Too Good, At Least
by Lizz Donnelly
Issue 2: Game | 3,889 words
Mica found the book on the day her downstairs neighbor moved out. She arrived home from work, stressing about the rent and daydreaming ways to bring in a little extra cash, when she nearly tripped over the boxes strewn on the curb. She’d stubbed her toe on the corner of one and was cursing about it when the Bible caught her eye. It was partially buried under a stack of magazines. Something about the book was calling to her.
Her pain forgotten, Mica dug in the box and pulled it out. Smiling at her from the cover were the deities of pastry themselves, the perfectly frosted trinity in the printed flesh: Mary, Paul, and the holy Victoria Sandwich spirit. The book was worn, but Mica couldn’t remember ever smelling anything particularly delicious coming from the downstairs apartment. Perhaps her former neighbor hadn’t been terribly religious, if she was throwing out the Baker Bible.
Mica had never been particularly inclined to any religions either; her parents had been capital-A Artisans, sub-denomination Free Mason Jars, and Mica had dabbled with the Church of GMO in college, but nothing ever stuck. But Mica was always willing to experiment. Everyone needed a side hustle in this economy, and religion was the most profitable one of all. Maybe with the Bible as her guide, she could find her way to the Saturday Farmers’ Markets.
Mica brought the book inside and booted up her ancient computer; her curiosity had been sparked. She was aware of the Bakers in the most general sense, but she wasn’t sure if there were many practicing, or how she might join them if she decided she was interested.
Two hours later, Mica had learned everything she could about the Bakers and their history. They’d been a hugely popular religion, not long ago, but had faded into obscurity. After a group of Un-Savories had split off to form their own confection faction, the church had largely gone under. Now there were only a few devout groups left who made rare appearances at Markets. When they appeared, if the eyewitness testimony could be believed, they were nothing short of miraculous. Their tent sold out immediately.
Mica was intrigued. She had to find a way in.
She grabbed the book off the counter and opened to the first page. She’d start easy, Mica decided. She’d bake a cake.
In the beginning, there was sponge. But it was dark, dense and rubbery sponge. It was formless and tasteless sponge. It was black around the edges and made the apartment smell like charcoal.
The good book told Mica that she needed to whip the eggs more, in order to force air into the sponge. The book said let there be light sponge, and after following the instructions to the letter, there was light sponge. And it was good.
The first Victoria Sandwich was a leaning, melted mess of a cake. In retrospect, perhaps Mica shouldn’t have gone for the holy grail of cakes from the get go. Still, she wanted to make an impression when she found the bakers. What better way to get in than to perfect something they idolized?
By the end of the week, Mica had a permanent layer of flour covering everything in her kitchen, one perfect Victoria Sandwich, and barely enough money left for groceries. She’d need to get into the Markets sooner rather than later if this venture was going to be at all profitable and not just an account-draining hobby.
According to the internet, the Bakers met on Saturday evenings in a long-defunct restaurant. Mica, following directions on the phone in one hand, squinted at the map while balancing the cake in the other hand. When the woman in her hand announced arrival at the destination, Mica was surprised to find that she was at a restaurant that she passed every day. It was like some kind of weird kismet that she had found the baking Bible. Mica had a good feeling that this was going to be the place where she belonged.
Kismet, as it turned out, could be a real bitch. Mica found this out as she was being escorted out of the Baker’s meeting with cake in hand, minus one piece that had been absolutely obliterated by their judging. In retrospect, Mica figured she should have done a little more research.
She’d entered the restaurant through the side door, as instructed by the internet, and was met with the startled faces of maybe a Baker’s dozen.
“Hi,” Mica said. “I hope I’m not late. I heard about your meeting on the internet and I wanted to join.”
The Bakers were silent.
“I brought cake,” Mica offered. She held the Victoria Sandwich in front of her like a sacrificial lamb.
“Is that cake?” The man at the front of the group looked at her cake with nothing short of a grimace. He waved her over to his table with a roll of his eyes. “I know you don’t have an invitation to be here, but let’s take a look.”
Mica placed the cake gently on the table. The man didn’t bother to introduce himself and, instead, picked up an excessively large knife to carve a wedge out of her cake.
“It’s leaning, for starters,” he remarked. “You didn’t bother to level the buttercream, just rushed right in uninvited like you did here.”
“You’re not exactly easy to track down.” Mica had scoured the internet for tips on gaining entry and found nothing.
“That’s the point. We’re an invitation only group. We have to preserve the sanctity of the recipes,” a woman to his left offered the explanation.
“These strawberries aren’t evenly sized,” the man continued. “Probably not organic, either.”
“Those are expensive,” Mica shrugged.
“As far as the sponge itself,” the man heaved a sigh and attacked the cake with a fork. It crumbled into dust. “Dry. So dry.”
“I’m new to this, but I’m sure I can do better.”
“I’m not.” He put down the fork and stared at Mica. “Have a nice day.”
“That’s it?” Mica asked. She put her hands on her hips defiantly. She hadn’t spent a week perfecting a cake she didn’t even like so that she could be turned away after a thirty-second beatdown. “You’re kicking me out even though I tried so hard?”
“You’d need to try harder, and follow the recipe.”
“I did follow the recipe. I mean, I got it out of Her cookbook,” Mica answered.
“Mother Mary clearly didn’t divine any inspiration in your direction.” He pushed the plate towards her. “Take this with you.”
Mica recognized the end of a conversation. There was no point in arguing with him further. She took her sad Pac-Man of sponge and turned towards the door, letting the door slam behind her. Mica had only made it a few steps down the sidewalk when she heard voices. She turned to find two of the Bakers.
“Wait,” said the shorter one, a blonde woman, maybe forty, who wore a bright pink blazer.
“That was an unnecessarily harsh judgment,” said the other woman. She was taller and brunette, but roughly the same age as her friend.
“Just a bit,” the first agreed.
“Right. The cake is a mess, but he wasn’t fair.”
“We think you should have another go.”
“We want to give you the recipe.”
“But I followed the recipe,” Mica said.
The women waved her off. “Not that one, although you did bake the Holy Spirit right out of the specimen. Ease off the oven next time.”
“She meant the recipe to get into the group,” the brunette clarified. “Where do you live? We’ll come by later and explain everything.”
Mica hesitated for just a moment, unsure if she wanted to give these strangers her address. They seemed like perfectly lovely people, but you never could tell with people, especially the ones who belonged to such a secretive cult.
“I promise we’re not serial killers,” the blonde insisted.
“Just cereal killers,” the brunette mimed a bowl and spoon. Mica laughed and gave them her address.
“We’ll be by later,” the blonde said.
“Feel free to keep practicing while you wait for us. We’re not picky,” the brunette added before they disappeared back into the building.
Mica dumped her cake, plate and all, into the nearest dumpster and headed for home.
Later that night, when Mica was just about to give up on the two Bakers from that afternoon, there was a knock on her door. She put down the cookbook that she’d been studying and went to answer the bell.
“Hello!” they chimed in unison. The women stood on her doorstep with a box of pizza.
“We weren’t sure if you’d eaten, or were going to try to cook, so we’d thought we’d be safe,” the blonde said gesturing to the pizza.
“And I’ve got the wine,” the brunette held up a bottle. “We are fully prepared for Belle and Toby’s Operation Baker Initiation. You are so lucky that you got us to be mentors. I’ve heard that no one else brings wine.”
“I’m Mica. I appreciate your help. I guess today could have gone a lot better.” Mica hoped that they would clarify which one was Belle and which was Toby, but they didn’t. She sighed.
“Oh that’s pretty standard I think,” the blonde responded. “It’s rare to have fresh dough wander through the door anymore. Most people don’t care about the Bakers much. I’ve only seen one other new Baker in my time, and they had it about as rough as you did. Pretty normal, right Toby?”
The brunette, Toby, now that Mica could finally tell the Baking Bobbsey Twins apart, had been struggling with the cork in the wine bottle, but nodded as it popped free. “That’s right, I think. I’ve only seen two. Equally harsh judgments, both of them.”
“No, none of that,” Belle cajoled. “That’s why we’re here. You need an invitation and a mentor to join the Bakers. You have two. Now, let’s have some munchies and wine and get to work.”
Several weeks passed and Mica wished for the instant gratification of a training montage. It would have been so much easier than the endless broken egg shells, the flour that covered the counter tops, and the salt that covered the floor. As it turned out, the Bakers took the salt over the left shoulder thing very seriously, and Mica was clumsy in the kitchen, at best.
Belle and Toby did their best to coach her with information that was, at times, entirely contradictory. Still, they meant only the best for her and Mica was grateful for their company, their laughter, and their seemingly endless supply of wine. She learned to limit herself on that front; it didn’t make following the recipes any easier.
In her head, at the end of her training montage, Mica would emerge with a perfectly torched Baked Alaska, held in triumphant Rocky fashion over her head.
In reality, when Belle and Toby let her know that she would be allowed to bake for the next Baker Service, the best she could manage was an above average game pie which did smell pretty good. Belle and Toby gave her excited thumbs-up when she set the pie on the bench in front of them. Mica had never been so grateful that they’d taken her under their wing.
She fumbled her way through the Welcome, the Recitation of Ingredients, and the Stirring Rituals (around the outside, through the middle, repeat). Then, finally, it was time for the tasting. This was the moment that Mica had been training for. The Elder Bakers would determine if she was ready to represent them at the Farmers’ Markets.
She was called to the bench at the front of the room in a much more friendly tone than the first time she’d been there. Martin, High Priest and the man who had decimated her Victoria Sandwich, even gave her a small twist of the lips that might pass for a smile. The tin containing the meat pie was still warm on the bottom. The High Priests wanted to see the entire thing, so it had to remain in the tin until it was time.
“Tell us about your pie?” Martin asked, though he knew full well what Mica had been planning on baking. It was all part of the ritual.
“It’s a classic Victorian game pie, with rabbit, venison, and pigeon. That was hard to get my hands on… ” Mica trailed off at his raised eyebrow. “Um, right. Hot water crust pastry, of course, and a rose decoration on top.”
“A rose,” Martin repeated in a tone that suggested it looked nothing like a rose. Mica sighed.
Martin released the pie from its tin. With his absurdly large knife, he cut into it. The crust had a satisfying crunch, and a little juice from the meat dribbled onto the plate. There had been no leaking in the oven, much to Mica’s relief. So far, everything looked good.
“Meat looks cooked,” Martin murmured. “Nice crust. Well packed. Looks like mushrooms and thyme in there too?” He looked up for confirmation. Mica nodded.
“Real test then.” Martin picked up a fork, took a bite, chewed, and set the fork down. He was quiet for a long moment and Mica barely resisted the urge to drum her fingers on the table.
“Mica, you have a chronic problem with over baking,” Martin said at last. “It’s dry. Flavors are good, but there’s something a little bit off with the spices. Something lacking. Try again next week.”
Mica spent the remainder of the service slumped in her seat, stewing. Belle and Toby took turns patting her back and whispering that it would be all right until she glared them into silence. When the service was over, Mica grabbed her pie off the table and stalked towards the door without saying goodbye.
Belle and Toby followed her.
“Look, guys, I really don’t want to talk about this right now.” Belle and Toby looked hurt and Mica managed an apologetic smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? I just want some time alone tonight.”
Soothed, her new friends let her leave. As she wandered down the sidewalk towards home, Mica was struck with a sudden realization:
She wanted to be a Baker.
She wanted to be part of the Farmers’ Markets, not just for the extra money they’d bring in, though that helped, but because then she’d truly be part of the group. Mica had made friends. She’d learned things. She wasn’t sure that she believed Mother Mary’s spirit spoke directly to Martin through the special apron he wore, but she’d found a community that mostly welcomed her, when it wasn’t shredding her dishes like string cheese. Maybe this was what a crisis of faith felt like, she mused.
Mica kept walking and pondering. Soon she found herself outside a butcher shop on a street that she’d never walked down before.
“Todd Street Specialty Meats” claimed the sign in the window. Mica felt a flutter of hope. Maybe she hadn’t been ambitious enough with the game pie. Too traditional. Maybe she needed to experiment. Put her faith in the ingredients, as it were. Mica pushed open the door. Deep in the back of the shop, a small bell chimed.
Be right there!” a voice called. Mica waited quietly and surveyed her surroundings. It was a small shop, and she was nearly walled in with deli coolers full of various meats, all meticulously labeled. Every type of meat she could think of and then some was represented in the cases. Some she was pretty sure were lizards, and some she didn’t even want to guess. Sometimes it was just better not to know what you were eating.
At last, a round man with a cheerful smile came out of the back of the shop while wiping his hands on his apron. The apron was stained with vibrant red smears and, for a moment, Mica had a hard time pulling her eyes away. She had to remind herself that it was just meat, and she needed something special for her game pie, if she was going to make it to the Farmers’ Market.
“How can I help you?” the man asked, and then, before Mica could answer, continued, “Nope! Let me guess. You need a specialty meat.”
“Well, yes. But I…”
“You found the place by accident, everyone does.”
Mica narrowed her eyes as he interrupted her.
He smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I just like to make a game out of guessing what my customers need. How can I help you?”
“I do need some meat. I’m making a game pie…”
“For a… special event. The last one was a little lacking in the flavor department. I need something with a little more oomph, if that makes sense. Something to make it pop.” Mica explained. She felt silly with her explanation, but the butcher was nodding along happily as if it made perfect sense to him.
The butcher continued nodding, rather annoyingly, Mica thought. Finally, he spoke. “You’re a Baker.”
“I understand. You’ve been slaving over bakes for years and haven’t made it to the Farmers’ Market yet. You’re looking for that last little miracle that will send you over the edge to complete enlightenment.”
“Well, no, I just started.”
“So devoted already?” The butcher seemed startled.
“No. I mean, yes, I guess so. Look, I just want to make it to the Markets. I was thinking something a little different might do the trick. Do you recommend anything?”
“I have just the thing,” he said, then disappeared into the depths of the shop.
Mica flinched when the noise of a saw ground through the shop. It was followed by some pounding, and she wondered what on earth the butcher was doing. She’d assumed that he’d had something prepared already, and only needed to fetch it.
More pounding was followed by the crinkle of paper, and then the unmistakable sound of a plastic bag. He reappeared a moment later, holding a bag of meat. “Here we are. Go straight home with this and put it in your refrigerator. It’s rather fresh and hasn’t been chilling long. It will keep for about a week, but freeze it if you won’t use it before then.”
Mica nodded. She wasn’t expected to make another pie before the following Sunday, but there was the Wednesday night Tart Circle, and she decided she could surprise Martin with the perfect game pie then.
The butcher rang up a surprisingly small amount on the cash register and continued his instructions, “This will cook like beef, so don’t overdo it. You want it a little pink at the very center to keep it moist. It’s a little spicier in general though, so ease off on the pepper.”
“What is it?” Mica asked as she handed over the money.
“Cooks like beef,” the butcher repeated.
“But what is it? Is it safe to eat?”
“Now really, would I sell you something that wasn’t safe to eat?” The butcher looked irritated for the first time since she’d entered the shop. “It’s a kind of specialty beef, and that’s all you need to know. Trust me and put your faith in the ingredients. That’s how you get to the Markets.”
Mica could tell that he was never going to give her a straight answer, so she decided to take his advice and have a little faith. That was, after all, why she was there in the first place.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
Two days later Mica had apologized to Belle and Toby and invited them over to supervise her bake as she attempted the second game pie.
Belle was three glasses of wine in by the time Mica was ready to prep the filling for the pie.
“Mica, tell us about your magical meat,” Belle snickered.
“I don’t have any of the answers,” Mica shrugged. “This could be the worst pie in London, or the best.”
“And we’re in New York,” Toby put in from her position, sprawled on the sofa in the next room. The television news was on low in the background.
“True. Hey, that’s him!” Mica had suddenly caught sight of the man on the television and gestured with a floury hand. “That’s the butcher who sold me the magical meat.”
“What did he do?” Belle asked.
Toby turned up the volume just in time to hear the end of the interview. “He didn’t do anything. Someone was murdered. I guess they found a body, or a couple pieces of a body anyway, on the next street over. Interviewing the locals to see if they saw anything.”
“Terrible,” Belle said and wandered back into the kitchen. Toby turned off the television and joined them. Mica was jolted from her reverie by the oven beep that told her it was pre-heated and ready to go. Mica turned to the meat that she’d prepared on the counter and paused, easy on the pepper, as instructed.
After a moment she shook off the nasty thought she’d had. It was probably just grass-fed beef, and he’d been making it out to be more special than it was to convince her to buy it.
Belle helped her hold the pie as she lowered the top crust on and crimped off the edges. Once it was in the oven, all she could do was wait.
They were a few minutes late to the Tart Circle gathering. Belle was still a little tipsy and held onto Toby for support while Mica carried the pie. It smelled amazing—savory and juicy, though none had leaked through her expert crust, and the spices were subtle, warm and peppery, but not overpowering. Mica could feel she had a winner.
Martin was surprised to see another game pie, but Mica laid it on the table in front of him and he was soon intrigued by the smell, which hooked him. He agreed to test her again even though that was usually reserved for Saturdays.
Confident this time, Mica handed him his large knife and watched expectantly as he cut into the pie and took a bite. Martin closed his eyes as he chewed and let out a delighted noise.
“God, that’s good.”
“What’s in it?”
“Meat,” Mica said. “Beef. Spices. Venison and Rabbit.”
“This is the best game pie I’ve ever had. That can’t be beef,” Martin argued. “There’s something about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but it’s delicious. So tender.”
“How good is the pie, Martin?” Mica pressed.
Martin said nothing, just reached out to shake her hand.
Saturday morning, at the Farmers’ Market, Mica stood in a booth flanked by Belle and Toby and with a second, perfect pie steaming on the table in front of her. It seemed only a matter of moments before the whole thing was gone, and the customers were begging for more. Mica smiled politely and told them that she’d have another one next week. It seemed she’d have to become a regular customer at the Todd Street Butcher Shop.
She smiled to herself as she watched the customers drift away with promises to return. Side hustle: level up. Mica was in heaven.
Lizz Donnelly is a writer, knitter, and the messiest amateur baker. Her stories have appeared in Circuits and Slippers, Neologian, and NonBinary Review. She also runs The (K)indred Experiment, a science fiction creative writing club for sixth graders.