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4
The Cook-off

The Cook-off


Frodo watched as Olórin, in the guise of the wizard he’d been for much of two millennia, passed himself, Lord Elrond, and Lady Celebrían, deep in conversation with others apparently of his calling. It was an interesting group with costumes as varied and colorful as the land about them.

One appeared similar to Radagast the Brown, dressed in leggings under a skirted tunic of rough homespun, a leather vest laced across his torso under a brown mantle with slits through which his arms were thrust, a great staff of smoothed ash in his left hand.

A second wore robes of blue with a belt of leather dyed a royal purple under a magnificently made cloak of white and deep purple spangled with stars and moons, a conical hat also decorated with stars on his head. Even this ones full beard appeared to have a slightly purple tinge to it, and thrust through his belt was a baton of ebony with an ivory finial at one end.

A third was dressed in white linen robes of such elegant simplicity they must have been achingly expensive. He was beardless, his collar-length hair full and white save for a perfectly circular bald patch in the center of his pate that had to have been shaved on purpose.

A fourth had skin of an unusual color, almost reddish-brown in hue. He wore a breech clout with a heavily beaded front panel, leggings of finely tanned deer skin, leather bands about his upper arms, a pectoral of beads, great claws and teeth and some kind of quill Frodo had never seen before, a beaded headband about his brow from which a cluster of eagle feathers hung on one side, his black hair streaked with grey braided on each side of his head. He carried a rattle apparently made from a gourd in his hand and had an elaborate pipe with a collar of osprey feathers hanging from the stem thrust through his belt woven of strips of leather; on his feet he wore soft-soled boots of leather with a stylized eagle decoration done in fine beads on the front of each.

The fifth was both beardless and totally bald, dressed in a white pleated kilt and with a strange high cap dyed red with two peaks to it atop his head, leather straps woven about his lower legs to just below the knee holding his sandals to his feet, a golden flail in one hand and a short crook in the other. His skin was dark, and about his dark eyes his lids had been darkened with kohl. A golden pectoral hung across his chest of a hawk in flight clutching to itself two cruciform shapes in its talons.

There were an odd pair, both with trousers and shirts under coat-like robes of remarkably vivid colors; and a last dressed in dusty green velvet robes and a matching conical cap, wearing white boots and a black leather belt behind which his long white beard had been thrust, apparently to keep it out of his way. He and one of the ones in trousers wore crystal lenses in metal frames perched before their eyes, and from his sleeve he pulled a slender wand with which he drew a shining shape in the air, apparently to illustrate whatever point he was making in the discussion the nine of them were enjoying amongst them. All paused and examined the glowing diagram for a moment. Then Gandalf shook his head, passed his hand over the diagram, at which point it disappeared. He shifted his staff to the side, opened his right hand toward where the symbols had been, and gave a soft burst of song, at which a similar diagram appeared—similar but still distinctly different than the one the green-clad wizard had drawn. All clustered more closely around and discussed the diagram animatedly.

“What language are they speaking?” Frodo asked Elrond, fascinated by this tableau.

“I have no idea,” Elrond admitted. “But now and they gather to discuss things with Mithrandir, and he appears to enjoy it thoroughly.”

One of the others was shaking his head, and from the capacious pocket of his baggy trousers he produced a rectangular shape of what appeared to be bundled felt with a wooden back; he wiped it over Gandalf’s diagram and it disappeared. He then brought out what Frodo recognized as a slate pencil and used it to draw his own diagram, an almost duplicate of Gandalf’s but with a new element in the upper left quadrant.

Now the kilted one was growing excited—a wave of the flail and the trousered wizard’s diagram faded away; a move with the crook and a new one appeared.

At last the red Man shook his head. A wave of his rattle and a kettle appeared, and from a skin bag he wore at his waist he poured what appeared to be large reddish bean seeds into the kettle.

The one in green sighed, and it appeared that all were bringing out kettles and cauldrons of various sorts and setting them up in a circle. A female Maia appeared with a great vase filled with more bean seeds similar to those the red wizard had produced. More came with basins of fruits and vegetables—Frodo easily recognized tomatoes and onions and peppers; and some came with slabs of meat. The green-clad wizard went around and pointed his wand at the base of each cauldron, murmuring, “Incendio!” at which blue flames sprang up under all of them.

Frodo could stand it no longer—he approached Gandalf and tugged at his grey robes. “Are you cooking?” he asked.

“Oh, yes—we’ve been debating the perfect recipe for chili. None can agree, so we’ve decided to have a cook-off here and now. If you’d like, you and Elrond and Celebrían there can be the judges and determine which is the best.”

But Frodo was shaking his head. “No,” he said, “there is no way that I, a Hobbit born and bred, will stand aside while others cook. What is this chili and how is it made?”

“Well, it is a popular dish in a place known as the Southwest. It is made with red beans, a pepper-like spice known as chili, and with tomatoes, onions, and often other peppers and other spices and vegetables, and usually also with finely chopped or ground beef, although some will use pork or venison instead of or in addition to the beef. It tends to be quite individualistic, as each person tends to prepare it subtly differently depending on what specific ingredients and proportions he or she prefers.” In lower tones he advised, “Red Cloud there,” indicating the reddish-skinned wizard, “has the advantage as he actually comes from the land and culture in which chili originated.”

“But as this is not a common dish within Middle Earth, or so I must suppose, any one of us might equally please Lord Elrond and Lady Celebrian, is that not so?”

Gandalf smiled. “That is true, Frodo. So, you wish to try your own hand?”

“Of course.”

Gandalf turned to the one dressed in green. “Dumbledore, could you conjure up still another cauldron? Lord Iorhael here wishes to join our competition.”

In accented Westron the tall wizard asked, “Is he a wizard as well?”

“No, but he does enjoy cooking.”

Twinkling blue eyes behind the clear lenses examined Frodo. “You think to challenge the greatest wizardly minds of all times, Frodo Baggins? So be it.” A wave of his wand and another cauldron appeared; the wand pointed and “Incendio!” voiced and blue flames sprang up under it.

Now the various wizards were speaking with those Maiar who’d brought the various ingredients, and measuring instruments of various sorts were brought as well as other vegetables and knives and jars of water. Frodo soon had his desired amount of water in his cauldron, and turned to the female Maia who’d first come to bring the beans to make his own requests. Plum tomatoes, green and yellow bell peppers, sweet white onions, parsley, other vegetables were requested. A short wooden cutting table was brought him from his home near the gardens, and then his favorite knives; he was soon carefully slicing ingredients and dicing his beef finely. And the female Maia brought his requested items, smiling more fully with each ingredient she produced.

It was almost two hours later that each contestant indicated he was ready to have his dish tasted. Excess tomatoes were being taken away, spills were being cleaned up (around the kettles where the two wizards in trousers worked it was quite messy, as their magic appeared to rely heavily on bespelled constructions designed to stir their kettle at a precise speed and to alternately raise and lower the flames under the kettles), and the Maiar who’d brought the beans and meat were now bringing stacks of bowls of various colors and sheaths of spoons.

Frodo dished up his beans with the rest. Other Elves had appeared to watch the cooking, and now they joined Elrond and Celebrían as part of the panel of judges. Frodo had been given a stack of small yellow bowls to apportion his chili into, setting them out on the long table that had been brought and set up for the serving. Frodo’s most closely resembled that offered by Red Cloud in looks; that prepared by the trousered wizard with the crystal lenses before his eyes looked least like it.

The Elves lined up, and with jokes and smiles they took bowls and spoons and began to try the various attempts at this new dish. That offered by the wizard who wore trousers but not the crystal lenses generally got at most two swallows before those eating from his grey bowls set them back on the table and hurried away to get glasses of water. Those who ate the offerings of the wizard who wore the white kilt also tended to reach for water, although most continued to eat his dish until their bowls were empty. All appeared to love what Red Cloud had made; but by far the most popular appeared to be that served in the small yellow bowls. Elves were approaching him asking to have their bowls refilled, and even the other contestants were asking for second helpings.

At last all agreed that Frodo was the clear winner of the contest. “And yet you are not a wizard yourself,” commented the one named Dumbledore. “Merlin’s I can understand not being remarkably popular as leeks are not ordinarily preferred by many outside Wales. And, Ridcully, I’m sorry but you put in far too much purple onion, and the jalapeños you added were hot enough to leave the tongue itself without taste buds.

“But yours, Frodo Baggins—it was superb! What did you put into it?”

Frodo only smiled. “Oh, but I’m a Hobbit—to tell my cooking secrets would be to betray my race, I think.”

At last Gandalf raised his hands. “Face it, friends, we have all been beaten by a Hobbit, whose race is renowned for its cooking skills. However, I think that we can count on there having been mushrooms added, and, I think, some ale.”

“Ale?” asked the wizard in the white linen robes.

Frodo gave a mock glare at his friend before turning toward the one who’d questioned him. “In Minas Tirith Aragorn’s cooks added different wines to various dishes; in the Shire we will often cook with ale or beer. However, if I were to name the one addition I believe brought the judges back for more, it has to be the mushrooms.”

“Well, we must honor you as the best cook we’ve as yet come across,” noted Dumbledore.

“Oh, but I’m considered merely fair back in the Shire you see. If you wish to know truly good cooking you need to try that done by my friend Sam or his wife Rosie. Now, there is cooking to make one believe one has indeed come to the Feast!”

*******


Not long after Sam Gamgee arrived to join his friend on Tol Eressëa there was an unexpected knock at the door one morning that Sam automatically went to answer. Before opening the door, however, he peeked out the window to see who might be calling so early; he immediately went running through the house to where Frodo was fastening the rope girdle that he wore over his silver robes. Frodo looked up, surprised at the wide eyes Sam displayed. “Sam—whatever could be the problem?”

“At the door—there’s a group of such folks as I’ve never seen afore—and I’ll swear as two of ’em’s not wearin’ anywheres near the proper amount of clothes, Master!”

For a moment Frodo looked puzzled, then he flushed. “Oh,” he said. “I must suppose that Gandalf let them know you’d come. Sam, you’ve not let Rosie do all the cooking all these years, have you?”

“Course not,” Sam replied, almost insulted. “Whyever’d you ask that?”

Frodo appeared relieved. “Very good,” he smiled. “Have you ever heard tell of a bean dish called chili?”

“No. But what’s that got to do with those as is a’waitin’ now at the door?”

“Well, it’s only that I sort of entered you into a cooking competition….”



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