previous: Run it! ch 11
“Hey Elena,” Prayikina shouted from across the arena with her usual level of competition intensity. “How far are you from finishing?”
“I’m pretty far,” I shouted back. In truth, I had more than a few elements left to compose, using the various molecular gastronomy devices. And once I was done with that, I needed to assemble seven elaborately decorated bowls of soup.
“Oh,” she replied in a comically disappointed voice.
I looked up to see Prayikina pulling a pouty face, puffing out her lower lip like someone half her age. “Why?” My question was only for fun, as I already knew the answer.
My cousin paused her work, pressing two fingers together as she gave her best ‘innocent anime girl’ impression. “I was thinking we could present together.”
“You are not presenting together!” Principal Sam explained from the judging table. Speaking directly into his mic, he sounded like a typical grownup and not our cool Godfather.
“So mean,” Prayikina replied, pressing her finger to her eye to symbolize a single tear falling down her cheek. The cameras were eating it right up.
The entire arena was laughing, cheering, and even whistling. Luckily before they could start chanting, Aunt Erica stood up. “Prayikina June Nakiri-Hayama!”
“Oh shit,” I couldn’t help but chuckle.
Prayikina was her miracle baby, her golden child who could do no wrong. So anytime Aunt Erica made the effort to say her daughter’s full name she meant business. “This is a serious competition!” My Aunt shouted so loudly her mic screeched with feedback. This caused the arena to go quiet. (The moment was awkward, to say the least.)
“Thank you.” Aunt Erica took a moment to compose herself before taking her seat. “You may continue your preparations.” Above all else, she was a lady and needed to behave as such.
June, not so much. Prayikina’s grandmother rushed to Principal Sam’s side. “Please, Sammy let little Kiki present with Elena, they’ve been best friends all of their lives.” Just as quickly she rushed to her son, Akira’s side (despite the fact the men were on opposite ends of the judging panel.) She poked Akira in the back. “How dare you not defend your daughter!”
I nearly lost it, as the small elderly woman ran back to Principal Sam to further argue, “And another thing! Elena, that poor girl just lost her father…” she was about to slug Sam in the arm when he grabbed her by the head in a way that could only be described as cartoonishly abusive.
“In the event of a tie both dishes will be tasted side by side but until then please abide by the set guidelines and present your dish when it is ready for evaluation.” He appeared to be addressing Prayikina while still holding June at arm’s length.
“Ow! Let go of me!” the grandmother grumbled. This caused laughter throughout the arena.
I knew Principal Sam left a loophole. But unfortunately so did he. “In the event, both chefs are ready at the same time I will choose which dish presents first.”
“Darn it,” I muttered with a giggle, making sure to speak directly into my mic.
“Fine, I agree to your terms,” Prayikina muttered. “You can let go of my Nana’s head.”
Principal Sam released June who smacked him upside the head before returning to her seat. “Humph!”
“Principal Sam, I have one more question,” Prayikina said with a comical whine.
“Yes, Ms. Nakiri-Hayama?”
“Since I have to plate seven portions can I get a cart?” Prayikina asked, with her hands on her hips. “I know traditionally we carry the dishes like waiters, but come on; this isn’t a classroom, be reasonable.”
“If you brought a cart with you, you may use a cart,” Principal Sam replied.
“You serious?” Prayikina groaned as she pulled out her plates.
“Or you may ask individuals for assistance,” Principal Sam said with a laugh.
“Thank God,” I said in a calming breath. Prayikina brought up a good point; there was no way for one person to carry seven plates without risking a humiliating fall.
“But choose wisely,” he added, switching back to a tone of professionalism. “Much like when you run your own restaurant you are putting your fate into the hands of individuals other than yourself. If they falter their failure will be reflected on you.”
“Then I’ll just have to choose people that I know will give it their best, and if shit happens shit happens.” Kiki turned to face the crowd. “Gi, Kyle, Moma, do you want to be my servers?”
Giovanna and Kyle stepped forward. Kyle ran his fingers through his blonde hair. “Are you seriously done already?”
“Just about,” Prayikina said as she drizzled her plates with a dark sauce.
The crowd gasped. “She’s finished already?” “wow, she’s amazing!” “Maybe she’s pulling a prank.”
Moma hesitated. She looked to her parents for permission before standing up. Soon my cousin had her servers.
“Ready team!” Prayikina shouted excitedly.
“This smells amazing,” Giovanna said as she picked up two plates. “Is any part of this vegan?”
“You’ll have to wait until my presentation,” Prayikina answered picking up a single plate.
Moma and Kyle picked up two plates each. Moma served her parents, making sure to bow sweetly. Kyle served my mother and Jamie’s father, while Giovanna served her father and Ms. Hillary. This left Prayikina to present to her father.
She stood with her hands behind her back, looking shy, nervous, and surprisingly humble. “What you have before you is tamagoyaki, after each layer of egg cooked I spread a creamy potato curry, with a deep-fried kale chip for added texture, before adding the next addition of raw egg. The whole thing is drizzled with a savory chocolate curry sauce.”
Ms Hillary moaned, “The aroma alone is amazing!” She took a bite, her eyes closing in pure pleasure. “What seasonings are in the egg?”
“Allspice, clove and,” Prayikina smiled at her father, “…cinnamon.”
The crowd went silent. No further words needed to be spoken. A cameraman panned to June who wiped a tear from her eye.
“Since Elena is making a dish in tribute to her father, I thought I would do the same.” Because her parents and grandparents worked at the school, everyone knew the story about just how Akira came to be part of Professor June’s family.
“Dad, I remember the story you told me about your first day in Japan with Nana. She wanted to buy you something special, to share with you, something she always loved as a little girl. Your eyes lit up when you watched the street vendors preparing the tamagoyaki. You told me when you took your first taste you realized you were home. Japan was where you belonged. And when I was two, it was the first thing you taught me how to make.”
Akira blinked tears from his eyes. He cupped his hand over his mouth, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. “You have grown into such a remarkable young woman. I am so proud of you.”
“Thank you. I love you, Daddy.” Prayikina bowed to the judging table with a focus on her father. Was this an act? Some people might think so. But I knew better. Her love and admiration for her father was something truly special.
I stayed focused on my work if only to not cry. (I missed my dad more than anything but I needed to finish strong.)
Gi approached, taking a seat at a nearby table. “Elle, you alright?”
“I’m fine.” When I looked up I could see she was eating something out of a paper cup. “What are you eating?” Judging by the color and smell, my first guess would have been that Giovanna was snacking on a serving of Prayikina’s curry that she swiped from her station.
“Nothing much,” Gi said, licking her fingers. “What’s the story of Prayikina’s birth? The teachers always talk about her like she’s some kind of medical miracle.”
“I don’t even know.” That was a lie. “I have work to do.”
“What have you heard? I’m sure your parents said something, even if it was just gossip.”
Knowing that Gi was not leaving anytime soon, I started to speak the barebones story that I heard in passing, over five years ago. “Aunt Erica wasn’t having contractions, so the doctors had to cut the baby out, when they went in they found that Prayikina was stuck.”
“Stuck?” she asked with a full mouth.
“I don’t know all of the details or even what amazing thing Uncle Akira did, all I know is Prayikina is my best friend, and I’m grateful she’s alive.” I held no ill will, it was actually kind of cute how everyone saw her as a magical princess of the school. Her mother was a second-generation interim principal, (before Sam returned) and Akira was a professor who devoted his life to the scientific study of culinary horticulture.
Glancing over I could see the judges were making notes about Prayikina’s dish. Many of them only ate half, in case of a tie, if the entries required further evaluation.
“I need to get this finished,” I said as I looked around for serving bowls. I knew one story, but it was a memory that belonged only to me (and Kiki.)
12 years ago:
I hid behind the door as my mother threw a plate at my father’s head. “Why the hell did you invite them!” she shrieked like a banshee.
I was moments away from crying, but my father stood strong, blocking the attack with his quick reflexes while standing his ground. “Look, I’ve been in contact with Erica, she really wants the girls to meet.”
“They’re coming here!” My mother gripped her head as if the very idea of hosting guests at our massive mansion was the definition of medieval torture. “This is a terrible idea!”
“I don’t see what the big deal is, Erica and Akira are family. And they’ve been our best friends since the academy days. We passed through hell together and emerged on the other side.” He gripped my mother’s hands to prevent further attacks. “Are you really that bitter where you can only see the worst in people?”
After blubbering nonsense, my mother finally pulled together a coherent sentence. “Erica’s just going to brag about how much smarter or prettier her daughter is.”
That was a message that had been drilled into my toddler mind; Aunt Erica and Uncle Akira thought they were better than us and their daughter was most likely a stuck-up snob who would bully me for all of my faults and insecurities. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
My mother threw up her hands, walking away from my father. “This is all on you!” She didn’t get far before the doorbell rang.
The maid opened the door. “Good afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Hayama, this must be little Prayikina.”
Suddenly my mother smiled and then started to laugh with delight. From my hiding place, I could see why; the little girl was fat.
Even as a three-year-old I knew my mother saw obesity as a character flaw. She was horrifically strict when it came to my diet and exercise. To be fat was to be low class, lazy, and above all else- ugly.
It was no surprise how quickly my mother dove right in on my cousin. “Well, you are just a squishy little cutie pie! Look at your cheeks and your little tummy. You’re just a good eater aren’t you?”
The little girl giggled. “I do love pie!” Prayikina looked like a little doll with her white-blonde hair in two buns. “My Dada makes spicy chicken pie and apple pie and pumpkin pie…”
Aunt Erica patted her daughter’s head. “The doctors say her weight is perfectly normal considering the health issues she is facing in regards to her development. When she’s older she will be able to be placed on a diet and exercise plan.”
“Not that she isn’t beautiful just the way she is,” Akira added, beaming with pride.
“Auntie Ali,” my cousin said through chubby cheeks (making her speech sound so typically cute). “I have a present for Elena.” She reached for a small red purse adorned with beads.
My father beckoned me forward. “Elena, this is Prayikina, your cousin.”
I rushed to my father’s side, hiding behind his legs. “Hello,” I said in a whisper. The fact that she already knew my name was a little freaky. “Pra…” I wanted to attempt to say her name but the many syllables made me want to cry.
“Mommy, Daddy, and Nana call me Kiki. This is for you.” Prayikina fished an item from her purse, handing me a small box with a bow.
I lifted the lid releasing a strong cinnamon aroma. Inside the box was part of a Sari (a colorful cloth with elaborate Indian designs.) Wrapped inside the colorful fabric was a wooden doll.
“My dolly’s name is Sakura,” Prayikina explained, “I want you to have her.”
My father patted my head. “What do you say, Elena?”
“Thank you,” I said as I pulled out a second item. It was a star made of cinnamon sticks tied together with string.
“I made that for you!” She was practically hopping like a toddler high on sugar. “My Dada loves cinnamon! Do you like cinnamon? I like cinnamon cookies and my dada puts cinnamon in my porridge!”
I opened my mouth to reply but she wasn’t finished.
“Do you cook with your dada? I love cooking with my dada! I also cook with my mama, when she’s home. My mama works with my great-grandpa and my dada is a teacher.” She looked up at her mother for approval.
Aunt Erica smiled proudly. “My little Kiki is quite the talker.” She knelt down to her daughter’s level. “Kiki, your great grandpa is also Elena’s great-grandpa.”
“Really?!” she asked excitedly. “Did you hear that Elena we have the same great-grandpa!” Prayikina was only a few months older but she was a great deal stronger. She rushed at me, picking up my skinny body like a doll. She was jumping up and down, refusing to let go, while all the adults marveled at her cuteness.
When Aunt Erica excused herself to the restroom Akira approached his daughter. “Do you and Elena want some candy?”
This got Prayikina’s attention. “Candy! Candy! Candy!” She was still jumping and her grip showed no signs of faltering.
Needless to say, I was getting uncomfortable. “Hurts…”
“Kiki put down your little cousin and you can both have some chocolate truffles,” Akira said calmly.
“Ok, Dada!” Kiki proceeded to drop me on my butt.
“Ow,” I muttered. Part of me wanted to flee back to my Daddy, but a much more powerful (and hungry) part wanted free chocolate.
Kiki hopped like a bunny, flailing her little arms. “I want truffles!”
The truffle Akira produced from his tote bag was the size of a golf ball. Prayikina bit through the dark chocolate shell. “Yummy! It’s your cinnamon turmeric filling!”
Akira handed one to my father and another to my mother (who had been watching the scene play out, laughing at my discomfort). “Enjoy, I made plenty of them.”
The chocolate was crunchy and sweet with speckles of puffed rice cereal. This unique handcrafted shell held a bright orange filling which was spicy, with a hint of citrus tang. I broke off a piece of chocolate, tasting it on its own, for the complexity of flavor, before dipping it into the filling as if eating a pudding cup. It was a truly awe-inspiring culinary experience (and I couldn’t fit it in my mouth even if I tried.) I was barely halfway finished with the candy when Prayikina reached out to Akira.
“More please!” She lifted her chubby little arms while picking pieces of chocolate off her clothes. It was clear she ate the entire piece in one or two bites.
“Of course, my darling.” Akira handed his daughter another truffle.
My mother’s smile was even bigger than before. “Health issues?” she muttered. “Does Erica know you give Prayikina sweets when she’s not around?”
“Alicia, you know how difficult my childhood was prior to coming to the academy. I never want my daughter to feel anything other than love and happiness.” His reasoning was sound but my mother was having too much fun.
“So, you admit you’re spoiling her?”
Akira bit his lip. In any other situation he would have defended himself, but with his daughter at his side, joy overwhelmed all else. “Just shut up and eat the truffle.”
My father snickered as he opooed the candy in his mouth. “Not bad, Akira.” From his pocket my father produced his two stress balls, rotating them in his hands as he always did.
Prayikina’s eyes lit up. “Balls! I love balls!” she said with a mouth full of chocolate. “I want!”
My father laughed. He handed the little girl his stress balls. “Here you go, sweetheart.”
Prayikina tried to rotate them the way my father did but her hands were too small. So, with a look of defeat, she handed them back. “I can’t.”
“How about you try this instead.” My father sat on the floor and spun the balls. The game was much easier. And both Prayikina and I could play.
We giggled with delight. That was the first time I met my best friend.
I blinked back to reality just in time to finish my presentations. I was happy with the way my soups turned out. Hopefully, I stood a fighting chance against the jack-of-all-trades, triple threat, Culinary academy messiah.
The MC took to the mic. “Let’s give a round of applause for Kiki Hayama!” She paused to allow Prayikina to take a bow and blow kisses to the crowd like a newly crowned beauty queen. “Next up is Elena Rose!”
Jamie, joined Kyle, Giovanna, and Moma as servers, making sure to keep my presentation intact while placing the bowls.
Prayikina was rolling my father’s stress balls in her hand. “Remind me to kick the MC’s ass.”
“People need to learn; they have to earn the right to call you Kiki.”
“Good luck, Elena. I know your dad is watching over both of us.”
next: Run it! ch13: Balls