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Meat That Grows On Trees

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places (such as Daily Science Fiction, of course). For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Hailey had a degree in business management and a talent for witchcraft, the perfect combination to start her own company if she could come up with the right idea. Most of her best ideas had already been taken--enchanting the calories out of desserts, or trees with blood instead of sap to supply blood banks--magic had been around for decades now, and all the most profitable ideas were taken. Marcel had picked up her half of the rent this month, but he made it clear it was a one-time deal. If she didn't think of something soon, she'd have to go back to living with her parents.
She went to the kitchen to grab lunch, and Marcel was in there eating a FLT sandwich: fake-bacon, lettuce and tomato. He poked at a strip of faux meat that was sticking out from the edge of the bread, and it crumbled onto his plate.
"Just like mom used to make, right?" Hailey teased.
"I don't know whose idea it was to use spells to make talking animals, but I really wish they hadn't done it." He shook his head sadly. Any animal that had enough brains to support a talking spell--anything that could even theoretically talk--was now banned for human consumption. Unethical to eat another sentient species, even if it happened not to be a talker. The official law was that you couldn't eat any animal with a brain that weighed more than 10 grams. "My mom never made a BLT, though. Tacos, on the other hand--she made delicious tacos de seso."
"Brains. I know, sounds weird, but they have this creamy texture," he stopped. "Well, those were mostly banned even before magic came into the picture. Mad cow disease and all that."
Hailey made herself a sandwich and tried not to look disgusted at the thought of eating brains. "Meat substitutes aren't so bad. Maybe you could make tacos de seso with some kind of tofu."
He laughed. "Yeah, I bet it will be as good as this fake bacon stuff."
And suddenly she had her idea--she would start a company that grew ethical meats. She'd already learned how to make blood trees at college in her medical magics class. It'd take a little tinkering, but she was sure she could make something that was closer to real meat than anything on the market.
Her first attempt at growing meat on trees was a miserable failure. She enchanted a blood tree to grow small chunks of bacon, but exposed to open air the meat had died before it was ready to harvest. Globs of the stuff disintegrated into slime that coated their balcony and smelled so bad she called in a professional cleaning sorcerer to get rid of it all.
She refined her technique. She coaxed the tree into producing a hard outer shell to protect the meat. This batch got far enough that she was able to crack the egg-like fruits open and cook the goo inside. It was edible, but the texture was all wrong. Muscles needed to move, so the hard shell would have to go.
She went through many iterations, perfecting variations on her tree to grow steaks and roasts, pork and lamb and beef, and eventually something that was a better approximation of bacon than any of the meatless substitutes currently on the market. She gathered investors and bought a grove of trees outside the city limits. She formed a company called TreeMeats, and applied for approval to sell her plant-based meat.
All she had to do was pass inspections, and she was set.
Marcel came to visit the orchard, with tacos de camerones from the local taco truck. Shrimp, of course, had miniscule brains, and were fair game as a taco filling. It reminded her about Marcel's beloved but disgusting-sounding tacos de seso.
"How goes the meat tree business?" Marcel asked, handing her a couple tacos.
"Well, the tiny muscle twitches on the pot roast trees have gotten strong enough to sometimes make the branches thrash around, which isn't what I expected, but calming spells seem to be keeping it under control." She took a bite of her taco. Marcel had been amazing, helping her find investors and letting the rent slide another month. Maybe she could get him those tacos he used to like so much.
She couldn't grow full-sized cow brains, of course, but maybe she could create a substitute that would meet the FDA standards. Marcel left to go back to work, and she enchanted a tree in the corner of the orchard. Tiny white blossoms morphed into spherical brains, each the size of a blueberry, hanging from the branches by delicate stems.
She went to tend the other trees, noting with satisfaction that the pot roast trees were swaying calmly instead of thrashing. The calming spell was working.
As she was leaving the orchard, she noticed that one branch of the brain tree was covered in some kind of threadlike white fungus. She removed the branch and sealed it in a Ziploc bag and brought it home to study it. If it was something serious, she'd have to get rid of the brain tree before the FDA inspection, which meant it wouldn't get approved and Marcel would have to wait a long time to get his tacos de seso.
She sat on the couch and studied the white threads, which seemed to be growing out of the brain fruits. She tried a few cleaning spells on the branch, and eventually managed to get the threads to disappear.
She was unprepared for how quickly the thread had spread. The next morning, her entire orchard was covered in the white thread, a massive net that hung across all the branches, as though giant spiders had decided to weave their webs and connect all the blood trees. She tried to pull away a section of the web from one of the pot roast trees, and the muscular branches thrashed and twitched. Something had gone horribly wrong, and all because she had to try to make a brain tree for Marcel.
She tried all day to clear the webs away, by hand and with magic, but each time the trees thrashed and flailed. At some point she narrowly missed being hit in the head by a thick branch, and she retreated to the apartment. It was a disaster. The grove was scheduled for inspection tomorrow, and there was no way she'd pass.
She went to the inspection anyway, hoping that the thread would disappear as magically as it had arrived, but if anything there was more white thread on the trees. The inspector came, took one look at the brain tree, and declared her orchard a protected species because it had a brain of greater than 10 grams.
"It doesn't!" Hailey protested. She had been very careful to keep the brains small, 3 or 4 grams at most.
"The brains are all connected by the thread," the inspector said. "I'm sure it can take a talking spell."
She hung her head. The inspector left. She had squandered her investors' money and had nothing to show for it, not even tacos for Marcel. She sat the edge of the orchard and watched the trees with their swaying branches and twitching spheres of meat-fruit. Maybe the inspector was wrong. Maybe it wouldn't take a talking spell. It wasn't a good idea to mess with a protected species, but Hailey felt like she had to know. She cast the talking spell.
"If you can understand me, I'm sorry. I was trying to grow meat on trees, and it got a little out of hand. It would have been a great business, but it never passed inspection."
To her surprise, the orchard answered, "Make us a partner in TreeMeats, and we'll see what we can do."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Author Comments

Several months ago, I decided to write a series of flash stories for Daily Science Fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I expected--my first few attempts to write multiple flashes on the same theme collapsed into single (multi-part) short stories. (If anyone is curious, my first "failed" attempt at a series of flash, "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion," is available to read in the August 2014 issue of Clarkesworld.)

For DSF, I wanted the individual stories to stand completely on their own, rather than being fundamentally interrelated. When I got the idea to do a tasting menu, I started by writing one fantasy story and one science fiction story, to make absolutely sure I ended up with a series instead of a single story.

To read the other stories in this Tasting Menu series so far published: dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/tasting-menu.

- Caroline M Yoachim
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