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And the winners are . . . // Food fraud, unmasked

This year the Seniority fiction contest generated the strongest competition yet. Several hundred writers entered their works in the fiction and poetry competition. Five judges _ who wish to remain anonymous, but we can assure you their credentials are impeccable _ narrowed the field to the three fiction and five poetry winners we present to you today. Enjoy!

For 20 torturous years, Calvin Neely had been deprived of his sense of taste and smell, no small loss for a man whose business was food. Not just any food, but elegant, gourmet food. By keeping his handicap a secret, Calvin was able to maintain the reputation of Neely's Gourmet Market as the bon-ton of fashionable food in St. Petersburg.

There was always a swirl of enthusiastic customers at Neely's. Suncoast food lovers relied on Neely's for the most tender cuts of meat, the finest wines and exotic imported accompaniments for their best dinners. Not only was Neely's selection sumptuously complete, there was Calvin himself.

No other man in St. Petersburg was reputed to so completely understand the nuances of a properly prepared meal. A corner of Neely's was given over to a library of cookbooks, as well as indexed, archived and current issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit and The Wine Spectator. Clients, as he chose to call them, were encouraged to draw a steaming mug of coffee from the daily selections of brews and settle in to plan their festive events. If asked, as he always was, Calvin would make discerning suggestions or assist in locating an especially appropriate recipe.

Calvin himself was a voracious reader. He was often found perched on a backless stool, his spaghetti-thin legs twined around the base. Whether reading in his store or during his lonesome hours after closing, so intense was his concentration that his otherwise soft brown eyes narrowed to slits. His glasses slipped unnoticed down the bridge of his narrow nose and his lips parted and became more full, like a man in the throes of supreme physical pleasure.

The day Madelaine Beaudry first shopped at Neely's she rejected the remainder end of pastrami open in the case. She commanded Calvin to open a new sausage, starting her cuts from the center. Calvin regarded her obliquely while whizzing off a quarter-pound for the new lady. He sized her up, judging her to be as strong as a beef rib bone and as hard to deal with as a hoof.

For Madelaine was a discerning customer, pinching the freshness of the French bread baguette before allowing Calvin to wrap it, and sniffing suspiciously at the tortellini salad after Calvin passed her a taste over the counter.

"It wants a bit of basil and definitely needs pine nuts," she announced to the astonishment of the other waiting customers, who never had known anyone to question Calvin's creations.

Madelaine's shrewd eyes studied Calvin's strong, thin fingers, bare of any wedding ring. She observed the leanness of his breadth with the keen eye of a cattle auctioneer.

"Mr. Neely, I'm new in this town and all alone. I'm also tired of cooking for one. What you need is a little meat and potatoes on your bones. Why don't you and the missus come for dinner this Saturday night?"

A nearby customer tittered. Meat and potatoes, indeed. The woman obviously didn't know to whom she was speaking. Calvin set Madaleine straight on his marital status and politely but emphatically declined. Although Calvin's social life was non-existent, he lived as a loner, fearful that his customers would discover his secret, thus denying him of his one blue ribbon in life, his treasured reputation as a gourmet.

"Then the following Wednesday," pressed Madelaine, more determined than ever to have her way.

No again, nodded Calvin. "But allow me to suggest an interesting cookbook you may care to browse," he said, slipping out from behind the counter. Nervously wiping his hands on his starched white apron, he selected from the library a colorfully illustrated book titled Elegant Dining for One.

"I found this book very rewarding. The pictures are a delight and the recipes are just the right size. Please borrow it and return it when you're done."

Madelaine assessed the man's acute discomfort. She took the book silently and, thrusting it in her string bag, left Calvin to the next customer waiting at the counter.

Calvin came to know the determined click of Madelaine's heels. She shopped daily at Neely's Gourmet, ordering slender wedges of delicate triple cream cheeses, sampling cold-smoked salmon and tender cuts of veal.

"I'm sorry, Calvin, that I must trouble you for so small a bit, but I'm a widow, you know, and more would go to waste. Are you certain you won't come to dinner?"

Calvin, avoiding her eyes, could do no more than shake his head miserably.

Madelaine began spending hours in Calvin's cookbook corner, peppering him with questions, soliciting his opinion. Though no personal conversation was exchanged, they became co-conspirators in overcoming what they considered the world's fast-food dilemma. Her reports on meals she had created both thrilled and saddened Calvin. For the first time, he suffered in his loneliness. Madelaine brought him samples and asked his opinions about the flavors. Calvin was careful to let her lead him in his answers.

"Was there enough hazelnut in the torte?" she'd ask.

"Just right on the hazelnut," he'd say.

The first Friday in May, Madelaine strode into Neely's and, blushing to the roots of her gray-blond hair, slid the Friday Times "Meeting Place" column under Calvin's nose.

"You've taught me so much, Calvin, but I've missed having someone to cook for. I put an ad in this week's personals."

She pointed to the yellow circled insert which read, "WW, excellent cook, ISO 60+, fin sec male who enjoys fine dining. Poss perm relationship."

"I want to plan something special to serve my first guest. You must help me do it perfectly, Calvin."

Calvin abandoned his other tasks and joined the quest. Together they ransacked his library, debating the pros and cons of each dish. They settled on coquille St. Jacques with bay scallops, asparagus souffle, breast of duckling with raspberry puree, potatoes dauphin, sour cream scones and creme brulee with fresh pears for dessert. Calvin's photographic memory of Wine Spectator recommendations produced a wine selection from his cellar to tempt Bacchus.

When they finished, Madelaine asked, "Are you certain this is what you would consider an elegant dinner, Calvin?"

With a heavy heart, Calvin conceded that, indeed, it was.

Madelaine did not appear the next day, nor the next week. Calvin resumed his solitary study of the world's food specialties, though now he not only could not taste food, but he had no taste for the details. The colorful illustrations that had satisfied him over the years were a mockery, underscoring his failure and his fraud.

A month went by. Calvin, having missed Madelaine, thumbed through the Friday paper to the "Meeting Place" column, lured by the prospect of finding his friend. There it was, still in print: "WW, excellent cook, ISO 60+, fin sec male who enjoys fine dining. Poss perm relationship."

Calvin quickly jotted down a response to the ad: "Lonely food-fraud, 60+, ISO food-fancier. Poss perm relationship." Before he could change his mind, Calvin rushed to the mail box and thrust the note inside.

His invitation, addressed to "Food Fraud," arrived on Thursday, for Saturday night's dinner, stating only the address and the dinner hour.

When Calvin opened his store on Friday morning, Madelaine was waiting at the door.

"I have never been happier," she announced. "At last I will be cooking for someone who really cares." She bustled about, gathering last-minute items. "I had just about given up hope."

Calvin slept little that night. The next evening, he appeared at Madelaine's door, standing stiff as an exclamation mark.

"I'll tell you right off _ I can't taste a thing, but that doesn't mean I won't enjoy your cooking," he declared.

"I've known your secret all along, my dear Fraud. You were much too thin. Besides, I have left lemon out of a lemon torte and cinnamon out of an apple pie, and you savored the samples I brought you and declared them just right." She held the door wide and encircled his bony waist. "Come on in. Meat and potatoes, that's what you need."

The meal, they agreed, was a total success. In the ensuing months, Calvin's meager frame filled out. Madelaine's description of their creations was, Calvin discovered, an aperitif. They cooked together and together planned the expansion of Neely's Gourmet. Good taste, they agreed, has many facets.

After retiring from a 30-year career in interior design, Rollick signed up for a creative writing course at St. Petersburg Junior College. Her interest in writing grew into a portfolio of published writings. Rollick, who lives in St. Petersburg, thanks an encouraging husband, her inspiring teachers and a stalwart Macintosh computer for unlocking her brain.

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