white and dark meat.

I looked up at Paul, who was already on his third or fourth mouthful, grabbed a fork and severed a sizeable chunk of the meat. I held it up to my nose. This is where the scent originated from. Obviously the proceeding broth was made from the same curious meat. I opened my mouth and placed it on my tongue, releasing it with the fork with my teeth.

The first thing that struck me was its texture. It was succulent and moist, yet it still required just a sufficient amount of chewing to amplify the enjoyment of it and maximize its unique flavor profile.

“It tastes a bit like chicken, but more so,” I thought, amused at the realization as I went in for a second mouthful.

As we consumed, not a single word was uttered between us. I ate my meal as if I had not eaten in a week. Quickly, greedily, enthusiastically, and when within a few minutes my plate was bare and my stomach felt comfortably full, I felt a pang of regret that the dining experience had concluded, yet understood that it was the perfect portion size. Any more would have surely been too much of a good thing.

After we finished eating, Paul and I sat there, still in silence. I kept trying to conjure up some way of expressing my satisfaction with the meal, yet I realized the look on my face surely said it far better than any words could.

Looking about us, we discovered that we were the last two diners on the premises. Paul glanced at his watch.

“We have twenty minutes to kill before the taxi picks us up again. I hope he comes back, as we will have a hell of a time trying to hail another one.”

Suddenly the waiter appeared again and began to clear the plates.

Realizing that we had time to spare, I heard myself beginning to speak to him, almost despite myself.

“Is there any chance of letting us have a quick peek in the kitchen?” I asked.

Paul looked back at forth between me and the waiter, as if watching a fast game of ping-pong.

Suddenly we heard Mr. Ellin’s bellowing voice in the background and looked up to see him marching towards us.

“Not at all, it would be a privilege. But, I warn you, some of the things you see might alarm you. And furthermore, I need your utmost assurance that what you see there is not told to a single soul. I would not want everyone knowing our secret and putting us out of business, now would I?” He chuckled.

“We agree,” we said in unison, almost as if we were joined at the hip.

The waiter glanced nervously at his father, and then scurried back into the kitchen with the dirty plates.

“Follow me, please,” Mr. Ellin said calmly.

And follow him we did.

We were led to the other side of the restaurant, through a door that led to a kitchen.

The kitchen was surprisingly small. There was a double oven, a stove top with a large pot on it, a wooden table with a particularly large chef’s knife on it and a refrigerator that looked as if it was from the 1950s.

The elder Mr. Ellin, dressed in a white chef’s apron, a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, was focused on stirring the pot. Hearing footsteps, he turned and smiled at us.

“Father, these two gentlemen enjoyed their meal so much that they requested to see the kitchen. I understand we rarely do this, but I took kindly to them, and did not think you would mind.”

Mr. Ellin senior looked remarkably like his son. He was not quite as tall or broad shouldered, yet there was no mistaking the resemblance. Despite being ninety, he stood with perfect posture, and there was no hint of trembling or uncertainty in his movements.

“So, I suppose you want to know what the secret ingredient is, don’t you?” he said with a full strong tone. “Well, you aren’t the first, and you surely won’t be the last. I guess you don’t look the type who would steal our recipe, so follow me.”

I looked at the two men; both had a curious gleam in their eye.

“I suppose you have had all sorts of ideas of what meat I serve here, don’t you? Perhaps even a macabre notion or two has played itself up in your imaginations. Am I correct?”

Paul and I chuckled nervously.

“This way, please, and all shall be revealed.”

The old chef swiftly made his way over the kitchen, to another, smaller door.

Turning the knob, it screeched ominously open. “This is our meat cellar,” he said as a gust of cold air filled the kitchen.

With a strong index finger he flicked on the lights. Paul and I made our way over to it, and peered down the staircase.

I have to admit I almost vomited at the sight that met my astonished eyes. Assembled down there, in several uniform rows, dozens of carcasses were hung on metal hooks.

“We age the meat for at least three weeks prior to cooking it,” the chef continued, “It helps develops the meat’s unique flavor. The ones on the far right are ready for tomorrow night.”

Suddenly Paul’s eyes lit up knowingly. “They are chickens, aren’t they?”

“Aye sir, that they are, but not just any chicken. Chickens in America have had their entire flavor bred out of them. Tasteless, they are. Those are none other than greater Brown Prairie Chickens. My father brought a dozen or so over from Jamaica back in the early 1940s, and we have been breeding them ourselves in the back yard, cage free, just as nature had intended. We feed them a special diet, which adds to their flavor profile dramatically, but that is a family secret. We are the only restaurant outside of Jamaica who serves them.”

After Paul and I sincerely thanked all three Mr. Ellins, we realized that it was almost midnight. So laughing under our breath, we left the kitchen with our vivid imaginations keenly in check. We went outside to find our taxi-cab waiting.

* * *

As they drove off, returning to the bar for a nightcap, back in the restaurant the three Ellins gathered.

“It is a good job they didn’t look in the second meat cellar,” the eldest Ellin said, “a very good job indeed.”

Copyright © 2008 by P. S. Gifford

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