The Alternatives | Caoilinn Hughes | Granta

The Alternatives

Caoilinn Hughes

By eight, the guests are all on the second garden deck, clinging to their drinks as to the edge of a swimming pool after a long day of laps. The men have established themselves about the place.

In the kitchen Lettie had encouraged Maeve to boss her around, but Maeve said that was precisely why she left the restaurant business. Its brutal intensity. Its sadistic efficiency. It’s like with cows, she told Lettie – you can taste the pre-slaughter adrenaline in the food if it’s come from a stressy, stratified kitchen. Maeve had no real authority figure growing up, so she could never get used to having one in her workspace, let alone being one. Besides, in the rest of her life, she’s impulsive and a bit frantic . . . but she’s chill at the chopping board. The trickier the dish, the more it centres her. Nah, Lettie’d said, stress is the pressure I make diamonds from. No pressure, no diamonds. Her teeth had shone. She’s adapting to the lack of pressure now, though, telling Maeve about her daughter while rapidly laying out the miniature bowls and plates for the first courses. Her sense of humour is legit! she says. Like, last night I asked her: what’s your favourite dish? And there was this epic pause, and then she shouts: Bowl!

Lettie laughs at her own story, and Maeve is spellbound. What a gorgeous, precious thing you have.

She’s ace.

Don’t ever let her leave, Maeve says.

Lettie catches her own pride in the silver serving platter she’s wiping the edge of. Love her. The dirty little prick.

Oh, they’re gross, aren’t they? Maeve says. The Q-tips! The tampons! Toothpaste spit in the sink! Towels covered in bronzer! And that sharp fart smell of singed hair.

With mild disavowal, Lettie says, Thank God Ella loves her skin. And her ’fro.

Maeve’s eyes go to Lettie’s never-idle hands. Wow. What a brilliant thing to be able to say. Go her.

You have daughters? No, I . . .

You want one?

Maeve squints. I thought you said you like her?

Lettie laughs and glances at the clock. I mean kids.

’Cause I, too, have commitment issues but that was pretty quick to offer her up! Like: Take her!

So you want one, or what?

Ah, Maeve says. Maybe. Yeah. I’m . . . I have sisters. She fiddles with the canapes, which are already spaced perfectly and ready to go. They always licked their plates, so I could never tell which ones were clean . . .

You mean –

. . . or if it hadn’t been enough.

little sisters?

Not anymore. We’re all adults, we keep telling each other. But I’m not sure I’m responsible enough to have –

Oh my days! Lettie is peering out to the patio. Mrs Charles just put out nuts.

What? Maeve goes to the window, to situate herself in the moment. To remind herself of the participants, that a meal is something communal. It’s not a one-way tender. But the kitchen is lit up like a showroom, blinding her to anything outside of it. She points to the canapes, tells Lettie, These can go down now, and – if you can – collect the nuts. Or don’t bother. It’s their party. This is red mullet with anchovy-rosemary sauce on a cabbage leaf – a fancy fish taco. Gluten-free. This is Welsh rabbit terrine on prune and cardamom sourdough from Bristol. And for the vegetarians: kale and cauliflower tots made with almond flour; and the pastry is English mushroom and dark ale from Staffordshire Brewery.

Yes, Chef! The gold hoop earrings brush off Lettie’s cheeks.

After another twenty minutes of preparation – minutes that are squeezed for every second – Maeve makes her appearance at the long table to announce the menu. Even as she addresses the company, she is rehearsing for the cutting, piercing, brushing, layering, reducing, resetting, pouring, piping, grating, turning, drizzling, shaving, dusting, whipping, enrobing, adjusting, placing, plating choreography of her hands, which will commence the second she’s back upstairs. They all pay her their full attention, with a sort of bovine curiosity and gastrological suspense.

We’ll open, she says, with an amuse-bouche: a celeriac medallion with a puree of Swiss chard and truffles from Dorset. We’ll follow with a classic vichyssoise. Our primo will be native lobster from the Cornish waters, in ravioli with saffron and pinot blanc foam, and sturgeon caviar . . . in place of salmon roe, which would have had to come from Alaska . . . For our vegetarians, we’ll have canal-side nettle and ground elder ravioli in butter and sherry. Our main plate will be roast Nottingham partridge in a chestnut and cassava nest, with a cider and caramelised onion gravy, served with a smoked beetroot and tarragon salad. For the vegetarians, the same chestnut-cassava nest will be full of Brussels sprout ‘eggs’ with runny Red Leicester yolks! At this, the party breaks into chatter – amused to the hilt with this egg proxy; relieved to have moved on from the non-native roe. Maeve continues over the din as Lettie arrives with the celeriac dish, on a tray borrowed from the restaurant. Pudding, Maeve says, glancing at Lettie, who’d instructed her not to say dessert, will be a mascarpone semifreddo with a fig and crab apple compote with flaked Kentish cobnuts! Finally, I look forward to taking all your complaints over cheese and sweet wine also from Kent. Enjoy, folks.

A smattering of gemstone-protective applause, a few knee slaps, a wager won on the absence of chocolate (cocoa beans don’t grow in Britain), and a factless spat about the origins of cassava. There’s no music, Maeve notes, but then it’s not her party.

In the kitchen, her eyes never leave the food except to give instructions when Lettie can’t sense what to do next: when to turn something; when to dress it. Maeve works surgically, intent on livening the food at a precise point in the future: it must revivify the moment it meets the palate, not a second sooner. She moves along each plate, tapping a strict cluster of sturgeon roe on each, reminding herself perversely of rationing; there was a cherry tomato pasta she’d make as a teen, but she could only use two tomatoes per sister, because the punnet contained a dozen and the next day’s lunch could use the spare four.

Lettie trails her with lobster leg garnishes. This is extra, Lettie says. Next time I read Ella Hansel and Gretel them bread crumbs is getting upgraded.

Temperature control being a challenge, Maeve removes her apron and they both serve. All it takes is the costume alteration for her to become invisible at the party: the conversation doesn’t pause to receive them. One man barely leans aside to make way for his plate as he bitches about his friend’s son. (And he marches to the wine bucket, extracts the bottle like . . . King Arthur’s sword, and cries: That bottle was not to be opened; it was for studying!) At the dietary-restriction end of the table, Tony Blair is the subject of conversation. These ladies do make way for the plates, smiling graciously. Tony’s one big mistake was going into property too soon, a lady says. You must always wait a significant amount of time, because – she hushes – the people don’t like it.

I blame the wife! declares an elderly lady with a baritone voice; not a vegetarian. Maeve keeps her eyes down so as not to invite interaction. I blame the wife, because she’s greedy!

En route back to the kitchen, Mrs Charles catches Maeve by the aura and whisperingly suggests she get Lettie to call Beverly. If she turns up quickly, it would relieve you both.

I think she’s already on her way, Maeve lies, doubting that Beverly can afford to skip whatever she’s busy with.

Oh good. In the meantime – Mrs Charles still has Maeve by the air – perhaps Lettie could fetch more wine from the cellar. I’m afraid to step away and let this go chilly.



Night has foregrounded itself by the time Maeve is seated. The firelight gives the winter air a formaldehyde quality – pointed incisors and pocket squares and ivory brooches float around in the glow. Wood burns neat orange in a glass cube at the table’s end. A six-foot flue carries the fumes beyond them. The tabletop firestones are set to maximum. Set between the flames are cheese platters, each with three cheeses; a tiny jar and spoon; a block of pale jelly; a dish of oat-thyme thins; and lightly candied walnuts.

Joining the party at last, Maeve feels herself subject to the eerie glow too. A placid Irish specimen. Relieved not to be at the head of the table, she is congratulated on all sides: What a performance! Well done! Mrs Charles, seated beside her, pivots her body to Maeve to prompt some sort of speech. A man at the other end of the table asks her to stand if she intends to speak, he’s hard of hearing. Oh, Henry! the hostess responds, she’s been on her feet for hours. Do let’s be considerate. Maeve demurs and stands, feeling a crackling ache already where her cheeks meet her ears.

Thank you, everyone . . . for sending nothing back to the kitchen! And to the Charleses for inviting me, and to Lettie, without whose help the meal would have ended with soup. She’s a Michelin star in the making. Lettie smiles sweeter than the wine she’s pouring. The pearls on her earrings hang over the flames as snowflakes that won’t melt.

Now. If I told you that one of these cheeses is vegan, Maeve says, could you guess which?

An elderly man pats his breast for spectacles, and a few people exclaim, Oh my! Goodness, really? What? I missed that. Some lean in for a closer look. Some cut tidy corners and enact scrutiny on their forks. Watch your cuff, Benjamin, you’ll singe it!

What does that mean, vegan cheese? asks a lady who’d had no query about amuse-bouche. Her neighbour privately explains the concept of food that isn’t animals.

I . . . I . . . I know what this is! says a shiny-faced man with a peeled-plum mouth. One cheese is one of the cheeses is not in fact cheese but cake. When you cut it!

It’ll be the Wensleydale, Sir Charles announces from the other end of the table, having tried the other two and now balancing the Wensleydale on his knife as plainly inedible. What is it, then? Tofu?

Ghastly! A lady seated beyond the rampart of men now scowls at the Wensleydale.

No. Maeve shakes her head. No tofu anywhere, I promise. Fermented cashews, yes. If you’d like to try them, the pear jelly should go with the Roquefort, nothing with the Wensleydale, and there’s a Tydeman’s Late Orange apple mostarda for the hard cheese.

Lord Howard Gillies, the alleged raconteur – seated opposite Sir Charles and exchanging beleaguered glances with him – addresses the company: I’ve never heard the word vegan uttered from anywhere other than a high horse. You’re not about to make us all feel miserable, Ms Flattery, are you?

Maeve, who has her eyes closed to savour the blue-blooded Roquefort, opens them and turns to Lord Gillies. He doesn’t face her. He doesn’t need anyone to reply, only to receive his assertions. I’m not a vegan chef, Maeve says, but London has some fabulous ones. There’s a place in Bethnal Green called –

What I cannot fathom – Lord Gillies says in lieu of shut up! – is why one would eschew the real thing for an imitation. We don’t have cocoa trees in Britain, I’ll grant you. But we do have plenitudinous heifers.

Quite right.

We bloody well do!

– a few million in commission still, I hope?

In my experience, Maeve says, all or nothing doesn’t make for great cooking. And it’s my job to expand people’s –

Your cooking is fine, Ms Flattery. But cheese isn’t cooking. Cheese is cheese. And if it isn’t, it isn’t. It’s a compromise.

Now, now, Jeremy, Mrs Charles says lightly.

The French melt it and call that cooking, a lady says.

I hope it’s OK to point out, Maeve says in one go, that it doesn’t come out of the udders as cheese! Cheese is made. If we food makers don’t challenge ourselves to improve and perfect new alternatives, excellent alternatives won’t exist. They’ll be just compromises, as you say.

Whereas what we’ve got here is excellent compromise.

Maeve’s head ducks back, as if to avoid a tomato thrown at her. She scans her end of the table, but it’s a lot of ladies’ wrists and people staring into their crystal port glasses, waiting for the queen’s face to ghost forth and reassert the food chain. Maeve asks the party lightly: Does my food taste of compromise?

The I-blame-the-wife elderly lady declares boomingly: There you have it, Ms Flattery! The proof is in the pudding, which is capital. To Mrs Charles, she says: Petulance shan’t sour it. (Her expression reads: try lending your husband the other side of the bed to get out of on the morrow.) What of it if our Wensleydalean friends have been pooh-poohed this evening? Even Turner saw fit to denude North Yorkshire of its cow pats.

The Roquefort’s also vegan, Maeve says gamely. It took me eight weeks to make it, on my boat. But the hard cheese is goat.

Gasps and gollys meet this information. Someone by the name of Clement, as the proprietor of five thousand acres of idyllic North Yorkshire moorland, takes offence. Another man’s eyes dart to Maeve’s breast for a sign of plumpness, as if she might have nursed the Roquefort into existence herself. The dominant expression is one of bamboozlement.

Well, you had me fooled, says one of Mrs Charles’s friends seated nearby. It’s delectable, and just right with the pear.

Mrs Charles uses this positive beat to inform the guests that Maeve and her three sisters are all doctors! Maeve’s degree is honorary, so she’s coy about it, but the others are de jure and I just think, how wondrous – four female doctors in one Irish family. I mean, it’s highly unusual! Your parents must be so proud!

Maeve bites into a cracker so she won’t be expected to hold forth. Various conversations rouse along the table: honour being an indefatigable subject. Though he speaks at a moderate volume now, Maeve can make out Lord Howard Gillies telling his audience that it’s like his new neighbour in Suffolk, a certain Jay Lee. (The monosyllables are given as if they are not phonetic.) The Baron of Cowdenknowes or some such Scottish purlieu. He bought his feudal title at an auction!

No matter how she tries to steer away from personal questions, the ladies surrounding Maeve want to know her story. They must expect it’s very different from theirs, and seemingly it doesn’t end badly, so they’re inclined to hear it. When did she first know herself to be a chef; what are her aspirations; is she aware that she has an admirer in the MP Sir David Anderson? Though she doesn’t really want to, Maeve is tired, so it’s easier just to tell them:

When their parents died, she explains, she was thirteen years old. Her younger sister, Nell, was nearly twelve; her older sisters, Rhona and Olwen, were fifteen and seventeen. Various relatives moved in and out, looking after them in shifts. This angered and confused the girls, who resisted management, who preferred unsupervised sadness. Their parents hadn’t been typically parental. So when Olwen turned eighteen, she became their legal guardian. Funereal lasagne and shepherd’s pies and gooey casseroles arrived by the bucketload for the deep freeze, but Nell was already a vegetarian and Maeve said the microwave made everything taste of cabbage. They made a pact: if Maeve would agree to be her sisters’ dinner-lady, she would never have to strip a bedsheet or clean a toilet bowl again. (She would also become the grocery shopper, which came with the dilemma of what to spend when her older sisters weren’t being open about how much they had. Envelopes would drop from extended family like overripe fruit with no predictable season. To eat this one, or hold onto it?) The four of them got along best when each did her own thing, then came together for intense, dizzy judgements of one another, of their various lives. Well, the three others liked it that way, and Maeve put up with that fact.

Most days, to prolong their being hysterically, bickeringly together, Maeve made them all three-course meals. It had seemed like magic, sprinkling grated ginger and chilli onto honey-roasted squash for the first time, prompting Olwen to go droopy in pleasure and Rhona to clasp her raging throat and hiss words like public liability insurance. Olwen had got special dispensation to do the first year of her degree part-time, so she could stay with them, while she drove back and forth to Galway once or twice a week. By the time Olwen had earned an MA scholarship, Nell was nearly seventeen. She assured her older sisters that she was ready to move, to let the house be sold, as Rhona – ever mercenary – had proposed. So Maeve had known very early on that she’d work with food. But after culinary school, she learned that restaurant kitchens – with their aversion to the chaos and happenstance she so enjoyed – wouldn’t suit her. Several years in enough Dublin and London kitchens to count as a sample settled that. The very last restaurant where she’d been head chef was run by such uninspired, micromanaging pedants that, when she arranged for a leftovers charity pickup after a particularly wasteful New Year’s banquet, she was fired. They’d cited food safety standards, to which she’d replied that, as far as she knew, food was safer than no food.

Despite its relative precariousness – she tells the Ladies now – she doesn’t mind her freelancing setup. The catering keeps her learning. Her subscribers keep her passionate; they’re a sort of family. Besides occasional bursts of income, her followers also gifted her the opportunity to write books. Which is a really amazing thing, she says. And then, she hears herself revealing: And maybe the reason it’s going wrong now is because the opportunity came to me, rather than me seeking it out . . . which means the relationship with the publisher to begin with had a totally different kind of . . . love, and power dynamic. But . . . well, now we’re struggling to agree on a direction. And it seems I’m not the one who gets to lay down the bread crumbs.

The women are, ever so subtly, swaying; travelling in some sort of carriage, separate to Maeve’s train entirely. They observe her across the tracks, through several windows. One lady holds her head, dizzied by this disturbing sequence of images. Another reasserts her cashmere shawl, a shade of blue she has had lamentably described to her as ‘baby’.

When the first verbal response to Maeve’s outpouring is an appalled inquiry into the nature of her parents’ tragic deaths, Maeve dabs her mouth with the wrong side of a napkin and excuses herself to help Lettie with the coffee.

Still Life with Fruit and Oysters, 1660 © Rijksmuseum


This is an excerpt from The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes, published by Oneworld in the UK and Riverhead Books in the US.


Caoilinn Hughes

Caoilinn Hughes is the author The Wild Laughter, which won the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore Award and was longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and Orchid & the Wasp, which won the Collyer Bristow Prize and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. She was recently the Oscar Wilde Centre Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin and a Cullman Center Fellow at New York Public Library. The Alternatives is her third novel.

Photograph © Amitava Kumar  

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