The Incredible Last Meal of Phileas McNeil

 

There weren’t too many words left unused to describe Phileas McNeil. A gourmand in every sense of the word, he had spent his entire life consuming, tasting, devouring; generally speaking, eating.

One could say he was a portly fellow, but despite his reputation as a gourmand, he was not obese. He believed in the taste and texture of his food, the flavour and quality over quantity, but when one gives oneself over to the pursuit of fine dining as he had, it inevitably leaves its mark. In his case, an obsession, perhaps a fetish.

His goal? To eat everything! Eat everything that could be eaten. And a few that weren’t.  As others had, he had started on the common foods; Steak, prime rib, pork, bacon, chicken, turkey… The mundane things you and I eat to stay alive, McNeil made his hobby. He ate them raw, cooked: fried, boiled, broiled, charred, burned, sautéed, marinated in sauces. Demi-glace, reductions, gravy, broiled in their own juice… He had them stuffed – fruit, nuts, vegetables, spices, other meats, even other meats that were stuffed with fruit… Fruits stuffed with meat… You get the idea.

In a few short years of his incredible career these “common foods” began to bore him. Although he enjoyed eating them they were not enough to satiate his palette, whose sophistication had increased tenfold. He began to experiment.

 

He traveled the world, this and many others, seeking out local delicacies. Every meal was an adventure: pickles and pates, milks, cheeses, sauces and spices that defied description as they were mixed from so many components that the mind boggled upon their contemplation.  And the variety! Every province, every county, state and prefecture had their signature dishes, developed over centuries of tradition. Every country, land, nation and people alike gave up their bounty to appease his appetite for novelty. He went from meal to meal, never tasting the same dish twice…

And every place had their own… twisted delicacies: Hundred year old eggs? Not bad.  Embryonic Shark, straight from the womb?  A little salty, but went down well. Live snakes…? Sure, just eat them head first, and make that first bite count. Hissing cockroaches, narcotic spiders, fruiting fungi, even molds and slimes cultured for flavour.  Fads, miracles and wonders the world had bestowed, perhaps, but it was not enough.

 

Within three decades he had consumed every food that he had heard of, many that had been passed to him, and many of them twice.  His research was deep and complex, pulling him to all manner of society, searching for that elusive next meal. Rubbing shoulders with powerful celebrity and poorhouse alike, his life was a rollercoaster of extremes, linked only by the pure, divine connection of great food. Today he’d be sampling the finest Tupberry wines from Salos 4 with the Royal Family of Epitigamia, tomorrow he’s having a luncheon of Coelacanth liver pâté and blackened rye bread brioche with the poverty stricken fisherman in Madagascar in whose nets it was caught.

 

You see, his name had become synonymous with fine eating.  No one savoured fine food like Phileas McNeil. Sure, other people ate. Some even considered themselves gourmets… But no one sought out new and exciting foods like Phileas. No one. His reputation as gourmand was secured and could never be doubted. Books were to be written, advice was sought and soon he was a superstar. Mega star perhaps… The Interstellar gourmand who had been there, seen that, named it and …eaten it.

All this fine dining and experimentation could only lead to one thing. Eventually he’d run out of things to eat, and have to satisfy his palette by going back to eat foods his mouth had already tasted. But there was still hope…

 

His network of food sleuths brought him to the underground where all manner of new foods awaited. He was hesitant at first, I mean, look at what was on the menu… Hell, what WASN’T on the menu? That’s exactly it, absolutely everything… Anything he could think of his smuggler contacts would requisition. At first, it was almost innocent; baby Liva eels – one of the most endangered species in the seven worlds, dippled in a molten polymer glace-paste of Vermathune spice. He noticed they trembled wriggling when he bit into them, ultimately spasming in their death throes as they secreted a heady adrenal hormone that reacted to the glace-paste, forming an entirely new layer of flavour and texture. A mild rush that lasted, oh, for about an hour. Two with the Vermathune metheglin washing it down.

 

Also, it seemed that with relative ease he could acquire human delicacies – fresh cadavers once donated to science, now prepared for the dining table and even fresher specimens taken from the street. The world was his pantry – while the fad lasted.  He ate human flesh, livers, hearts, eyes, even tongue and brain, before he realized that it was a mundane experience, and somewhat lacking compared to the exotic treats he had already uncovered. In a fit of desperation he wondered if his own flesh tasted different and had part of his buttocks removed and made into a steak. It was similarly disappointing, but still another milestone in his quest.

 

But after the narcotic cucumber-orchids, the psychotropic toads from Nu-Braxillia, which after a ruthless and rigorous introduction to a special pithing tool through its spine, would secrete a sauce somewhat nervously intoxicating and very dangerous, it seemed that the food fetish might continue uncontested.  He ate bits. He ate pieces. He ate them whole. He had them fried, boiled, sautéed. Some he left alive and wriggling, to replicate the primal bond between he and beast – that exertion of force of predator and prey, and how much better the taste was when he expunged life with his teeth.  Every variation was a miracle and another stepping stone on his unending quest for taste.

He was running out of animals and vegetables to eat. Nature had produced billions upon billions of unique strains of organism, from single cells to sentient life, virus to hominid. Among them exquisite predators that ate themselves out of existence, and at the other extreme, absolute prey creatures that bred like wildfire and couldn’t help but be eaten… And every hybrid in between. He even visited paleontological libraries of frozen DNA and had entire menus cloned for his sumptuous table. Every niche of every ecosystem of every accessible time had produced a unique creature and Phileas had eaten it.

All but one:  the Ullyean Shrimp.

 

The myths go back thousands of years. They speak of a food that is so delicious, yet so poisonous, that if you did indeed survive its consumption, then you would be rendered unto a coma by its wondrous taste. Needless to say, it was all rumour. All who had sampled this rare delicacy had inevitably died. Peacefully perhaps, but dead nonetheless. But, and this is where the rumour was heaviest, with a dreamlike expression on their faces, after drifting into some deep, never ending orgasm…  Sounds great, but then the other rumours might be true. Rumours of a deep genetically based allergy that causes wracking spasms of pain that take years to develop to its final, inevitable result: death.  Of these unfortunate souls, death by any other means was an enviable prospect.  This rumour was six times more prevalent than the orgasmic one.

 

But they were all rumours dismissed Phileas. No one knew their veracity for certain. No one had consumed this animal in a hundred years, and less than twelve specimens had ever been tracked in the known universe. It dwelt in the blackened abysses of the deepest seas of earth, and wasn’t even fully classified. Only brief photographic glimpses of living specimens caught in the foggy headlamps of deep sea bathyscaphes, and decayed bodies retrieved from the stomachs of creatures gave testament to its existence, and they definitely did not have a pleasant reaction to the vile toxins within the shrimps’ body.

 

Phileas thought deeply about this, contemplating perhaps his last meal. He would inevitably die from it, of that he was sure, but in his heart he knew he had no other course. The artiste that drove him to sample so many millions of dishes demanded more, demanded to taste everything. This was the last thing and possibly the best thing he would ever, could ever taste. If he lived beyond this meal, and the pleasant rumours were true, he could never eat anything else and feel the same satisfaction – theoretically nothing would ever again live up to the ambrosial Ullyean Shrimp.

 

Flexing his tremendous riches Phileas put in his “final” order. Special equipment would need to be built to find this organism, and after it’s location, would not ever be needed again. A team of specialists were hired to prepare the mission. It would take six months to find at least one specimen big enough for one mouthful. One taste.

 

The Shrimp is a native to Earth, living in the most remote pockets of the deepest sea trenches on the planet. Living in a lightless high-pressure underworld – it is blind, tiny, and fragile – eking out a living on sulfurous algae and bacteria deposits that develop near hot water vents.  For many years, it was simply impossible to reach by human technology.

As to how the rumours of the Shrimp as a delicacy got started one might as well pick a story at random, for they are all believed and disbelieved. The most well circulated one was the simplest.  One of the biologists that first brought back a specimen (a dead one) opened up the sample containers and was suddenly driven strange by the thought “I wonder what it tastes like…” and popped it, uncooked, into his mouth.  As the legend goes, he was literally dead on his feet, his teeth barely breaking its flesh.  But the expression on his face…

As specimens and data was accumulated, it was found that 80% of the Shrimps basic form was riddled with toxic contaminants – neurotoxins, carcinogens, even an unhealthy range of radioactives. Biochemists were befuddled by the creature for the laws of chemistry itself broke down inside its tiny body. One thing was clear – it was impossible to survive, so poisonous was its flesh.

 

The expression on that biologist’s face haunted the media, and would do for centuries to come. Scholars speculated that the strange mélange of chemicals reacted to each other and the eater’s chemistry in such as way as to create a sense of perpetual euphoria, even with the reactants in trace amounts.  It was further speculated that it was the wildest, most pleasant taste experience on the planet, though the evidence wildly contradicted it. Indeed, it should be the opposite. The human body was not designed to consume, process or even exist in the same place as these chemicals.

The biologist was not the only one to discover its secrets. At least a dozen others have succumbed to the Ullyean Shrimp’s euphoric/tormenting flesh.  Not one lived beyond that first bite.

 

For Phileas, life was driving toward the banal.  Every meal, no matter how different or exotic from the last, was beginning to pale under the promissory experience of the Ullyean Shrimp. His quest was becoming empty. He had experienced every taste known to mankind – all but one.

And it haunted him.

He counted days, then weeks.

And finally gave the order.

 

Engineers laboured long and hard, and the expedition mounted. Two people died recovering the shrimp. The first Bathyscaphe imploded as its hardened hull overheated in the dense sulphurous waters, its molecular structure weakened momentarily and the thousands of tons of water pressure popped the submersible like a full balloon.  The second Bathyscaphe, thankfully, survived the ordeal, and carried the precious cargo the ten miles to the surface. From there it was transferred to an aerodyne shuttle that launched directly via means of rocket assistance from the back of the submersible’s tender ship. It had to be transferred to land – if there was one thing McNeil had learned from his experience as a gourmand, it was that eating at sea on an unstable vessel is one sure way to destroy a meal, and more importantly, one’s taste for food.

The shuttle landed at a public spaceport in the worst possible way, impacting the runway as its braking parachutes cleaved from the fuselage upon deployment. It was a write off, but its precious cargo was plucked from the burning wreckage by fire fighting droids and sent post-haste to the soon-to-be-eternal resting place of Phileas McNeil, the World Gourmand Extraordinaire, who lay waiting in his newly constructed, and the world’s first and only “Restausoleum.”  One part eccentric dining establishment, one part self indulgent monument.

As he lay in his casket awaiting his final, and perhaps even best meal of his life, he wondered how foolish he might look if he survived, and how empty his life would be afterward. What would keep him going from one meal to the next?  Would he have to kill himself in a more mundane way just to avoid the ennui of everyday life? How would he, an eccentric celebrity, cope with the life of the everyman, dealing with the same routine everyday? And that’s what it would be, because as his experience had taught him, everything now seemed bland and pale.

 

But this was it. There wasn’t anything else. This was his life – his quest was almost over.

The couriers with the blackened package crate bearing that single Shrimp rushed in, making the thirty minute “freshness” window by a mere two minutes. Upon its first exposure to air, the Shrimp’s delicate chemistry rapidly decays, the radioactive isotopes diminishing, and the chemistry running out of momentum… After thirty minutes, the shrimp becomes an inert, tasteless, bland noodle.

The Restausoleum chef used delicate tissue tongs to place the shrimp on a bed of rice, and daintily placed a sprig of garnish to one side. No extra chemicals, sauces, treatments, dips, marinades, spices, herbs, oils or anything must be placed near the shrimp, lest its delicate chemistry be skewed off kilter. Even the rice had been genetically grown and purified with an X-actimetric diffusion still to rid it of contaminants.  The chef handed it to the Maitre’De.

The Maitre d’ frowned. The garnish was too large for such a tiny morsel, and he was damned if such a flagrant abuse of the Rules of Composition would be let go in his establishment.  He had always held the Chef’s plating skills in disdain. However, this thought was instantly dismissed by the notion that since the Restausoleum’s founder and first customer would surely die from the first meal served in it, and that there likely wouldn’t be any other customers anyway, this obscenity of aesthetics might possibly be overlooked. And there was only one and a half minutes left…

 

He rushed out.

He nearly tripped over one of the red carpets on the way to the gourmand’s Casket-table.  He recovered, and with a flourish, the dish swooped down in front of the world renowned Phileas McNeil, ensconced in funereal lace.

“For monsieur, the specialty of the house, the elusive… and the forbidden… Ullyean Shrimp. The Maitre d’ was suddenly very proud. He beamed as the gourmand took the shrimp in his fingers.

McNeil held the shrimp up, looking at its meager body. The warm light of the Restausoleum passed through its translucent flesh, highlighting its strange organs.  “This is it,” he thought, “this is the end of my quest. An impossible quest. An incredible quest.”  He would be the only man to have eaten every meal ever made, and thousands more that weren’t… He would have experienced every taste experience ever realized…

He bit into it…

It WAS good… Very good…

… and briefly he wondered…

FADE

…what it might…

TO

…taste like with salt…

BLACK

 

 

© Ken McCulloch, 2007, All Rights Reserved.