My culinary misadventures into inadvertently assisting in the summoning what I can only assume is a demon began innocently enough. It all started just over a year ago with one of those meal box subscriptions.
Learning to cook for myself after Mama died wasn’t hard, but all the rest of the process of preparing my own food was horrible. It’s so much harder than she made it look. How in the world am I supposed to figure out what kind of bolognese sauce to make when the internet has at least 517 variations of it? And how am I going to find the right pasta shape to go with that bolognese sauce at my rinky-dink little hillbilly grocery store? Even getting close to the right answer took every spare brain cycle I had, mental energy my boss would’ve preferred me to devote to things like not running my forklift through the wall of the distribution center. My boss got over it, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever get over having to use farfalle for dinner that night.
Look, I know lots of you reading this already have a meal box subscription and don’t see why I couldn’t just get one like you have. The thing is, I would have signed up for one of those services in a heartbeat except for one thing: money. As much as I wanted to try out some of those meal box services, I couldn’t afford the fees without giving up something else, something like my internet connection and car.
Not being able to afford a meal box subscription while also not being able to lay my hands on the ingredients I needed to make most of the foods I wanted to eat was a peculiar intersection of first world problems and hillbilly struggles, but, goddammit, they were my problems. They’re what I was thinking about when I got into the trouble. Mama always told me that I had a bad habit of focusing on the small problem in front of me instead of the big troubles all around me, which I guess is true, but since she passed on I haven’t had anyone to help me shift my attention.
That’s how, after two years of cooking on my own and searching in vain for a subscription meal box I could afford, I’d almost (but not quite) given up on ever finding a service that would free me from the drudgery of meal planning and grocery shopping.
Then came Seven Seals Meals.
Their info packet arrived in my mailbox like an answer to a prayer, all wrapped in a big red envelope with a shiny golden logo on it with matching print reading “A Meal Box Subscription YOU Can Afford!” I eagerly read the details while I roasted my potatoes.
According to the brochure, my town’s location, size, and demographics made it the ideal location for Seven Seals Meals to run a free trial of their meal box service. A note from their founder and CEO, a pasty looking dude with straggly hair and dark clothing, explained that he needed data about what people from middle America—people like me!—thought of his “avant-garde” recipes. If I acted now on this opportunity, I could get a year of meal boxes for free. The only catch was that I had to give them an online review of each and every meal they sent me. That seemed easy enough. I also had to promise to attend something they called a “convocation” in town at the end of the year of meal boxes, but since that was a whole year away and wouldn’t even require me to leave town, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.
I looked for a catch as I read and re-read the information while eating my uninspired dinner (a pork chop and potatoes in desperate need of tarragon I didn’t have). I couldn’t find a catch in the offer of a year of free meals, even though it sure did seem too good to be true. After dinner, I fired up my laptop and searched for any reviews or complaints about Seven Seals Meals online, but I came up empty. There didn’t seem to be anything on the internet about them other than their website. I figured that was to be expected for a startup.
I didn’t have anything to lose, so I created an account on the website to begin my free trial with the username HillChef417, which I thought was funny. I went to bed wondering when my first meal box would arrive.
I didn’t have to wonder long. Somehow, when I got home from work the next day there was a red box sitting outside of my front door, the flaps held shut by an ornate sticker with the Seven Seals Meals logo printed in a golden ink. The logo featured entwined branches, or maybe they were antlers, embossed in a golden ink that glistened and shimmered in the setting sun. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they got the damn box to me so fast. Maybe, I thought, they had set up a shipping center in town for the trial? Yeah, that seemed to make sense. I took the box inside, more interested in finding out what it contained than in how it got to me so damn fast.
I started opening the box as soon as I was inside the house and heading for the kitchen. I nearly spilled the dry ice on me, which would have been bad, but finally I was able to yank out the inner box. There in separate compartments of a plastic tray sat a lamb chop, new potatoes, and asparagus. When I picked up the tray, there were small packets of herbs and a neatly folded sheet of paper with preparation instructions underneath a picture of the smiling Seven Seals Meals CEO.
I got right to work, and forty-five minutes later I was eating the best dinner I’d ever cooked. That evening I logged back into the Seven Seals Meals website and gave my first box top marks.
After the first few delicious weeks, the boxes from Seven Seals Meals began to get weird. And I started to get really, really tired of lamb.
I don’t know if the company had a sheep farm or something, but every single dinner they sent me contained some sort of lamb. I had lamb chops, lamb kabobs, rack of lamb (how could they afford to send me AN ENTIRE RACK OF LAMB ON A WEDNESDAY NIGHT!?), lamb sausage, ravioli stuffed with ground lamb, lamb burgers, lamb shanks, lamb stew, lamb ragù, curried lamb, lamb meatloaf, lamb with mint, lamb shepherd’s pie, lamb sliders, roast lamb, braised lamb, grilled lamb, lamb cheesesteaks (who knew that was a thing?), and about fifty other versions of lamb.
The non-lamb meal box contents were usually tasty vegetables and grains. Everything was seasoned with flavors that were exotic to my hillbilly palate. There was always a generous amount of garlic, onion, or leek, along with herbs ranging from the unexpected to the disgusting. Every time I choked on the nasty flavors, I reminded myself that this was, after all, avant-garde cuisine and that it would take time for my palate to adjust.
Over the months, my palate adjusted as best it could. Mint isn’t something I was used to cooking with, but, once I got over the sense of eating toothpaste, it was okay paired with with my daily lamb. Spices like dill and mustard were common enough, even if I didn’t much care for those flavors. Thyme was new to me and, thankfully, non-offensive even to my uncivilized tastebuds. Parsley was something I knew as a garnish, but with Seven Seals Meals it came in enormous bundles and was added to dishes in shocking amounts. Cumin and coriander aren’t common in our recipes around here, but they’ve found their way even into my local hick grocery store and weren’t all that off-putting for me. A couple of boxes contained what had to be fifty dollars worth of saffron, a spice I’d heard of but never dreamed of cooking with. Then there were things like sorrel, endives, chicory, and watercress, all of which were okay in small amounts, but, as I noted in my nightly review of the evening’s dinner, were usually used in amounts that overwhelmed whatever lamb dish I was making with their bitterness.
The way the recipes were prepared got weirder and weirder over time, too, with a bizarre focus on the number seven. There were seven lamb-stuffed raviolis, and they had to be boiled for seven minutes. The link of lamb sausage had to be cut into seven pieces before it was fried. The lamb ragù sauce was supposed to be stirred every seven minutes, and each time I was supposed to stir it seven times in a clockwise direction. The recipe notes from the CEO always emphasized that these techniques were “vital to unlocking the potency of the ingredients,” but I had my doubts.
As the end of the year approached, I was, on the one hand, still enjoying not having to think about dinner on my way home from work. On the other hand, I was beginning to look forward to cooking anything that wasn’t lamb with bizarre spices and esoteric preparation instructions for dinner. I was also getting very tired of typing up a review of the day’s meal box every night. After my initial enthusiasm, I’d taken to being brutally honest in my evaluations. The most bizarre meals got zero stars and comments like “this tasted more like I was embalming the lamb than seasoning it” or “why can’t you guys just do a bacon sandwich for a change?”
With one week to go, Seven Seals Meals sent me a “summons” to their convocation at the city park. I didn’t like being “summoned” to anything, and as I read the details I liked how the “convocation” started at midnight even less. However, the letter went into great detail to explain that my one-year free trial was conditional on my participation in the convocation, which would enable their CEO to personally thank me and learn more about my “culinary adventures.” The letter also explained that if I did not attend the convocation I would owe them $7,849.35 for the year’s worth of strange meals I’d already eaten. There was no way that I could pay them that kind of money. I was just going to have to go to the convocation thing and tell the CEO that he needed to vary the proteins and use a slightly less avant-garde flavor profile.
The last week of meals were the wildest of them all. They all contained huge hunks of lamb, large bundles of bitter herbs, and the application of a lot of heat. Fortunately, I had a grill on my back porch. Otherwise I would have burned my shitty rental house down charring lamb on the outside while leaving it raw and bloody in the interior. I struggled to choke those meals down, and I even began to almost look forward to going to grocery store to get something normal to eat.
The final box was waiting for me after work just like always, but it was noticeably larger than usual. When I broke the Seven Seals Meals sticker and opened it up, I found an inner box encased in clear plastic shrink film. Over and over, the clear plastic bore the company logo of intertwined antlers and words in a stern typeface: “Do NOT, under any circumstance, remove this seal before 11:00 PM. At precisely 11:00 PM, you must open the box, carefully follow the instructions inside, and bring the resulting dish to the Convocation.”
My stomach grumbled. It looked like dinner was going to be considerably later than usual. I hadn’t been doing much in the way of grocery shopping, so all I had in the house was some stale granola. I ate two bowls and waited for 11:00 to come.
By the time I was allowed to open that final box, I was both famished and entirely out of patience for the weird recipe bullshit. To find the strength to carry on, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t afford to pay for the year’s worth of meals. I knew that after this one last concoction of what was absolutely certain to be lamb I would be able to eat something more normal again.
The shrink film was stubborn. It didn’t want to rip open easy when I tried to pierce it with my finger nails, so I had to get a knife to slice through the tough material. When I was done, my best kitchen knife was covered with a sticky goo.
Inside the box was the typical plastic tray atop smoking dry ice. Within the tray was the expected lamb chop of an unexpectedly enormous size, and at least it looked like a good one. There was also a large bottle of olive oil, a packet of some sort of sticky powder, a bundle of fresh thyme, a packet of what I immediately recognized as ground coriander (it had featured prominently in most of my dinners over the past year), and a six inch long sprig of a plant I didn’t recognize with fresh leaves and pinkish-purpley flowers still attached. There was a tag tied to the sprig by a fine thread of what seemed to be silk, and the label identified it as “hyssop.” The sticky powder was labeled “myrrh,” a substance that I knew about from the Bible but had never heard of anyone eating.
I could tell that this was going to be the worst recipe yet. I took a deep breathe to steady my nerves and got started. I found the instructions beneath the usual picture of the Seven Seals Meals CEO and began to read.
“Add myrrh, coriander, and thyme to olive oil in large bowl.”
That seemed easy enough. I glugged the oil into my largest glass bowl and then dumped the spices in.
“Using hyssop sprig, stir oil and spices 7 rotations in a clockwise direction, followed by 7 rotations in a counterclockwise direction. Allow the mixture to rest for 7 minutes.”
Okay, that was bizarre, but it was simple.
“Meanwhile, place lamb chop on a rack. Thoroughly salt both sides and the edges of the chop.”
That was normal, at least.
“Immediately after the 7 minutes have elapsed, use hyssop sprig to baste the lamb chop with oil and spice mixture.”
Why couldn’t I just use a silicone brush? Of all the strange flavor combinations and bizarre techniques, using a small branch from what seemed to be some sort of a flowering shrub as a basting brush took the cake.
Speaking of cake, why were there no side dishes in my box? The thyme and hyssop were the only vaguely vegetative matter in the box. Was I supposed to just eat the lamb chop all by itself? This was NOT a balanced meal.
Then it occurred to me that the instructions hadn’t told me to preheat my oven’s broiler, light my grill, or to put a skillet on a burner. If I was going to be at the park by midnight for that “convocation” idiocy, that didn’t leave me much time to cook the chop. I flipped the instruction sheet over in hopes of finding some cooking information.
“DO NOT COOK THE LAMB CHOP! It will be charred over an open flame as an offering to The One Who Comes.”
Shit. That final instruction raised more questions than it answered. Then it dawned on me: we were going to have a cookout! I looked at the clock I was relieved to see that it was time to leave for the park if I was going to get there by midnight. I was ready to get the year over with and, even more than that, I was ravenous for a proper dinner. I decided that “The One Who Comes” was probably just Seven Seals Meals lingo for the other trial members I assumed were in town and who were going to join me and the CEO for a weird potluck at midnight in the city park. I was bringing nearly four pounds of oddly seasoned lamb, and someone else was probably bringing one of those bizarre olive mashes the meal kits were so high on! It wasn’t going to be what I would call a tasty midnight cookout, but it would be a hell of a lot better than just eating raw lamb encrusted with myrrh applied by hyssop.
I tossed my lamb chop on a plate and then wrapped the entire thing in some plastic wrap. The myrrh in the oil made a gritty, gluey mess that was far from appetizing, but I was hungry enough to not care too much. I washed my hands because I take food safety seriously, and then I took my lone lamb chop on a plate to the park as fast as I could.
I careened into the city park, ignoring the sign at the entrance saying that the park’s hours ended at sundown. No doubt Seven Seals Meals had a special permit or something.
There were only two cars in the lot. Both of them looked a lot like my junker, and neither looked like something a CEO would drive. They were parked by the start of the paved walking trail that winds through the woods on the ridge overlooking the lake, which is a pretty stroll during the day when I’m not full on hangry. The summons I’d received didn’t say where in the park the convocation was going to be, but I knew there was a pavilion along the walking trail, and that seemed to be a likely location. I parked haphazardly a couple of dozen feet away from the other cars and, sure enough, as I pulled in my headlights caught a sign with the fancy Seven Seals Meals logo and an arrow pointing down the trail. I grabbed my raw lamb out of the passenger’s seat. It was time to go cook my dinner.
As I got out of my car, a young woman about my age came staggering along the path and out of the trees. She stumbled to one of the two cars, climbed behind the wheel, and backed out of her parking spot with fits and starts. Then she careened out of the parking lot, narrowly missing my dilapidated jalopy before hopping the curb on her way out. I shrugged and muttered something about people drinking in the park as I started down the path with my lamb chop.
I didn’t have to go far to find the shittiest cookout ever. As I rounded the thick trees and bushes to approach the pavilion, I saw an enormous bonfire that was burning right on the concrete path. A peculiar scent, reminiscent of the strange herbs Seven Seals Meals were so fond of using to season everything, wafted to me on the smoke.
That was odd, I thought. Open fires were prohibited in the park.
A single figure stood silhouetted between me and the fire. It stood on two legs like a human, but it had enormous antlers growing out of its head. As I drew nearer, I saw that it was at least 12 feet tall before you even got to the antlers. Then I realized that the gigantic horned figure wasn’t a perfect shadow. There was a faint glow of the bonfire coming through the silhouette, as if whoever or whatever loomed there was made of dark glass. The . . . whatever it was . . . stood more or less still, but it was twitching and straining like it was struggling against something heavy, but unseen, that was holding it back. As I drew near and looked more closely, I could see that the heavy muscles and taut sinews of its bare chest were straining with exertion.
About four feet from the thing, I stopped so suddenly that I nearly dropped my lamb chop. What in the world was going on? The summons hadn’t said anything about the convocation being a costume party. I had a weird, terrified tingle begin to work up and down my spine, like in that dream where I’m a kid again and it’s the day I forgot to get dressed before going to school. I had the nagging sensation that I’d somehow missed something and that, as a result of me missing the forest for the trees, I was about to have something horrible happen to me.
As I pondered my situation, a voice on the other side of the fire called out to me.
“Hey! Buddy! You bettered bring that lamb over here so that we can get this over with!”
The voice was male and ordinary, and it most definitely didn’t come from the semi-translucent antler-topped giant between me and the fire silently struggling against some invisible resistance.
“I’m, uh, I’m not so sure about this,” I stammered.
I heard heavy footsteps crash around the bonfire, and then a bare chested man I recognized as the CEO of Seven Seals Meals bounded out of the underbrush at me. He was pudgy and pasty underneath a helmet made from the skull of an enormous buck. While his prosthetic antlers were dwarfed by the rack of the enormous monster struggling in silence before me, it was still impressive. A part of me thought of how much venison that buck had contained and hoped that all that meat hadn’t gone to waste.
As I contemplated cooking venison, I realized that antler-hat had a gun, that it was pointed at me, and that he was screaming.
“-the Final Seal!” He yelled while jabbing his pistol at me.
I blinked at him.
“I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I missed that. Can you run through it again?”
The eyes beneath the deer skull looked at me with contempt. Then the CEO gestured with his gun toward the antlered giant struggling against unseen forces and began again.
“The One Who Comes–“
As soon as the pistol wasn’t pointed at me, I took off running into the woods.
I heard a scream followed by a gunshot behind me. Beside me, a cracking noise and smoke came from a pin oak tree that suddenly had a hole in it about the size of a high caliber bullet.
I ran toward the lake, more because it was downhill than because of any conscious decision. And by “ran,” I mean that I crashed through thick underbrush, stumbled over rocks hidden beneath years and years of fallen leave, and slid down the steeper parts of the hillside. From the sound of things, my pursuer wasn’t faring much better than me, only he had a gun that he shot in my general direction at regular intervals while I, for some reason I didn’t understand then and still don’t, was still carrying a lamb chop lubed up with olive oil and encrusted in a skanky tree resin.
I beat antler-hat to the lake by a decent margin, which gave me a few seconds to contemplate how fucked up my situation was. I knew that I would be a sitting duck if I stayed near the shore where the trees were thin. I didn’t have many options, so I scurried up one of the small streams that feeds into the lake. It wasn’t very wet, and its channel wasn’t very deep, but its banks were high enough to give me a little bit of cover as I started to creep back up hill to the path, the bonfire, the thing struggling against I don’t know what, and my car in the parking lot. The only way for me to escape was to make it back to my car, so I would have to be sneaky.
Below me I could hear antler-hat bellowing in fury and taking pot-shots across the lake. I discovered that it was a lot easier to walk uphill in the stream bed than it had been to go downhill through the underbrush. There were no trees and few other plants growing in the little branch, so while my feet were soaked from the water trickling toward the lake, I was able to move pretty fast. I did, however, nearly wet myself when something brushed past my leg in a placid pool. I looked down and saw a snake-shaped shadow in the water, and that didn’t make me feel any better.
I finally made it to the ridgeline and the concrete walking trail, by which point my stream had petered out. I considered trying to sneak back to my car through the woods, but I was worried that antler-hat would catch me if I snuck on the lake-side of the path and feared that I’d get lost out in the wilderness area if I tried to sneak though on the other side of the trail. I decided that cautious speed back down the path was my best bet. I looked both directions and saw no one. I listened for my pursuer and heard nothing crashing up the hillside. I took a deep breath and started along the path toward my car at a brisk pace, the stupid lamb chop still in my hand because once I realized I was still carrying it I’d become afraid to leave it anyplace where antler-hat might find it and know that he could pick up my trail from there.
By the time I got to the bonfire, it had burned down a lot but was still the size of a large campfire. On the other side of the flames, the translucent, shirtless giant with antlers continued to struggle against, well, whatever it was that he was struggling against. Even in the flickering firelight, I could see that he was sweating profusely now, and that his back was red with exertion. I figured I would have to leave the trail to quickly skirt the fire and Mr. Sweaty Prongs, and when I paused to consider which side to take antler-hat hurtled out of the brush alongside the path and tackled me. Before I could even try to put up a fight, the lamb chop I’d been carrying all this time flew from my hands and landed with a crash and a sizzle in the fire.
Antler-hat’s eyes grew wide as the godawful stench of burning lamb and myrrh filled the night air. He popped off of me and ran straight through the fire to kneel before Sweaty Prongs. As the horrible stench of my lamb chop grew, the antlered apparition grew even larger and somehow more substantial. Then the creature lurched forward as if a tether holding it back had been snapped, and I realized that I could no longer see through its body.
Antler-hat pressed his forehead down onto the ground and kind of squeaked out, “Welcome, my Lord.”
The now very real, very large, very substantial, and very angry creature towered over its supplicant and snarled with the voice of a thousand hornets.
“Mortal, you kept me in torment on the doorway of the Seventh Seal for an eternity.”
Antler-hat was gibbering as I was edging off the path.
“I am s-s-sorry, m-m-my Lord. My assistant delayed—“
“I care not for your excuses,” the creature buzzed. “As your punishment for subjecting me to such torment, I shall rend your body and roast it for my first meal in this plane.”
As soon as I had crept into the shelter of the woods, I broke into a run. I skidded downhill as fast as I could until I splashed right into the lake. When I hit the lake, I kept right on going, swimming faster than I ever dreamed I could. Atop the hill, I heard wails and a terrible ripping. I’m not a good swimmer, but I tried to stay beneath the surface of the water as much as I could. Every I came up from beneath the surface to gasp for air, there was a smell of burning flesh and blood on the breeze. It didn’t smell very tasty.