Mise en Place

By Mark Costello

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It would be brie en croute that evening, then—a wheel of brie, sliced in half and stuffed with walnuts and cranberries, rebuilt and wrapped in puff pastry. She removed it from the oven and dipped her finger in the fine trickle of rich, unctuous grease that ran from a corner of the croute and brought it to her mouth, and groaned in simple ecstasy, and wondered if the guests had smelled it yet from the dining room above and if not, how quickly she could eat the entire thing all to herself in gluttonous bliss. She swallowed the rush of saliva that flooded her mouth as she sliced the fuyu persimmons into thick chips and similarly, the flat, crusty bread alongside it, and plated both around the croute on a faux-rustic cutting board the charlatans upstairs grew so frothingly tumescent over, a homey display for a winter home used four weeks out of the year—four weeks during which she had to wear pants as she cooked, since the master and mistress would be in residence and entertaining.

Outside of those four weeks, the house, the kitchen, the grounds and all facilities of the hunting lodge were hers, and hers alone. She submitted monthly invoices religiously, detailing the fanciful flights of grocery adventures embarked upon in order to keep the kitchen ready for a visit from the Important Folk at a moment’s notice. That she was tailoring the pantry to her evolving tastes and not to the master’s was not immediately apparent to the house manager at the main estate because to him, the master, and everyone not living in the middle of a distant forest, she was practically unreal, in the way that people a thousand miles away are never real, never actual.

She was careful to never fully resent their month in residence, as their beneficence, telegraphed though it was from the estate on the coast, kept her fat, happy, and free for the remaining eleven months out of the year. In return, when the master and mistress arrived, they would be greeted with machboos laham, fragrant rice stained yellow by turmeric upon which would be piled savory and tender chunks of lamb that had been braised in cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, raisins, and peas. (Truth be told, it was often leftover machboos laham she had served them, but they never knew the difference.) She had grown adept at preparing for them meals that appeared complicated because the dishes were foreign and the master and mistress were hopelessly bourgeoisie Americans, like leftover bone and meat porridge, harissa, or split yellow pea stew enriched with roasted beef, khoresht gheimeh. They’d crow to their guests, directly, boorishly, about their refined sophistication, even when the gheimeh was served as it was back home—topped with frozen French fries.

But the guests tonight were WASPs, even more WASPy than the master and mistress, so they had done a rare courtesy in telephoning ahead to ask for “white people food.” She heard the air quotes through the phone, a knowing wink and nod from the mistress herself, tacitly demanding that she understand that their guests were not as enlightened as they. She did as she was commanded: she giggled politely, knowingly, in performative agreement that of all the white folk she’d come across, her employers were “the good ones.” She kept out of sight the gheimeh and the machboos laham and the masgouf—oh, how she drooled when thinking of masgouf—carp, slow roasted for hours in its skin after marinating in turmeric, olive oil, salt and tamarind—and served them, instead, brie en croute.

She, herself, was not given to culinary pretention. She could recognize the beauty in a plate full of molten cheese, stuffed with walnuts and cranberries, though it reminded her nothing of home. She placed the board in the dumbwaiter, slid the door down, and hit the button marked 2, and smelled the sweet warmth of the croute gently fade away. A moment later, she heard them above, going MMMMM and OHHHHHH and AHHHHH, pleasuring their gaping, voracious maws with her food.

It would be a long month, and so she opened the wine, for once not noticing if it was white or red.


She had once tried to put herself into the dumbwaiter, but she had acquired too much bodily evidence of her developing epicureanism and her rolls of flesh would not allow nearly enough compression for the attempt to work. She would sometimes load it, send it, and then race it up the steps, the walls gradually transitioning from utilitarian gray and white bricks to ornate stained oak with each bound, and then retrieve whatever she had sent—her keys, her oatmeal, or her ganja, bought through the young man who delivered the groceries monthly, and in time, smoked with him, too. He was a wispy thing, tall in a way that made standard length beds—beds like hers—a challenge to rest in, and so they did not use her bed.

He was as thin as her patience for the Important Folk, and after they’d spend their time making a mess of the master bedroom, she’d take his hand and lead him, naked, and her naked, too, down the hall, across the living room decorated with purchased animal trophies and repurposed decorative yard detritus, down the stairs and into the kitchen, where she’d make love to him all over again, one plate at a time. For him, she made the food of true comfort: kebabs of spiced, ground lamb, and pomegranate soup, and hand-pressed lavash bread, and quzi—slow roasted mutton, roasted all day as he ran his hands through her hair and bit her ear as he snuck up behind her, making her drop the pine nuts she was attempting to toast. They would eat together, nude, in the forest during the summer months, before the fireplace in the parlor during the winter months, but not at all when the master and mistress were in residence.

“If you hate them so much, come live with me,” he’d whisper into the phone.

“It’s four weeks only,” she’d whisper back, cupping her hand around the receiver and hiding under her blanket, as if the phone call was illicit.

“Four weeks is a long time to go without eating,” he’d say.

“But how hungry you come back to me, that is a fine thing indeed…”

And he’d hear her grin—sly, salacious—creep lustily through the phone.


A combustive rush sounded out across the pale white sky. A wisp of smoke crawled from the barrel of the master’s shotgun, held in the hands of the master’s guest—a business something or other from some place far from her kitchen. A few seconds later, a dull, flat splash sounded from a slight distance.

Fab shot, Gordie, really faboo. That fucker came ca-rashin’ down. Saleen, let the dog loose, would you?” said the master, and so she did. The ropey Labrador bounded out into the water and retrieved the duck, then dropped it twenty or so feet away from the men.

“Damn dog never brings it close enough—Saleen, would you mind?”

She did mind. She considered shoving a dried apricot down the duck’s throat before slow roasting it. She considered, too, shoving a dried apricot up the master’s ass. She thought of her delivery boy, and blushed behind her scarf and winter hat. She retrieved the duck and tossed it into the cooler fastened to the Hummer’s bumper by bungee cords.

“Good eating tonight,” the friend said. “Not like—what was that shit in Nashville last week? It tasted like bilge water. At that client’s, what’s it, the…”

Hmmmm,” said the master. “I think that was baby gan-oosh.”

She tasted eggplant and sesame seeds, closed her eyes, and thought of the Tigris.


She made baba ghanoush for herself that night and scooped it up with her fingers in the kitchen, the oil dripping down her forearms, as she relished a moment of silence. Her employers and their guests had at last gone to sleep, their cheap wine and overpriced cocaine finally having reached some strange equilibrium, and for a moment, the kitchen was hers again. She could see her wispy giant gliding between the center island and the oven while she cooked, running his hands along her ample hips, and as she went further and further into the dream, she mashed the baba ghanoush between her teeth with steeper and steeper intensity, the oil everywhere, the smell of tahina strong and forceful and forward and warm all around.

Somewhere else, a good distance from her, he sat in his own small kitchen, eating shitty takeout Indian food between bouts of grinding his teeth and chewing ice. He paced the length of his small apartment and waited, and waited, and waited.

“Guess what I just ate,” she said when he picked up the phone.

“No—tell me, in detail,” he said, and his heart began to race.

And so she did, for there are many ways to make love.

Mark Costello