Recipe for Disaster

Submitted into Contest #150 in response to: Write a story where an algorithm plays an important role.... view prompt

24 comments

American Contemporary Funny

Recipe for Disaster 



“Recipes are just algorithms — right?”

“Uh… yeah, in a way.”

“So, do it. I dare you!”


You don’t dare me when it comes to food preparation. Usually. Because I’ll take the challenge!


I’m a competent cook — not a five-star Michelin chef, by any means. Who would want to be? 


Imagine the stress… it would take all the fun out of cooking!


Which brings the side point: is cooking still actually fun, in my daily job?


I’m not even sure whether I qualify as a chef. What is a chef, exactly? 


Technically, chef de cuisine is a fancy French term that, in plain English, means “head of the kitchen”. I’m certainly that.


But “chef” tends to imply some sort of high-class culinary training with a certificate of completion. 


I don’t have certificates to hang on the wall. There’s the occasional splatter of sauce on the splashback (why do you think it’s called that?) when I try to multitask too much — does that count?


So, anyway, back to the challenge.


Gino — his name is really Gene, but everybody calls him Gino — is trying to convince me to revamp the menu. 


“Gino. The customers don’t care about the menu. This is a truck stop,” I remind him. “Most of them probably can’t tell you the restaurant’s name. I’ve heard them on the phone: ‘Oh, I’m eating at the truck stop…Yeah, it’s a decent place… Food’s good, plenty of it, prices aren’t bad.’”


“Yeah, but — ” he tries.


“And furthermore,” I interrupt, “Mack would have a hissy fit if I did that without notice!”


🥘 


Mack gives us the go-ahead. 


We don’t exactly tell him how we plan to go about the menu revision, just that we are bored with fixing the same six dishes day in, day out. 


Our dinner menu consists of the standard truck stop diner fare: fried chicken, chicken fried steak, flat iron steak, meatloaf, pork chops, fish filet, and a weekly chef’s special. The weekly special is what keeps me going.


But my food is better-than-standard quality. We don’t use pre-made or canned anything. It’s all from scratch. Still, it would be nice to mix things up a little.


Mack’s one proviso is, “Don’t mess with Ray’s breakfast menu.”


Ray is in charge of the kitchen from five to eleven a.m. (In my life, five a.m. doesn’t exist. I’m asleep.)


He’s a grizzled older guy, former military mess hall cook with an ever-present toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. I don’t know if he ever changes it. That toothpick could be older than I am…  


When he talks, the toothpick wiggles up and down. It’s mesmerizing.


Ray does basic food really well: fluffy scrambled eggs, perfectly browned sausage patties, bacon cooked to order, the best oatmeal you’ve ever had. And really, really good sourdough pancakes.


“We won’t mess with breakfast,” we promise.


🥘


“So — what are we going to replace? Everything? Are we expanding, completely revising? What?”


Gino is chopping cabbage for coleslaw. 

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

We go through a lot of cabbage.


“Well, it’s up to you, but I was thinkin’, if we’re gonna do it, might as well go whole hog.”


He answers without looking up, because I have strict rules about knife safety in my kitchen.


I mull over the idea as I mix up a batch of meatloaf, on auto pilot because I do this every day. Ten pounds of ground beef mixed with one of sausage. A dozen eggs. We sell a lot of meatloaf.


If you want to taste it, come on down to the truck stop. I promise you won’t be disappointed.


Except, we may be taking it off the menu.


🥘


Before I go on, I’d better introduce Charlene. She’ll be peeved if I don’t. 


Charlene’s our waitress. We're not up-to-date enough to call her a “server”. 


Besides, she’s not the type to bounce up, flash her teeth, and cheerily inform you,

“Hello, my name is Charlene, and I’ll be your server today.”


Nope — she’ll march up to your table, Crack! her gum, and ask,

“What can I getcha, hon?”


But she’s a pro. She takes orders with her hands behind her back, never writes them down, and never makes a mistake.


So that’s Charlene.


🥘


This whole thing with the menu overhaul started with Chip.


Chip is Gino’s brother. He’s several years younger than Gino — only sixteen — and he’s a whiz at computer coding. He does freelance work, and has a chunk of money put away already.


Currently, Chip is obsessed with neural networks. 


Chip explained to Gino — who told me — how these mysterious virtual brains function. 


I’ll probably get the terminology wrong, but the idea is that you can train an AI to understand patterns of human language.


AI programs “learn” from data, so when they’re trained to recognize desired patterns, they can classify input and predict what is reasonable to the human brain.


They operate on algorithms, which are processes or sets of rules. 


Recipes are processes and sets of rules.

Cooking is science.  


Sooo… with the proper input, machines can create recipes. 


I’m not sure I like that.


🥘


I can’t sleep. My mind is darting all over the place, thinking about possible reactions to the upcoming menu makeover.


Maury. Maury is a long-haul trucker who shows up every couple of months. He never fails to order meatloaf, with sides of mushroom gravy and coleslaw. He’s a giant of a man, nearly seven foot, with a bit of a paunch. A gentle giant.


I’d hate to disappoint Maury. 

What if he has a secret life as a serial killer? 


Bob and Carol Altenreuther. They’re locals who come in about once a month. 

Bob likes variety. Carol most often orders fried chicken, because she doesn’t like making it herself. 


Bob’s mother, old Mrs. Altenreuther, came to live with them about six months ago. Her first visit to the diner was quite an experience.


Picture this:

I’m stirring mushroom gravy, inhaling the familiar earthy scent while pork chops sizzle on the griddle.


I feel a sneeze building up, as usual, five minutes after sprinkling pepper on the chops. I can almost time it.


Aaaa-chmpf!” I stifle the sneeze in the crook of my elbow, grab the mushroom sauce off the burner with one hand, and pull a tissue from the nearby box with the other.


I’m blowing my nose when Charlene pokes her head in the door.


“Callie!” she stage whispers, and flicks a thumb toward the dining area. “Customer wants to see you!” 


Crack! goes her gum.


Oh, no…Good, or bad?


“Gino! Keep an eye on the chops, willya?”


I wash my hands and follow Charlene.


Bob and Carol are seated at their favorite table with a tiny elderly woman. She looks up as I approach, her fuzzy white hair backlit from the lamp shining behind her.


“Are you the cook?” she creaks, spearing a chunk of meatloaf. She’s squinting at me appraisingly, but I can’t read the expression in her beady, birdlike, dark eyes.


“Yes, I am,” I acknowledge, nodding, with a tentative smile.


She swirls the forkful of meat in a puddle of mushroom gravy and raises it to her mouth. I watch as a blob of gravy drops onto her blouse.


“Well, dear,” she says, popping the food in while she talks, “Congratulations!” She points the fork at me and uses it to punctuate her next words.


“Thish ish the besht meatloaf I’ve ever eaten!”


She refuses to try anything else on the menu.


Maybe we should keep the meatloaf.


🥘


I know it’s after 2:00 when I finally fall asleep. Going to take a lot of Ray’s coffee to keep me running today.


Gino and I sit at the booth closest to the kitchen, absently slurping coffee and shoveling in scrambled eggs while we brainstorm a list of ingredients. 


I’m feeling stressed from lack of sleep. What are we doing? I wonder to myself. Here we are at the diner, during our own free time, plotting a new menu. 


“What will the algorithm do,” I wonder aloud, “if we give it ingredients we don’t usually use together? Will it try to combine them? Will it make separate recipes?”


“Dunno,” Gino shrugs. “That’s the fun of it!”


🥘


Chip’s still in high school, so he has to fit in the recipe renovation between school, homework, and his freelance contracts.


But he’s jazzed about it, so he’s got the results of his first attempt ready in just a few days.


I stare at the printout. It’s gibberish!


“Chip…” I don’t know what to say. 


“Don’t worry,” he reassures me. “I mean, I got this. Ya know, babies aren’t born knowing how to, like, talk. They have to go through, like, a babbling stage, then a few words, and so on, ya know, until they can, like, communicate. This –” he jabs his finger at the page, “is the program, ya know, babbling. I’m, like, um –” A red flush creeps up his neck, staining his pimply cheeks. He’s embarrassed, for some reason.


“A-a parent,” he stutters awkwardly. “I-I mean, as far as teaching the AI to, ya know, like, talk.”


Clearly, Chip is better equipped to communicate with machines than humans.


🥘


Chip is a computer geek. He doesn’t know beans about cooking, and I don’t fault him for that. He can’t tell if or when the algorithm turns data into a palatable recipe.


“Umm, how’s this?” he asks hopefully. “Is it, like, good yet?”


I hate to disappoint the kid, but I am not optimistic when I see the title:


“We rolled a piece of meat.”


It does have the format of a recipe though. 


I glance through it, holding back a chuckle at some of the “data and processes”.


It seems to be a sort of meat pie in a puff pastry. Sounds pretty good! Beef, onion, eggs, garlic. Red sauce? Could be ketchup.


But then the AI goes rogue and adds an unreasonable quantity of fresh pineapple, some peanut butter, way too much sugar, and a couple of exotic-sounding things that turn out to be (according to Google) of West African origin. 


I take a deep breath and look Chip in the eye.


“I can work with it,” I tell him, and high-five his sweaty palm.


🥘


Cooking is science. Recipes are processes and sets of rules.

But that’s not enough.


A good cook has to interpret the ingredients of a recipe — say, in the way a musician interprets a musical score, or a writer interprets a collection of thoughts.


Cooking is fun when people enjoy the food.


We have some new specials — but we’re keeping the meatloaf. 


Come on down!



June 17, 2022 07:35

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24 comments

Beth Jackson
07:54 Jun 24, 2022

I really enjoyed this story, Cindy! It was a super fun read, thoroughly entertaining! I really enjoyed the voice of the narrator - just what I would imagine the voice of a no-nonsense truck stop chef to sound like. Thank you for sharing. :-)

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Cindy Strube
17:05 Jun 24, 2022

Beth, Thanks for the read and comment. I enjoy trying to get into the characters I create (or, who create themselves as I write… those are the best! ) I’ve just read and left a comment on your excellent story.

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Thomas Graham
18:55 Jun 23, 2022

Cindy - very funny and enjoyable! Like other commenters, I'm impressed with how you manage so many characters. Somehow they don't get mixed up at all, I think because of the different ways and care you take to you introduce them (esp Charlene). The rolled meat recipe reminds me of a restaurant I know called "Smoked Meat of Cake".

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Cindy Strube
03:49 Jun 24, 2022

Thomas, Thanks for the read and comment. It’s funny how this particular story elicited a lot of (positive) response on the number of characters - always good to know what works, as well as what doesn’t! I just get involved in imagining the various people, trying to make them individuals… “Smoked Meat of Cake”?! I want to go to that restaurant!

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Wendy M
11:52 Jun 23, 2022

I'm no longer the one that does the cooking, I'm a scientist! I'm glad you explained what an algorithm is because I never had a clue and avoided this prompt. You made me chuckle and I really enjoyed reading this.

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Cindy Strube
03:36 Jun 24, 2022

Well- if you learned something and enjoyed it, I’m happy! ; ) I had lots of fun writing it. Thanks for the read and comment. I’ve just read and commented on your excellent story.

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Jay McKenzie
21:43 Jun 22, 2022

Cindy, this was a lovely, fun read. I love the idea of an algorithm making the menu - sort of like those daily inspo computer generated quotes you can get. They look like they could be real quotes until you read them and realise what gibberish they are. It would be a really cool experiment to do this in real life. The tone and pace are lovely. I enjoyed this.

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Cindy Strube
03:16 Jun 24, 2022

Jay, thanks for the read and comment. Glad you enjoyed - it was fun to write. I love to cook, and I would try an AI-generated recipe. Meatloaf is still a standby though! Years ago, I found out about the supposed first attempt at machine translation - English/Russian: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” became something like “The meat is good, but the whisky has gone sour”.

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Jay McKenzie
04:42 Jun 24, 2022

I love that!

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H L McQuaid
21:24 Jun 22, 2022

ahahah, ah. catching my breath. ahaha. Charming, humorous, and well-written. And somehow you managed to introduce a large cast of characters in short-story format. Impressive! I will not however, being using that AI to suggest recipes. ;)

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Cindy Strube
03:00 Jun 24, 2022

Glad you enjoyed - I entertained myself writing it! ; p Ann Reardon (How to Cook That) tried an AI recipe on her YouTube channel. That was partly responsible, I think, for this story. I’ve just read and commented on your excellent entry.

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Jim Firth
18:58 Jun 20, 2022

Pineapple and peanut butter pie? Count me in! 'We rolled a piece of meat'--haha. It sounds just like what an algorithm would come up with; it reminds me of 'Netflix by bots' which you can find on Youtube, where films are written by algorithms to amusing effect. Usually I enjoy short stories with 2 or 3 characters, but this is definitely an exception! I'm impressed that you managed to paint so many characters well with an economy of words.

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Cindy Strube
01:55 Jun 21, 2022

Yes, characters can easily clutter up a story… I’m glad to know this was an exception! I will check out ‘Netflix by Bots’. Sounds right up my alley! The nuance of language, with its rules and exceptions, is still a little beyond machines. We’re still needed! Thanks for the read and comment.

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Cindy Strube
14:12 Jun 21, 2022

Thanks for the‘Netflix by Bots’ suggestion - watched (and laughed through) a couple short ones. Absurdly hilarious!

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Seán McNicholl
12:43 Jun 20, 2022

A lovely lighthearted read Cindy! Thoroughly enjoyed this! Great take on the prompt. Also loved the “red sauce” - because that’s what we call ketchup here in Ireland! You portrayed the self-doubt and worry of the main character very well!

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Cindy Strube
16:10 Jun 20, 2022

Thanks - glad you enjoyed it! I was inspired by several different little things (ingredients, I guess!) So funny to learn that red sauce IS ketchup! ; ) Years ago, on a visit to Aruba, we found that they sold two flavors of bottled soft drinks labeled “Orange Pop” and “Red Pop”. Orange Pop tasted like standard orange soda. Red Pop tasted… red, I guess? I love fleshing out characters and trying to make them believable.

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Michał Przywara
20:45 Jun 17, 2022

Very nice story! Good characterization, and the story flows along very smoothly. There's a theme of taking risks here, of getting out of the comfort zone, conveyed by trying out a new menu. The narrator is hesitant, waiting for Mack's approval, and their nervousness comes across well, with the sleeplessness. Nevertheless, there's a sense of excitement too. The narrator knows they're good, and they want to try out new recipes, and the whole thing is good natured, considering the patience they have for the initial algorithmic results. An...

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Cindy Strube
19:27 Jun 18, 2022

I think your deep digging covered all the points well! For this one, I drew inspiration from several areas - so I’m glad it came together. (Maybe like little streamlets feeding into bigger ones.) One of them was the old example of a first attempt to do machine translation: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” being rendered as something like “The meat is good, but the whisky has soured”! Maury being a potential serial killer is a result of absorbing a lot of true crime/forensics cases - there seem to be a lot of truckers in the l...

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:29 Jun 17, 2022

Hi Cindy, this was a fun read. Great characters done with few words. Light-hearted and funny. My favourite parts were the toothpick and the mix of recipe ingredients the algorithm came up with. The voice was a pleasure to read. Nice flow too. 👍

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Cindy Strube
19:12 Jun 18, 2022

Thanks - glad you enjoyed it! I’m happy that the mix of ingredients worked (well, in story!) The flow is an important point to me - I don’t want a story to be choppy, unless for some reason it suits the voice - so I’m glad it feels smooth!

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Alice Richardson
07:34 Jun 20, 2022

An entertaining slant on algorithms.

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Cindy Strube
14:50 Jun 20, 2022

It was a fun one to write. Thanks for reading!

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Amanda Lieser
19:29 Jun 18, 2022

Hi Cindy! I really loved this piece. I’ll start with the parts I admired: I loved the characters and I loved how you captured the kitchen within the food truck. I spent some time in a hotel kitchen for an internship and I could practically see each of your characters. You did some excellent characterization within the word count. I also really loved the way this piece flowed as the big decisions around the menu were made. The one thing that I noticed was that it felt like the characters were being rattled off-especially the part where you ...

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Cindy Strube
20:20 Jun 18, 2022

Hi Amanda, Thanks for the read and feedback. One of my favorite things about this site is getting the perspective of other writers. I visualized the narrator as telling the story to whomever the reader might be. I think your “through the lens” of a new employee is really interesting! How I came up with this idea: Well, the first line, about recipes/algorithms, just popped into my head and I ran with it. I love to cook. My daughter introduced me to the Ann Reardon “How to Cook That” YouTube Channel. There’s an episode where Ann (who does h...

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