Memories of Muzauku
by Jude M. Eriksen
As the light turned green, Bill tried to remember if he’d ever been through this part of town before. The drab exteriors of the warehouses lining both sides of the street appeared to be painted with the same flaking grey paint, sustaining the illusion that the same few buildings were drifting by again and again as he drove along. Why a restaurant would be situated way out in the industrial area eluded any rational explanation.
Halfway down the next block, he pulled up to the curb and killed the Plymouth’s engine. The looping blue letters of the neon banner over the doors of the squat building on his right proclaimed he’d arrived at Memories of Muzauku. In contrast to the colourful sign, the rest of the exterior—with its crumbling stucco finish, curling shingles, and mangled metal downspout hanging away from one corner like a crumpled snake—exuded an unwholesome vibe.
Stepping out of the car, Bill’s nose wrinkled at the rank stench hanging in the air. The offending odour—reminiscent of boiling fat and burning hair—appeared to be coming from a row of metal stacks poking through the roof of the long, rectangular building next door. Each one expelled a continuous stream of thick white vapour that drifted over his head toward the south. The off-kilter sign out front stated it was Karuki’s Abattoir and Rendering Plant.
“Lovely,” Bill said as he ambled across the weedy parking lot toward the restaurant’s front doors. In his long career as a food critic, he could recall few other places that had established such a negative atmosphere before he’d even entered the premises.
Inside, a young Asian man wearing an ill-fitting Maitre D’ outfit greeted him from behind a podium whose mahogany veneer was peeling away like a sheet of dead skin. A lumpy pink scar stretched across his pointy chin as he smiled.
“Good evening Sir, what is the name of your reservation please?”
“Ah yes. Welcome to Memories of Muzauku, Mr. Chambers. On behalf of the owner and staff, I’d like to thank you for dining with us this evening. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your table.”
The young man led Bill to a table covered with a red and white checkered cloth in the middle of the restaurant. A middle-aged man sitting at another table toward the back of the room—also of Asian descent—appeared to be the only other patron.
“Would you care to look at our wine menu?” the Maitre D’ asked as he flipped over one of the acrylic glasses on the table and filled it with water from a hazy pitcher.
“No thanks. I have to drive.”
“Very well,” the young man said as he placed a tan leather-bound menu on the paper place-mat before the critic.
An odd imperfection in the upper right corner, reminiscent of an inverted nipple, caught Bill’s eye when he picked it up. It conjured memories of his ex-wife, eliciting a shudder of revulsion as he flipped it open.
“While you’re deciding, I’ll bring out some fresh-baked bread sticks.”
“Don’t bother with those.”
The young man’s smile faltered for a second before returning with a vengeance.
“As you wish. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to—”
“What do you recommend?” Bill asked curtly as he snapped the menu shut and tossed it back down on the table.
“Well, we pride ourselves on our selection of bistro-style sandwiches. I’d suggest the ham and cheese. We take thick slabs of juicy, smoked ham and—”
“That’s sounds fine,” Bill said, interrupting him again. “Do you have soup?”
“Yes, there’s lemon orzo and cream of tomato. Both were made from scratch this afternoon.”
“I’ll have the cream of tomato.”
“Excellent choice,” the Maitre D’ said as he retrieved the menu and marched off toward the double doors near the back of the room. When he disappeared through them, the man sitting at the other table gazed at Bill and nodded. Bill nodded back, then pulled a notepad out of his jacket pocket and began scribbling in it with a stubby pencil.
Bad location, right next to an abattoir for Christ’s sake. Exterior is beyond shabby. Inside not much better—dated decor and smells kind of musty too. Paper place mats and plastic glasses don’t exactly scream, “classy.” Wasn’t expecting much, but a ham and cheese sandwich for a recommendation? Lame. Even if the food is alright, I’m already leaning toward a one star review. Maybe even a half-star. This place is a joke.
The Maitre D’ returned a minute later with a steaming bowl in his hands. To Bill’s surprise, the soup sloshing around inside smelled rather good as it was placed in front of him.
“Your sandwich will be ready in just a moment. Would you like some crackers for your soup?”
“Very well,” the young Maitre D’ said, turning on his heels and retreating back toward the kitchen.
Bill lifted a spoonful of the hot liquid to his lips and blew on it before slipping it into his mouth. It tasted wonderful. The acidity of the pureed tomato had been expertly tempered with the richness of clotted cream. Notes of spicy pepper, savoury basil, shallot, and garlic pervaded the silky broth, lending it a wonderful earthiness. As he took another mouthful, the Maitre D’ reappeared through the double doors with a huge sandwich on a platter.
“Enjoy your meal,” he said, setting the massive concoction down on the table, “and if you need anything else, I’ll be right over there.”
It looked good, Bill had to admit.
Layers of crimson ham, suffused with gooey melted cheese, lay between two thick slices of grilled bread. As he took a tentative bite, the tang of fresh sourdough filled his nostrils. He tasted the cheese first—nutty and sweet. Definitely Gruyere. The ham introduced itself next. Salty with a mild smoked flavour, it practically melted in his mouth.
As the cheese and bread mingled with the tender meat, a fourth flavour confronted his palate—similar to umami, but with a level of complexity previously unknown to him. He swallowed, then took another bite. Again the collage of flavours stimulated his taste buds, expertly caressing and teasing them. The soup, though delicious in its own right, sat off to the side—all but forgotten.
In no time, he’d devoured the first half of the sandwich, but his hunger remained strangely unsatisfied. It felt as if he could go on eating forever, like his stomach had become a bottomless pit.
The man at the table near the back smiled while he watched the critic eat. He knew the restaurant wasn’t much to look at, but at the end of the day only the food truly mattered—more specifically, the meat. No other restaurant in the country had the means to replicate the addicting taste. Even if they did, they lacked the knowledge and patience required to prepare it in the correct way. Every aspect of the process—from the selection and killing of the game, to the aging of the meat, to the delicate seasoning and cooking afterwards—required a breadth of knowledge only a select few possessed.
As more people became convinced to try it, they too would become loyal patrons. And though they wouldn’t understand their unquenchable desire for the exquisite cuts of meat being served, on an unconscious level something deep in the roots of their DNA would. Down there—where the oldest bits of primitive ancestral influence still mingled among the telomeres and chromosomes—something long-dormant would reawaken. Once roused, it could never be completely satiated. They would want more and more—the best kind of problem for a restaurant to have. Once a sufficient number of them became hooked, the money would start rolling in. Renovations would follow. Then expansion into other cities. He looked over to where his nephew stood at the podium and smiled. The young man smiled back and gave his uncle two discreet thumbs up.
Back at the table in the center of the restaurant, Bill picked up the other half of his sandwich and took another huge bite, stretching his jaw to accommodate as much of it in his mouth as possible. As the flavours overwhelmed him again, he closed his eyes and murmured with pleasure. Then something hard crunched between his teeth—sending a sharp jolt of pain through his lower jaw. He stopped chewing and fished around inside his mouth with his thumb and index finger before withdrawing a wad of mush.
The eyebrows of the man sitting at the back of the restaurant furrowed as Bill dropped the bolus of half-masticated food on to his plate and started poking at it with his spoon.
Something was wrong.
As the Maitre D’ stepped forward, Bill extricated an off-white object from the mass. In an instant he recognized what it was—a small tooth. The discoloured root had broken off just below a blackened cavity on its side.
“Is something wrong, Sir?” the Maitre D’ asked.
“There’s a goddamn tooth in my sandwich,” Bill said before a sour belch escaped his lips. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“I’m so sorry. Go through the brown door beside the gentleman sitting over there. The bathrooms are on your left, down the hall.”
While Bill staggered away, the man at the other table looked toward the kitchen and scowled.
“Peter,” he said to the Maitre D’, after the critic disappeared through the door. “Get the butcher and have him take care of that idiot cook. Make sure he does it quietly.”
“No problem, Uncle Ben.”
Lurching down the dimly lit hallway beyond the seating area, Bill found the men’s room door and thrust his way through. The air inside reeked of dirty urinal cakes as he staggered into the nearest toilet stall and dropped to his knees. Seconds later, a hot stream of vomit erupted out of him like a geyser. Some of it sprayed off the edge of the bowl and splashed against the partition wall, where it dripped down on to the floor in long stringy chunks. When he’d vomited himself empty, he sat back on his heels and wiped away the dribble of slime sliding down his chin with a shaking hand.
Behind him, the door to the bathroom creaked open and the Asian man from the other table stepped inside. His sad eyes followed the critic as he stood up and teetered across the cracked tile floor toward a pair of pedestal sinks mounted on the opposite wall. While Bill washed his face, the man pulled several paper towels from a nearby dispenser.
“Here you go,” he said, offering them to Bill.
“I’m Ben Karuki, the owner.”
“Uh-huh,” Bill replied as he dabbed at his face and hands with the wad of paper towel.
“Mr. Chambers, I’m simply mortified. This is not the standard to which I hold my employees, I can assure you. In fact, I wanted you to know that the cook is being terminated as we speak.”
“Fair enough, but it doesn’t change what happened out there.”
“No it doesn’t. As you can see, business hasn’t been that good since we opened a little over two years ago, but our food has never been the problem. The people that frequent our establishment can’t get enough of it. There just aren’t enough of them coming through the door. We’ve tried advertising in the paper and on the radio, but nothing comes of it. A few new faces here and there, sure, but not the crowds we’ve been hoping for. Admittedly, the remote nature of our location and the dilapidated state of our building isn’t helping, but that’s why we asked you to come and dine with us.
“A favourable review of our food from a professional critic such as yourself would go a long way toward getting people through the door. Once a wider audience hears how tasty it is from someone of your stature, I’m certain they’ll come—despite these drawbacks. You have to admit the sandwich was quite good, yes?”
Bill shook his head.
“It wasn’t just good. It was the best thing I’ve ever tasted until I bit down on that tooth. That ham—how you made it so tender and sweet, I can’t even begin to guess.”
The owner’s lips formed a wan smile.
“I’m glad to hear that, though I’m certain it won’t be enough to sway you from writing a negative review as a result of that unfortunate mishap.”
“You know what they say about first impressions,” Bill said, shrugging.
“Mmm, I certainly do.”
“I have to ask, though: where did you come up with the name? Muzauku sounds Japanese, but there’s something about the flavour and texture of that meat—I just can’t put my finger on it. It isn’t inspired by any kind of Asian cuisine I’m familiar with.”
“As one of a handful of Japanese-American pilots allowed to serve during the latter days of world war two, I became lost in a thick fog bank while on reconnaissance patrol a couple hundred miles west of Midway atoll. When I ran low on fuel and the engine began to hitch, I brought my Curtiss Seahawk down in the breakers near a volcanic island that loomed out of the mist like a ghost.
“I remember nothing else after that until I awoke inside a small grass hut several days later. My saviours—who spoke in a strange tongue and lived as if the modern world had passed them by—had dressed my wounds, set the broken femur in my right leg, and fashioned a splint for it out of lengths of bamboo lashed together. Immediately they started feeding me a savoury broth which, in addition to being delicious, seemed to greatly speed up my healing. The more I ate of it, the better I felt and before a week had passed, I could walk without the splint.
“Once I could take solid food, I learned that they subsisted entirely on a diet of specially prepared meat, made with a deep reverence for the primal traditions of their ancient ancestors. Indeed, the process of readying each animal for consumption took years. Years. And though their livestock-raising methods turned my stomach at first, once my hunger pangs grew sharp, any lingering reservations were soon put to rest. I still remember the first time I tasted that hot, succulent meat. How it came away from the bone so easily. How my stomach rumbled for more after the first swallow. From then on, I vowed to learn all I could about their culinary techniques—primitive as they were.”
“What sort of animal are we talking about here? Wild pig?”
“There was no shortage of them on the island, that’s for certain. Quite often I’d see them foraging around the village, as if they had lost their fear of humans.”
“You said something about their livestock-raising methods turning your stomach at first,” Bill said. “What did you mean by that?”
“They took the young before they we’re even fully weaned and kept them caged in order to control their diet until they were ready for slaughter. The sound of those little ones crying for their mother’s milk was heartbreaking, but it also made a lot of sense from another perspective. Using free range adult animals would have been far easier, but it also would’ve introduced too much variability into the flavour of the meat. Consistent flavour was the hallmark of their cuisine.”
“So how did you get back to civilization?”
“About a year after I arrived, a wayward Australian research vessel almost ran aground in the shoals offshore when they too became lost in the same fog bank that seemed to perpetually enshroud the island. When several of the researchers came ashore in a skiff, I met them on the beach, but just as I was introducing myself, the islanders attacked without warning. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they’d had problems with white-skinned foreigners arriving on their shores in the past. Whatever the reason, in the panic that ensued, I was pulled into their skiff as flint-tipped spears and arrows rained down in the water around us. Miraculously, no one was hurt as we sped away.
“Once we re-boarded their research vessel and began steaming south, I learned from the skipper that the island wasn’t even charted—a seemingly impossible oversight, given the ship traffic that had sailed through the area for hundreds of years. The only notation written on the nautical chart he showed me, though, was a reference to a nearby deep ocean trench—the Muzauku Abyss—which is what they had come to investigate in the first place. They suspected the island I’d been stranded on was part of a larger chain of islands that existed for millennia before some unknown cataclysm caused all but one to sink below the ocean floor. That’s also when I heard the war had ended in my absence.
“Upon returning to the States and being granted an honourable discharge, I found myself at loose ends. For a time, I wandered from city to city like a drifter, living on my back pay from the Navy and drinking myself into oblivion at any bar I found along the way. But the gnawing void that kept eating at my soul couldn’t be filled, no matter how much liquor I drown myself in.
“Then, after waking with a particularly nasty hangover one morning, it came to me: I realized I’d been craving the unique flavours I’d been introduced to on that primordial island. That’s when I got the idea to start a restaurant featuring meat dishes prepared in the Muzaukan way—as I came to think of it. When this place came up for sale a few weeks later, I snapped it up with the last of my money—along with the old abattoir beside it. Not long after, in December of 1946, Memories of Muzauku opened its doors to the public.”
“That’s quite a story,” Bill said, tossing the clump of wet paper towels into a nearby garbage bin. He was halfway out the door when he stopped abruptly and looked back. “My brother was a Ranger captain in the assault group that attacked Omaha Beach that day in 1944. Didn’t even make it out of the landing boat before the German machine guns cut him down. I respect the hell out of anyone who served, so I’ll tell you what: instead of giving you a bad review, I just won’t write the piece at all. That said, if you can sort out your quality control issues in the kitchen, I think you could have a real winner on your hands. Who knows, I might even come back someday.”
The owner smiled wistfully, knowing there was nothing more to say as the critic exited the bathroom and strode away down the hall. After a moment he returned to the kitchen, where his nephew stood before a three-compartment sink, cleaning up the mess left behind by the now-absent cook.
“Has that disgusting slob been taken care of?”
“The butcher and his helper took him while you were talking to that guy in the bathroom.”
“Is that critic going to give us a bad review?”
“He’s decided to take mercy on us and will not be publishing a review after all, which is better than giving us a bad one, I suppose. We’ll just have to try again with someone else once we find a suitable replacement cook, which won’t be easy given our culinary preferences. I’ll have to do the cooking myself until then, which will make running the rest of our operation that much more difficult going forward. Still, we’ll manage.”
“Don’t worry Uncle. We’ll get it right yet.”
The owner smiled and patted his nephew on the shoulder before leaving him to finish with the dish washing. Exiting the kitchen, he continued past the bathrooms until he came to a padlocked door. It opened on to a long corridor that ran the length of the abattoir next door. At the far end, he rapped on the metal door of a large free-standing meat locker, then stepped inside as it swung open. Strapped to a stainless steel table in the center of the chilled room lay the ex-cook, stripped naked. A livid purple bump on top of his head indicated where the butcher had bludgeoned him into submission. His quivering bulk jiggled like gelatin as he blubbered away.
“Mr. Karuki, I’m so sorry. I promise it won’t ever happen again. Just give me another chance. Please. You don’t have to do this.”
“Thanks to your careless handling of the meat, we just lost the endorsement of the one man who could’ve turned things around for us. How you managed to let one of their teeth end up inside his sandwich, I’ll never understand. No, I’m afraid there will be no more second chances for you. You’ll make a far better meal as the main ingredient, rather than the one preparing it.”
Ignoring the fat man’s racking sobs, he looked toward the tall, hooded figure standing in the corner by a surgical cart whose surface was strewn with assorted knives and saws.
“Just freeze the limbs for now. I want the ribs and chops immersed in the marinate as soon as possible. When sufficient time has passed, we’ll smoke them with the shipment of sugar cane that arrived last week and then serve it at one of our Sunday smorgasbords. Whatever is left can be ground into hamburger and mixed with meat from the younger ones. Use a bit less fat this time, though. The last batch was a little on the greasy side. Understood?”
The hooded figure nodded.
“Good,” the owner said as he pinched one of the ex-chef’s ample love rolls on his way out. “I do love a good feed of side ribs now and again, even if they are from lesser stock like you.”
Leaving the butcher to his work, he walked back toward the restaurant’s basement, where the little ones awaited their next feeding in soundproof rooms beneath the kitchen. As he strolled along, motorized racks loaded with headless carcasses swung into position above several stainless steel vats to his left. When they lowered into the bubbling waters, he paused for a moment to breathe in the greasy aroma of rendering fat. Whistling tunelessly, he started off again as faint screams echoed down the hall behind him.