Why is it that whenever I eat here I feel as if I have not eaten proper in days?
“One fish burger,” Neil shouted from the other end of the food truck. A hot plate slid across the stainless-steel bench before me. “Wedges still on the way, kid.”
Smells delicious, and the taste – mmmm – definitely lives up to its aromatic guarantee. Neil is an old-school cook. All of his savoury recipes tantalise tastebuds and invigorate the senses. There must be a special ingredient he adds that makes me so hungry, that has got to be it. A pinch here and a pinch there, but what?
Tomato relish rolled off my bottom lip. It was only a drip, but enough to lament over with an audible sigh as I watched it blemish grey-pleated denim. Food this tasty on-the-go makes any loss of its parts a poignant moment in time. From this mouthful forward I lean into the bite, saving myself from additional sloppy splatters. Eating is pure pleasure. Isn’t it just; what was there to even argue against? Unless I undergo abdominal surgery and have to supplement my daily intake of nutrients through an intravenous line, half the enjoyment of food then, is in the chewing of it, definitely. Maybe that was the cook’s great secret, and why, for the same the reason, early starters stretched around the block before lunch openings.
It was not solely because of his preparation of ingredients, but because we loved the food before we knew we loved it. Neil might as well thank me for having such a sophisticated palate. Speaking of, was this even my burger? It was unusual in a far-too-delectable-for-me-to- have-known-to-order sort of way.
“Plenty of caramelised onions, just the way you like it.” There goes my theory. Neil divulged his secret in reaction to what my face was probably asking. Funny thing is, I hated onions. Any root pulled out of the dirt should not taste this nice. Potato starch is made good with the added salt and lemon pepper, but the tear-inducing onion, the thing is abnormal I say. I must be real hungry to be wolfing this abomination down.
“Great eats,” I may have carelessly spoken with food still in my mouth. “I’ll have another one to go, thanks Neil.”
Two buns were buttered and placed cut side down on the grill. Ten seconds to golden. Home cooking takes time and clocks run differently when your social life revolves around working nights. Times like these are when Neil’s skills prove particularly advantageous. My alternative kitchen. To make cooking a hearty meal for one less burdensome, sometimes, I would tell myself how Neil had no clue what the secret, necessary ingredients were to take the humble cheesy potato bake to the next level – three minced cloves of garlic and a sweet potato from Dargaville. Kūmara Capital of New Zealand, betcha didn’t know that! I can drum up a pot of fettuccine alfredo easily enough too, with leftovers to pan fry the day after, but Neil is my go-to on the days when I am not so organised, or can be bothered to be. I met him 10 years ago running this oily food hut and I swear he has not aged a bit. Not in memory at least. He still has a belly. His chevron moustache is the same shape as I remember.
We might even see the original colour of asphalt in the shape of his caravan if he ever moved it. The iconic White Wahine is not so white anymore. It is French Cream.
In the curvature of a hanging frying pan I spot the distorted reflection of a police patrol vehicle slowing up to park behind my bar stool. The passenger window sunk into the door. The officer at the wheel leaned over the gear knob.
“Something smells good,” said the officer. “Evening, you wouldn’t happen to make mini-doughnuts by any chance?”
“Not so lucky guess I’m afraid,” Neil replied, “you’ll want to find Betsy on the far side of Aotea Square. Look for the yellow caravan with fairy lights. Do yourself a favour when you get there officer, try her almond bear claws.”
“Righto! Name’s Conrad by the way.”
“You lads have a good night aye,” he said.
The policeman drove away with his silent siren flashing. Neil and I glanced in the same direction with expressions to match. Must have been a new cop on the beat because everyone around here knew of Betsy well, or they knew the unmistakable aroma of those sugar-coated morsels she makes. A street food staple since ages ago. This once dimly lit, rundown ashtray of a bus terminal has since become a bustling junction point for street vendors of contrasting cuisine and culinary prowess. On any given night it attracted the party zombies from the viaduct nightclubs to the sophisticates of the rooftop eateries and the passers-by in-between. Wahine got lucky alright. Neil was set for life here, which meant so was my alternate meal plan. Competitor food trucks improved business by being on the go. It is funny how small inconvenient changes can work out for the best. A pinch here and a pinch there.
I was wearing a school uniform the day we crossed paths for the first time. That was well before becoming a maître d’ to pay off my management degree was even a word I knew how to spell. Funny – it took me leaving school to learn there was nothing to run away from.
“Kid, are you okay,” a younger Neil had asked me – same look.
I was exhausted from walking all day. Sulking on his counter and playing with the straws in the milkshake tumbler, I remember saying he should stop making doughnuts, in a voice that I could have auditioned to be a choirboy with.
“Those aren’t free you know,” he said, motioning at the straws. “So what’s the story, do you have food allergies or trouble reading?”
“You’d get a lot more customers if the cops weren’t circling the block every minute, like makos. I heard in a movie someone say that policemen don’t leave tips. Is that true?”
I remember Neil’s stretched expression and the eyebrows he gave me. Whether it was because I pronounced the name of the shark wrong or Neil thought I had a point, at that time I hadn’t a clue.
“You noticing cops are ya? You know, movies embellish a lot. They bring me good business and the reason why is because, I happen to make primo doughnuts. Best in the country some have said, award-winning- like. Here, try these.”
He handed me a breadbasket of warm rejects. Manners are easily forgotten when you are hungry and upset.
“Don’t forget to chew.”
“I know how to chew,” I said, with fried dough flying out my gob.
“Heh. You know, this was a scrawnier city not that long ago. Yep. With shorter buildings you can see a lot more sky. It gets dark far too quickly nowadays. So when you’re done eating, you best be heading straight home to your parents.
“This late, if anything was going to bring around ‘makos’, it would be you.”
Neil saw right through me, strayed youngster in a seedy corner of downtown. Parents wanted me in a new school so eagerly that they had already signed my transfer papers, and I was the last one to know about it. It was not like I planned to skip school that day or anything. Just wanted to walk it off. Found myself in the city. Too stubborn to escape my own naïve thoughts, I suddenly saw Neil’s generosity and wisdom as condescending, and I misinterpreted his reasonable words to me.
“How would you know? You don’t know them; you don’t know anything about me!”
I doused his apron in honey mustard dressing before running home. Never imagined I would ever return to The White Wahine six years later, for doughnuts of all things. Neil said he did not have any to give.
Oh, he remembered me all right, but no grudge was held. Told me he had sold the cinnamon-spice recipe years ago to his younger sister, Betsy. Better for business, he told me.
The frying pan caught light and blinded me for a moment. Floaters in my eyes were clear and the world around them a blur. Quickly my vision restored, and the frenetic thrum of the nocturnal streets occupied my attention once again.
“Take it easy, kid.”
Neil handed me my order to go, wrapped hot in today’s newspaper.
“Feels a little light. I hope this is the tarakihi I ordered and not another one of your onion burgers.”
Neil gallantly yawped and took aim at me with his spatula saying, “Next time you’re cooking for me!”
Neil did not keep condiments on top of the counter anymore.
About the Author: F. P. Donnan
Papua New Guinean-born and Kiwi-raised, Donnan started his writing obsession as a casual blogger, sharing his quirky observations and discovered oddities over the World Wide Web. He currently works as a control room operator, but finds time to scribble down ideas and stories between shifts. He has studied English literature, philosophy and performance to further refine his storytelling. A novel is in the works.