Cover for Drabblecast episode 316, A Memory of Seafood, by Kelly MaCavaneyThis week’s column is not about a restaurant, exactly, but about a memory. A distinct and painful memory, like a softened tooth you can’t help but poke at with your tongue to see if it still hurts.

A memory of seafood. (That sounds like one of those divine collections, doesn’t it, like a flight of starlings or a murder of crows? I remember when I was a mere seventeen, a slight but fully breasted slip of a girl, my best girl chums and I used to entertain the governor as he waited for his tea at the old tea house on Front Street—you Oolong afficionados, you remember it—and he affectionately called us “a flirtation of jailbaits”—but that’s neither here nor there.)



A Memory of Seafood

Tina Connolly

(This column originally ran in the

Amerada Times on 7 May 2250.)


This week’s column is not about a restaurant, exactly, but about a memory. A distinct and painful memory, like a softened tooth you can’t help but poke at with your tongue to see if it still hurts.

A memory of seafood. (That sounds like one of those divine collections, doesn’t it, like a flight of starlings or a murder of crows? I remember when I was a mere seventeen, a slight but fully breasted slip of a girl, my best girl chums and I used to entertain the governor as he waited for his tea at the old tea house on Front Street—you Oolong afficionados, you remember it—and he affectionately called us “a flirtation of jailbaits”—but that’s neither here nor there.)

This memory takes place a few years ago, in Estplanet, on the coast of Wentest. I had taken Vanessa, who, as usual, was not fully appreciative of the delightful tax write-off we were enjoying. It was quite a lark, too—all I had to go on was a note scribbled on the back of a receipt from the now shamefully defunct Aixes Only restaurant that rested more or less virgo intacto for a score of years before being replaced with that horrid remaindered bookstore that seems to only sell copies of Tarts and Spotted Dicks: A Love Affair—as a permanently painful and intrusive reminder to yours truly, I’m afraid. And on the back of this receipt were two words scrawled by my good chum and fabulously anti-establishment chef, Ped Pedskalia. (Ped had a very hot temper and cool head for revenge–once when a certain starchy CEO questioned the chef’s usage of fennel in the raspberry sorbet, Ped arranged to have himself delivered, naked, inside an enormous cake at the middle of the next board meeting, clad in nothing but fennel lingerie. This backfired—but I’ll save that story for another time.)

The two words on the receipt were: Massa Ulasa. At least I was pretty sure that’s what they were. I invited Vanessa to interpret the scribble, but she refused to try. I told her it was her responsibility to decipher Pedskalia’s handwriting, or, failing that, to remember what he had said, as Pedskalia and I were only about two shots shy of the bottle of anisette at that point and I wouldn’t have remembered if Vanessa herself had popped naked out of a cake, which she wouldn’t have, sadly. (I am constantly amazed at the assertion that this younger generation is so much freer and looser than the old. Vanessa is a good decade younger than I, when she admits to her age, and is stodgier than a béchamel sauce with too much flour.)

At any rate, Vanessa would only admit to remembering the place: Estplanet, and when pressed, the coast of Wentest. And when she realized that I was determined we should go, she was sorry she had said that much, and tried to backtrack, and pretend she didn’t remember anything, but I saw through that scheme. (It was hopeless, of course, to try to ask Pedskalia to accompany me. After the incident with the fried lizard and the visiting Ambassador of lizard-worshipping Mapanaplanet (the Ambassador had offended Pedskalia in some way but I forget exactly how) he had been stripped of his official chef’s hat, and fallen immediately into (and hopelessly in love with) the nomadic life of the itinerant, illicit, chef. If you ever happen to overhear, floating through the swinging doors of the restaurant’s kitchen, a high tenor voice with an accent not quite Swedish and not quite Mexican but some barbarous hybrid of both, and then further if you should sneak back into the moist steamy kitchen and see a very tall, very skinny figure with a face as long as a wet Thursday—that’s Ped. Ask your waiter to send the chef a complimentary bottle of anisette and you’ll have the dinner of your wildest dreams.)

Two days later we were on a rickety tub to Estplanet. It was the off-season, thus the ancient spaceliner (even older than I) was still two-thirds empty. Vanessa refused to talk to me during the flight, but as it turned out an old school chum of mine was on the tub as far as Livstadplanet, so we caught up on all the scandals of our old circle; the tally of who was cheating on whom, and with what.

From a literary point of view the trip was very good; I got one column out of the airliner food alone (Tapas on a Tub: 7/10/43) and two more from the planet itself; one from the only Michelin-starred restaurant on the entire watery planet (An Estplanet Star: 14/10/43), and one from the quaint custom Estplaneters have of sprinkling dirt on every meal before they eat it, to bless it (as I thought.) (To Dirt We Returneth, And That Right Quickly: 23/12/43)  (Addendum: in that column, I suggested that it (the quaint custom) had perhaps come from the fact that Estplanet is almost wholly seawater, and therefore even the soil is terribly salty, but that perhaps now that the Estplaneters had been introduced to modern technology, they might find plain salt more to their liking than salty dirt as a seasoning, as it did tend to muddy the flavors, if you’ll pardon the expression. It does turn out that I was wrong and that Estplaneters need something or other that they can only get through the soil or through baltafruits (which are prohibitively expensive and do not taste much different than the surrounding mud.))

Once on Estplanet, it was a long, sloggy trip to the Wentest coast. We had unfortunately arrived just at the end of the season of the torrential downpours, and several times were forced to take shelter in local banto pods. I should note here that Estplanet has two main, and rival, species: the banto and the hassa. The banto have the advantage; they are larger, and land-dwelling, as far as you can call the mud of Estplanet “land.” By necessity, they form nuclear family units, as one of the sexes is capable of forming a large pod around its mate and their offspring to shelter the group during the hurricanes. Vanessa and I twice spent a good week sheltering in these pods (and paying through the nose for the pleasure.) Though were it not for Vanessa’s grumbling, I would have rather enjoyed it. The banto are friendly: ruthless traders and dealers in all things, inveterate gamers who pass the storms sharpening their skills. It was quite pleasant to sit in that translucent, warm pink bubble and practice strategy with the jovial banto.

After nearly a month of this slow, wet progression, the sky began to clear, and we made it to the coast with relative ease. Once past the rains, the coast becomes a resort for the banto and their smaller sea-dwelling rivals, the hassa. The banto come to the shore for fresh fish, the hassa for fresh game, and a fair amount of trade goes on between both species, more cautiously on the side of the smaller, weaker hassa.

The shore itself was quite pretty in the new sun, the beach sand a sparkling green crystal, the ocean a deep blue-green. I convinced Vanessa to change into her ancient seersucker bathing suit and sunbathe with me, and she started to cheer up once she realized the wet journey across the planet had caused her to lose a good ten pounds. We soaked in the good sun all that first day until the waterlogged feeling had worn off completely and we felt at peace with the universe.

The next morning we set off briskly in search of an interpreter.  We found a friendly banto, fluent—as his sign proclaimed—in 136 modern languages and 4 dead ones. I explained that we had come all this way for the rumor of an exquisite meal, the sort to be experienced perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. We had very little to go on. But we knew this taste sensation was to be found here, on the coast of Wentest, and further, we had two words. Here I produced the napkin with Pedskalia’s scrawled annotation: Massa Ulasa. Vanessa smirked, anticipating failure.

The banto looked at the napkin thoughtfully. Then he said that he knew just the place to try. I admit, I sent a gloating smile Vanessa’s direction.

The banto interpreter led us back along the beach and down to a block of modern banto structures. (All banto structures are relatively recent, mostly dome-shaped, and mostly colored pink.) We went inside one of these, and the interpreter explained that this banto restaurant served the best seafood on Estplanet, and if anyone could help us, it would be its famous banto chef. It was the slow part of the afternoon, so he would be able to conference with the chef while we waited in front. We stood near the entrance, watching the few dining banto looking at us curiously, no doubt surprised to see tourists so soon after the rain. Sensible travellers would not arrive for another couple weeks.

At long last our interpreter returned and explained that the banto chef would be ecstatic to help us in our quest, but we must come back later that evening, as this was a long dish to prepare, and he would have to make a special trip for ingredients.

We were more than happy to oblige, and passed a second relaxing afternoon soaking sun on the green sands and eyeing the undulations of the mounded pink and white banto domes. Just as the dark fell we met our interpreter back at the seafood restaurant and were escorted by two obeisant banto to a private human-sized table in the back. A parade of waiters brought us amuse-bouches, and flights of local wines, and an endless stream of local delicacies, as if we were visiting dignitaries. (We did not touch the ubiquitous shaker of dirt.) At last the pièce de résistance, the dish itself, the Massa Ulasa was carried to the table by the head waiter and served onto our plates.

Can you remember the last time you tried a new dish? Wholly new, not just the last time you recombined a week’s worth of leftovers in an futile attempt to make the family excited about eating them again.

And if you can, is it the memory of a flavor so shocking, so new, so bold, all other dishes pale in comparison? A flavor so clean and pure that every cell of your body seems to have been turned into a vessel to carry this particular senstation, and no other?

That was this sea creature, and more. It was like oysters—and yet not like. Like angoustines—and not. Like muhfanups—and again not. Impossible to describe; it was the distillation of Estplanet itself; briny and soft, redolent of the seaweed and the salty air and even the damp decay that is the heart of so many achingly wonderful foods. I could have eaten this dish forever and never tired of it. Even Vanessa, sourpuss that she is, admitted that our journey was not altogether a waste of time.

We called the banto chef over, and through the cheery interpreter indicated our pleasure of the meal. I asked if he would graciously consider sharing the recipe for Massa Ulasa. At this the interpreter turned the shade of shell-pink that passes for laughter among the banto, and when he repeated the request to the chef, the chef turned even pinker. He said something to the interpreter, rippling with waves of pink and rose, and the interpreter repeated back:  “This is Massa Ulasa.”

“Yes,” I said. “Might I have the recipe?”

The interpreter did not bother to relay this request. “This is Massa Ulasa,” he repeated. “Massa Ulasa was hassa.” He nodded at the banto chef and turned pinker with his amusement. “Massa Ulasa was the rival hassa . . . er . . . .” He searched for the word.

Vanessa dryly supplied, “Chef?”

“Yes,” he said. “Great joke. You want the recipe for hassa?”

And so, I blush to disclose, we ate the chef. Vanessa roared at the news. I was mortified. The banto chef was gleeful. (Though, given the quality of his asparagus (imported, limp), I rather think he should not have been quite so candidly glad about the removal of his rival.)

As the hassa are served daily at banto restaurants around the planet, the loss of one hassa chef did not create any sort of interplanetary incident. It was left merely to our own consciences to regret the damage we had done. Vanessa refused to accept any part of the blame or let any burden lie too heavily upon her mind. Indeed, her spirits were almost obscenely high during the trek back to the port. A trip to the aforementioned one-starred restaurant—which did not include any sentient species in its menu, in accordance with Michelin guidelines—helped to reaffirm my faith in the industry. A donation, once returned home, of a check to the hassa liberation front eased my mind further.

And yet. . . the memory of that dish haunts me yet. Can I almost sympathize with the banto for their treatment of the hassa? Is it easier to enslave a sentient race when you know how delicious they are? My conscience says no.

But my treacherous palate . . . .

Two thoughts stayed with me from our voyage. One, a self-admonition. It will be a long time before I so blithely down half a bottle of anisette.

And two, the last, haunting question:

I wonder what the hassa chef served Pedskalia.