Chapter 16: Cooking Class

“Very well. We’ll go with the horizontal layout in Garamond font,” said Athena, putting papers away into a folder. “Are you sure Thomas authorized you to make this decision?” She looked pointedly at the other two mares at the SSSS with her.

“He generally has more important things to deal with than whether or not a header has serifs,” Tabby said bluntly. Strawberry nodded in agreement.

“Hmm,” said Athena, filing the folder away in her attache case. “It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make this meeting himself, but this will have to do. The final layout is due to the printer at the end of the week.”

“The shindig thing isn’t for ages,” Tabby said. “What’s the hurry?”

“This is for a teaser newspaper spread; it is never too early to plan… and speaking of such, can I interest either of you in a ticket to the benefit ball?” Athena looked at them expectantly.

“Hey, the clinic is paying for this sponsorship package; don’t we get to go for free?” Tabby protested.

“Thomas will receive two tickets,” said Athena sweetly. “You and Strawberry, however, are on your own.”

“I’ll take tickets for me and Vanguard,” Strawberry said.

“I don’t really do parties,” Tabby said with a shrug. “Count me out.”

“It’s for the animal shelter, Tabby,” Strawberry said, turning beseeching eyes on her friend. “Think of the pets.”

“They can have my money; I’m just not going to some silly dance–”

“Hi!” said a blue pegasus with a stack of papers, cutting off Tabby. “I’m here on behalf of Greener Pastures Technical College,” she continued, “to spread the word about our community education offerings. Would you like a flyer?”

“Sure,” Strawberry said with a smile, accepting the handout. 

“Some classes start as soon as next week,” the pegasus advised, “but registration is still open. Have a nice evening!” Then she quickly moved on to the next table to repeat her spiel.

Strawberry scanned the sheet. “Look, Tabby, here’s Intro to Food Prep,” she said with a teasing look at her friend. “Maybe you need a refresher course.”

“Are you implying that my kitchen skills are not up to par?” Tabby replied lackadaisically.

“By the cloud of smoke coming from your window every time you’re in the kitchen, it does make one wonder,” Strawberry observed.

“It’s not that bad,” Tabby protested.

“As I recall, Tabby’s cooking skills have always been of questionable quality,” Athena interjected.

“Oh, and I’m sure you’re so much better; you’ve never even stepped hoof in a kitchen,” Tabby shot back. “You have servants who do that for you.”

“Of course I can cook,” Athena sniffed. “There’s just no need, as my talents are better used elsewhere. You, on the other hoof, are simply a failure.”

“I don’t know what could have given you that impression,” Tabby said primly.

“Hah! How do you explain your lemon poppyseed disaster at last year’s parish picnic?” Athena challenged. “The frosting was nothing but flour paste!”

“I followed the recipe to the letter,” said Tabby indignantly. “How do you explain that lemon meringue pie?”

“That was a perfect meringue!” Athena said haughtily.

“I didn’t like it,” Tabby sniffed.

“You don’t know quality when you see it,” Athena said with an elegant eye roll.

“Well, if you really want to settle the question,” Strawberry said rationally, “this class would be a good opportunity, giving you a level playing field to gauge your respective strengths and weaknesses.”

“I don’t need to prove myself to the likes of her,” Athena said, nose tilted up.

“It sounds like you’re afraid,” said Tabby slyly.

“Hardly,” scoffed Athena. “You’re the one who once caught a cake on fire in home ec. The bar is set rather low.”

The two mares stared at each other with narrowed eyes as they each considered the prospect. Tabby reached for the flyer. “Three hours in the evening, Monday through Friday?” She recoiled after studying it. “That’s grueling!”

“But only for one week,” Athena observed, straining to view the paper herself. “Naturally, I could handle it,” she said. “But I could see if that would be stretching your attention span.”

Tabby shrugged. “Fine. I’m in if you are.”

“Fine!” said Athena.

* * *

“Welcome to Introduction to Food Preparation,” Ms. Hosta said, beaming at the motley group of students before her, young and old, from all walks of life. There were even students from two high-profile families, Ms. Hosta was pleased to note. It would give her some éclat among her fellow instructors.

“We will be meeting here for the following four evenings,” she continued, “and at the conclusion you will be able to grill, broil, roast, bake, saute, and fry to the amazement of your friends and family!”

Later, after the class was settled in the kitchen, Ms. Hosta was moving between workstations, giving advice and praise as needed. “Beautiful bias cut on the vegetables!” she enthused over Athena’s work. “Tabby, this is more of a large dice,” she observed. “Try to model yourself more after Athena.” The white pegasus shot a triumphant look at her rival.

“Oh, what does it matter!” Tabby huffed. “They’re cut!”

“Did you shock these vegetables after boiling?” Ms. Hosta asked, taste-testing another of Tabby’s dishes.

“I don’t know if they were properly frightened or not,” said a very frazzled Tabby, her attention strained by two pots boiling over simultaneously.

“Hmm,” said Ms. Hosta, frowning. “And your mise en place could use some work,” she continued. “This workspace is very unorganized, and you could take some of your dirty dishes out of the way.” But the instructor’s face lit-up when she saw Athena’s presentation. “Your julienned garnish is exactly the right length for the spoon,” she marveled. “Spectacular!”

Exactly the right length for the spoon,” Tabby muttered under her breath.

“Tabby, your potato casserole has raw egg in the middle,” Ms. Hosta protested as she reviewed the final project of that night. “Not to mention that the potatoes themselves are mushy. How did you manage that?” She sighed. “Never mind. This goes in the trash, and then we’ll start clean-up. Tabby, you are in charge of the stovetop.” She moved on to Athena. “It’s done perfectly. You’re a natural,” she gushed. “Would you re-organize the spice shelf?”

Some time later, a clank and a high-pitched scream were heard. Ms. Hosta and the other students went running to the source of the sound, and found Tabby standing over the cast iron stovetop. “I didn’t know it was still hot!” she gasped in pain as she held her hooves.

Ms. Hosta sighed. “Athena, would you walk with Tabby to the nurse’s office?’

* * *

On Tuesday, Tabby scorched her roux to the pan, over-thickened the white sauce, and scrambled the Hollandaise; Athena’s sauces fared much better. Tabby was able to stomach handling the meats better than Athena, who found the touching of raw flesh to be disconcerting; but even so, Tabby’s roast came untied and her chicken burned, whereas Athena rallied her spirits and performed with aplomb for her dishes.

On Wednesday, Tabby’s puree of lentils was too thick, and she had a crisis of conscience when it came to boiling crawfish (though, inexplicably, she was fine with chicken and beef), so Ms. Hosta allowed her to make the vegetarian version with artichoke instead. Athena’s medallions of tenderloin were perfectly formed, whereas Tabby’s were oddly shaped. The veal shoulder poele and roast leg of lamb boulangere were similarly bungled by Tabby and relatively mastered by Athena.

Thursday was devoted to the art of baking, and Tabby felt more affinity with this topic, though her skills were not necessarily an improvement over other food preparation methods.

“Tabby, these cookies are very underdone,” Ms. Hosta noted on one of her rounds.

“I like them that way,” Tabby stubbornly held her ground.

“Your guests will not,” Ms. Hosta said firmly. “Note how Athena’s are uniformly golden brown.”

“They’re burned!” said Tabby, horrified.

It was not all smooth sailing for Athena, however. “Athena, perhaps a less ornate icing design will suffice,” Ms. Hosta said gently about the cake project.

“I’m halfway done! I can’t give up on it now!” Athena protested, cutting out fondant swirls.

“I applaud your creativity, but the assignment was for plain buttercream frosting, not a fondant work of art. You still have three more projects to complete by the end of the night,” Ms. Hosta reminded her gently.

Tabby also tripped up on the pie project. “You forgot to put weights on the pie crusts, and now they’ve bubbled up,” Ms. Hosta said, shaking her head. “You’ll have to do them over.”

“Well, excuse me for not knowing that pie crusts need to hit the gym!” said a flustered Tabby, chef’s hat askew, flour dusted over her face.

Next was the peach cobbler. “Yes, well, for a cobbler, it’s a bit overdone; but perhaps it could be considered a brown betty,” said Ms. Hosta doubtfully, eyeing the rather charred crust on the fruit dish. Tabby didn’t look too happy herself. “Heavenly,” Ms. Hosta said of Athena’s.

For the last project of the night, the students had been asked to bring in their own recipe to modify. “Tabby, the assignment was to take an existing recipe and make alterations to create a heart-healthy dish,” said a much-aggrieved Ms. Hosta upon seeing Tabby’s effort. “You seem to have a pan of melted chocolate.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Tabby said eagerly. “I cut most of the other ingredients out, and the serving size is half a square inch, but it’s heart-healthy! I ran the numbers!”

“You have a most intriguing outlook on life,” said Ms. Hosta vaguely, moving to Athena’s area. “Your ambrosia salad is scrumptious,” she raved. 

“Thank you,” said Athena demurely. “I substituted low-fat yogurt for whipped topping.”

“You must share the recipe with me,” Ms. Hosta said before moving on.

“I think it’s clear which of us has really proven ourselves,” Athena said to Tabby as they left the building that night.

“We still have the final!” Tabby insisted. “It’s not over yet!”

* * *

“We’re the only ones left, and it’s all because you forgot the coconut rice risotto and let it burn to the pan!” Athena wailed, hooves immersed in dish water. “It’s permanently adhered, and we can’t leave until it’s clean! How could you!”

It was Friday night, and the final exercise was over and done with for all but Tabby and Athena, who had been partners. Ms.Hosta had kindly but firmly told them they could not leave until their messes were dealt with.

“Well, excuse me, but I happened to be at the eye rinse station!” Tabby snapped, sweeping under the stove. “The fried chicken was trying to kill me!”

“Everyone else handled the deep fryer fine without eye protection. I don’t know how you could mess up that badly!” Athena said in exasperation.

“I don’t know what I was supposed to do differently!” Tabby said, throwing up her hooves in dismay and letting the broom drop. The handle spun in an arc and landed on Athena’s head.

Athena glared and stiffly returned the broom to Tabby’s grasp. “Anyway, I should have been the one doing the fried chicken,” she continued, “but instead I was cleaning up another of your messes! What a ridiculous idea, to substitute some unproven Sasquatch powder for baking soda!”

“It was supposed to make it light and airy, NOT explode!” Tabby insisted.

“You’ve always been like this,” Athena fumed, “ever since school days!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tabby snapped, standing defensively with her hooves at her hips.

“You think you can always do so much better without taking anyone else into account,” Athena said, getting fired up. “Remember the senior class play?”

“I hardly see how that has any tie-in to this!” Tabby protested, taken aback.

Athena rolled her eyes heavenward. “It’s just an example,” she said. “Perhaps the first example that made me see clearly how you operate. You’re always making a fuss about being eccentric, and forcing everyone along with you!”

Tabby stood, gape-mouthed. “Have you lost your mind?” she gasped. “What are you talking about?”

“I had the part of my dreams in Clarice Davenport,” Athena forged ahead, “until you convinced the department head to change a long-seated tradition, introducing an avante-garde catastrophe in its place!”

“I made a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and the teacher agreed with me, that’s all!” Tabby argued, though still a little unclear on how this fit into cooking class. “It’s Mr. Albertson’s fault more than mine.”

Secret Dreams of Reality, my hoof!” Athena said with derision. “You upended everything that the school stood for!”

“Well, maybe you needed it!” Tabby cried.

“You turned a sacred tradition,” Athena said, irate, “into a mockery!”

“It wasn’t that bad!” Tabby said, exasperated. “It was an existential treatise on modern life! Not that you or any of the others had any idea what real life was like, not in your protective cocoons of riches!”

“I was expected to play a giant moth doing a musical number about taxes accompanied by dancers in shrew costumes!” Athena wailed.

“You didn’t give it a chance! You never even read the whole script!” Tabby argued.

“I didn’t need to read past the first scene, which was utter nonsense,” Athena snapped. 

“It was a vast improvement over your drivel about some spoiled rich filly!”

Clarice was the inspiring story of a determined debutante who used her riches and influence to promote a healthy infrastructure for society,” Athena said, glaring. “I always identified with her.”

“I dare you to watch Secret Dreams of Reality!” Tabby challenged, throwing down a washrag. “Perhaps by now you can appreciate the subtle nuances of expression that clearly went over your head back then.”

“Only if you watch Clarice,” snapped Athena. “Perhaps you’re mature enough to recognize the gripping tale of pony experience.”

“Fine!” Tabby said. “We’ll watch them both, and see which has really stood the test of time!”

“Fine,” said Athena coolly. “We can use my personal theater… we may as well do this in style.”

“Is everything okay, girls?” asked Ms. Hosta, poking her head in. “I was hoping to get out of here by ten, if you could finish by then…”

* * *

Some time later, two dazed-looking mares staggered into Athena’s kitchen, eyes adjusting to the light.

“Oh, my,” said Athena, looking stricken.

“Yeah,” Tabby agreed. “They were both awful.”

“I remembered it a bit differently,” Athena admitted. “I’m sure there was more… er, dimensionality of character. Clarice was a twit. Do you want ice cream?”

“Yeah, sure… I don’t recall Secret Dreams being so disjointed,” Tabby said reluctantly, taking a seat at the counter. “I don’t know what the playwright was on, but that’s some seriously messed-up story.”

“Perhaps it’s been silly to hold onto a grudge so long over an… inconsequential school play,” Athena said begrudgingly, getting out bowls and spoons.

“Well, that isn’t the only reason we’re feuding,” Tabby pointed out..

“I looked up to you, you know,” Athena said at length, after serving up heaping bowls of ice cream.

“You cut me down every chance you got!” Tabby said, stupefied.

“It was the only way to get your attention,” Athena said. “You wrote me off as a spoiled fashionista and ridiculed me! The problem with you is that you abuse the respect you garner.” She glared.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Tabby’s brow creased.

“I could do something really meaningful if I had your background–something to really better the world,” Athena said with heart. “Some of us have to work to accumulate that respect. Your family can afford to be eccentric, and no one cares.”

“I don’t have that much influence,” Tabby said.

“Your family can hold their own with the multi-billionaires. Your mother wines and dines with the Casales and Vandercorns!” Athena cried out. “Outside of Misty Hollow, I’m nothing but the daughter of a backwoods mayor!”

“I don’t want to be noticed,” Tabby said, uncharacteristically quiet.

“But you are noticed, by virtue of who you are, and you can’t change that. You have a responsibility,” Athena insisted. “Your mother is a patron of various local enterprises, and you’re respected for that connection, even if you don’t appreciate it. I know that the library fundraising committee has floated your name, and you’ve turned down making opening remarks at the town festival multiple times.”

“No one wants to see me do those things. Trust me,” said Tabby emphatically. “I won’t give up who I am.”

“But just think about what you could accomplish for others!” Athena brought her hoof down hard on the counter.

“You’re the worst snob there is,” Tabby pointed out. “You treat everyone like they’re not worthy to breathe the same air as you.”

“It’s necessary to keep my distance to maintain my image,” Athena explained, “and therefore my ability to influence.”

Tabby looked skeptical. “I’m not completely buying that.”

“The point is… well, I’m not really sure I remember my point,” Athena admitted. “More ice cream?” She reached for the scoop.

“I still don’t trust you,” said Tabby, pushing her bowl closer, “but sure.”