Miguel makes boxed mac and cheese with only butter and no milk, so the cheese is a paste more than a liquid, and he can still taste the crunch of the powder a little bit, and sometimes, while his mother was stirring the noodles, she stood and looked out the window onto a courtyard where their neighbor, Mr. Nance, grew nothing but cucumbers so in fall there was a mason jar of pickles outside everyone’s apartment door that Miguel’s mother would put straight in the trash: who knows what he puts in this shit, she’d say, and the glass when it broke would make the plastic bag into ribbons.
Alice makes honey cake and uses more honey than the recipe calls for because that’s what her mother did, because her mother always wanted her cake to be the one picked from all the cakes on the table with all the cut squares people brought on their best plates and wrapped in foil, and it wasn’t about good food it was about winning.
Jess makes cinnamon toast, and yes it’s boring and basic but also delicious and the way her mom made it was perfect with the butter and cinnamon and sugar melted and mixed prior to spreading, and also she can’t put that mixture on the toast with the butter knife’s scrape scrape without thinking how her mother breathed in and out in a way that sounded like Velcro being torn apart during the whole last month of her life.
Rel makes the best soup anyone has ever tasted, at least that’s what people say, and somehow he makes it in the allotted thirty minutes, with the clock ticking down in its little yellow digitized lines and squares, and his own mother would have been jittery and shrieking watching the seconds drop off, and her soup would have had quail bones and sorrow and the whole world.
The judges come around to try all of it. They glide, as cooking show judges do. The female judge is what Alice might call stunning, and the male judge is what Rel might call a man’s man, and they eat in a way that shows they are savoring the food, but they aren’t greedy or disgusting.
The judges ignore the ghosts, which is or isn’t easy depending on how you look at it, because if you look a certain way, of course they are there. They always have been, but most of us don’t know how to look.
All the mother ghosts, some long gone and some more recent and all in various states of beautiful tatter and decay. They are without napkins, and food is the best thing, and they are slurping and noshing and dirty and mannerless because they’ve learned in their weird afterlife of whatever and nothing that manners are a hoax. Really, they aren’t ghosts, not in the traditional sense. They are their children, or just themselves again, or never gone and always there.
There is no winner, the judges agree. They dig in, both judges and Rel and Alice and Jess and Elizabetta and Miguel.
The stunning judge, now let loose by who knows what version of her own mother, is screaming in a way they didn’t think she had in her: food is memory! Food is pain! Food is love! The whole room is chaos and grease and crumbs and cinnamon and cheese powder and stick and sad and days past and future and happy. The screen zeroes out in the way of an old-time cartoon then, the image of all of them narrowing down to a circle and a black hole and a pin prick and then, like the best meal on the best day, like everything, they are gone.