• A Christmas Carol

    Chef Scrooge was a mean cook, the type who would thin the chicken stock with dishwater if he could get away with it, the broad sweep of his chef's jacket a history of his desultory profession, the blotches of sauce faded not with time but as a reflection of their weak, underseasoned origins, penurious Scrooge having little truck with the best of ingredients-- or any ingredients at all, if the truth be told. It was said that Chef Scrooge would be happiest making stone soup for not a farthing would be expended in the pursuit of taste; not a halfpenny's worth of pleasure could be extracted from its damnable origins, which suited Scrooge just fine since a shilling spent on good cheer and fellowship was a shilling wasted. Rumors of butter thinned with candle grease, chocolate bound with brick dust, and bread stretched with alum were no foreigners to the ears of Chef Scrooge, who plied his trade at the Marleybone Hotel to the great profit of his employers, who pocketed the fruits of his black, cold kitchen as one might pluck coins from the eyes of the dead.

    So it was one Christmas Eve that Scrooge was busy extracting the maximum profit from a meager feast of mock turtle soup (could a faint undercurrent of horsemeat be detected by those with sensitive palates?) and squab pie (were there, as some had noted, fewer soot-dyed city pigeons in the area of the Marley-bone?), with a great sack of boiled rice pudding for dessert. For the pudding, Scrooge needed sugar, an ingredient he guarded like a rat with a juicy morsel, trusting not even the hotel's head butler, Mr. Cratchit, with the keys to the larder.

    It was there, in the dark recesses of his culinary vault, that Chef Scrooge was astonished to see the long-dead Chef Marley seated on a coarse three-legged stool. Here was his great mentor and benefactor, the man who had taught him the difference between pleasure and profit, who had threaded the needle so cleverly through the eye of the public's indifference to quality that Scrooge looked upon him as a minor deity, one who could sate the gross appetites of the rich and strip them of their wealth in the bargain.

    "Scrooge . . . Scrooge," moaned Marley, his tremendous girth now reduced to a beggar's frame, the weight of shame having pulled the sallow skin of his bony face earthward, leaving two eyes burning bright in their sockets with visions of eternal purgatory. Chained to Marley's neck were the tools of his profession-- pots, pans, knives, whisks, rolling pins, a large chinois-- the lot clanging loudly as he turned his head to speak once again.

    "You will be visited this night by three ghosts. Take heed, Scrooge, and listen well, or you will be doomed to walk this earth like the man before you." Then Marley dissolved from sight, the last of him to fade being his eyes, which finally popped out like two snuffed candles leaving but a wisp of smoke.

    Chef Scrooge quickly disregarded this incident in the larder as no more than a bit of undigested pudding, his greasy offering want to provide the customer with a nightmare or much worse long after the eating. It came as a quick shock, then, that at the stroke of midnight, as Scrooge was abed, he heard his name called out yet again.

    "Scrooge, take my hand and we will visit Christmas Past," said a giant, dressed in green velvet, a wide red belt, and a soft crown of ermine and feathers. Suddenly, Scrooge was standing beside the dining table of his childhood, which was laid with a grand Christmas feast. Children scampered under the table, spirits were lively, and the scene softened Scrooge's fearsome countenance like that of a dog starved for affection. As Scrooge moved to take his place at the table, the ghost whisked Scrooge back to his cold, hard bed with a wave of his hand.

    At the stroke of one, Scrooge was awakened a second time by the Ghost of Christmas Present who transported him to the dark, cheaply furnished dining room of the Marleybone, where couples sat without conversation, consuming sour joints of beef in an effort to dispose of hunger with the least expenditure of time or shillings. In an instant, this economy of pleasure, this triumph of hunger over soul, weighed heavily upon Scrooge, whose own thirst for the pleasures of the table had been rekindled.

    Back in his bed, in a chilled sweat of fitful visions, Scrooge was awakened a third and last time by the Ghost of Christmas Future. There, where the Marleybone once stood, was a cheap, brightly colored storefront with a sign advertising "Marleybone Fish and Chips," with customers seated in molded plastic chairs, feeding on piles of greasy fried fish and chips, wrapped in yesterday's edition of the Daily Sun.

    "Cannot the future be changed?" yelled Scrooge, the stench of old frying oil filling him with visions of Marley dragging his useless pots and pans into a heartless future. He at once drifted back into fitful sleep.

    Chef Scrooge awoke unsure of his mortality. Had he died in his sleep, or had it all been just another long night of indigestion? He ran to the window, threw it open, and leaned out.

    "You, boy, what day is this?" cried out Scrooge.

    "Why, don't you know, sir? It is Christmas Day," replied the astonished young man.

    "Well then, my fine fellow, run to the Poulterer's and buy me his three fattest geese and deliver them to the Marleybone Hotel. Here is three quid for your trouble and there are two more if you make it quick." Scrooge danced a little jig and raced off to the hotel.

    Those lucky few who had Christmas dinner at the Marleybone that day would, even years later, become curiously wistful at the memory of it, as if the food itself had transported them to another, less earthbound, place. For some it was the skin of the goose-- so crisp, thin, and perfectly roasted that it literally crackled between the teeth-- and for others it was the desserts, fantasies of puddings so rich yet light that those who ate them said it recalled their childhood, each bite another warm memory of a mother's touch or a bedtime story.

    To this day, it is said that Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well because he discovered that those who cook for others are the richest among us, that the greatest profit margins are to be had not from thrift of spirit but from good fellowship and the gift of well-prepared food. Like a man humbled before the bench, Chef Scrooge would stand at the end of the feast and offer his guests a toast to a dark future that never came, to a life that was redeemed, and to the great tradition of the holiday table. Then, with an arm around the venerable butler, Mr. Cratchit, Scrooge would drain his punch, light the Christmas pudding, and say, with a happy twinkle in his eye, "God bless us, every one."

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