“Gimme another drink,” Carrot Top managed. She’d been at the bar for about three hours, but didn’t show any signs of slowing down. “Little stronger than the last one, ‘kay?” She hiccupped.
The drink appeared in front of her, but before the carrot farmer could take it, a hoof pushed the bottle away. It was Berry Punch, who waved off the bartender. “Are you sure you’re okay? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink this much.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. But I’m losing to Trixie here, so I kinda need that bottle.”
“It won’t help!” Trixie had a small pile of empty bourbon bottles in front of her, and was still going strong. “Monsieur Bourbon, nous gagnons, et Carrot-Tete perds! Nous sommes les champions!”” She quaffed her latest bottle of bourbon.
“What’s wrong?” Berry Punch moved the bottle further away – only for it to yank itself out of her hoof and float back to Carrot Top.
Trixie smiled. Her horn was glowing. “Gotta be a fair competition, otherwise moi et Monsieur Bourbon will be… uh…”
“Shamed,” supplied Carrot Top, beginning to drink from the latest bottle.
“Yes! Exactly!” cheered Trixie, quite happy by finding the word she was looking for.
Berry Punch frowned. “I’m not serving you any more liquor until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Stop worrying, BP. Just bet the whole stupid farm, but ‘sides that, I’m fine!” Carrot Top took a big swig from the bottle. “Totally fine.”
“Bet the farm?!” Berry Punch looked shocked
“Yeah! For this competition!” She hiccupped. “Guess it was always gonna happen. Everypony always told me I’m too generous, but I never listened. Stupid me.”
Berry Punch hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m always practically giving my produce away… giving up my time, energy, equipment… Hay, when we all went t’fight that lunatic Corona, went right into a field of poison joke cause Lyra needed this stuff at the other end. And Raindrops could bucking fly, but forget that, what’s it to me if I get cursed? I’ll take one for the team again!” She burped, almost done with her bottle. “You got any more of that stuff?”
Berry Punch paused, then grabbed the bottle and put it under the counter. “Everypony knows how helpful you are, Carrot Top. They respect it. Now, about your farm--”
“Oh, sure they do. Everypony always takes advantage of it.” Carrot Top reached out and grabbed at another bottle, but she couldn’t quite reach. Giving up for the moment, she said, “Course I gave away the farm. I’d probably give away my own head if I could.”
“You’re very generous, but—“
“See, they’re all givin’ me stuff for this farm competition. And in return, I gotta buy an irrigation system for all of ‘em. So if I win, no problem, I’d have ‘nough money ten times over, but if I lose, I gotta sell the farm to buy the system.” She banged her hoof on the counter, more than a little unsteady. “Course I said yes. We all need the irrigation system, only way to get it is to win this thing. And it ain’t like they’d put their farms on the line, they don’t need to, cause I’m here!”
“Speaking of that.” Berry Punch sounded concerned. “What exactly are—“
“You know what? Apples would never be in this kind’a mess.”
Berry Punch hesitated. “Why do you say that? Because they’re so big?”
“Nah, not just that. They’ve got business sense. I’m just an idiot with an Elementy-thingie.” She got up, swaying a little. “See, if it was the Apples that needed produce from the other farms, they’d drive a real hard deal. They’d demand discounts on everything, for any reason, sayin’ the produce ain’t up to scratch or it was grown with water that once touched Apple water or whatever. They’d go to Mayor Scrolls and get a big grant, or a town order sayin’ everypony’s gotta help out the Apples. An’ if that didn’t work, they’d go write their folks in Canterlot and get all the money and support they needed!” She swung a hoof around, barely missing Berry Punch. “If I get through this, I totally gotta be more like them. None of this ‘I’ll take payment later’ or ‘I’ll give ya a discount for whatever.’ Applejack don’t give discounts, an’ she’s the biggest and strongest farmer around, an’ everypony loves her anyway cause she fixed up town hall, and – and Berry Punch, come on. This isn’t fair.”
Carrot Top looked to Trixie for help, but the showmare appeared to be composing some kind of ode to her alcohol and was oblivious to all else. “I’m trying to talk to – to you, and you just turned the floor on ‘spin.’” Carrot Top was beginning to wobble. “That’s not nice. Turn it off, or I’ll – I’ll --”
Berry Punch was just able to rush out and catch Carrot Top before she fell on her face.
“Y’know, Berry Punch, ya smell like bourbon. It’s kinda nice. They should totally make bourbon into a perfume!” giggled Carrot Top, before fainting away.
Elsewhere, Applejack trudged home.
She couldn’t believe that the other ponies had betrayed her, but they had. Now she had to figure out what to do about it. And what to say to her family.
Well, the ‘what to do’ question was easy. She just had to work harder and come up with better recipes that could beat combinations of all other Ponyville produce. It couldn’t be that hard. Just a couple nights of short sleep; she was tough and could handle that. Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh could help her too; they were both good at working hard. It might be painful, but they didn’t have any choice. Everything was on the line.
Applejack wondered how much to tell them. Apple Bloom would probably be horrified to learn that the other farmers were trying to ruin them, so Applejack would have to choose her words very carefully. Big Macintosh wouldn’t be upset, but he would probably be overly concerned with the existence of the anti-Apple alliance, and the fate of Carrot Top’s farm. While Applejack obviously didn’t want to be unpopular or leave anypony homeless, she was able to grasp that it wasn’t more important than feeding Ponyville, and Big Mac had demonstrated difficulty with that concept in the past. She might need to word things carefully with him too.
Sighing, Applejack began to pick up the pace. She had to get home and get back to work. She had a very long night ahead of her.
Carrot Top woke up in a very small room.
She was on an old mattress, covered with an older blanket embroidered with a faded floral pattern. She also felt a pillow under her head, though she couldn’t see it. The room was dim, but she could see a small open door leading to what looked like a bathroom, a larger door that was shut, and a small table. A cup of something was on the table.
Carrot Top tried to move her head, but it seemed to explode in pain. She cried out. Hangover, she thought. Just stay totally still, let it go away…
But it wasn’t going away. It just seemed to get worse, until Carrot Top felt like she wanted to take her brain out of her skull just to get it away from the agony. She only dimly remembered her three hours in the bar, but she was starting to guess that she’d gotten completely and utterly wasted.
Hoofsteps sounded somewhere nearby, each one the equivalent of a hammer striking directly inside her head. Carrot Top groaned and thrust her head under the pillow. That helped dull the pain a little bit.
The door opened. “Good, you’re up,” Berry Punch bellowed (or maybe murmured, it was hard for Carrot Top to tell). “Here, drink this.”
Carrot Top groaned and peeked out to see Berry Punch taking the glass from the table and putting it right under her mouth. She gripped the straw in her mouth and drank.
It tasted sweet, and cool, and light, and…
And a lot like her hangover-remedy.
It wasn’t as good as hers, of course, in that there was a bitter aftertaste and her hangover wasn’t entirely cured. Still, though, Carrot Top’s head only throbbed with pain once every ten seconds instead of once every eye blink, and that was a big improvement. “Thanks. But how…”
“My special talent is mixing. Part of that means I can ‘understand’ what the individual ingredients of drinks are. If I try and I study the drink enough, I can pick up how they’re mixed together to get the final result.” Berry Punch smiled a little. “It’s not perfect, but I hope it’s good enough.”
“Yeah, it’s great.” Carrot Top managed to roll off the mattress and get to her hooves. “How long was I out?”
“A couples hours. It’s about one in the morning.”
“Past midnight… ugh.” Carrot Top shook her head. “Really sorry to impose, Berry Punch—“
“Don’t mention it,” chirped the bar proprietor. “If you want, you can stay the night.”
“That’s alright. I think I’d like to get home.”
Berry Punch nodded. “Okay. Well, I’ll be along tomorrow morning, so I guess I’ll see you then.“
“Er… sorry, but I’m not going to be selling anything for the rest of the week. There’s this farm competition, and—“
“I know. You told me about it.” Berry Punch smiled. “I meant, I was going to come over and help you.”
“You don’t have to do that,” said Carrot Top, weakly. “I mean, you’ve got your own business to run, and…”
“I don’t open until eleven anyway. I’ll just get up a few hours early and go to your place. Back in time for the lunch rush, just like usual.”
“But… I mean, how’ll you help me? You’re not a farmer.”
“Well, it’s not enough to have good produce for this competition, right? You need to have amazing dishes, and I don’t think you’ve ever cooked professionally. But as for me, I’ve designed every dish in this bar.” said Berry Punch, in a matter-of-fact voice. “Ingredients, cooking technique, and plating. Now, granted, I don’t know much about fine dining, but I think I can still give you some good pointers. So I’m going to help you with your dishes. But there’s a condition.”
“I don’t ever want to hear you say that you want to be more like the Apples again, okay?” Berry Punch looked stern. “Because you’re not like them, and you shouldn’t be.”
“Well, they’re not the ones who’re betting the farm… sides, everypony likes them.”
“Everypony knows that, if they have money, the Apples will sell them whatever they need. And they know that the Apples will toss them a few crumbs sometimes. But they also know that, in any disaster, whether or not they have money, no matter how much they need, you’ll be there to help.” Berry Punch giggled. “You helped fight off Corona. You spent all that time helping clean up the town after the Ursa showed up. You helped Fluttershy when she got that weird disease.” Carrot Top looked confused. “Oh, Blossomforth told me about that. You’re always willing to lend a hoof or a carrot or… or anything to those that need it. You make everypony in town feel safe, because they know there’s a pony they can always rely on.”
Carrot Top realized she was blushing. “But why are you doing this? I mean, there’s loads of ponies in town that need help with something or other…”
“Because you need my help,” said Berry Punch. “And I can help you, and I don’t want you to lose your farm, because you’re a good pony and you help everypony and it’s not right that you get hurt for it. Besides, I know you’d help me if our positions were reversed. That’s all there is to it. Just promise to stay your generous self.”
Carrot Top grinned.
“Glad you’re feeling better.” Berry Punch passed her a piece of paper. “Alright, these are the ingredients and food supplies sold by the farms that are helping you – oh, don’t give me that look, you don’t think I just magically summon food to this bar, do you? I buy from these ponies all the time. Look it over when you get home, come up with some ideas, and tomorrow, we’ll start putting together your menu. You leave in seven days, right?”
“Yeah, that’s when the competition is…”
“Then we have six days to train. We’ll start first thing tomorrow. Oh, and one more thing.” She took out a small pouch. “I think I owe you this.”
“What for?” The pouch clinked when Berry Punch swung it. It sounded like money.
“The tonics. The money I owe you for all those times I was short.” She paused. “Look, I know this doesn’t excuse it, and it probably feels like I’m taking advantage of you, but… when I get hangovers like that, sometimes it’s all I can do to pick a few bits off the floor or counter and try to find you. I mean, when I’m like that I certainly don’t have the motor control to open up the safe or the register. That’s why I don’t always have enough… sometimes I can’t find that last bit or two, and my head hurts enough that I can’t bear to keep looking, so once I can scrounge up four or five...”
Carrot Top opened her mouth to say something, but Berry Punch quickly said, “Anyway. I’ve been trying to figure out how to give this to you for a while now – at first, it seemed silly to bother you over a bit, and I think I even tried but you said not to sweat it, but then it happened more times and the debt piled up and I got so embarrassed… anyway, it doesn’t matter. I was wrong and I’m sorry, and I’m going to pay my debt now.” She put the bag of money directly next to Carrot Top. “Take it. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And, if it happens again, just find me later and ask for the fifth bit, or give me a time when I can get it to you. Or just… I mean, if you don’t want to sell at that price—“
“Berry, I’ll always spot you,” said Carrot Top quickly. “If you’re in that kind of pain, forget the bits and just come find me. Pay me later, once you’re feeling better.”
Berry smiled. “Aw, thanks Carrot Top. Want me to walk you home?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll go with Trixie.”
“She collapsed half an hour ago. One of the waiters helped her out.”
“I’ll walk alone, then. Clear my head.” Carrot Top smiled weakly.
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Carrot Top began to walk to the door, having little idea of what had just happened. But she did feel better than she had a few hours ago.
Alright… I’ll get home and look at this list. Maybe even try to cook something; I can go a night without sleep. If I’ve bet the farm, I might as well try my best.
Carrot Top tried to come up with some ideas, but the best that could be said about her progress that night was that she avoided burning her kitchen down.
It was just that she so rarely cooked like this. She barely ever cooked for herself – all her time was in the fields, as she had too little spare money to hire farmhands or other ponies to help her. When she ate a meal, it was usually raw carrots. All the cooking she did was to make snacks to sell, and those were recipes designed to be made simply and quickly. None of this ‘braise the carrot for two hours in a lemon-vanilla broth’ stuff like Flim and Flam had showed her.
After dumping the third bucket of water on a flaming frying pan, Carrot Top decided to give up for the night and lie down on the couch. She just wasn’t sure what it was she wanted to cook. It wasn’t the simple, rustic food that she sold in Ponyville; she knew it wouldn’t win and it seemed inappropriate for the competition. The fancy foams and elaborate dishes that the Flim Flam brothers had shown her had looked fascinating, but not only did she not want to use their help, the more she thought about it the more she didn’t even want to cook that kind of food. It was great, but judging from her practice dishes, it didn’t really taste like carrots. It wasn’t highlighting what her farm could do.
“I guess it’d be best to have dishes that highlight the taste of my carrots. I mean, I’ve got good carrots,” she mused. “Yeah. Nothing crazy. Just carrots, and whatever else I need to make the carrots stand out.”
Now, if only she had some idea of what that would be.
“I think I’m in trouble,” said Carrot Top.
She was in her kitchen, staring at the ingredient list and a small pile of carrots. Berry Punch had just entered and was unpacking a small box with a little bit of everything from the various farms. “It’s helpful to see what we have to work with,” the bar owner had explained.
Maybe it was the early hour – the sun had only just risen – but Carrot Top felt stupefied. “I mean, most of the foods I make are with stuff I have. I buy flour and oil and things like that, but I only even began using raisins a short time ago.” Carrot Top gulped. “I don’t even know how to cook a… whatever this is.” She pointed at a large green thing.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried. Carrot Top had been up late thinking up recipes, and she did feel that most of them weren’t bad. But she was reasonably certain that none of them were competition-quality.
Berry Punch looked at the confusing ingredient. “Bok choy? Oh, that’s not hard to use at all.”
“Who sells that around here?”
Berry Punch shrugged. “I know a pony in Canterlot who had a little extra. Thought I could use it for something, so I got it in yesterday, but I figured it might help you instead. Come on, let’s start easy. How about a nice salad?”
Carrot Top had never seen Berry Punch design a dish before. She only really knew the mare in context of selling her carrot-based products, or on the rare occasions that she went to her bar. “Sure. A salad sounds nice.”
“Okay. Well, we’ll start by making some mayonnaise.”
“Making… can’t we buy that?”
“Not if we want it to work perfectly with this recipe, we can’t. Here.” She put an egg, a lemon, and a small jar of oil on the counter. “We’re going to beat this oil into the egg yolk. Here’s how we start.”
It was the most difficult salad that Carrot Top had ever prepared.
She’d never made her own mayonnaise before, and she hoped to never make it again. Basically, she had to beat a full cup of oil into a single egg yolk. It took a very long time to beat in, and the mixture had gotten thicker and thicker until it felt like she was trying to stir mud. Her jaw ached from holding the whisk. Then, when it was done, Berry Punch had her mix in some lemon juice and a few other things that apparently went well with carrots… but because her jaw hurt, Carrot Top found it hard to get the seasonings right. Berry Punch wouldn’t help her, though, and made her keep tinkering with the condiment until she pronounced it perfect.
Next came the carrot part of the carrot salad. This usually called for grating, but Berry Punch showed her a new and ‘fancy’ way to do it. “Hold the knife like this,” she said, and then performed some trick with her hooves and the knife that began sculpting the carrots into what looked like tiny flowers. Carrot Top wasn’t even sure how that was possible.
“Add in the mayo, splash of lemon juice, pinch of sugar and salt…” Berry Punch had Carrot Top toss it vigorously. “And a rose.” She delicately plucked the petals from one of Lily’s fine roses and strewed them over the dish. “Perfect.”
Carrot Top cautiously bit into it, then gulped it down. It tasted fantastic. The homemade mayonnaise tasted a lot better than the stall-bought kind, and Berry Punch was right, it seemed to have a lot of subtle flavors that just ‘worked’ with the salad. The carrot ‘flowers’ were thinner and, somehow, crisper than her normal grated variety.
“If you slice a carrot instead of grate it, you can get a much thinner slice without sacrificing the crispy texture,” explained Berry Punch.
The raisins and the rose went perfectly with the carrots; the raisins providing texture and a bit of juice, the roses adding a remarkable smell. Everything in the dish worked.
It was the most difficult salad Carrot Top had made, but it was also the best.
“Amazing,” said Carrot Top. “Where did you learn that?”
“I’m good at mixing, remember?” said Berry Punch, smiling a little. “That includes food. Alright, come on. Enough gobbling. Let’s try a soup next.”
They cooked until just before eleven, made four different dishes, and only set the stove on fire once (“Maybe I should practice that one at home before I try to show it off again,” was Berry’s sheepish response). They only stopped when Berry Punch had to hurry back and open up her shop. “Play around with those ingredients,” she instructed Carrot Top before leaving. “Have fun. Get familiar with them. If you want, try a couple of those fancy techniques, but don’t get carried away. What we need to work on first is finding your voice.”
Berry Punch nodded. “Mostly, at this kind of thing there’s going to be two kinds of farms. Small ones like yours, where they specialize in one ingredient. You have an advantage over them, because you’re incorporating a lot of other fruits and vegetables into your dishes. And then there are the huge farms, like the Apple Trust groups, where they have the resources to find out what the judges like and tailor all their dishes to that. But I’ll bet you can see what the problem with that is.”
Carrot Top thought for a moment. “…their dishes are all the same,” she realized. “They’re all trying to reach the same judges in the same way, and they have so many ingredient options they all can make the same dishes.”
“Exactly! So what you need is to find your ‘voice,’ the kind of foods you really like to make that you can refine until they’re spectacular. You’ll stand out from all the rest, because your dishes will be different and personal. They might not be perfectly suited to any one judge’s tastes, but if they’re unique and taste good, you still have a strong chance to go far in the competition.”
“Alright, I’ll do that. Thanks for all the help, Berry.”
“Hey, what’re friends for?” Berry smiled and left.
Carrot Top spent the rest of the day experimenting in the kitchen and trying to come up with better ideas.
Berry Punch returned at sunrise the next morning. After a few comments (“I didn’t know you got up so early,” from Carrot Top, “I usually don’t,” from Berry), they got right back to it. The day went more smoothly, since Carrot Top was starting to develop some ideas about the kinds of dishes she wanted to cook.
That day also had another pleasant surprise. At about seven, Carrot Top heard a knock at her front door and went to open it. “Oh, Ploughshares. What’s up?”
“Ditzy said you might need some help today,” said Ploughshares. He was a tall pony with a blue coat and orange mane. “Something about a competition taking up all your time? So you need help with your fields?”
Berry Punch said, “Your friends told me they’d ask some of the farmhands if they could lend a hoof today. Raindrops is going to come by later with a spare raincloud, too.”
“I appreciate it, but…” Carrot Top paused. “I kind of don’t have any money right now…”
“Hey, I owe you one for giving me a place to stay when my house got infested with termites. It’s my day off at Sweet Apple Acres, so…” He smiled awkwardly. “Guess I could help you with the carrots, or something. No charge.”
Carrot Top brightened. As much as she knew she had to go all-out to win the competition, it was frustrating knowing that she had to leave her fields languish in order to do so. “Sure, that’d be awesome. Thanks!”
She spent the morning training with Berry Punch, again, and the afternoon working on her own. By the end of the day, she was starting to come up with some recipes that highlighted the taste of her carrots and that she thought might impress a judge.
On the third day, four farmhands showed up to help her, all thanking her for some prior deed she’d done for them. And Berry didn’t come alone either.
“I wanted to see how you were doing,” said Green Grape. “If there was any advice I could give you.”
Green Grape examined the glazed carrot and grape medley that Carrot Top was working on. “Try peeling the grapes first. They’ll be softer and sweeter. That’s what this recipe needs, right?”
“Ooh, good idea,” said Berry Punch.
Carrot Top hadn’t known that grapes were peel-able, but she watched Green Grape show her an example. “Plus,” she said, discarding a large seed, “This way you make sure there’s no seeds. Even seedless grapes sometimes have them, and you have to be careful.”
“Thanks,” said Carrot Top.
“Don’t mention it. I like you, Carrot Top. I don’t want to see you lose your farm. Besides, I remember when my plow arrived late and you helped me work all night to get the fields prepped. I owe you one.” Green Grape smiled. “Let me know if you need any other help or advice.”
On the fourth day, Carrot Top wound up with more farmhands than she knew what to do with. When they wouldn’t leave, telling her that they knew she needed help and they were going to give it to her, she put the extra ones on the job of fixing up her fences and performing a couple other minor maintenance tasks. She also received members from half a dozen of the other small farms, who were eager to help her in any way they could.
“We’re considering making a carrot muffin as one of the desserts,” said Berry Punch, who had appointed herself as the note-taker. “Wheatie, any tips on the dough?”
“Sure. I’ll show you how to mix it.”
“And Banana Split, can you help us work out this carrot-banana bread?”
Carrot Top tried to learn as much as possible. She was getting better, she knew, and while she wouldn’t exactly be a master chef, she was becoming increasingly hopeful that she’d be able to make some amazing dishes for the competition. She tried the recipes out again that afternoon – the carrot muffin dish, the glazed carrots with grapes, a delicious carrot fried rice – and was pleased to find that they tasted delicious.
She was getting the hang of this!
On the fifth day, she awoke to a frantic pounding on her door.
“Trixie?!” Carrot Top stared blearily at her. “What are you doing here so early?” The sun hadn’t even risen yet.
“You’ve got to get into town. Now.” Trixie looked panicked.
“Why, what happened?”
“Applejack’s going to war.”