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In Good Taste

AE Smith is a neuroscientist and educator based in Edinburgh, UK. In her spare time she can be found birdwatching and having loud opinions about narrative (though not both at once because it scares the birds). This is her first published story.

I arrived at the station sweating profusely and trying unsuccessfully to both undo my top button and go spelunking for my ticket in amongst my belongings. I leapt onto the shuttle with seconds to spare and picked my way over the outstretched feet of my fellow passengers, folding myself gratefully into the only unoccupied seat. I leaned back and glanced at the advertisements running along the top of the carriage wall. One depicted grinning children enjoying a day of Rural Activities at an out-of-city park, the next featured an image of a torso with a thumb and forefinger holding a small amount of flesh. The text read "Can YOU 'pinch an inch?' If not, your Meal code may need adjusting. See your physician for a FREE code check-up." My seatmate, who was occupying themselves by knitting a Gordian knot of wool into what appeared to be the foundations of a hat, snorted.
"You'll wait a month for that appointment," they muttered, needles clicking. "Still, at least no-one goes hungry."
When I arrived at my sister's flat the Monitor on my wrist was vibrating and flashing reproachful numbers at me about blood sugar levels. I gave up trying to mute it and rapped on the door.
"It's open, Robin!" came the call from inside. Maxine was never one for overzealous welcomes. I made my way down the narrow hallway and into the living space. Maxine's battered and much-stickered guitar case was leant against the sofa, and she was sitting at the small, rickety wooden dining table sorting through a stack of unopened letters.
She eyed my agitated Monitor and raised an eyebrow. "Skipping Meals, little sis?"
"I was late for the train."
"I perish from surprise. If your code hasn't changed then there's some Meals on the side. Otherwise the printer'll take a few minutes." I grunted thanks and headed over to the stack of oblong boxes on the countertop. I selected one--generic brand, no expense spared as ever--held my Monitor against it to confirm that the codes matched and waited as it activated its self-heating mechanism.
"How was the tour?" I asked over my shoulder.
"Great. Exhausting. The usual. It was nice supporting a big famous band. The audience was actually awake for once."
I sat down and prised the cover off the Meal tray, dodged a cloud of steam, then got to work on the pasta and glutinous sauce with enthusiasm.
"Remind me where you went? The Western Peninsula, right? Which countries?"
"Quite a few. New Brahms, Four Winds, Cirrus. Flight schedule so labyrinthine it could've housed a minotaur."
A little bolt of curiosity flashed through me. "Cirrus? What was it like?"
Knowing that I wasn't referring to the climate, she looked at me thoughtfully.
"Interesting" she said at last. "Some of it's not too different from this"--she indicated my Meal --"but some stuff, it was good. Like, really good."
"Did you see anyone--" I lowered my voice even though we were alone "--cooking?" She nodded.
"Oh yeah, it's strange. They'll just have a container right there with a fire under it, right in plain view."
I shuddered. "Outlandish."
"Our drummer couldn't handle it. Didn't eat a bite the whole three days. His Monitor near enough exploded with indignation. I was OK as long as I didn't see them actually, y'know, preparing it. All the chopping and chucking things in any old how."
I swallowed my last mouthful thoughtfully and put down my fork.
"Anyway," she continued, "the Cirrans thought it was hilarious. I swear the roadies were peeling oranges in front of me just to see what I'd do."
"Wait, you have to peel oranges!? I thought you just..." I waved my hands around then realized that I had no idea what I thought you did with an orange to get the flavor out of it.
Maxine regarded me for a second then seemed to make a decision. She went over to a half-unpacked suitcase that resembled a shirt-and-underwear volcano that had paused mid-eruption.
"The band we were touring with did--" she said, rummaging, "--give us something of a parting gift. From Cirrus." She straightened and bought a tin over to the table. I regarded it curiously. She opened the tin and I peered inside.
"Scented discs?" I said, puzzled.
"Cookies!" said Maxine. "Homemade cookies."
"What, you want me to be your accomplice?"
She snorted "It's less than 250 grams so it counts as personal use, you obsequiant."
I had to admit the aroma rising from the tin was enticing. Maxine reached inside and retrieved one of the golden-brown pucks. She held it casually, showing off. My hand snaked towards the tin as if it contained live mousetraps rather than discs of--what even was in cookies? I picked one up. It was slightly rough, and surprisingly light. The aroma was stronger now, a beckoning finger hooking my nostrils. My mouth--traitor!--began to fill with saliva. I took the tiniest of nibbles.
I have to say I failed to see what the fuss was about. It tasted, well, a bit like the base from the cheesecake Meal dessert and a bit like the brush of someone else's stubble against your cheek first thing in the morning and not entirely unlike the feeling the first time I rode my bike without stabilizers but also like hugs from the family dog when I was sixteen and had just broken up with my girlfriend and no-one else was at home to hug me and also tingly...
I found myself standing with the cookie still in my hand and the chair on the floor behind me. Maxine was similarly upright and her eyes were shiny.
"So," said Maxine, "I think we like cookies."
I sat down again and turned the thing over in my hand, smiling despite myself. Maxine coughed.
"I think we should wait a bit before we try the coffee, though," she said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 30th, 2021

Author Comments

Society instils in all of us varying degrees of anxiety about what we eat. I was talking about this with my girlfriend one day and she planted the seed of this story by wondering what would happen if government-mandated, pre-packaged meals met all of our nutritional requirements. It got me thinking: what would it be like to live in that society? What would be the benefits? More importantly, what would we lose? This story is the result of those musings. It is also (and perhaps more importantly) an ode to cookies.

- AE Smith
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