Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Yellow (11/12/09)
TITLE: The Saffron Factor
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He was ordered to write a feel-good review. Or else.
That’s how Finn found himself on Main Street in Barton, Kentucky, looking for a new restaurant called, “The ‘S’ Factor.” According to his GPS, it was just ahead on the right. He pulled into a metered parking space, though he carried no cash. If he got a ticket, he’d charge it to the magazine.
The dinner hour was still well off, but Finn liked to see what went on in the before. He tried the lacquered-oak door. Sure enough, it opened, and as it did, Finn heard shouts coming from the kitchen amid a clattering of stainless steel. Not unusual.
The interior of the restaurant glowed with incandescent light that bounced off butter-yellow walls. Finn’s eyes traveled to the high ceiling, which, along with the exposed pipes and vents, had been painted black. He murmured into a miniature recorder: upscale, industrial.
“Stop!” a male voice bellowed from inside the kitchen. “How many times do I have to tell you, Rita?—a little goes a long way.”
According to their website, this establishment was owned and operated by Rita and Rueben Sayoub. The cuisine was a smattering of eclectic dishes from around the globe—all flavored with the most expensive spice in the world—saffron.
“Your stinginess will be the ruin of us!” she yelled back. Rita didn’t sound like the petite woman he had seen on-line. Finn meandered among the tables, fingertips grazing linen. He enjoyed putting chefs on the spot regarding saffron.
Describe it, he’d say.
It gives everything it touches the loveliest shade of yellow, they’d reply.
But what does it taste like?
Many said it had a nutty, vanilla flavor. Some said it was earthy, like hay. Others thought it was more like a bitter, pungent honey. A few swore it was perfumy—definitely perfumy, they insisted— as it was, in fact, the stamen of the crocus. Gathered by hand—three filaments to a flower. By weight, worth more than gold.
All of them—wrong.
“Follow the recipe, Rita!”
“I am—why don’t you? I've had it with your pale and pasty buns—”
“My buns are neither pale nor pasty,” but something in Rueben’s voice had broken.
“Are you absolutely certain?” asked Rita. Finn strained to hear her. “Out on the counter’s a batch of mine next to a batch of yours—Rueben—please. Go see for yourself.”
For a moment, Finn felt himself the intruder about to be caught. His eyes fixed on the double doors to the kitchen.
Then Rueben found his fight again.
Finn let out a long breath. Now he was curious. There on a counter, just outside the kitchen, sat several round platters covered in plastic wrap. He moved forward carefully, not allowing the heel of his loafers to clack against the terra-cotta tiles.
Even through the plastic, it was obvious which rounds held Rita’s backward “s”-shaped saffron buns. To be fair, Finn lifted two—one pale, one golden. The tongue and nose would tell.
Finn took a bite. Rueben’s tasted like a paper napkin.
Rita’s, though, was of cobalt blue and sunshine-yellow kitchens, of mothers with fine blonde hair and warm sweet necks. It was of an essence that could not be described by words. He closed his eyes, savored every bite.
When he finished, he pulled a business card from his wallet, and on the backside wrote: Rita’s right about the saffron. He placed it on the counter.
As Finn left the restaurant, he turned his recorder on. He talked about the ambiance of the dining room. He highlighted the owners and their passionate relationship toward food and one another. And of the entrées? Well, he couldn’t comment on the smoked Portuguese linguica with the saffron rouille, covered with the 12-month Manchego cheese—yet he could go on and on about Rita’s saffron buns.
And he could remind his readers that saffron was like kindness—a little went a long way—but that was no reason to be stingy with it.
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