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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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3 across

So where do we find ourselves today?

Sir! Do take a sausage, only two dollars, all proceeds go to the Museum Schools Program and thence to the education of your city's youth. Oh, is it not your city, how marvellous, a tourist: un saucisson then. Please. You can hardly travel to Australia and refuse. But of course, I quite understand, you must hurry onwards, Pirie Street is in that direction; do allow Leah to show you the way, and enjoy your meal.

And you, my dear young man, you can't expect to change the world if you haven't been adequately fed; there's no extra charge for the onions. No, well, hurry along then, you'll only have yourself to blame when your children find themselves ignorant of arrowhead evolution in Pacific Islander society. Yes, you'll be sorry. But you, young lady, you'll regret nothing, and least of all your purchase of a nutritional and exquisite breakfast. My congratulations on your taste.

And aha, tongs, I knew I was forgetting something. A cookery utensil, yes, but so much more. A sceptre of command whose rule holds sway over those assembled, perhaps. A talking stick, passed from hand to hand, and passing authority with it. Excellent. Tongs. Thankyou.

How very ritualised this all is, it's quite splendid. Even the exceptions fit the rules. Behold, we cater to vegetarians, but we deny them vegetables and tofu, and instead we offer counterfeit sausages and hamburgers so that they can at least pretend to be taking part. Madame Curator, for you. I suggest a slice of bread and a line of sauce to complement, assuming your ethics permit it.

Remarkable the archaism into which we plunge ourselves at these events, a throwback to food as a matter for public concern. You'll recall, of course, that less than a millennium ago we would array our guests along one side of a table so that we could watch them as they ate, a habit abandoned nowadays save in outmoded institutions like universities and marriage. We will furthermore none of us have forgotten, I believe, that in the Middle Ages plates were relatively rare, and instead it was common to use slices of bread that were piled with food and eaten at the end of the meal: the resemblance to our current situation will again have escaped nobody.

And yet how much has altered. From where we stand we can see how deeply the changes run. Not the trivialities, these passing buses mean nothing, the layers of car-park are irrelevant, your mobile phones are nothing but low-pollutant smoke signals. The big things, the things that matter. Look at our staff members, and how many of them are women. See how we welcome itinerant foreigners, how we offer them directions and sausages rather than suspicion or insults or patriotic defensiveness. Look how glad we are to accept you, Aaron, how careful not to mention the disability, how we laugh at your jokes about it—but not too loudly. And yet at the very same time see how we've grown simultaneously so much more intolerant: the lengths we'll go to in our attempts to avoid sharing a shift with you, Bethany, when only a hundred years ago nobody would have given a second thought to your odour, which I can't seem to detect just now, one moment, something must be burning. There we go.

So where do we find ourselves today? A fundraiser, yes; a meal, certainly, and many other things besides, but most of all it is this: an exception. Food these days may have become more and more of an obsession, but it has also become more and more private. Even when we dine on restaurant food or picnic rugs we gather in small and personalised groups, partitioned off from those around us, looking over our own tiny set of condiments. While the march of progress has made many things public that heretofore were private—Dolores, your open marriage springs to mind—food truly is ours to the exclusion of all others.

Except today! Today, when so much else is excepted—we'll all have noticed Gary and Vivian breaking off their endearing little bickers to disappear together for half an hour, yes? And Kyle, taking no advantage of the bags of change. So today, in this day of exceptions, we join together not only with each other but with passers-by and walkers-through, with children and adults and even the seagulls, in an act of community and sharing, and Jeremy, if you would take the tongs for a moment while I open the next packet of sausages? Such lovely objects, twisted together like a trail of bunting, and now if I can have the tongs back we shall see how, the tongs, please, Jeremy. Jeremy, the tongs. No, I think we have quite enough onion cut already, thank you, I'm quite happy where I am. Jeremy. Beth, please, don't encourage him. Turns indeed, nonsense, we have no roster, and what do you care for the rituals of food?

You'll just end up burning them, you know.

And I was trying to keep the onions over on the left-hand grill, actually, the wind's just going to blow onion smoke into everyone's eyes if you don't. No, well, I dare say it doesn't bother you, but what about the rest of us? Aaron, it can't be good for you, not with your condition.

Aaron? Dolores. Vivian.

Well. I shall be inside should you require assistance.