When you arrive in the Afterlife, you eat and you drink.
Pomegranate seeds, the arils like edible jewels, sweet and tart and bitter, garnet beads that burst as you chew.
Fungi you know—Porcini; Portobello; Oyster; Straw—and some you don’t—violet Amethyst Deceivers and nubby Dead Man’s Toes—the taste of the things they’ve fed from, the things they’ve consumed, lingering long after you’ve swallowed.
Blood-red wine, Cabernoir and Burglio, Malfleur and Grandegris, underground varietals so deeply dark they’re nearly black, sediment staining glasses, teeth, and tongues, the vintages fermented in the gods’ own barrels.
You eat and drink because, to enter the kingdom, you must first forget the world you’ve come from, and the food of the dead unspools living memories.
At least, it’s supposed to.
Sometimes, memories won’t let go, won’t give way to the victuals of a spotless mind. Taste is the very last sensation to fade, and some taste memories are so potent that they become more than thoughts or sparks or ether.
These aftertastes linger in the mouth, in the spirit, in the soul.
They become tethers.
These are tastes that, if tasted again, from beyond, can cast back a line, an artery, a road to travel. A way, briefly, to cheat Death.
Jolene’s is a rice cake with a teriyaki chicken center. It’s salty-sweet on the inside, sticky around that, robed in sheets of seaweed that stay impossibly crisp between layers of plastic which—in a feat of Japanese engineering—come apart by pull tab, and, as if by magic, wrap the seaweed back around the rice patty when you’re ready to eat. It’s not that Jolene likes rice all that much, or seaweed, or even the cachet of a cellophane compartment. It’s that she’d been on the Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen, had been wolfing down a rice cake just like that one in an immaculate, high-speed rail car, when in walked Akira and time stopped and her heart hammered and she fell in love with a stranger, with a language she didn’t speak, with a country she barely knew.
They spent a decade together—not enough, not nearly enough, a scant helping of time. They had a daughter, a cat, a cottage by the sea. They ate their way through Japan and China, Thailand and Malaysia, tasting things far more delicious than train-station onigiri, but it’s still the rice cake that’s her ticket back to him. It’s not difficult to figure out, once she thinks it through, but though Jolene tries and tries, she never finds the right stall in the Food Hall to taste it again. That is, she’s found onigiri, a booth and cart and food truck that all serve it, but never the right kind. Once, it’s filled with ahi tuna, another time with barbecued brisket, another still with—inexplicably—jelly bean puree.
There’s no map of the Food Hall, and, like the Afterlife, it’s infinite, so she wanders the endless aisles, asking strangers for directions. She figures that either she’ll find the right eatery or Akira will die and find her, though those years—he’s just thirty-six now—will feel interminable, and she worries he’ll spend them alone. Jealously, she watches other souls—ones with closure—board the golden trains and travel on, unhindered, to where she’s not yet able to go.
Kent is an accountant by trade, a calculated man, and he tells anyone who stands still long enough that he’s solved it, that his is black Beluga caviar on a still-warm blin, a whisper-thin spread of butter, chased by a coupe of ’96 Dom Perignon. He ate this once at his firm’s holiday party, a course in a tasting menu they’d arranged for the partners, and he is convinced that he’s right—that this was the best thing he’d ever eaten—because his interpretation of best is finest.
What he doesn’t tell anyone is how many times he’s tried eating black Beluga caviar on a still-warm blin, with and without various quantities of butter, with alternating years of Dom Perignon, at a thousand different Food Hall establishments, and how many times he’s screwed up his eyes in anticipation, braced himself for the journey back, only to be met with bitter disappointment.
His aftertaste isn’t fine dining at all; it’s a Whopper, the kind from Burger King. Extra pickles. It’s what he’d been eating at his desk, hunched over a pile of late-night paperwork, when Ingrid called to tell him she was pregnant with Shane. It was the happiest he’d ever been, but happiest and best never equate in his accountant’s mind, and all the whispers about aftertastes—the hushed conversations, the barstool speculations—said he had to discover the best thing he’d ever eaten, and eat it again to go back.
Kent is desperate to return; he has to tell Ingrid how sorry he is to have wasted all those years behind a desk, to tell his boy—a young man now—that he was always first on Kent’s list, the firm be damned. He knows exactly what he’ll say, the words he’ll use. He’s thought of nothing else since the moment he died, and failure is not an option. And so, Kent spends day after day ordering blini—the restaurants and stalls and cafés that serve them appearing obligingly before him in an endless lane—each futile bite bringing him no closer to his wife and boy.
Mercedes knows—like really knows—the dish she has to eat to return. Or—dishes. It’s between two: the chateaubriand from her wedding (later annulled), or the ceviche from that girls’ trip to Vegas (what happened there stays there). Okay, three max. The chateaubriand, the ceviche, or that cherry strudel she had with her brother Malcolm the week before she ODed at Burning Man.
At first, she favors her grandmother’s meatloaf, but when that busts she starts thinking about her ex, wondering if it really had been love, and then she’s all chateaubriand, all the time, at least until she remembers the ceviche. She briefly flirts with the idea of cotton candy—there’s a breathtaking Candyfloss Corner in the Food Hall—but there’s only so much sugar she can eat before feeling sick, so pass. There’s also a week she spends focused on brunch—quiche and eggs Benedict and mimosas—but that turns out to be nostalgia for her day-drinking days.
Anyway, now she’s sure. Two options, maybe three. All she’s gotta do is eat.
The nice thing is that the Food Hall obliges all of her whims; whenever a new idea pops into her head, it’s like the Hall reads her mind and rearranges itself accordingly. It’s just a matter of time before she finds the right restaurant. This place is designed to help her, isn’t it? And she has to see Malcolm one last time, to tell him not to screw up like she did, make sure he doesn’t follow her into an early grave.
For each Jolene and Kent and Mercedes, there are countless others, more arriving every moment, all unsettled, all searching, all roaming the aisles of the Food Hall nibbling and noshing, scarfing and swallowing, hoping and praying. They are each so focused on their Sisyphean task that when The Chef shows up, no one so much as blinks.
At first, he stumbles about like the rest of them, heavy with his own baggage, dining in and out, trying to understand why nothing he puts into his mouth here tastes quite right. Slowly, he learns the game—the chase for the aftertastes; the search to identify, seek out, and consume them; the souls’ driving desire to return and settle their business. He also learns the catch—that no one he’s spoken to (or anyone they’ve ever spoken to, not a single soul in deathly memory, in fact) has ever actually succeeded in going back. Most give up and force themselves to move on before they’re ready, winding up—rumor has it—reincarnating back as something sad and unfulfilled, like East Coast oysters or stand-up comics.
The Chef quickly sees that they’re getting taken, and though he has no desire to return—he’d stay here forever if he could, had chosen this rather than the insatiable hunger he felt while he was living—he feels compelled to help the others. Being a culinarian, he understands food, the way the raw ingredients feel in his palms, the slippery glide of uncooked chicken or shrimp, the earthy grit of an unpeeled potato, the anointing power of fat, of extra virgin or schmaltz or butter. He also understands how food can change, how service and setting and ambiance can transform what you eat, elevate or debase it. He understands that sometimes it’s not the food you’re relishing when you think back on a meal, but the company, the event, the moment that seems too big and beautiful to believe, and the food is just there, a happenstance you popped into your mouth at the right time to manufacture a memory.
And so The Chef, never one for rules, decides to change them. When he first opens his stall—Some Reservations—he has to convince souls to dine. By his second week in operation, there is an infinite line out the door.
It isn’t only that he makes their food—this he does, with flawless execution and otherworldly skill—but that he helps them understand what’s been eating at them, and what they need to eat to make it stop. Like all good cooks, he is part therapist, a nourisher of soul as well as body, and in time the Food Hall itself takes notice, and shrinks, dwindling from an immeasurable gallery to one supersized café, serving coffee and donuts, whiskey and wine, comfort foods to everyone waiting on The Chef’s long queue.
When Jolene goes back to Life, she finds Akira sitting alone at a table in their old haunt, an izakaya a few blocks from their home. He’s reading a manga—so absorbed that he doesn’t notice the beautiful woman at the next table, reading the very same one. Jolene knocks the woman’s Sapporo into her lap, which causes her to swear, which causes Akira to look up, which causes their eyes to meet, all seemingly by chance.
When Kent returns, Ingrid and Shane are out, and so is Ingrid’s old typewriter. He blows the dust off its keys and hammers out a message, one painstaking letter at a time, pouring his heart out with the kind of courage and candor only the dead and dying can wield. He finds a pen on the kitchen counter and signs it in his handwriting so they’ll know it was really him, not Kent Langford, CPA, but Dad.
When Mercedes reincarnates—with, of all things, a Hot Pocket—she finds Malcolm staring into the bottom of a bottle, a dozen pills littering the table beside him. She gets to work flipping switches and messing with speakers, enveloping him in light and song—harsh fluorescents and the theme to The Golden Girls. It takes him a moment to understand, but Malcolm believes in ghosts, has always believed, and catches on quick. Mercy? he whispers, That you? When she materializes in his kitchen, hands him the number for a hotline, and tells him not to be an idiot, he smiles and says, You always did know how to make an exit.
Otto goes back, too. And Luz. And Charlie.
All six-thousand, five-hundred and forty-two Jims.
Shruti and Sergei, Madeleine and Muhammad.
Kristos, Jesus, Jesse, Wild Thing.
Tim and Robin.
Apple and Eve.
Juan. Caesar. Alexander Hamilton. Bill Shakespeare.
Prince. Diana of Wales.
The guy who invented zippers.
The Chef serves them all, so many souls he loses count.
But someone else keeps track, and one day, he calls the next number in line, wipes down the counter, and in glides Death, a night-colored cloak billowing behind him, a starlight scythe twinkling in his hand.
It’s time, Tony. His voice is air being let out of a tire.
The Chef wipes his hands on his apron. No thanks, Pal. I’m not going back. None of that reincarnation shit.
Not back, Death clarifies. Just not here. You’ve interfered enough in the Food Hall.
Where else is there?
Forward. On. You’ll get to forget, and be forgotten.
And if I’d like to be remembered?
If you wanted that, you should’ve left a legacy.
I thought I had— The Chef protests, but Death only laughs, the sound the rattle of dry peapods.
Food is fleeting, He hisses. Its pleasures momentary. Plus, it rots.
Okay, well, what about them? The Chef nods toward the window, at the snaking queue of patrons all waiting their turn to dine.
What about them? You’re not doing them a service, Death tells him. It’s kinder to set them free than to help them hold on to illusions.
Illusions? The Chef scoffs. That’s your game, not mine. You weren’t letting them go back; not a chance. No one even got close before me. This whole thing, he gestures out, to the Hall, was just one big illusion.
Naturally. Death doesn’t flinch at the accusation. But the point was never the return. The point was to sever ties. The more they eat, the less they remember. The Hall helps them move On.
At this The Chef actually laughs. Bullshit. You might be serving up amnesia with a side of fries, but you fed them hope. And they’ll never forget that, not in a million years. It’s what people cling to, the only thing that makes life livable.
I wouldn’t know, Death says slowly.
There’s a gleam in The Chef’s eye. Have a seat, he says.
The Chef makes the dish by intuition; it’s not something he’s cooked before. He combines incongruous things: the fleshy shoots of fledgling trees, ancient microbes clinging to life, a first kiss, nervous laughter, salt and fat and acid, the moment someone topples into love, touch, heat, sadness and oxygen, swimming in the ocean, wishes upon stars, casting out a fishing line, disappointment, a pinch of cayenne, a leap from an airplane, the death of a loved one, Tahitian vanilla, the will to live. The Food Hall delivers these ingredients into his kitchen the same way it does poultry and produce, and when The Chef has stewed them all together, he plates the dish on a silver platter.
When Death tastes hope, He actually smiles.
I can see, He says, why they enjoy this illusion.
Or maybe, The Chef replies, hope is real, and dying’s the illusion.
And maybe outwitting Death will let you live forever, Death teases. But, alack and alas. Your time’s up.
As the gilded train pulls away from the station, The Chef watches the Food Hall rearrange again, the stalls giving way, the myriad eateries collapsing into a wide, brilliant expanse. A table appears, boundless as a horizon, and the souls swarm around it, covered cloches appearing at their places as soon as they sit down, illuminated glass every color of the rainbow, steam brewing inside.
What gives? he asks Death. Done with the restaurant game?
A new menu, Death replies. Something to entice them into their next life, instead of holding them to their old one. Your recipe. Hope.
The way He says it, smug, it almost sounds like He thinks He’s won a wager, bested The Chef, skipped out on the bill. But as The Chef watches countless souls tuck into his dish, savoring possibility, tasting tenet, he grins wide, understanding what Death cannot, about the ties between living and memory, memory and food, food and feeders. Where they’re going, he might forget, but he won’t be forgotten. He’ll endure every time someone eats what he’s created, reincarnation by recipe. That’s what recipes are, after all, what they’ve always been: relivable memory, something someone once made, bequeathed, inherited, recreated, tasted again. A way to leave yourself behind, to never really die.
What’s that you were saying, he asks Death as the train changes course, gains speed, climbs, the table and Food Hall shrinking below them, thinning, receding, becoming a dark, unsavory hair in a bowl of bright chowder, about living forever?
For Anthony Bourdain,
who I never met in this life,
but hope to run into in the next.
Daria Lavelle writes fiction, most of which features a healthy dose of unreality. Her stories have been shortlisted for prizes by The Masters Review and Molotov Cocktail, and have appeared in Breadcrumbs, The Arcanist, and Dread Machine. She is an MFA candidate in Speculative Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently at work on a novel about food, ghosts, and the New York culinary scene. She lives in Hoboken with her husband, hyperactive golden-doodle, and toddler twins, who are in training to learn how to make stuff up, too.