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French Night

For Round Five of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that began with the line, "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and ended with the line, "Nothing was ever the same again after that."

A woman holds a knife over a red pepper.

Some people swore that the house was haunted by the ghosts of recipes so utterly failed that the spirits comprising their individual traditions begged in agony for release from such a twisted fate.  Her futile attempts to reconstruct dishes of paramount cultural significance were legendary among her friends, who upon invitation to her parties felt their stomachs lurch with a combination of gastronomical trepidation and earnest curiosity.

Memories of her gatherings were seared into the pages of their collective history, each chapter named for the region of the menu's inspiration. Mediterranean Night featured baba ganoush somehow capable of breaking the bicuspid of one unlucky guest. Japanese Night, during which attempts at table-side tempura resulted in vegetables the consistency of tanned leather and just a few second-degree burns.  And Spanish Tapas Night that concluded with dashes to the bathroom recalling scenes of early morning in Pamplona.

One might have expected interest in attending her periodic parties to wane after the first of these incidents.  It would have been easy enough for her friends to pluck excuses from their genuinely busy lives, gently conveying to her their deepest regrets and promises of next time.  But the potential remorse each expected to feel if not present to witness this time's catastrophe inspired near-perfect attendance.  Like a culinary sweat-lodge, the promise of the communal experience eclipsed, and even drew from, the inevitable suffering.  Beyond this, though, she was loved by all;  frequent and enthusiastic company being the most valued gift of friendship.

The ironic pleasure her friends took in attending her dinners escaped her at first.  She approached every event with such care that the possibility of such perverted interest would not have crossed her mind.  It would be unfair to say she harbored illusions of being the next Martha Stewart, but maybe, she thought, the next Sandra Lee?  She took pride in choosing unique dishes, employing her self-taught techniques and setting the table just so.  That she occasionally missed the mark, resulting in unjust consequences for her guests, was, she believed, the inevitable corollary of a home chef taking cuisine to the edge.

But on Monday of the week leading up to French Night, she found herself the accidental recipient of an email chain started among her invitees, in which bets were being made as to the nature and severity of her anticipated flop.  Her assumption of her own reputation as entertainer extraordinaire was dashed, leaving her, as she saw it, with three choices - cancel the party and hold deserved guilt over her friends; show them all what really bad food was; or prove beyond compare that she was, indeed, the hostess with the mostest.  Being neither particularly fickle nor sadistic, she worked for the proverbial last laugh.  Pouring over Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she practiced julliene-ing and brunoise-ing, and she spent her nights methodically learning how to develop the deep flavors of the five mother sauces.

On Saturday evening, her friends arrived with wine and cheer, oblivious to their hosts new-found motivation.  At first surprised and then amazed, they sat through perfectly executed courses of pate de foie gras, escargot en anglais, frise avec lardons, confit de canard and, finally, pot de creme, each more delectable than the last.  Far from causing bodily harm, she watched as her friends eyes lit up and listened as they let out moans of pleasure that bordered on inappropriate.  When the last dollop of dessert was sufficiently sucked from the spoon, her friends raised their glasses in heartfelt tribute.  And nothing was ever the same again after that.