The metal detector wasn’t a surprise. Nor was the thorough patdown. The change of clothes—plain hospital scrubs—was a little off putting, but it was the domino mask that had Leon rolling his eyes and wondering if this room was all it was cracked up to be.
Never mind that it had taken him two years to get here. Never mind that all his friends and family thought he was crazy. To everyone else, he had been pursuing the equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster or Shangri La.
But he had found it.
After the tight security check, Leon had been driven out to a row of empty warehouses and directed to a door. Then he was alone.
Leon shivered. Even his shoes had been taken away, and he wore only thin slippers. He expected more heavily muscled men in suits and ear pieces to be guarding the door, but there was only a scruffy thin man in a hoodie. His smile was full of broken teeth. “First time?” he said.
“Yes.” Thoughts of being kidnapped or murdered swept through Leon’s mind.
“No names,” the scruffy man said and opened the door.
It was dark. The only light came from dozens of tapered candles on the walls. Leon could see neither the ceiling nor the far end of the room. Muted voices and the soft shuffle of slippers were the only sounds he heard.
As Leon moved further into the room, the door softly closed behind him. Without the draft from outside, Leon felt the heat of dozens of bodies and candles pressing on his skin. He scratched at the edge of the mask.
The only furniture in the room was a long wooden table, longer than it had any right to be, that was covered in silver platters. Leon took a long breath in and smelled a thousand spices and sauces mingling together. He was drawn to the table like a moth to a flame.
Each platter had a parchment label with delicate handwriting denoting what it was. Leon was surprised at how innocuous some of them were. Steamed pork chops, scalloped potatoes, and beef stroganoff with mushrooms and heavy cream sauce were all beautifully presented. But all of them could be found outside the room without effort.
Leon was paying such close attention to the food he was passing that he nearly walked into a tall gentleman enraptured by a poppy seed roll. The gentleman spread raspberry jam on it and took a bite, tipping his head back and closing his eyes.
“Is it that good?” Leon asked.
“Poppy seeds are not allowed in my city,” the gentleman said. “I have not had this since I was a child.” He turned to Leon and studied him through the mask. “You are new.”
“Yeah,” Leon said. “I was expecting a bit more than, well, this.” He gestured to a bowl full of escargot.
The gentleman chuckled. “This is much bigger than you think. Come, I will show you what you need to see.”
Leon followed him, muttering, “Gross,” as they passed a boiled sheep’s head, complete with eyeballs.
“No such word here,” the gentleman said.
The knots of masked people started to grow as they moved down the impossibly long table. Tidbits and samples were picked up by hand and fawned over. Goosebumps raced over Leon’s skin as he realized that the gentleman may be right; this was much more than he expected.
The dishes grew more elaborate and grotesque as they walked and carried names that Leon had never heard of before. “Ortolan” marked a plate full of tiny songbirds dripping with liquor that he saw one woman eat whole. A fish still twitching under its own sashimi was “ikizukuri.” Candied scorpions, drunken shrimp, and what looked suspicious like skinned cats followed.
“What on earth is there left?” Leon asked as they passed a plate of “balut,” half-developed duck eggs. “Human hearts? Actual babies?”
The gentleman chuckled again without slowing down. “Did you come here to pass judgment or to experience something you would never be able to otherwise? There is still more.”
The labels turned strange. “Handsome peaches,” “baked Alaska memory,” and “carpaccio elegance.” The food itself looked perfectly ordinary. “What is this?” Leon said.
“What you want,” said the gentleman. “This is what makes the room special. All that other stuff,” he waved toward the front of the room, “that is all parlour tricks. That is for people who wish to break rules they are too afraid to outside these doors. This is where the magic is. Look there.”
Sitting in the middle of the table were several stacked pyramids of apples. “Red Delicious childhood” and “Golden Delicious innocence” read the labels. “Those were my favourite kinds as a kid,” Leon said. He reached out and grabbed one, the first food he had sampled here. He bit into it as the gentleman watched.
The white flesh of the apple glowed faintly as a soothing calm and feeling of trust came over Leon. “What was that?”
“It is what you wanted, right?” the gentleman said. “The peace of childhood? The thing you want, but cannot have.” He stepped back and waved to the dozens of people around the table. “That is why they keep coming back. If you are not careful, you will become addicted to it as they are.”
Leon was unconcerned as he took another bite. “What’s your magic dish, then?”
The gentleman waved a finger and pulled out a poppy seed roll. “I have learned to be content with what I can get through ordinary means.”
Leon shrugged and took another apple, already forgetting why he was worried in the first place.
*This story is a work of fiction. Binge does not support the production or consumption of illegal foods.