Dish of the Day by Steven French

So. This is how the story was told to me by my sister-in-law who was friends with the daughter of Mrs O. Who together with her husband ran a Turkish restaurant just off Green Lanes. Well, they were Kurdish really, which matters a lot in some contexts but not so much in this one. Anyway, Mr O was in charge of the chefs’ station, while Mrs O supervised the service and also handled the accounts. Even though Mr O was referred to by all as ‘boss’, no one wanted to look Mrs O in the eye when she passed on a customer’s complaint or, heaven forbid, returned a plate of food. Not even Mr O. 

One evening, a Thursday it was, business was slow as it generally was on that day of the week, with just a few regulars scattered about the place. And an old guy walked in, maybe to escape the drizzle and cold, maybe enticed by the smell of grilled lamb and herbs, of aubergines sautéing in olive oil. His hair, thin as it was, seemed badly cut and his sweater, a faded brown, was ragged around the neck. For some reason, perhaps out of kindness because the man seemed confused by the menu, Mrs O took it upon herself to serve him and when he asked, “What’s the dish of the day?”,  instead of bluntly stating, “There is no ‘dish of the day’ – they’re all good”, she thought for a bit and then pointed to the picture of the ‘Imam Bayaldi’ on the menu,  telling him that it was the best in the area. And then also for some reason, she told him the story about how the dish was created by the wife of an imam in old Ottoman days and how he had swooned in pleasure upon tasting it for the first time. And then she added, smiling, “But some stories say that he swooned because of the cost of the ingredients or because of the amount of oil that was used!” Then she caught herself and quickly added, “Not that this is an expensive dish. Well, you can see for yourself the price, right there on the menu.” She pointed again.  “And we don’t use so much oil, don’t worry. Just enough.” And she smiled once more and bustled away with the man’s order.

When she came back with the plate of food and placed it in front of him, she was struck by how he paused and looked intently at the aubergine, stuffed with onions and tomatoes, rich with olive oil and herbs, before taking a deep, appreciative sniff. After he’d finished, she collected the empty plate and he looked her straight in the eye and told her “That was wonderful.” And instead of looking down demurely, as her mother and aunts had always told her she should in such situations and accepting the compliment gracefully on behalf of the restaurant, she looked straight back and lifted her head and gave just a short nod.

And so, every Thursday around the same time, the man would turn up, sit down at whatever table he was taken to and order the same dish. Sometimes one of the other waitresses would offer to serve him but Mrs O now felt she was under some form of obligation and so, each week, she would take his order. After a few weeks one or two of the junior chefs and waitresses would snigger and nudge each other when the old man walked in, wearing that same faded and ragged sweater, but Mrs O would make it clear with a glare that she would brook no disrespect of that kind. In fact, she persuaded her husband to assign the cooking of the Imam Bayaldi to one of his best chefs who took it as a challenge to live up to Mrs O’s initial boast and make the dish indeed the best in the area.

And so this went on, for weeks and months, until it became part of the settled routine of the restaurant. Until of course the pandemic slammed into the ‘hospitality industry’, as media folk called it. Mr and Mrs O had to close up and even though expanding the take-away side of things took up some of the slack, and the handout from the government helped a bit, they struggled to keep their staff employed and their heads above water.

And then Mr O died. Not from the virus or anything like that, but just a run of the mill heart attack that took his knees out from under him in the kitchen, causing him to slump against the counter and then to the floor, still clutching one of his knives. The ambulance beat the odds and got there in just under fifteen minutes but she could see from the looks that passed between the paramedics that it was too late and so she slumped too, held off the floor by her daughter and one of the other waitresses. So many friends and relatives told her afterwards, “Well, at least he died doing what he loved.” And she smiled, thinly, and nodded but all she could think, uncharitably, was, “But he should have loved me more. Enough to have stayed with me …”

That would have been it, really, for the restaurant and perhaps for Mrs O, if not for a phone call one evening as she was tidying things away, a few days after the funeral. “Are you still doing takeaways?” the caller asked and she recognised the voice, of course. Her impulse was to just put the phone down but instead she replied, politely, “What would you like?”, knowing the answer. That prompted her to call up a couple of the chefs and she told some of the wait staff to open up the takeaway counter and “put the word out”. But she insisted on delivering this one order of Imam Bayaldi herself, to a first floor flat in a nondescript ‘60s block about three-quarters of a mile away. She knocked loudly three times and then stepped back, leaving the brown paper bag with its foil carton on the floor in front of the doorstep. When the man opened the door, wearing that same old brown sweater, and saw her standing there, masked and distanced, with a little fragrant steam drifting up from the paper bag between them, he looked her in the eye and smiled and she gave a quick nod in return before leaving.

That weekly order was a thread that she clung to, which became a length of string and then a rope by which she could haul herself out from under the crushing weight of her grief. Only she was allowed to deliver it but there were no sniggering or furtive nudges this time. Everyone now called Mrs O the ‘boss’ and the restaurant managed to stay afloat through all the restrictions, imposed and then lifted and then imposed again and through all the repeated lockdowns. Until it could open fully again and the customers returned, mostly still masked as they came in, with fewer tables to choose from. 

But not the old man. “He must be self-isolating,” Mrs O thought. Still, every Thursday evening the phone would ring and whoever picked it up would look over to Mrs O or raise their hand to get her attention and she’d pass on whatever she was doing to someone else and take the order. And every Thursday evening she would knock on that door to his flat and step back, leaving the bag on the floor. And he would open the door and look her in the eye and she would nod and leave. Until one Thursday she arrived at the block and saw the blue flashing lights outside. Immediately she was dragged back to that awful moment and felt her body collapse in on itself once again. In her distress her hand brushed the paper bag and the smell of the Imam Bayaldi wafted up and pulled her back to the present. For a long moment she sat, looking at the bag, then she got out of the car and carried it up the steps, through the entrance and to the first floor. Where she was stopped by a line of police tape and a young officer standing in front of it.

“Sorry madam but you can’t go through,” he told her. “But I just want to deliver this food” she replied. The officer looked around, as if to make sure no one else was listening and then said, “I’m afraid there’s been a death. Some while ago in fact. Turns out the body’s been laying there for months. Some of the neighbours complained about the smell but the council didn’t do anything until today. You know how it is.”

Mrs O took a step back, puzzled. Then she insisted, “But I’ve been delivering food here every week …” She looked around as if seeking corroboration from the hallway. “And he called tonight … for his regular order …” She shook her head but the policeman just shrugged and said “It was probably just kids, messing about. You know what they’re like round here …” Mrs O didn’t know what to say so she held out the bag to the officer. “Perhaps you would like this. It’s very good.” This time it was his turn to look around and he replied, “We’re really not supposed to, y’know. There’ve been some incidents. You know, with people putting things in the food.” When he saw Mrs O’s outraged expression he quickly added, “But I’m sure there’s nothing like that in this. So … thank you.” Mrs O didn’t wait to see if he opened the bag or threw it away but simply turned around and left.

A few days later she spotted the funeral notice in the local paper. But she decided not to impose herself, out of respect. Instead, that Thursday, she had the chef prepare the Imam Bayaldi as before, and then she drove over to the cemetery, the paper bag containing the foil carton on the passenger seat next to her. It took her a while to find the grave and she had begun to fret that the food would get cold. But it was warm enough when she carefully stooped before the freshly dug earth and took the cardboard top off the carton. A little steam drifted up and a breeze brought the smell of the onions and oil and herbs to her nose. For a moment she stood and closed her eyes and then she gave a quick nod and left. 

Anyway, that’s what I heard. But as we all know, stories change in the telling. Still, I’ve been to Mrs O’s restaurant and I can tell you, that Imam Bayaldi really is the ‘dish of the day’.

Steven French is a soon-to-be retired academic, living in West Yorkshire, U.K. He’s had various pieces published in 365Tomorrows, Bewildering Stories, Liquid Imagination, Land Beyond the World, Literally Stories and, of course, Idle Ink, among others.

Twitter: @StevenFrench4