Anna Tambour presents 

The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted

Turcotte's Battle

by Laura E. Goodin



Turcotte was dying to scratch his nose. But the music was playing, and he was expected to remain motionless while the gaze of millions crawled all over him like so many insects.

"Today's mystery ingredient is —"

Angela, the MC, paused dramatically, as she always, always did. Turcotte loathed her. Polished, poised, delicate, and brittle — she was everything he both dreaded and detested. The face of Battle Chef.

The first sport-cooking shows had set the tone, with their camp, sequined hosts and gleaming sets. Soon it was no longer enough that the chefs battle each other by producing their bizarre dishes. It escalated into "bonus point" quiz rounds ("Chef Turcotte, what was the main ingredient of the medieval dish frumenty?"), scavenger hunts for ingredients and specialized equipment, and even hand-to-hand combat to determine who got a five-minute head start. Turcotte's nose was now permanently crooked, but he'd never lost a match.

This season had seen an innovation that brought the viewers in their millions. The chefs now had to corner and kill their mystery ingredient. It wasn't so bad on the vegetarian episodes; those, alas, were the exceptions.

Up on the platform, Turcotte began to sweat as he waited for Angela to announce the ingredient. Lion? Braised lion was all the rage since they'd been cloned off the endangered list. That would be all right — there was something about cloning that made them a bit more sluggish than their natural-born counterparts. Still a challenge, mind you. Or maybe Tassie tigers — delicious once you caught them, if you still had any hands left to stir the pot.

A camera zoomed in on Turcotte's sweating face as the tympani rolled. He kept utterly still; it was what the viewers expected.

"Version Three Wildebeest!"

Turcotte felt faint. Ordinary wildebeest he could have coped with. Version Three, though, was an experiment — or, as the geneticists called it, an "initiative" — gone desperately, terrifyingly wrong. Not for the first time, Turcotte was glad he had no wife or children.

From the other platform came the sound of Turcotte's opponent whimpering. The microphones picked up the sound, the cameras followed to catch the visuals, and now the poor bastard was crying on international television. But Fouad Turcotte couldn't cry, not on camera. It was in his contract: he was the stoic one. He'd wanted to audition to be the boyish rogue, but his agent had told him to cut the crap.

The splendidly costumed Ring Attendants were now before him, ready to escort him to the Battle Cage.

The two cages stood side by side. His was appointed in his battle colors, red and gold, matching his apron and toque respectively. The challenger's cage was draped in blue and white. Inside each, pacing and slavering, was a prime Version Three bull. Turcotte curled his fingers around the handle of his favorite knife, stuck with careful nonchalance into his belt. The pulse in his thumb quickened against the imported hardwood handle. At least there would be good eating at the end of the show. Version Threes had been modified for exquisite quality of meat. Pity the genotype came with a nasty side order of mindless, unstoppable rage. And fangs. No-one had predicted the fangs.

A second brace of Attendants escorted the challenger to the gate and into his cage. They had the knack of making it look on camera like he was walking bravely, but Turcotte knew they were working hard to keep him upright. At the gong, the two gates sprang open as one, and Turcotte stepped (and the challenger stumbled) through.

Turcotte drew his knife with the characteristic flourish that the viewers loved. He crouched, knife at the ready. No telling what a Version Three would do; his best bet was to wait for an opening, rather than try and force one.

The ingredient grunted, a low, wet sound, and bared its fangs. It sank its weight just a fraction onto its back legs, and Turcotte stepped sideways as it launched itself at him. He imagined the viewers in home theatres around the world, gasping and cheering when he flicked the knife out as the ingredient passed. He waited for the blood to start from its neck; ah, there it was. It flowed in spurts. Turcotte sighed, relieved. Lucky cut. It would die soon, and with little pain to either of them. He'd still be able to look himself in the face. More importantly, the meat would not be spoiled by the animal's distress pumping through its body, and Turcotte would have just that much more time left to butcher it, grab the cuts he wanted, and rush to the kitchen area to start cooking. They only got two hours all up, gate to plate.

The ingredient was already starting to stagger, blood soaking the carpet in the cage. Turcotte risked a glance at his challenger, who was pinned in a corner, slashing at the nose of an increasingly annoyed animal. Paramedics were standing by.

Turcotte's ingredient made a second, stumbling pass, and he made a second cut, under the jawbone. On the third pass, it collapsed at his feet. Good television, that. Turcotte bent to his work. He'd need flank, rump, and round. Over his shoulder he called for his assistant to bring the meat tray.

Milagros rushed into the cage. "That was fantastic, Fouad."

"Thanks," he said, not looking up as he skinned and sliced. He didn't do this for the admiration. He did it for the money, so he could retire. He tried not to let the dream rise before his eyes and distract him from the butchering, but it hovered: the vision of himself, at his local bookstore, seated behind gleaming piles of his just-published cookbook. He even had a name for it: Food by Fouad. Or maybe, Fouad on Food.

Turcotte put the meat he needed in the tray; the Attendants would finish the butchering quickly, as gourmet meat killed by a Battle Chef would do a lot on the open market to offset production costs. He and Milagros hurried to the kitchen area to begin work.

"Mila, a honey-and-chilli marinade, please, two cups, usual recipe, except add a teaspoon of powdered cinnamon," he said. "When you're done, I need you to julienne three carrots and grate 50 grams of ginger. Did they give us any corn meal today?"


"Damn. Fillo?"

"No, but there's plenty of cold butter and flour."

"How quickly can you make fillo?"

"Not very."

"Croissant dough?"

"A lot quicker, if it doesn't have to rest."

"Five hundred grams, then, please."

They always worked like this: quickly, clearly, efficiently. Mila had shown up for Assistant auditions eight months ago, and Turcotte had taken to her right away. She was the reason Turcotte was the most successful Battle Chef in history. The viewers didn't know that, but Turcotte did, and so did Mila.

Turcotte felt his pulse slowing, his movements becoming more smooth, as he calmed down from the kill. The food began to shape itself — when things were going the way they should, he never felt he did much of anything at all, just … let the food happen. And at the end, he got applause, which was not very useful to him, and money, which was. A few more kills, a few more wins, that would be enough for him to quit and start work on the cookbook. Losses, though — nobody got paid when they lost. It ensured that the challengers would be wild and impulsive. Frantic. Better television.

The minutes ticked away, and he finished at the closing gong, as he always did. The challenger had recovered his composure and done better than most, plating his food in charming, even artistic, stacks, with impressionistic drizzles of particolored sauces, and finishing with a minute or two to spare.

The precariously full and steaming dishes were whisked up into the special viewing room where the judges sat at table, the cameras following closely to catch the Attendants' every step and — if the viewers were lucky — stumble. In the old days, the shows had been edited to a tight, utterly predictable hour, including the tastings. These days, the viewers wanted every tedious detail, in real time. Television was no longer a stage, merely a window.

Taste, swallow, ponder. Pompous comments from the judges. More of Angela's flowery speeches and dramatic pauses. Then, as always, Turcotte striding, stone-faced, to the podium to accept the challenger's concession and make the ritual bow. And, as always, Angela's congratulations, ringing in his ears like a spoon on a tin pot. Hypocrite. She hated him as much as he did her.

The studio lights cut out, and the cleaning staff descended like locusts onto the set. Turcotte said, "Thanks again, Mila," and nothing more as he left for his dressing room. He felt as much at home here as anywhere — which was to say, not at all. Someday, he'd have a studio of his own, with the kitchen of his dreams, better than the Battle Chef kitchen, and a huge wooden desk in the next room to write at. No time soon, though: the money was slow to accumulate, and quitting was out of the question, as the Battle Chef producers would make sure anyone hiring him went out of business very soon thereafter. The last Turcotte had heard of Jimmy, the one they'd actually hired as the boyish rogue, he was waiting tables in a family restaurant and glad of the privilege.

Turcotte left his uniform on the couch for the cleaning staff, showered, changed, and permitted himself one sigh before he stepped out into the night to go home.

A week later, the press was billing that night's show as something special, a mystery rules-change. The real-time ratings monitor at the start of broadcast was spiking at a new high, and so were the dynamic advertising revenues — the digital ads passed in a blur as the ad department sold time in smaller and smaller blinks for more and more money.

Turcotte felt more than a little uneasy. Even this week's ingredients (goanna-like reptiles that spit poison — he'd have to try and keep the poison sac whole during kill and butchering) were noticing the tension. They threw themselves against the bars and screeched as Turcotte and the Attendants approached.

There was a disturbance, a struggle, over by the MC's podium. Sequins flashed as Angela flailed her stick arms.  "What! I — you have got to be kidding! Marie! Kostya! What the hell — no — no!" Her cries grew louder and deteriorated into squeals.

Attendants gripped Angela's arms and dragged her up the steps. Turcotte noticed that the wall of bars shared by the two cages was gone, making it one big cage. The Attendants pushed Angela through the nearest gate, motioned the two chefs inside frantically, and slammed the gates shut. She started to scream, and the cameras rolled smoothly right up to the bars.

In his earpiece Turcotte heard the producer. "New rules, guys. You have kill the ingredients, and you have to keep the ingredients from killing Angela. If Angela gets mauled, the refs decide whose fault it was, and that person gets penalized twenty minutes of cooking time." Twenty!

"Good television, eh?" came the voice in Turcotte's earpiece.

Turcotte took his knife out and started to evaluate the ingredients' ferocity and tactics. The sac was positioned in the hollows behind the jaws, so trying to slit their throats was out.

Aw, hell. Angela was screaming again. Now he'd have to waste precious time rescuing her. The challenger was quicker, though, and ran to her side before Turcotte could dodge past the ingredient in his own cage. She simpered at the challenger and lay a trembling hand on his broad shoulder. Since when had they started hiring bodybuilders as challengers? Could he even cook? Well, let him have his moment.

Turcotte checked to see that his ingredient was keeping its distance, then watched the challenger take on the other lizard as Angela cringed against the bars. Turcotte had never fought one before; maybe he could learn from the challenger's mistakes.

The challenger had an enormous knife with a blade curved like a boomerang — a kukri. Show-off. Idiot. Turcotte had already realized that knives weren't the right strategy. Hard, scaly hides, with the only soft bit right over the poison sacs. The challenger was in front of Angela, facing the ingredient in a bush-hunter crouch. He shuffled left and right, feinting with the knife. God.

The ingredient shot a burst of flame out of its mouth. Everyone jumped back, including Turcotte, the camera operators, and the Attendants waiting safely outside the bars. The challenger jumped back so far he tripped over Angela and sprawled backward against the bars. His head hit the metal with a clang.

Angela's shrieks had now reached the point where she was overloading the microphones. The ingredient took a step toward her. Oh, crap, if it burned her while the challenger was so clearly out of action, Turcotte would cop the penalty.

He darted past his own ingredient, hoping it wouldn't flame his pantlegs; he had a nasty vision of globs of molten polyester clinging to his flesh. He saw the challenger's ingredient expand its sides as it breathed in, and he figured it was about to belch more fire. Right at Angela's scrawny legs. Without thinking, he picked up the ingredient by the tail and swung its back into the bars, once, twice. The thing had to weigh 50 kilos at least. He heard its spine snap and let it dangle from his hands. It did not move.

"This one's mine," he said to the challenger, who was staring, wide-eyed, from where he slumped. "You go kill the other one. Mila, the meat tray, please." As he butchered, he heard the challenger get to his feet and, stumbling and grunting, clumsily imitate Turcotte to kill the ingredient.

The cooking went as it always did. He had a bit of a job hiding the muddy taste of the meat, but you can do a lot with the right spices. It was going to be a whole chapter in his cookbook. Maybe two.

He won, as always. But as he performed the victor's ritual, the music stopped abruptly. Angela, makeup refreshed and clothing changed, looked in confusion toward the judges' table. An Attendant trotted up, bearing a piece of silver-colored paper. Angela took a moment to read, then looked up dramatically. The camera operators, sensing good television, closed in. She found the one with the red light, and spoke directly to it. "The judges have determined that since Chef Turcotte used the challenger's ingredient instead of the one assigned to him, the results of this contest are void. Nobody wins, and Chef Turcotte will be suspended from the next two matches. His assistant, Milagros Compton-Huatepec, will fill in as Acting Chef. The judges regret that Chef Turcotte must take this break from the show, but rules are rules. They wish Acting Chef Compton-Huatepec all the best for her upcoming matches."

The cameras turned toward Turcotte. If they wanted stoic, stoic they'd get. He stayed impassive, even though the financial hit was a hard one; it delayed his dream by many months, as he'd have to live off his precious savings. He knew in that moment that this was why they'd invented a new rule for him to break: to keep him in their thrall. He'd be back after Mila's two matches, he'd have to be. Then, just as he was on the brink of escape again, they'd find some other infraction to charge him with.

Once they were off the air, he turned to go, but stopped as he felt a hand on his arm. Mila said, "I'm — I never —"

Turcotte put his own hand over hers. "It's all right," he said, then gently pulled away.

When Turcotte got home that evening, he unplugged the phone. Then he shut down the emailbox, the vid-mail, the instant messaging, the television, and the radio. He drew the blinds, locked the doors (front and back), and activated the alarm system. He didn't want commiseration. He didn't want righteous outrage. Most of all, he didn't want interruptions.

He opened the playlist of all the shows he'd done — over forty of them. He started watching them with a new eye: not bothering with the cooking, or the increasingly outlandish stunts he and the challengers had had to perform as the audience got more and more jaded. Instead, he watched for camera angles, cuts, commentary. He took notes. He reversed and rewatched.  Hours turned into days. Once in a while he boiled up some rice, squirted sweet chilli sauce on it, and ate. He had a vague impression that he made himself cups of tea from time to time, and (consequently) used the toilet. He was pretty sure he slept sometimes. A week went by.

One evening, his body told him it was time for Battle Chef by shooting great waves of adrenaline through him, as it did every week at this time.

The ingredient was a large, flightless bird similar to the emu, except that its aggression gene was far worse than the original model's, as this made better television. Mila dispatched hers sloppily, but with speed. Turcotte was disappointed she had learned so little about finesse from him.

As the show wore on, Turcotte paid close attention. Ah-hah, this was how they made her look heroic and skilled. Here's how they made the challenger look sullen. Oh, yes, now it was time for the challenger to surge ahead — the thoughtful pause and renewed vigor, the dramatic profile shot and the swell of music — only to be dashed down again as Mila rallied.

The judges always saw what the viewers saw, watching from their special soundproof room on a massive screen, "to help them concentrate." Their decisions always came after they'd watched through the producers' filters. When Mila won, Turcotte knew it had nothing to do with her cooking, which he could see was inferior (again he was disappointed). It was because it made good television.

And Fouad Turcotte knew what to do.

He spent the next week working out, eating properly, and refining his plans in his head. He'd always taken care of himself, and it didn't take him long to regain his air of fit, glowing health. When competition night came around again, he was ready.

It wouldn't do to look slovenly. He took meticulous care with showering, shaving, ironing his best checkered pants and white jacket; the stiff, white cotton had always reminded him of a fencer's jacket, and today he enjoyed the idea. Parry! Cut!

He took a simple white toque from its stand. One hundred pleats. There was some ludicrous story they told everyone in the first week of chef school that each pleat stood for one way an egg can be cooked. Everyone knew there were at least three hundred ways to cook an egg, maybe more. Research was ongoing.

The knife belt, now. The leather had precisely the right look of wear yet constant, conscientious care. He thrust his favorite knives into the sheaths, and they hung perfectly.

He took one final look: coolly casual, yet immaculate. Utterly simple, yet elegant. He raised one eyebrow, a gesture he'd practiced since adolescence. Now was the day of the rogue. He would be stoic no longer, but dashing! Bold!

It didn't take long to get to the studio. He grinned cheerily at the guards, adrenaline making him jaunty and confident. "Got a reprieve — I'm back a week early."

"That's great, Chef Turcotte," said a guard earnestly, and let him in.

His footsteps echoed as he marched along the hallway. He lingered outside the studio door until exactly the right moment in the music. Then he flung the door open with a mighty crash and strode onto the dais and into the spotlight.

The cameras had whipped around at the noise and followed him up.

"A challenge!" he cried in ringing tones. "A challenge!"

"Fouad, you fuckwit," whispered Angela, but because she couldn't risk moving her lips, it came out "Houad, you huckwit." She had never been more irrelevant, and Fouad could sense she knew it.

"A three-way contest," he continued. He'd learned a lot during his time off about playing to the cameras, and he used it all now. He posed, but so subtly that he gave off only that vital hint of passion and courage. He pitched his voice in the precise range that worked best with the microphones. He'd gambled that his simple, yet quality, attire would show the costumes for the flimsy, gaudy playclothes they were, and he could see on the monitors he'd won that gamble. It was too late to stop him, too late! This was live television, damn them all! He exulted as he waited for his next moment.

As he'd predicted, the cameras had cut to get reaction shots from the judges, who looked appropriately scandalized on the monitors. Three, two, one … the cameras were back on him, just when he knew they'd be.

"I will win back my place in this kitchen —" He turned full-face to the live camera, and reached out imploringly — "and in your hearts!"

That did it. The real-time ratings were starting to soar as people messaged each other: "Turn on Battle Chef! No, now! That can wait! You have GOT to see this!"

Angela said weakly, "But we only have enough ingredients —"

"I will first fight for the right to ingredients!" He jumped down into the arena and pulled a knife. "I am ready," he cried as he crouched.

"No," said Mila. "There is plenty for all!"

Nice one, Mila, thought Turcotte. She now had the cameras and the viewers' sympathy.

The challenger tried pathetically for his share of both. "Yes, let Chef Turcotte cook!"

Turcotte cheated a quarter turn back to the dais and bowed gallantly. "I thank my colleagues for their generosity. To cook is my deepest wish — except for one condition."

"Condition?" said Angela sharply, but all the cameras stayed on Turcotte.

"The judges must come into the studio. They have been far from the human drama of the cooking, kept away from the heights and depths of raw emotion that mark the truly great chefs — and that is the most important ingredient of all!"

"Absolutely not," snapped Angela.

Turcotte waited a second, as if shocked, then simply raised one eyebrow.

A runner from the producers dashed onto the set. Turcotte knew what she would be saying to Angela: ratings were shooting off the scale, she should go with it, go with it. Angela's murderous look confirmed it.

With just a bit of a swagger, Turcotte moved toward the cages. He needed to fill just a few seconds while Attendants brought the judges into the studio, so he scrutinized the ingredients. Uh-oh, a complication. This time they were fluffy little lambs, distressed and crying for their mothers.

He whipped around with exactly as much of a flourish as he could get away with. "Ah, honored judges," he said. "I beg your indulgence. I cannot bear to harm such beautiful, defenseless creatures. Can we not better show our inventiveness, our resourcefulness, by sparing their lives and cooking solely with what lesser chefs would consider only garnishes?" Even though the sentence was a little convoluted for the average viewer, his tone of voice and pleading gestures carried the meaning.

Mila and the challenger dared not object, but the challenger was starting to fidget.

Angela whined, "But there are only two kitchens in the arena, and three chefs. How are we supposed to work that, huh?"

"Let 'em share," said one of the judges, feeling emboldened now that he was right there in the action. The others said, "Yes, let 'em share."

The challenger threw down his sparkly toque. "They won't have to share," he said loudly, and stalked off the set. This was getting better and better, as far as the viewers were concerned.

Mila met his eyes for a long moment. Then, silently, she turned to her kitchen and began to work. Turcotte watched her: she'd practiced hard this week, he could tell. Her movements were more assured, her choice of ingredients more imaginative.

She was risking individual carrot souffles. It occurred to Turcotte that those would go great with green beans and a sauce of honey, butter, and pecans. Without thinking, he whipped the sauce up and left it to keep warm on the stove; the beans he'd cook at the last moment. Ah, what was Mila doing now? He couldn't quite see directly, but the monitors showed her working with saffron and chicken broth. Turcotte could actually taste the dried-cherry rice pilaf that should follow such a soup. He checked the clock: plenty of time for rice.

And so it went, dish after dish, a wonderful dance of flavors and forms. Mila, so attuned to how he worked, quickly caught on to what he was doing. She stared at him again, her eyes wide with wonder. They gave each other opportunities, thanked each other with joyful dishes and beautiful presentations.

The ritual gong sounded — time was up.

The crew had brought a table into the main studio, and the judges sat, enchanted, waiting to eat. By unspoken agreement, Mila and Turcotte presented their food together. The judges were confused — how would they keep track of which food was whose?

Mila said, playing to the cameras (she had learned a lot in a week), "We offer you a new competition. We ask you to judge not which of us is the better chef, but whether we have — together — created for you the perfect meal." She stood next to Turcotte, and conspicuously took his hand. Her wrist was touching his, and he could feel both their pulses pounding. Not that he was at all worried about the food. No, something new was happening, something between him and Mila. Something that didn't have a damned thing to do with television.

"Oh — bull — shit!" This was Angela, harsh and dictatorial. "Fouad, what do you think you're doing? Did the two of you set this up? This is supposed to be a competition, not some stupid daytime-drama fairy tale."

"Holy hell," said one of the judges. "Is this what she's really like?"

An Attendant nodded sadly.

"She seemed so nice when we were up in the booth. Well, we're the judges, and we say she can go now." The other two judges said, "Yes, she can go now."

Seeing their chance, three Attendants ushered her gracelessly out of the studio as the judges fell to eating. The cameras and the microphones came in close to catch every ecstatic expression, every smack of the lips and flick of the tongue, every moan and gasp.

And that was when Mila said quietly to Turcotte, "They're giving me all sorts of ideas," and squeezed his hand. He felt his knees start to buckle, but caught himself just before he actually sagged.

The judges did not keep to their customary demure tastings; rather, they devoured with abandon, and only just stopped short of licking the plates. They declared the meal a triumph — although one of them did say wistfully that he missed the whole win-lose thing.

"Tonight's show was unique," said Turcotte. "And my last."

Everyone in the studio cried out. Turcotte raised a hand for quiet. "The time has come for me to leave Battle Chef. I know now, after working with Chef Compton-Huatepec this evening, that the food is best when the journey is shared. And so, to share it with everyone, I retire from Battle Chef to begin my cookbook." He'd figure out a way to live in the meantime. Rice and sweet chilli sauce was not such a bad dish.

The producers were tearing their hair out — one of them literally. Turcotte knew he'd done what he came for: he'd put a bullet through the head of the whole Battle Chef franchise. But it didn't matter. There would always be another show to take its place, on and on.

He turned to leave the studio, but Mila wouldn't let go of his hand. "Fouad? I'm coming with you."

And right there, cameras still rolling, signal still going out live to the entire world, she pulled him close and they kissed.

Ratings went through the roof.


"Turcotte's Battle" was first published in Wet Ink #19, July 2010.

Laura E. Goodin lives in Wollongong with her husband and child and writes science fiction, fantasy, plays, and poetry.

A martial artist, fencer, and equestrian, she has Warrior Princess aspirations. She is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion South workshop.


That's what she told me, as her biography, but she didn't mention that she has a growing list of stories published, the latest being:

"The Bicycle Rebellion" published on Daily Science Fiction, November 2011 (read it here)

She also hasn't mentioned that she also runs an editing service and teaches writing at fantasy and science fiction workshops.

& Goodin didn't mention, but I will, that she is a terrific performer.

It is a sad truth that the average writer has a voice for print, but Goodin knows how to project. She threw a soupηon of Turcotte's Battle at an audience, to startled croaks and messy explosions of laughter. Then she sat, and it was clear from their dropped faces, that she'd incited gluttony. So I asked her for permission to reprint the whole meal for you here.

Laura E. Goodin's



blog - A motley coat


The virtuous medlar circle

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"Turcotte's Battle" copyright © July 2010 by Laura E. Goodin.
graphics copyright © Anna Tambour
This story appears here with thanks to Laura E. Goodin, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. – A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2011