CHS holds a fundraiser bake sale and cooking contest.
In order to raise money for upcoming events, Canterlot High holds a fundraiser bake sale and cooking contest. Some students enter for fun. Some students enter because they have something to prove. Others have their eyes on the prizes.
In Sunset Shimmer's opinion, the worst thing about Monday mornings was that she had Mr. Doodle for first period. Mr. Doodle was not a morning person and even less of a Monday person, so her first class of the school week was always an absolute delight.
As the class settled down and faced front for the day's lesson to begin, the PA system crackled to life.
"Good morning, students, and happy Monday! I hope you all had a great weekend.
"I have a major announcement this morning, so listen closely! We're proud to announce the Canterlot High Cooking Contest and Bake Sale, to be held next Saturday and Sunday! This event will raise money for the senior graduation trip as well as the juniors' summer trip to Camp Everfree. All students are encouraged to participate in either the Cooking Contest or the Bake Sale. And yes, you can take part in both! There will be prizes for the top contestants in the Cooking Contest, so come out and show off your best! Complete rules for the Cooking Contest and sign-up forms for both the Cooking Contest and the Bake Sale can be found on the school website."
Excited whispers filled the classroom. The dour Mr. Doodle frowned, then harrumphed. "Alright, alright, settle down," he called over the noise. "You can all talk or text or tweet about it after class."
"Hey, a cooking contest!" Lyra said to Sunset's left, reaching out and poking her in the arm. "Whaddya think? Are you and your friends gonna enter?"
Sunset toyed idly with her stylus. "I'm sure some of them will," she said. "I don't know if I'll enter. I'm not much of a cook."
"Sounds like a lot of fun though!"
"True," Sunset said, pursing her lips. As Mr. Doodle droned on, Sunset called up the school website on her tablet, pretending to pay attention to the lecture while multitasking—a skill she had honed from her long tenure as the Bitch Queen of Canterlot High.
CANTERLOT HIGH SCHOOL COOKING CONTEST AND BAKE SALE
All students are encouraged to participate in EITHER or BOTH events. Proceeds will fund the SENIOR GRADUATION TRIP and the JUNIOR CAMP EVERFREE TRIP.
Students signing up for the Bake Sale must commit to providing a volume of fresh baked goods (breads, pastries, cakes, etc.) for sale to the public. Adult supervision for the production of your baked goods is strongly recommended. Please be mindful of common allergies and supply warning information for any products containing nuts, eggs, milk, and gluten. All baked goods must be delivered to the school on the day of the Bake Salebefore 10AM.
The Cooking Contest will begin at 10AM Saturday, at which time all entrants who are registered must begin setup and preparation. You must provide your own recipes, ingredients, and any special cooking materials you need. Portable ovens, gas grills, coolers, microwaves, and common utensils will be provided by the home ec department. Please plan and prepare for up to four (4) entries. CHS will not be held liable for any unused portions, ingredients, etc.
If your initial entry requires more than three hours of prep/cook time, notify the contest administrator beforehand and arrive early. Marinated foods must be prepared at home the night before, with video recording of all preparation to verify that you prepared the entry yourself. Only your initial entry may require extra cook/prep time. All other entries must require three hours or less to prepare and plate.
First round judging will begin at noon and take place through approximately 2PM. Quarterfinalists will be chosen by the judges; the quarterfinals will begin immediately after the judging. Semifinals and finals will take place on Sunday beginning at 10AM.
Signing up in teams is encouraged! All winning teams will receive equal shares of all prizes.
The Prizes For The Winners Include:
All participants will receive coupons from a selection of area restaurants for participating.
Quarterfinalists who do not advance to the semifinals will receive a $50 gift card for Pizza Shack and a $20 gift card for Donut Joe's.
All semifinalists INCLUDING students who advance to the finals will receive free pizza for a year from Pizza Shack, to be awarded as a gift card valued at the approximate cost of two (2) large specialty pizzas per week for 52 weeks.
Second place finalists will receive a 32" HDTV with wireless internet features including streaming movies from all top services (service subscription required) and one (1) new smartphone (your choice of model, service plan not included).
Winner(s) of the Cooking Contest will receive: - One (1) $500 gift card to Blue Box. - One (1) 6-month subscription to Streamflix.
Sunset almost let out a low whistle, but caught herself. *Wow, those prizes are gonna eat up all the proceeds from the bake sale. What were they thinking?* Then she noticed the fine print at the bottom:
All prizes have been donated by local area merchants to support the Educational Electives Initiative.
*Of course,* Sunset thought, rolling her eyes. *The prizes are a write-off...*
As the day wore on, excitement over the coming cook-off and bake sale grew. When lunch arrived, Sunset met up with her friends at their usual table in the cafeteria. "So," she said, "any of you taking part in this thing?"
"We've been talkin' about it off and on all mornin' when we could," Applejack said. "Me, Pinkie, an' Fluttershy are teamin' up fer th' bake sale."
"Yeah!" Pinkie said excitedly. "I'm good with cookies, cakes and cupcakes, Applejack's good with pies and apple pastries, and Fluttershy can help with both and has a van to carry all that stuff in!" She bounced in her seat. "We'll make the bake sale a no-fail!"
"Besides, I'd rather take part in the bake sale than the contest," Fluttershy said. "Competitions are so...stressful."
"Are you kidding?" Sunset asked. "You and Pinkie kicked Crystal Prep's butt in the Home Ec part of the academic decathlon!"
"Well, yes," Fluttershy said, "but that was different. School pride was on the line. This is just..." She ducked her head. "I don't know."
"Eh, it wouldn't be fair to everyone else if we took part anyway," Pinkie said. "I mean, we'd make it to the finals no sweat!"
Sunset chuckled. "That's true." She looked at her other friends. "What about you girls?"
"Well, I'd like to enter the cooking contest," Rarity said, "but I'm just not certain what I would enter. And frankly, I'd rather not enter it alone."
"I'd enter with you, but I'm...not really very good at cooking," Twilight said. "I mean, I can barely microwave instant noodles."
"But you're very adept at chemistry, yes?" Rarity challenged. "Cooking is essentially chemistry. Measure ingredients, prepare, cook according to instructions." She smiled. "I can guide you through it."
"Well..." Twilight worried at her lip, then glanced at Sunset. "What're you gonna do?"
"Me?" Sunset shrugged. "I'm..." She shook her head. "Honestly, I'm not much of a cook either. I mean, I do cook a little for myself at home, there's a couple things I'm not bad at making, but I don't know if I'm up for losing a cooking contest."
"Hey, you're only a loser if you don't even try," Rainbow Dash said. "I say go for it!"
"Hmm." Sunset rubbed her chin. "Well...Rarity? What do you think? You, me, Twilight?"
Rarity smiled. "Absolutely, darling! I'd be thrilled to work alongside you."
"I guess I'm in too then," Twilight said. "I mean, as long as we have fun and do it together as friends, that's all that matters, right?"
"Totally!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "So you three are doing the cooking contest, me, Fluttershy, and Applejack are doing the bake sale, and..." She turned to Rainbow Dash, as did everyone else.
Rainbow held up a hand and closed her eyes. "Pass," she said. With a chuckle, she added, "I eat pop tarts and canned ravioli raw, that's how bad I am at cooking."
Rarity blanched. "Good heavens, you eat that canned stuff unheated?!"
"It's not that bad," Rainbow said with a shrug. "Actually, those little spaghetti bits with meatballs and sauce? If the weather's cold, right out of the pantry they taste really good."
Rarity shuddered. "Gah."
Applejack chuckled. "Ah know what Rainbow's talkin' about," she said. "One winter our lights went out an' we couldn't git t' th' store cuz'a th' snow. We had us a buncha canned beans an' pasta, an' that was some good eatin' cold."
"And you didn't get sick from that?" Sunset asked.
"Well, those cans are sealed against bacteria and contaminants," Twilight said, adjusting her glasses. "As long as the cans are intact and not expired, there's no reason you can't eat any canned food cold." She frowned. "It may not taste as good, but it's edible."
"An' that's th' whole point of canned food in th' first place," Applejack said.
"Okay, so you're not taking part at all?" Sunset asked Rainbow.
"Oh, I'll be around as a taste-tester," Rainbow said with a chuckle. "For, y'know, all the teams."
Sunset rolled her eyes. "Of course..." She looked around the cafeteria. "I wonder who else is gonna be in this thing..."
* * * * *
"The cooking contest?" Silver Spoon asked. "But Di, we don't know how to cook!"
Diamond Tiara smirked. "Just leave it to me. We're gonna win that contest and show everyone we're better than them. Oh, and we'll have all the best treats for the bake sale, too..." Her eyes narrowed. "Besides, I overheard those three loser girls say they're entering the cooking competition..."
* * * * *
"Ah still don't think this is a good idea, y'all," Apple Bloom said dubiously.
"Relax," Sweetie Belle said with a smirk. "I've got this."
"Well I don't," Scootaloo said. "I don't know the first thing about cooking!"
"Hey, it can't hurt to at least try," Sweetie Belle said. "Besides, it'll be fun and we'll get free coupons out of it no matter what!"
"Yeah, but..." Apple Bloom sighed. "Well...alright. Ah jes' hope this goes better than our singin' did."
* * * * *
"Dude," Beats said, staring at Flash Sentry. "Are you serious?!"
Flash glanced over at the table where Twilight and her friends sat. "Absolutely," he said.
"You're doing this to impress her, aren't you?" Skunk Rock said, his glasses flashing in the harsh cafeteria lights.
"N-no, of course not!" Flash said. "I just thought it'd be cool, y'know, try to...y'know..." He sighed. "Okay, yeah, I'm doing it to impress her. And, well..." He grimaced. "Maybe...also to make up for totally sucking at the Friendship Games, you know? My pride took a big hit in the academic decathlon. I gotta bounce back from that."
His bandmates shared a glance. "Well...I guess we can help you out," Beats said. "Only thing is, I don't know how to cook."
"Me either dude," Skunk said.
Flash snorted. "I've got a plan," he said. He looked around, then leaned in conspiratorially. "We're gonna grill."
The other two boys blinked. "Grill?" Beats echoed.
Skunk tilted his head. "You mean like, barbecue?"
"Exactly," Flash said. "You don't gotta be able to cook to barbecue, and my grandpa has this super secret special sauce recipe that's never lost a cook-off yet." He grinned. "Trust me, we've got a chance."
"Well...sounds easy enough," Beats said.
"I like barbecue," Skunk opined.
"Great! Then we'll need to make some preparations..."
* * * * *
"So we're doing the bake sale, right?" Lyra asked excitedly.
"AND the cooking contest!" Bon Bon replied with a broad smile.
They hugged each other and laughed happily.
"Best friends cooking together for the WIN!"
* * * * *
Sandalwood leaned his head into his palm as he looked around the cafeteria. "Man...this sucks," he said. "I wanna take part in this whole thing, but..."
Ditzy Doo sat down next to him. "I just wanna do the bake sale," she said. "I'm really good at muffins."
Sandalwood frowned. "Well, I do have this one killer brownie recipe," he said. He glanced at Ditzy. "Wanna work together? Muffins and brownies for the bake sale? I don't really care about competing, I just wanna get involved."
Ditzy smiled. "Yeah, let's work together and really bake up a storm!"
* * * * *
"Dude, we are SO winning the cooking contest!"
"Huuuuh, yeah, eh...can't wait to get that sweet sweet new GameStation..."
Snips and Snails looked at each other and snickered.
After school, Flash and his bandmates headed for Flash's house. "You know grillin's gonna cost a lot of money if we hafta get meat for four rounds of this thing, right?" Skunk Rock asked.
Flash grimaced. "Yeah, but it's for a good cause. Besides, if we get our folks to pool together, we can manage." He pulled over to the curb in front of his house. "We'll get the recipe, then we'll head to the store and look over the meats, kinda get an idea of what we wanna work with and make a budget."
"So this sauce recipe," Beats said as the trio got out of the car. "It's legit?"
"He's won every cook-off he's ever entered," Flash said proudly. "Grandpa's sauce is the best thing you ever put in your mouth." Walking through the house, he found his father in the den. "Hey Dad, do you know where Grandpa keeps his sauce recipe?"
Flash's dad looked up in alarm from his baseball game. "The...the sauce recipe?" He swallowed nervously. "S-son, you...you know better than that, right?" He looked around warily. "I mean, the only thing more important to Dad than that sauce is his balls..."
"I know, Dad, but I kinda need it," Flash said. "We're having this cook-off at CHS, it's this charity fundraiser thing for the Everfree trip. We're gonna enter, but none of us can really cook, so..." He shrugged. "We're gonna see how far we can get grilling. But if we're gonna win against some of the talent CHS has, we're gonna need the sauce."
Flash's dad frowned. "Well..." He sighed. "You absolutely sure about this?"
"Y-yeah," Flash said. "I know what I'm getting into." Behind him, Beats and Skunk exchanged a confused glance and shrugged.
"Okay," Flash's dad said. "Okay. It's in that old trunk in the shed. The key's in the tool chest." He paused. "Be careful, Flash. Dad hasn't had his medicine today."
Flash gulped audibly. "I'll be careful, Dad." He turned to his bandmates and nodded, leading them through the house and out to the back yard.
"Dude...what was all that?" Beats asked.
"Grandpa's..." Flash shook his head. "Nevermind. We'll be in and out. Get the recipe, get back to the car, copy it down, I'll put it back tonight. He'll never know. Come on." He led them into a beat-up old shed in the back yard. Flipping on the overhead track lighting, he rummaged through a shiny steel tool chest until he found an old brass key, which he used to unlock a leather-bound trunk resting in the back corner. "Come on, come on..." He rummaged through piles of yellowed old papers in the trunk, flicking aside old photographs and what looked like birth certificates, death certificates, and other important documents. Finally, he found a small, yellowed, crinkly piece of parchment. "Here it is!" he cried excitedly, standing up. He slammed the lid of the trunk, dropped the key back in the tool chest, and bustled out of the shed. "Let's go! Hurry!"
Shrugging, his bandmates followed. They were halfway to the side gate leading out to the driveway when a very tall, very old man suddenly blocked their path.
Dressed in a mortician's suit at least a century and a half out of date, the man had unhealthy-looking, wrinkled yellow skin, deep creases around his mouth, a hooked nose, and thick eyebrows. Balding on top, his grey hair was full in the back and on the sides, framing his broad, intimidating face in an iron curtain. His right eye was squinted closed; combined with the creases in his face and the downturned sneer of his wide lips, this gave him a fiercely angry expression. In his left hand, he held a cane topped with a gleaming silver ball.
His one good eye glared at Flash. His lips opened, revealing yellowed, uneven teeth.
"Shit," Flash spat, eyes wide with terror. "Guys, run! This way!" He broke left, crossing the yard; his friends looked at each other helplessly, looking back at the old man who, by all appearances, was content to just stand in front of the gate looking terrifying. "COME ON!" Flash urged.
The old man took one step toward them.
Flash climbed over the fence; Skunk and Beats followed him. They ran for Flash's car.
"Dude, what the hell?" Skunk demanded.
"Was that your grandpa?" Beats asked.
"Yeah," Flash said as he unlocked the car, sliding across the hood and skidding on the asphalt before yanking open the driver's side door and jumping in. "Hurry, get in!"
"Dude, it's okay, he's still in the yard," Beats said as he casually opened the door and got in, Skunk following suit.
Flash looked warily into the rear view mirror, then stuck his head out and looked behind the car. "Can't be too sure," he said as he started the engine and went for his seat belt. Sighing with relief, he turned to adjust his mirrors...
The old man was standing right in the middle of the street, four feet in front of the car, glaring evilly at Flash. "WAH!" Skunk yelled. "Dude, what the—?"
"Buckle up and hold on," Flash said, throwing the car into reverse and slamming the gas. The car shot backward; Flash jerked the wheel around hard, throwing the car into a tight circle that nearly took out a neighbor's mailbox. He braked, jarring his passengers, then shifted into neutral. "Okay," he said. "Should be—"
The old man was in front of them again, looking for all the world as though he had never moved.
"Okay no way," Beats said. "He should be behind us, not—"
"It's gonna get rough for a minute, guys," Flash said as he threw the car into gear and jerked the wheel hard to the left as he hit the gas, shooting past the old man, who stood passively on the curb, watching them peel away with squealing tires. At the end of the street, Flash stopped suddenly, taking a deep, panicking breath.
"Dude," Skunk said, "why are you this scared of your grandad?"
"You just have no idea, man," Flash said. "We should be good now. Let's just—"
The old man was right next to the car, looking right in the driver's side window.
"Shit," Flash muttered.
"OKAY HOW THE HELL?!" Beats yelled.
Flash put the car in reverse and floored it for five seconds, putting some distance between them and the old man, then put it back in neutral, unbuckled his seat belt, and reached underneath his seat. He pulled out a short-barreled shotgun, into which he slotted two shells.
His friends stared at him. "Dude," Beats said, "what the actual fuck?!"
"Just trust me," Flash said as he levered his body halfway out the window and aimed.
"Dude you are NOT gonna SHOOT YOUR GRANDPA WITH A SHOTGUN!" Skunk cried in alarm.
And then Flash did exactly that.
With a thunderous boom, Flash's shot exploded from the barrel, slamming into the old man. He staggered back, stunned, then took two steps to his left, his cane shaking in his grasp. With his free hand, he clutched his chest. Flash dropped back into his seat, tossed the shotgun in the back where it nearly hit Beats in the face, and floored it, taking the corner without bothering to check for oncoming traffic. Luckily, the cross street was clear, and Flash put three blocks between them before stopping and pulling over to the curb.
His friends' hearts were hammering so hard he could practically hear it. Beats reached forward and grabbed Flash by the jacket, jerking him back against his seat. "WHAT. THE. HELL. MAN?!"
Flash wrenched himself free of his drummer's grip. "It's just rock salt," he said. "Medicated rock salt." He grimaced as he checked his mirrors and buckled his seat belt.
"Medicated rock salt?" Skunk asked.
"Grandpa won't take pills or liquids," Flash explained. "And nobody's brave enough to try to give him injections. The only way we can give him his medicine is by tranquilizer darts or with a shotgun." He grimaced. "If he's having one of his spells, you're better off with the shotgun. The darts don't have any stopping power."
Skunk shook his head, scrubbing his hands down his face. "Dude," he tried to explain slowly, "you just shot. Your grandfather. With a sawed off shotgun. That...that doesn't seem wrong to you? At all?"
"You haven't lived with him for most of your life," Flash said. "You get used to it."
"Uhh..." Skunk started, then trailed off. "Damn."
Beats wasn't quite ready to let it go yet. "Okay, the old guy's kinda creepy and I still don't know how he could move that fast, but you didn't have to shoot him with a goddamn shotgun! What if you'd killed him?!"
Flash's mouth set into a hard line. "Nothing kills him," he said grimly as he put the car in gear again and drove back into town at a more sedate pace.
Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack met up at Applejack's house after school to make a plan and a budget for the bake sale.
"Okay, Ah talked t' th' Principal jes' t' be sure," Applejack said as she sharpened a pencil. "If'n we make sure an' keep our receipts, we git reimbursed half'a whut we spend on ingredients. Us three pitchin' in together equal shares, we can probably go...ah dunno, fifty each? An' with th' apples fer mah part comin' right off our farm an' th' eggs fer all our stuff too, that cuts down on a lot..."
"Yeah, if we hit the right stores, we can really clean up," Pinkie agreed.
"We'll need to price shop before we commit to buying," Fluttershy pointed out. "Flour may be cheaper at one store, sugar at another, milk someplace else."
"Good call," Applejack agreed. "An' we gotta work on a timetable fer all this. Ah mean, we can bake up a storm, but we only got so many ovens, an' we want everything fresh as possible fer th' bake sale."
"And it starts at ten in the morning," Fluttershy said with a frown. "That's not exactly the best planning on the school's part."
"Yeah, if we wanna bring in fresh-baked goodies, we'll hafta be up baking most of the night that Friday," Pinkie said. She gasped. "I know! We can have an all-night baking party!"
"Problem is, we're gonna hafta split th' load between your place an' my place," Applejack said. "Ah'm gonna be usin' Granny's special pie oven and our regular oven."
"Yeah, we've only got one oven at my place," Pinkie said. "I'm pretty good at multitasking when I bake, though. You have to be when you do as much baking as I do."
"We didn't really think this going in as a group thing out very well," Fluttershy said with a sigh. "Basically it's going to be me and Pinkie working in one kitchen and Applejack working alone in another."
They sat in contemplative silence for a long moment.
"Maybe not," Pinkie said suddenly.
"What do you mean?" Fluttershy asked.
Pinkie stood up. "Let's go," she said. "Fluttershy, you drive."
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, Fluttershy's van pulled into the parking lot of Las Galletas Hermanas. "Okay, here we are," Fluttershy said as she killed the engine. "Umm, why are we here?"
Pinkie got out. "Follow my lead," she said. "Keep quiet."
Applejack and Fluttershy exchanged a confused shrug as they followed Pinkie into the store. There weren't many customers at this hour; as soon as the door opened, the sweet smell of cookies overpowered the girls. Pinkie walked up to the counter, where a young woman stood wearing a yellow shirt and a sunny smile.
"What can I get you today?" the woman asked.
"Oatmeal Raisin," Pinkie said.
The woman nodded and picked up a pair of plastic tongs, reaching into a display case full of cookies next to the counter. Pinkie groaned and slapped her hand. "No! I need to speak to Oatmeal Raisin," she clarified.
"Oh," the woman said. She frowned nervously. "One second." She swung the microphone mounted to the counter around and leaned into it. "Manager assistance requested at the counter," she said. Straightening up, she addressed Pinkie. "She'll be with you shortly."
"Thank you," Pinkie said. After a pause, she added, "Actually, we'll take six of the oatmeal raisin while we wait."
The cashier filled a paper tray with six cookies and handed it to Pinkie, who produced a wad of money from her skirt, then led her friends over to a quiet corner table.
"Alright, whut're you up to, Pinkie Pie?" Applejack asked as she took a cookie.
"Solving our kitchen problem, I hope," Pinkie said as she took a bite of cookie. "Mmm, these are good."
"Thank you," a woman's deep, soft voice said from just above them.
Fluttershy let out a startled squeak. Applejack raised an eyebrow.
A woman wearing khaki pants and a yellow polo shirt stood beside the table. She couldn't be more than perhaps fifty; her brown face was faintly lined with wrinkles, and her short, curly hair was dark. She wore rimless glasses which had left deep furrows in the bridge of her nose. Her face was placid, devoid of expression. "May I help you?" she asked softly.
Pinkie looked up at her, an uncharacteristic serious expression on her face. "I've reconsidered," she said quietly. "I'm in. Twelve dozen a week for twelve weeks. One condition."
Oatmeal Raisin's expression didn't change. She didn't say anything.
"Next Friday and Saturday night, unlimited access to the kitchen for me and my friends."
Oatmeal Raisin's lip twitched. She calmly sat down next to Applejack and leaned forward slightly. "The bake sale," she said.
Pinkie nodded. "We need a place to cook."
Oatmeal Raisin frowned almost imperceptibly. She glanced at Applejack. "I trust you'll be supplying your own apples?"
"We'll bring as many supplies of our own as we can," Pinkie promised. "We just need your ovens and nobody hovering over us."
Oatmeal Raisin folded her hands. "Twelve dozen a week for twelve weeks," she repeated.
"That's the deal," Pinkie said with a nod.
Oatmeal Raisin sat back, a small smile on her face. "Very well. I wish you the best of luck." She started to stand, then stopped. With a cautious glance at Applejack and Fluttershy, she leaned forward and whispered, "I had hoped for a more permanent business arrangement."
Pinkie shook her head. "You know why I can't." Her face became unusually grim. "Unless you want to go up against Maud."
Oatmeal Raisin sat back, her face once again placid. "I know when the risk exceeds the reward," she said. She stood. "Twelve dozen a week. Twelve weeks. You have the kitchen for two nights beginning next Friday." She nodded to Applejack and Fluttershy. "Enjoy your cookies." She turned and walked away.
Once she was out of earshot, Pinkie sighed. "Boy I hope I can pull this off."
The other girls stared at her. Applejack raised an eyebrow. "Okay, whut'n th' heck's goin' on?"
"Not here," Pinkie said. "I'll explain later."
* * * * *
Pinkie Pie pulled a hot tray of steaming cookies out of Applejack's oven, set them on a cooling rack, and stepped back. She took off her oven mitts and removed her safety goggles. "They're ready!" she called.
Fluttershy and Applejack walked into the kitchen and looked around at the complicated chemistry setup Pinkie had erected around the Apple family kitchen, trading an uneasy glance. "I'm...I'm almost afraid to even ask," Fluttershy said.
Applejack frowned. "You're cleanin' up this whole mess yourself, you know," she said.
"Yeah, sorry for the mess," Pinkie said. "This recipe's a little complicated." She waved the girls forward. They walked up to the counter where the sheet of cookies sat cooling.
"They're sugar cookies," Applejack said.
"They're blue," Fluttershy noted.
Indeed, just over a dozen broad, puffy sugar cookies sat on the sheet. The cookies had a faint clear blue tint to them.
"So they're blue sugar cookies. Big deal," Applejack said.
"They smell tasty," Fluttershy said. She tore a paper towel off the roll hanging over the counter, laid it flat next to the baking sheet, and took a spatula from the utensil drawer. She carefully pried a cookie from the baking sheet and laid it on the paper towel.
"Careful," Pinkie warned.
"I know, they're still hot," Fluttershy said as she picked it up.
"Yeah, but that's not—"
Fluttershy took a bite.
Her pupils expanded to fill her eyes. "Ohhhhhhmygoodness," she said in a wavering voice.
"Oh boy," Pinkie said softly, taking a careful, deliberate step away from Fluttershy.
Fluttershy suddenly started vibrating. She grabbed Applejack by both hands in a strong, shaking grip that made the farmer wince. "You know what I wanna do?" Fluttershy asked giddily. "I wanna go upstairs and grab your brother and YAY! and you know what else? You should totally go up there with me and we can all YAY! and oh! Oh! Oh! You know what'd be fun? You, me, and your brother could all go out to the barn and YAY! in the HAY! What do you say? Wanna YAY! in the HAY!?"
"Uhh..." Applejack wrestled herself free of Fluttershy's grip and backed away from her. "Pinkie Pie? Whut'n th' hell's IN them cookies?"
"Yyyyyeah..." Pinkie said slowly, watching Fluttershy vibrate in place and giggle to herself. "So here's the thing. You've heard of Party Dip, right?"
Applejack frowned, her brow furrowing. "Ah think so," she said. "Ain't it that stuff they took off th' market like, back before we were born?"
Pinkie nodded. "Yeah. It was basically concentrated sugar, and it did, well...this." She gestured vaguely at Fluttershy. "Well, my sister and I were perfecting our rock candy recipe a while ago when we accidentally created a brand new form of concentrated sugar, twice as potent as Party Dip." She idly loosened the cookies from the baking sheet and slid them into a paper bag. "What happened next is a really long story but basically we found out about this whole black market for homemade Party Dip, then I got the stupid idea to sell some, then we had these Dipheads coming after us for the recipe, and then we met Oatmeal Raisin, who runs this secret black market cookie ring for Dipheads, selling sugar cookies made from Party Dip. She tried to get the Blue Dip recipe from me and Maud, but Maud, well..." Pinkie shook her head. "Anyway, after that she tried to make a deal with me to bake Blue Dip cookies for her for a really really lot of money, but I said no because I didn't wanna get involved."
Applejack stared at her. "You're...you're kiddin', right?"
Pinkie pointed at Fluttershy. "Does that look like I'm kidding?"
Fluttershy had taken the mustard and ketchup out of the fridge and was busy squirting thick rivers of condiments into her hair. "Look at me! I'm Sunset Shimmer! Whee!"
* * * * *
The night before the Bake Sale arrived swiftly. Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy arrived separately at Las Galletas Hermanas; Big Macintosh dropped Applejack off, Fluttershy arrived in her van, and Pinkie Pie drove her powder blue party scooter. Ever since coming down from her Blue Dip high, Fluttershy had been moody, lethargic, and embarrassed, and was only just beginning to return to normal.
Oatmeal Raisin met the girls at the doors. Pinkie passed her a large brown paper bag; Oatmeal Raisin gave her a brief, placid nod. "You will be done by opening time?"
"We'll be out of here by nine in the morning," Pinkie promised.
Oatmeal Raisin frowned, but nodded. "I can afford to open late for one weekend." She unlocked the doors, then headed to her car and drove off.
Once she was gone, Pinkie turned to the other girls, a serious expression on her face.
"So what are we doing for the cooking contest?" Twilight asked from the back seat of Rarity's car.
"Well, I expect we'll need to prepare a variety of recipes," Rarity said. "If I know our competition, they'll focus on one recipe exclusively and trust it to carry them through the entire contest." She hummed thoughtfully. "I believe a selection of Prench haute cuisine should—"
"Uhh, Rarity?" Sunset interrupted. "Stopping you right there. We can't go too fancy. For one thing, this is a high school cooking competition, not Teflon Chef. For another thing, we have to buy all the ingredients ourselves."
Rarity pursed her lips. "Hmm, yes. You do raise a valid point there, darling." She sighed. "Very well then. What do you suggest?"
"Well if we wanna win, we can't do anything too simple," Sunset said. "But we also need to do something that's not too difficult. Something we can make over and over again until we get good at it, but not so expensive to make that it blows a whole month's food budget." She grimaced. "And something we'll enjoy eating, because we'll be eating every attempt we make for dinner until the competition."
"And we'll need to decide on an order for our entries," Twilight suggested. "Whatever we come up with, we'll need to save our best for the semifinals and finals, but we also need something good enough to get into the quarterfinals and win them."
The girls fell silent for a long moment.
"Well," Sunset said thoughtfully, "I do know this one dish that could get us through either the quarterfinals or the semifinals. I make it about once a month. Sometimes more often if I have some junk in the fridge I need to use up."
Rarity frowned. "I don't know," she said. "Something you can make from just any old leftovers?"
"Well, not any old leftovers," Sunset said. "Just, you know, veggies and meat I need to use up before they go bad." She shrugged. "It's a fun recipe to make, it just takes some practice. You can make it from just about any meats and vegetables you like."
"What is it?" Twilight asked.
Rarity blinked. "Oooh, a Neighponese dish! How positively delightful!" she cooed. "An exotic offering would certainly give us an advantage."
"So you've heard of it?" Twilight asked. "You know what it is?"
"Hmm...no clue," Rarity said. "But the name is clearly Neighponese..." She paused. "It is Neighponese, isn't it darling?"
"That it is," Sunset said with a smirk.
"So what is it?" Twilight pressed.
Sunset pursed her lips. "Better if I show you than try to explain it," she said. "But I haven't been to the store in a while, so we'll need to go shopping." She frowned. "There's a store not too far from my place that has what we need, but...I gotta warn you. It's a little...strange."
* * * * *
Rarity looked apprehensively at the large sign above the glass automatic doors of the small supermarket. "Sharty's," she said flatly.
"I think it was supposed to be Shorty's," Sunset said with a shrug. "The owner's English is terrible. He retired last year, he's...well, he's got cancer. His daughter runs the place now. I guess she decided not to change the name."
"You know the family that runs this place?" Twilight asked.
"My neighborhood is just kinda like that," Sunset said. "Besides, the owner's son is my landlord. It's not exactly ethical, but the tenants in my building have a standing ten percent discount here. It helps stretch the food budget."
"Ooh, that's a nice perk," Rarity said.
"Yeah, well...for what I pay in rent, I deserve a few perks," Sunset muttered. "Anyway, it's a good little store to get what you need and they have a good imported produce section. It's just that the staff can be a little...odd." She paused, then added, "And, well..." She sighed. "You'll see."
The girls headed for the entrance. Once inside, Sunset grabbed a shopping cart. "We'll need a few things," she said. "And I might as well get a few regular groceries for later while I'm here, if I can remember what I'm out of."
"Well this seems like quite a lovely little neighborhood market, darling!" Rarity said as she looked around. Indeed, the store had a nice, quiet, relaxed atmosphere. Soft, inobtrusive music played over the public address system, there weren't terribly many customers around, and the overall presentation of the market was "well-worn".
Sunset shook her head and pushed her wobbly, squeaky little grocery cart toward the produce section. As she approached, she stopped momentarily, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Her hands visibly trembled on the handle of the cart.
"Sunset? Are you alright?" Twilight asked.
Sunset opened her eyes and nodded. "Let's...let's get the produce section over with," she said. "It's the worst part."
Rarity and Twilight exchanged a confused glance, shrugged, and followed Sunset into the displays of fruits and vegetables. Rarity tilted her head in confusion as they neared a display of round, ripe watermelons. "Watermelons? But those aren't in season—"
"OH NO MELON!"
Rarity and Twilight jerked to a halt.
A watermelon had just jumped up from the heap in the bin and moaned at them.
"OH NO MELON!" it moaned again, bouncing in place. Sunset sighed and walked away, and the strangely active melon ceased moving, rolling down the heap of melons and coming to a stop at the edge.
"What...the..." Twilight muttered, staring at the melons.
Rarity blinked. "I...I..." She shook her head. "Well alright then." She followed Sunset; Twilight trailed behind her, continuing to cast wary glances at the melon display.
As Sunset made her way through the produce section, selecting various vegetables and fruits, some of the produce would occasionally jump up and declare itself. A "Twilight Onion" had introduced itself to them, as well as a few mushrooms; an out-of-season autumn squash had shouted "LA PUMPKIN!" at them.
"This is weird," Twilight said nervously. "This is...this is just weird. Right?"
"It's weird," Rarity agreed.
Finally, Sunset moved on to a display of exotic vegetables, intent on purchasing a very large white radish. As she neared, one of the radishes jumped up and shouted "ROOT VEGETABLE!" at them.
"Yes. Yes you are," Sunset said boredly, grabbing it and shoving it into a plastic bag. It wriggled in her grasp as she dropped it into her basket.
"Sunset, darling?" Rarity asked timidly. "What...precisely...is happening here? The out-of-season produce aside, this...this is hardly normal or appropriate behavior for vegetables."
Sunset sighed. "It's my fault."
"Your fault?" Twilight asked. "How can talking fruits and vegetables be YOUR fault?!"
Sunset grimaced sheepishly. "Rarity, you remember that day I tried doing experiments on you girls' magic, and how things got a little...crazy?"
"Vividly, darling," Rarity said with a frown.
"Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but I absorbed a lot of stray magic that day," Sunset said.
"Like a static electric charge?" Twilight asked.
"More like radiation exposure," Sunset said. "I mean, I know I got hit with a lot of weird magical effects that day..." She laughed. "I was pretty frazzled and sore all over by the time I finished getting rainbow-slimed, tripped up, apples-to-the-head, and blasted into a wall. On my way home, I decided to stop off here and grab a couple of things.
"What I didn't know is that I was overcharged with magical energy, and..." She gestured vaguely. "Sometimes, magic behaves in ways you don't expect it to, especially if it's abnormal magic and you're suffering from some kind of magical affliction. Which this more or less qualified as." She scratched the back of her elbow and ducked her head. "So anyway, I, umm...I was here shopping, and I started, well...farting."
Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Farting."
"Yeah, farting," Sunset said, her cheeks red.
Twilight tilted her head. "Farting?"
"Farting magic," Sunset clarified. "I left loose clouds of magic floating all over this store." She shrugged. "They...settled. It ended up having some weird lasting effects."
"Oh, darling," Rarity said in a chiding tone, her nose wrinkled distastefully. "Passing gas in a grocery store is bad enough, but passing radioactive magic gas...!"
"I know!" Sunset cried, throwing up her hands. "It's not like I did it on purpose!"
"We know you didn't," Twilight said soothingly. "Still, how has this gone, well..." She adjusted her glasses. "This seems like the kind of thing that'd be in the news or something. Or at least draw a crowd."
Sunset shrugged. "There've been rumors about this market being haunted for years. The locals just write it off as that. I mean, it's just some randomly noisy veggies and...and a few other things. Besides, the people running this place are so weird anyway, nobody really cares." She grimaced. "Which brings me to our next stop. The meat counter."
Twilight and Rarity glanced at one another, identical nauseated grimaces on their faces. "It's...it's not gonna moo at us, is it?" Twilight asked.
"No, the food behaves itself there," Sunset said as she pushed her cart toward the rows of refrigerated meat cases in the back. "It's—"
The swinging double doors into the employee area at the rear flew open as they approached.
A man dressed in bloodstained white clothes emerged from the back, holding the doors open with his arms spread wide, leaning languidly forward and smirking at the girls.
His short dark hair and scrubby black beard gave him a roguish look. The metal plate that took up a large portion of the right side of his face and the glowing red light where his right eye should be made him look like something out of a cheesy science-fiction movie.
"Did you miss me?"
Twilight and Rarity screamed, clutching each other tightly in fear.
Sunset sighed. "And here we go," she muttered under her breath. In a louder, resigned tone, she said, "Hello Trevor."
"Ain't seen you by in a while, love," Trevor said as he emerged fully from the back, swaggering. "Come 'round for your usual, eh? Some chicken breast..." He stepped closer to Sunset, dangerously encroaching on her personal space. "Skirt steak..." He leaned forward, pitching his voice to be low, husky, and rough. "Bit o' pork loin?"
Sunset groaned, pushing him away with her fingertips. "Do you have to do this every single time, Trevor?" she said. "You know I'm not interested in your ham."
Trevor chuckled. "Ollright, love. You win. For now." He grinned at Twilight and Rarity. "Well that's back to work for me, I suppose." He reached behind his back and drew out a large, wickedly gleaming butcher knife. "Oh this," he said in a low voice, running a finger along the edge. "Cuts 'em nice and deep..." With a menacing chuckle, he walked back through the swinging doors.
Sunset deflated, her body trembling. "Every. Single. Time," she grumbled.
"Who, or what, was that?" Rarity asked.
"What a creep," Twilight whimpered.
Sunset sighed. "He's actually not so bad, really," she said. "I mean, all that's just an act." She smirked. "He weeds old ladies' gardens for free and walks every dog in the neighborhood on Sundays."
Rarity blinked. "Seriously?"
Twilight's jaw dropped. "That guy?!"
"Yep," Sunset said, rolling her eyes. "Creepy as he is about it, he does know exactly what I buy every time," she added as she moved along the counter and made her selections.
"But his behavior," Rarity said with a grimace of distaste. "Why have you not reported it to his supervisor, or...?"
Sunset shrugged. "If you had an employee who looked that scary, would you have the balls to fire him?"
Rarity blinked. "I...I take your point," she said.
"Besides, he knows his boundaries," Sunset said. "The first time he pulled that bit on me, I kicked him in the balls. It didn't stop him from his creepy idea of flirting, but at least after all that I found out he's an okay guy." She shook her head. "Come on, we've still got some other stuff to get..."
* * * * *
The rest of the shopping trip had been fairly routine; the girls drove to Sunset's apartment and spent several minutes putting away the groceries. After that, Sunset went to her computer, spent a few minutes looking up an okonomiyaki recipe online, then printed it out. "Okay!" Sunset said, clapping her hands together and moving over to the kitchen. "Let's make a mess." She took an apron off a hook and slipped it on.
Rarity eyed Sunset Shimmer's apron with a grimace of distaste. "Really, darling? Must you?"
Sunset rolled her eyes as she cinched the apron—the front of which was emblazoned with the slogan "NO BITCHIN' IN MY KITCHEN"—tight around her waist. "It was a gift from Flash, alright?" she said somewhat defensively. "Besides, it's the only one I've got." Sunset quickly put the girls to work cutting, measuring, and mixing ingredients while she prepared the griddle and explained the preparation. "So what we're dealing with here is essentially a pancake with meat and vegetable toppings," she said. "And the batter has shredded cabbage in it. The trick is to brown the toppings a little, then add a layer of them to the pancake once we pour it out. When we flip it over, we have to be careful so we don't send all the good stuff flying. Then when it's done, we add the sauce and garnishes to the top."
"Sounds simple enough," Twilight said.
Sunset smirked. "You'll ruin at least three apiece until you figure it out."
She wasn't far off; Rarity messed up two attempts before cooking a passable okonomiyaki, while Twilight gave up after the fourth. "I'll just...I'll just cut and brown stuff," she said. "You two can do the flipping part."
"Fair enough," Sunset said as the girls sat down in the living room with plates of hot okonomiyaki.
Rarity took a bite. "Oh my," she said. "This is a very interesting dish."
Twilight tried hers. "Huh," she said. "For everything we put into it, it tastes...not like you'd expect it to?" She took another bite. "Not bad."
"We'll certainly score points for originality," Rarity said as she took another bite. "Although perhaps we should season the toppings while we're browning them."
"Yeah, I think you're right," Sunset said. "I never really thought about it all that much because I usually put so much mayonnaise on mine I don't really notice."
"We definitely need to go light on the mayo for judging," Twilight said, pushing up her glasses. "Didn't the recipe we looked at say just spread a thin layer and make lines in it with a fork?"
"Presentation is important," Rarity put in.
"We'll work on it," Sunset said.
Once they'd cleared their plates, Sunset took everything to the kitchen and washed the dishes while Rarity and Twilight sat back in the living room. Sunset returned several minutes later with cold sodas and set them in front of the girls. "So, think that'll get us through the quarterfinals?"
"It should," Rarity said. "We just need to refine the process and improve the recipe a bit. What was that rather large radish? I've never tasted anything quite like it."
"Daikon," Sunset said. "As far as I know, Sharty's is the only place that has it in Canterlot."
Twilight shook her head. "There's a world foods market two blocks from my place," she said. "I can get any vegetables we need, any spices."
"How fortuitous!" Rarity said. "Then perhaps once we decide on our other dishes, we should experiment at your place next."
Twilight smiled. "Sure! Mom's been wanting to meet my new friends for a while now." She frowned. "Probably better to do that on the weekend, though." Her eyes brightened. "Oooh! How about a weekend sleepover?" She clapped her hands. "I've always wanted one of those!"
Sunset laughed. "I think we can do that," she said. "In the meantime, we'll look at other recipes to try, and spend this week perfecting the okonomiyaki."
* * * * *
By the time the weekend had rolled around, the girls had refined their menu for the cooking contest. Having decided to use okonomiyaki as their quarterfinal presentation, they opted to go with chicken cordon bleu for the first round as it was relatively simple and inexpensive and a good 'icebreaker', as Rarity put it. After some discussion, they decided to go with a complicated layered deep dish pizza recipe for the semifinal (a decision reached when Twilight's mouth started watering just from seeing pictures of it on the Internet), but an idea for their final offering still eluded them.
Twilight's mother, Twilight Velvet, had been delighted to meet them, and had welcomed them into her home with a hearty dinner and pleasant conversation. Over dinner, they met the rest of Twilight's family: her father, Night Light, and her older brother, Shining Armor. After dinner, the men wandered off to do guy stuff while the girls cleaned up the kitchen and talked about the cooking contest. When the girls finished explaining their planned menu, Velvet put on a thoughtful expression. "Chicken cordon bleu, okonomiyaki, deep dish pizza...you girls certainly are getting a variety of cultural cuisine going there!"
"Yeah, but we're stumped on a fourth dish," Sunset said. "We're not sure the pizza could win the finals, but by that point we've kinda painted ourselves into a corner, you know?"
"Yeah, for a high school cooking contest, deep dish pizza is hard to top," Velvet agreed, earning a groan from Twilight. "Honestly, I'd make that your dish for the final round. Come up with something else for the semifinals." She looked around at the girls. "I mean, you're in high school. The odds of anyone beating that pizza recipe you showed me are pretty steep."
"Hmm," Sunset muttered, tapping a finger on the table. "Yeah, the pizza's gonna be a tough one and it might take us all day tomorrow just to nail that down," she admitted. "Girls, what do you think?"
"I think it'd be a good final dish," Twilight said.
"I suppose," Rarity agreed. "I would prefer to enter something more exotic as our anchor, but I suppose the complexity is a factor."
"You know," Velvet said thoughtfully, "after the okonomiyaki, it might not be a bad idea to offer a 'fun' dish to lead up to the pizza."
"What do you mean?" Sunset asked. "You mean like an appetizer?"
"More or less," Velvet said. With a smile, she added, "Actually, I think I know just the thing..."
"Uh-oh," Twilight muttered. "Mom's up to no good."
Velvet laughed. "Silly! I was just thinking you girls could take a look at a certain recipe of mine." Her smile grew more devious. "That certain recipe I always make for a certain party we have for a certain big game..."
Twilight gasped, eyes wide. "You don't mean..." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "The special nachos?"
Sunset raised an eyebrow. "Special nachos?"
"SHH!" both Twilights hissed.
Twilight's dad and brother materialized out of nowhere. "WHO SAID SPECIAL NACHOS?" they chorused.
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo stared in mute horror at the tray Sweetie Belle placed on the table in front of them.
One of the plates bore a bowl full of an ashy black mush. A bubble rose up in it; the bubble burst with a loud blorp sound, and the surface of the mush cracked and sank.
The second plate held something that looked and smelled like a donkey turd. A burnt donkey turd.
The third had a mangled old shoe covered in an unsettling red ooze.
"Uhh...Sweetie Belle," Apple Bloom said, tilting her head. "You know we're supposed to cook food, right?"
"This is food!" Sweetie Belle protested. "Come on, you guys, I spent half an hour in the kitchen!"
Scootaloo prodded the shoe with a knife. "You know people only cook shoes in cartoons about hobos, right?"
"It's not a shoe!" Sweetie Belle squeaked. "It's a steak! How do you confuse a steak for a shoe?"
"That's what I wanna know," Scootaloo said. "Do I even wanna know what that stuff on it is?"
"Well we're out of steak sauce, so I improvised!" Sweetie Belle said. "I mixed some ketchup with some olive oil and soy sauce, then I added a little—"
"Just...just stop right there," Apple Bloom said, holding a hand over her bulging cheeks. She pointed at the donkey turd. "An' whut's that'n supposed t' be?"
"Of course," Apple Bloom said, her eyes half-closed. She glanced at the bowl of ashy mess and shuddered. "Ah know Ah'm gonna regret it, but..."
"No, I gotta know," Scootaloo said in a tone of sick fascination. "I mean, at this point, nothing would surprise me, but..." She glanced at Sweetie Belle, then pointed at the bowl. "What kind of soup is that supposed to be?"
Sweetie Belle blinked. "Soup? It's a grilled cheese sandwich."
The other girls blinked.
"A gril—" Scootaloo stood up suddenly, shaking the table. "No. Just...no." She stormed out of the room, muttering angrily. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle watched Scootaloo stomp into the kitchen. They heard pots and pans banging, cupboard doors slamming, and Scootaloo grumbling angrily.
Sweetie Belle looked at Apple Bloom. "What's she so mad about?"
Apple Bloom looked at the tray of unidentifiable 'cuisine'. "Gee, Ah dunno," she said sourly.
A few minutes later, Scootaloo returned, holding a paper plate which she practically threw into Sweetie Belle's lap. "THIS. Is a grilled cheese sandwich."
And indeed it was. A perfectly browned, melty, delicious-looking grilled cheese sandwich.
Apple Bloom blinked. "Ah thought you said you couldn't cook," she said.
"I can't," Scootaloo said. "I mean, not like, mom cooking. But kids our age should at least be able to make grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, that kind of thing, right?"
"Well, that's true."
Sweetie Belle looked from Scootaloo's grilled cheese sandwich to her bowl of ashy mush. Her lip quivered. "But I don't understand," she said. "I..." She wrung her hands. "I mean, I made the mixture and I dipped it and coated it and I, I mean it..."
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom exchanged a glance. "Whut're you talkin' about?" Apple Bloom asked as she snatched the plated sandwich from Sweetie Belle's lap and tore a large piece off, taking a big gooey bite.
"Dipped and coated? What?" Scootaloo asked. "Sweetie Belle, who taught you how to make a grilled cheese sandwich?"
"It was in Mom's notebook," Sweetie Belle whined plaintively. She dug an old, dog-eared notebook out of her pocket and handed it to Scootaloo even as she took half of the remaining sandwich and chewed petulantly.
Scootaloo flipped through it and frowned. "Well, yeah, there's a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich here," she said. "Not that you need a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich. I mean, you butter two slices of bread, you put two pieces of cheese between them, you brown it on one side, you flip it over, finish browning it, and you're done."
Sweetie Belle blinked. "Huh? But...but what about the egg coating, and sifting the sugar? When do you add the milk? And what do you mean flip it over?"
"Huh?" Apple Bloom asked as she finished off her piece of the sandwich and wiped her fingers on her shirt. "Umm...you don't do any of that for a grilled cheese—"
Scootaloo frowned and paged through the book. "I think I see what happened here," she said grimly. "Sweetie Belle? You got five different recipes mixed up."
Sweetie Belle blinked. "Huh? I did?"
"Yeah, everything you just said is on like, five different pa..." Scootaloo trailed off, then narrowed her eyes. "Did you mark your page in the book while you were cooking?"
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "Oops," she said in a defeated tone. She glanced at the mess she'd made, spread out on the table like a cable reality horror show. "Wow, no wonder it all looks so...huh."
"Have you...ever cooked before?" Apple Bloom asked. "At all?"
Sweetie Belle sighed. "Nuh-uh," she admitted. "I mean, I tried to make cereal for breakfast once, but there wasn't any milk in the box."
Her friends facepalmed. "You're...you're kidding, right?" Scootaloo asked.
Sweetie Belle blinked. "What?"
* * * * *
Apple Bloom stared at the lifeless-looking hamburger which sat on a paper plate in front of her, one large bite having been taken out of it. "Okay, two things," she said, holding up two fingers. "First of all, you used them pre-made patties from th' store instead of makin' your own from fresh ground beef. Pretty sure that'd count against you."
Scootaloo frowned. "Okay. Second?"
"Second thing," Apple Bloom said, "it's awful. Ain't got no flavor."
Scootaloo picked up her own burger, took a bite, and made a face. "Okay, yeah, it's not very good," she admitted. "I've never tried making a hamburger before, though! I mean, I can make easy stuff." She shrugged. "I thought a hamburger wouldn't be that much harder than a grilled cheese sandwich."
"Yeah but it is," Apple Bloom said. "If'n you want it t' taste good, it is. You can't just throw some meat in a fryin' pan an' slap some ketchup an' mustard on a bun an' a piece o' cheese an' call it a burger."
Sweetie Belle frowned. "But...that's what they always do at Burger Hotep," she said.
Apple Bloom shot her a half-lidded glare. "We only eat Burger Hotep cause it's cheap an' fast," she pointed out. "Not cuz it's any kind'a good."
"I like their Pharaoh Fries," Sweetie Belle said petulantly.
"So how do you make a burger then, if you're suddenly the expert?" Scootaloo asked.
"Ah ain't no expert," Apple Bloom said, "but Ah know Big Mac's burgers are better than anything any fast food place in town has, an' Ah know he puts a lot of time into it. You gotta make your own patties from fresh ground beef, you gotta season 'em just right before you even cook 'em, you gotta warm up th' buns, put good fresh stuff on th' burger when you finish it..." She waved her hands expressively. "Good hamburgers take a while."
"Huh." Scootaloo took another bite of her failburger and frowned.
"But on th' bright side," Apple Bloom said with a game smile, "you got th' cookin' it part right. Ah mean, these ain't all that good, but they're edible." She grabbed the ketchup, poured a generous blob of it onto her plate, swiped the burger through it, and took another bite.
Scootaloo groaned. "Great. I can just barely make teenager-home-alone food, Sweetie Belle can't even make a bowl of cereal..." She shook her head. "I sure hope you can do more than just point out how bad a cook I am, or we're in a lot of trouble."
* * * * *
Apple Bloom hummed to herself as she tilted the paprika over the deep mixing bowl in front of her. It was already half full of flour, salt, and pepper. "That oughta do it," she said, nodding as she capped the bottle and set it aside. She gave the mixture one good stir, then turned to the cutting board next to her. "Hand me th' buttermilk, Scootaloo."
"Okay," Scootaloo said, jogging over to the Apples' refrigerator and pulling out a glass milk bottle. "It's this one, right?"
"Yeah." Scootaloo brought the milk over; Apple Bloom filled a smaller mixing bowl with it, then handed it back to Scootaloo.
"Shouldn't you put it in the flour?" Scootaloo asked as she put the milk away again.
"Not for this," Apple Bloom said as she picked up a piece of chicken from the cutting board and dipped it into the bowl of milk. When she pulled it out again, dripping milk, she quickly dunked it into the bowl with the flour, rolling it around for a minute before transferring it onto a cookie sheet covered in wax paper. One by one, she did the same with each piece of chicken, then spread another piece of wax paper over the top of the chicken. "Now we wait a few minutes," she said. "Gotta let it thicken. Which means..." She pulled a large cast iron pot out of a cabinet with a grunt, then plunked it onto the stove. She took a bottle of vegetable oil out of the cupboard and poured a good third of it into the pot, then turned on the heat.
"W-wait!" Sweetie Belle cried. "You're gonna burn down the—"
"Relax," Apple Bloom said as she put the rest of the oil away.
"Wow, Apple Bloom," Scootaloo said as she looked around at the impressive (but somehow tidy) mess the redhead had made. "Why were you so worried about entering this contest? You really know your way around the kitchen!"
Apple Bloom shrugged. "Not really," she said. "Ah only know how t' make a couple'a things we do here at home all th' time, cuz Ah help Granny or Applejack in th' kitchen sometimes." She laughed nervously. "T' tell th' truth, Ah ain't never done this all by mahself before. It's kinda excitin'!"
"I'm not so sure you know what you're doing," Sweetie Belle said doubtfully. "I mean, you cut up a chicken, you dipped it in milk, you dipped it in flour, you put some stuff in the flour, now you're just letting it sit there while you burn down the house with a pan of hot oil..." She shook her head. "How is any of this anything but making a big mess?"
Apple Bloom cast her a sidelong glance. "Really? You're askin' me that?"
During Sweetie Belle's entire rant, Scootaloo's eyes had been moving rapidly left to right, as though mentally scanning the entire list of Apple Bloom's actions. Toward the end, her eyes grew wider. She let out a sudden gasp. "Apple Bloom...you're not making what I think you're making...are you?"
Apple Bloom smirked, fanning herself with one hand. "Whut else could Ah possibly be makin'?" With that, she walked over to the chicken and peeled back the wax paper. She pursed her lips. "Yeah, Ah reckon it's ready." She rummaged around in a drawer and pulled out a long pair of metal tongs with plastic handles, then wrangled the cookie sheet over to the stove, setting it carefully to the side. The other girls watched as Apple Bloom carefully placed one piece of chicken at a time in the oil, which sizzled loudly. For several minutes, she tended the chicken in the hot oil, carefully turning each piece and checking it. After a while, she nodded, turned down the heat, and covered the pot with a lid. "Okay, now we gotta wait a bit," she said. "It's good an' browned, but th' chicken's gotta cook through. Gonna take about half an hour."
"It already smells so good," Scootaloo said, drooling slightly.
Sweetie Belle's confused expression finally gave way to comprehension. "Wait a second," she said. "Do you...you mean you're making fried chicken?!"
"Well someone dang sure is!" Granny Smith cackled as she wandered past the kitchen door. "Smells mighty good, too..." She peered in. "Apple Bloom? You fryin' up a chicken?"
"Yeah, Granny," Apple Bloom said. "Don't worry, Ah bought th' chicken an' th' milk with mah own allowance. Mighta used some'a your flour though."
"Oh, that's alright, chil'," Granny said dismissively. "Mighty surprised you're in here cookin' instead'a off playin' or doin' homework, though."
"We're entering the cooking competition," Apple Bloom said. "We're just trying to figure out what level we're all at."
"So far it looks like Apple Bloom's the only one of us who can actually cook," Scootaloo said glumly.
"Yeah, well, you can't be an Apple gal an' not know how t' fry a thing or two," Granny Smith said with a chuckle.
"Ah don't think it'll carry us through the contest though," Apple Bloom said.
"Well now," Granny said, "as long as y'all have fun an' do your best, that's all that matters, right?" She frowned. "Now...y'all are plannin' on cleanin' up that there mess, right? Ah reckon you got time afore that chicken's ready."
"Oh, shoot! Sorry, Granny! Come on, girls, help me clean this up."
The girls hurriedly cleaned up the mess; once they were done, Apple Bloom checked on the chicken, then turned off the heat and started moving the chicken off to a platter lined with paper towels. "Okay, gotta let it drain an' cool a bit," she said.
"Oh my god it looks amazing," Sweetie Belle said.
"Yeah, it looks better than Chicken Shack!" Scootaloo agreed.
"Wish Ah knew how t' make some coleslaw t' go with it," Apple Bloom lamented. "Maybe Ah'll git Applejack t' teach me one day."
"So you have homemade fried chicken a lot here?" Scootaloo asked.
"Well, maybe about once a week," Apple Bloom said. "Usually on weekends. It don't take that long t' make, but it's a lot of work."
Once the chicken had cooled, each girl grabbed a plate and took two pieces. When Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo took their first bites, their eyes flew open and their mouths watered.
"This is...!" Sweetie Belle gasped.
"This is the best fried chicken I ever tasted!" Scootaloo exclaimed.
Apple Bloom nibbled on a wing. "Hmm. Yeah, Ah guess it ain't bad," she said. "Granny's is better, but not bad for a first try."
Granny Smith wandered in at that moment and plucked a thigh from the platter. "Well now, let's see here," she said. She took a bite, chewed, and smiled. "Well Ah'll be!" she said delightedly. "Mighty good chicken, Apple Bloom!"
Applejack and Big Macintosh wandered in. "Ah smell fried chicken," Big Mac said.
"Yep, looks like Granny's been fryin' one up," Applejack agreed.
"Weren't me, yung'uns," Granny said. "This here's Apple Bloom's cookin'!"
The elder Apple siblings drew up short. "Apple Bloom?" Applejack asked. "You fried chicken? By yourself?"
"Sure did!" Apple Bloom said with a bright smile.
"And it's delicious!" Sweetie Belle added.
Applejack and Big Mac exchanged a glance, then headed over and grabbed a piece each. After taking a hestitant bite, they both turned to Apple Bloom with wide eyes.
"Well Ah'll be," Applejack said. "Mah first time didn't turn out this good!"
"Good chicken, Apple Bloom," Big Macintosh grunted before taking another bite.
It didn't take long for the six of them to finish off all the chicken Apple Bloom had fried. The rest of the Apples scattered as quickly as they'd been drawn by the chicken, leaving the Crusaders to clean up the mess. Once they were done, they sat down at the kitchen table with glasses of iced tea.
"Well, Apple Bloom's good to go," Scootaloo said to Sweetie Belle, "but you and me, we need help."
Sweetie Belle sighed. "Yeah..."
"Ah ain't so sure Ah'm good t' go neither," Apple Bloom said. "Ah mean, this is about all Ah can do." She frowned. "Maybe we should call this off."
A long moment of silence passed.
"Or maybe," Scootaloo said suddenly, "we should just take a cooking class this weekend."
The other girls looked at her. "Huh?" Sweetie Belle said.
"Whut good's that gonna do?" Apple Bloom asked. "If we could even afford one."
"We can afford a free one," Scootaloo said, sliding her phone across the table. "And there just happens to be a free cooking class at the youth center this Saturday."
The other girls leaned in, read the site Scootaloo had been looking at, then looked at one another.
The harsh sun beat down on a barren stretch of rough, dry land with sparse crabgrass and the burrows of numerous small underground animals. Rocks littered the terrain.
A battered old RV sat in the middle of a field on the side of the road. Three dirty, sweaty teenage boys sat on steel folding chairs, gulping cold drinks from an ice chest that sat nearby as they watched smoke billow into the sky from a dented old grill that had seen better days.
"Dude, I can't believe you got a fifty on that test," Skunk said to Beats. "Seriously, it wasn't that hard a test!"
"Yeah, I got an eighty-four on it," Flash said. "There were some hard questions, but it was pretty easy for one of Mr. Phylum's tests."
Beats grunted. "I dunno, I just can't get all this crap about bugs straight," he said. "All I need to know about bugs is how to squish 'em. Why do I gotta know how many hearts they have or what they're made of and stuff?"
Skunk rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, none of us care about this stuff, but all you gotta do is memorize some shit from the book, man!"
"Yeah, but how am I supposed to keep all those long messed-up Latin words and stuff straight when they don't make sense to me?" Beats protested. "I mean, it's like...I don't care which bugs are turdivores, or which ones—"
Flash let out a bark of laughter, interrupting him. "Wait, wait. Turdivores?"
Beats frowned. "Well, yeah. That's what I put for question seven."
Skunk laughed. "Oh my god, you actually wrote that on your test?!"
"Well I couldn't remember the word for it!" Beats said, his face red. "I figured Mr. Phylum would know what I meant!"
"Good grief," Flash said, shaking his head. "Turdivores. Dude."
"Shut up," Beats grumbled, crushing his soda can and getting up to check on the grill.
"I still don't get why we had to come out to the middle of nowhere to do this," Skunk said.
"Because you live in an apartment, Beats' half a dozen little brothers would've bugged the crap out of us, and we don't wanna be anywhere near my place right now," Flash said. "Remember my grandpa?"
Skunk shuddered. "Yeah, it's hard to forget." He frowned. "But couldn't we have gone to like, the park? I mean, dude."
Beats snorted. "Flash is worried about spies," he said.
"No, I'm worried about my grandpa finding us," Flash said. "I'm pretty sure he can't get out of the city."
"Okay why isn't he in a home or something if he's that big a problem?" Skunk asked.
Flash shook his head. "We can't afford the lawsuits. Hey Beats, how's it lookin'?"
"I think we're good to grill," Beats said.
"Sweet." Flash got up and headed for the RV; Skunk joined him. They hauled out a large ice chest and brought it over to the grill. Working together, Flash and Beats spread several pieces of chicken and half a dozen bratwurst on the grill. "Okay, so we gotta let this stuff cook a bit, then we'll brush on the sauce and let it finish," Flash said.
Beats frowned. "You know, somethin's been buggin' me all week," he said. "We're not gonna just do meat, are we?"
"Well, that's the idea," Flash said.
"Yeah, but...we gotta have somethin' to go with it, right?" Beats pressed. "I mean, we could roast some potatoes or corn on the cob, we can do it right on the grill, or we could do some baked beans..."
"Baked beans are kitchen stuff," Flash said. "The whole point of this grilling thing is so we don't have to do kitchen stuff."
"Making the sauce is kitchen stuff," Beats pointed out.
"Yeah but that's easy kitchen stuff," Flash said dismissively. "You weren't there at the Friendship Games, man. I tried to bake a cake and ended up with a loaf of bread. With sprinkles!"
"Okay okay, so no kitchen stuff," Beats said. "We can still throw some potatoes or something on the grill though, just to have something to go with the meat."
Flash sighed. "Yeah, I guess. Besides, you're probably right, the judges'll probably be more impressed with that."
Skunk walked over. "I gotta take a piss," he said. "Want me to bring the sauce out of the RV when I'm done?"
"Sure," Flash said.
"Why'd we have to keep the sauce separate from everything else again?" Beats wondered as Skunk headed for the RV.
"Because you can't let the sauce get cold," Flash said. "It can't sit for more than twenty-four hours and you can't get it cold. You also have to make it at least six hours before you use it so it has time to set just right."
Beats shook his head. "This had better be the best damn sauce ever, man."
"Oh dude, you haven't had barbecue till you've tasted this, trust me," Flash said.
Skunk emerged from the RV, holding a glass jar full of a reddish-brown, slightly murky fluid. "Hey dudes, got the sau—"
He tripped over a rock.
Flash and Beats watched in horror as Skunk fell, as though in slow motion.
The sauce jar flew from his hands, shattering on impact with the rocky plain. The sauce soaked into the ground.
"Gah," Skunk said as he rose to his knees, wincing. "Oh...oh dudes. Sorry."
"You dropped the sauce," Beats said listlessly, staring at him.
"Dude, it was an accident," Skunk said as he stood up, dusting himself off. "It's no big deal, we can—"
Beats stomped toward Skunk, fists trembling in rage at his sides. "I drove my dad's busted-ass old RV for two hours," he said. "Spent two hours sweltering in the heat. No cell reception. Nothing to do but sit around waiting to get my grill on. And now that we're at the most important part, YOU. DROPPED. THE FUCKING. SAUCE?!"
"It was an acci—"
Beats let out a roar of rage and grabbed Skunk by the face, slamming him to the ground. Skunk flailed against him; he managed to sweep Beats' legs. The two rolled around on the ground, clawing at each other. Beats managed to get up first, picked Skunk up, and slung him lengthwise across his shoulders. "HELICOPTER, BITCH!" he snarled as he spun in place before suplexing Skunk to the ground.
"GUYS!" Flash cried, running over and pushing Beats back. "Guys, cut it out!"
Skunk picked himself up, coughed, and spat out a little blood. "Dude," he grunted, "what the fuck?!"
"Dude, we've got meat burning over there!" Beats roared. "We all wasted our whole Saturday on this stupid-ass trip to the middle of fucking nowhere to grill some damn chicken and some damn sausage, and you go and DROP. THE. SAUCE?!"
"I said it was an accident!"
"YOU'RE an accident!"
"Well what the fuck was the oh-so-important almighty sauce doing in a glass jar in the first place?!"
"Ask Mr. Grandson of the Scary Sauce Man!"
"Okay, ENOUGH!" Flash yelled. Running his fingers through his hair, he looked back and forth between his friends. "Look...accidents happen, alright? We'll have to be more careful with the next batch. And it was in a glass jar for a reason."
"Oh yeah? What reason is that?" Beats asked.
"Because it's on the recipe," Flash said. "When someone like Grandpa writes something very specifically on the recipe, it's important. Just trust me."
"Oh, just trust you," Beats said, throwing up his hands. "Well, that helps us out a fat lot when we've got no more sauce to work with!"
"Actually, we do," Flash said. "I...kinda thought something like this might happen, so I had a backup ready. But it's not gonna turn out as good as if we'd had the jar of sauce Skunk dropped."
Beats blinked. "Wait. A backup?"
Flash walked over to the cooler they'd brought their drinks in and pulled out a metal camp thermos. "The two things you don't do with the sauce," he said, "are store it in metal and get it cold. But you usually don't have to carry it out into the middle of nowhere just to do a test cook anyway, so..."
Skunk lowered his glasses. "You mean you've got more sauce?"
Flash shrugged. "Like I said, I had a hunch."
Beats frowned. "Dude. You coulda told me that before I beat the shit outta Skunk!"
"Yeah, Flash, what the hell?" Skunk asked.
"Look, dudes," Flash said, "we can stand around arguing all day about who let who beat up who, or whose fault it is, or whatever, or we can put this sauce on the meat and get our barbecue on." With that, he headed for the grill and grabbed a brush.
* * * * *
The RV crossed the city limits as long shadows of late evening stretched across the city.
"Okay, so we'll need to be extra careful for the contest," Flash said, "and we'll need two or three jars of the sauce, just to be safe."
"We should put it in something," Skunk said. "Like a cooler. Lined with towels."
"Yeah, good idea," Beats agreed. "And we'll need like...corn. And potatoes."
"And we need to decide what meat we'll use in the contest, that's important," Flash said. "No cheap meats, we need to get good stuff."
"What we had today was pretty good," Beats said. "Dude, you were so right about that sauce."
"No, the sauce was off," Flash said with a grimace. "I don't know if it's because it was cold or because I didn't make it right, but the sauce was off. I'll need to get it right before the contest and we absolutely can't let it get cold like that next time."
"Dude, if you call that a bad batch, I can't wait to see what you call a good batch," Skunk said. "I can still taste it."
"Dude, yeah, that kicked ass!" Beats said.
"Trust me, the real thing is even better..."
None of the boys noticed as the RV drove past a tall, yellow-skinned old man in an outdated mortician's suit, who glared at them in passing with his one good eye.
Twilight Velvet took a deep breath. "False alarm, boys," she said. "Go back to the man cave."
"Aww," Shining Armor whined. "You said special nachos..."
"For the cooking contest," Twilight Sparkle clarified. "Mom's gonna share the recipe so we can put it on our menu."
Shining Armor and Night Light exchanged a glance. "But...you'll need to learn how to make them, right?" Night Light said. "Vel's gonna have to teach you."
"And you'll need taste-testers," Shining Armor supplied quickly, an eager gleam in his eyes.
Velvet rolled her eyes. "I'm sure the girls would be happy to have your...input," she said.
Sunset blinked. "Okay, you guys are way too excited about some nachos."
Shining Armor snorted. "These aren't just 'some nachos'," he said.
"Yeah, they're nacho ordinary nachos," Night Light agreed with a chuckle.
Twilight whapped Night Light upside the head with a rolled-up magazine. "We talked about those dad jokes..."
"So, err...what exactly makes these 'special' nachos so...special?" Rarity asked.
"When you eat them you die," Shining Armor said. "And then you come back to life just so you can taste them all over again."
Twilight groaned. "Ignore my embarrassing brother," she said. She smiled. "But they are the best nachos you'll ever eat. Just...I'd rather not spoil it."
"Food spoilers? Really? We're doing that now?" Sunset asked.
"Why don't we get an early start on this tomorrow?" Velvet suggested, clapping her hands together. "For now, I need to clean up the kitchen so you all can work tomorrow, and you girls need to settle in and have a fun sleepover."
* * * * *
After a night of sleepover activities, the girls woke up early to a light but hearty breakfast spread consisting of fluffy scrambled eggs, hash browns, and waffles. "I didn't make any bacon or sausage because you'll all be getting more than enough meat later on today," Velvet said.
"I think this girl's had enough bacon anyway," Shining Armor said from behind Sunset, grabbing a lock of her hair and holding it up.
Sunset rolled her eyes and reached up, flicking him in the nose without looking. "Turd," she said. Turning to Velvet, she asked, "Do you need me to make a run to the store? For tortilla chips, cheese, that kind of thing?"
"We make our own tortilla chips for the special nachos," Velvet said. "But we do need to get a few things from the store. Don't worry about it, I'll go. Twilight, dear, you'll go with me, won't you?"
"Of course," Twilight said. "Sunset, Rarity, I'll have to walk you through the ingredients list when we're buying this stuff for the contest. For now, it'd be better if Mom and I just make a quick trip for what we need."
"Alright," Rarity said.
"We'll be back in a bit," Velvet said as she grabbed her car keys off the pegboard by the kitchen door.
"Be sure to get some cerveza!" Night Light called.
Velvet rolled her eyes. "Sure, why not," she muttered.
Once the two Twilights were gone, Sunset turned to Rarity. "They make their own tortilla chips?"
"I guess these nachos are rather special, if they start with fresh homemade chips," she said.
"These nachos? You've never had anything like them before," Night Light said. "Once you've tasted them, well...they ruin stadium nachos for you forever."
"Well, I don't know if I'd go that far," Shining Armor said. "I mean, chips and queso have their place, and sometimes you just need a quick nacho fix. But yeah, there isn't a nacho in the world that stacks up to this."
"So where'd this legendary nacho recipe come from?" Sunset asked.
Night Light shrugged. "I dunno. As far as I know, Vel came up with it herself. The first time she ever made them was just after we bought this house. Our parents and all our friends came over, we had a big party, Vel busted out these nachos." He smiled. "Man, that was a special night." He furrowed his brow. "Actually, I'm pretty sure we conceived Twiley that night."
"Too much information, darling," Rarity said, turning faintly green.
"Yeah, Dad! What the hell?" Shining Armor agreed, his nose wrinkling. "Anyway, we'd better clean up the kitchen before Mom and Twiley get back."
"Yeah, yeah," Night Light said, standing up with a grunt. "You girls go watch some TV or something."
"Couldn't we help?"
"Nah, part of the bargain is we clean up the kitchen before and after if we want the special nachos," Shining Armor said. "Well, it's not so much a bargain as it is a tradition."
"Yeah, especially the 'after' part," Night Light said. "Vel uses about half the pots and pans in the whole kitchen for this."
Sunset and Rarity exchanged an uneasy glance. "For nachos?" Sunset asked.
* * * * *
It was an hour and a half before the Twilights returned. Rarity and Sunset helped them unload the car and unbag the groceries. Sunset extracted a package of flour tortillas from a bag. "Flour tortillas?" she asked, her brow furrowing in confusion. "I thought we were making nachos, not burritos!"
"The first secret to the special nachos is that we use flour tortilla chips," Velvet explained. "But since those are a little hard to come by bagged, we make our own fresh at home."
"So that's why you make your own chips," Rarity said with a look of dawning comprehension.
"Oh, that does sound good," Sunset said. "I've had that taco salad with the flour tortilla shell, I love it!"
"This is essentially the same idea, just as nachos, and...well, we put a lot more work into it."
By the time everything was unbagged and spread out in the kitchen, the girls had two pounds of ground beef, two cans of black beans, a large sweet yellow onion, two large, ripe tomatoes, a small bag of fresh jalapeños, a single lime, a brick of cheddar cheese, a brick of jack cheese, a small bottle of Southwest Sriracha Sauce, a medium-sized bottle of mild taco sauce, a pint of sour cream, two packages of flour tortillas, and a few assorted bottles of spices, including one containing whole dried roasted red peppers. There were also two six-packs of cerveza.
Night Light examined the cerveza as the girls finished up. "Zorrillo and Asqueroso?"
"It's what they had," Velvet said with a shrug.
"Eh. I guess Zorrillo works with nachos." Night Light wandered off to the den, where Shining Armor was already watching some movie.
Velvet rolled her eyes. "Better put that in the fridge," she said.
Rarity did so with a distasteful grimace. "He doesn't, err...indulge frequently, does he?"
"Nah, Dad only drinks a couple of beers with a really special meal," Twilight said. "Shining Armor might have one, too. They're not heavy drinkers, it's more of a..." She made a vague hand gesture. "Complementary thing."
"Well...I suppose I can understand that," Rarity said doubtfully. "I guess it's like wine, except...less elegant..."
Velvet clapped her hands. "Right! Let's get to work. Sunset, Rarity, would you girls please start to work on chopping the vegetables? Just quarter the onion, I'll be dicing it in the food processor. The tomatoes and jalapeños need to be done by hand."
"Dice the tomatoes and slice the jalapeños, am I right?" Rarity asked. At Velvet's nod, Rarity took up a knife and cutting board. "Say no more!"
"I'll do the onion," Sunset said, moving to another counter.
"I'll start on the cheese," Twilight said.
"Be sure to explain the process as you work," Velvet said as she pulled out a skillet and began breaking up the meat into it. "I'll have to write down which spices to add to your meat and what amount of each," she added as she began seasoning the meat. "Oh, and Sunset, I'll need that onion as quickly as possible, it has to go into the meat."
"On it," Sunset said. She glanced at Twilight, who was preparing a double boiler. "So, what're we doing with the cheese?"
Twilight produced a third cutting board and another large knife, then unwrapped the cheddar. "We cube the cheese and melt it in a double boiler," she explained. "Cheddar and jack, and we add about a third of a bottle of that Sriracha sauce when the cheese starts to get smooth."
After several minutes of work, Sunset had diced the onion in the food processor and handed it off to Velvet, who added it to the browning meat along with the drained black beans. Rarity, meanwhile, had produced a bowl full of diced tomatoes and sliced jalapeños, while Twilight was tending a double boiler full of slowly melting cheese cubes. "Now, Rarity," Velvet said without looking up from the meat, "I need you to get that small bowl there and crush two of those dried roasted red peppers in it, then mix in a couple tablespoons of salt and about a tablespoon of parmesan cheese from the refrigerator."
Rarity nodded and set to work. "What's that for?" Sunset asked.
"We'll use it to season the chips after we fry them," Velvet explained.
Sunset looked at everything else they'd already started preparing and frowned. "Isn't that overkill?"
Velvet shook her head. "We need to season the chips too," she said. "Even though they'll be mostly buried under the toppings, the key to good nachos is that the chips themselves are seasoned just right."
"That makes sense," Sunset said. "But red peppers and parmesan? I mean, parmesan for nachos?"
Velvet shrugged. "Normally I'd use powdered blue cheese, but I have to special order it online and it's a bit expensive for what you girls are doing anyway. Parmesan will work in a pinch." She set out a rack on the counter and placed the skillet full of ground meat and beans on it, then took out another skillet and poured oil into it, placing it on the still-hot burner. "Okay, girls, now we cut up the tortillas." She passed out a pair of kitchen shears to each girl, then put a big plastic mixing bowl on the counter. "Grab a tortilla, cut it into about six pieces, throw 'em in the bowl."
"This is a far more complicated recipe than I was expecting," Rarity commented as she cut up tortillas.
"Yeah, but if we can pull this off for the contest, we're bound to impress the judges," Sunset said. "I mean, I don't know about you girls, but I feel like I just spent the morning working in a Mexican restaurant!"
Twilight giggled. "It does kinda feel that way when you're making these," she said. "And it's actually gone a lot faster with two extra pairs of hands in the kitchen."
"It certainly has," Velvet said. "Usually, making these things wipes me out so much I barely have the energy to enjoy them."
"How many people does this recipe serve?" Sunset asked.
Velvet shrugged. "It varies based on how much I make. I think I got enough to serve six, we can find some good movies or something on TV and have a little party. I've made them for up to ten people before."
The girls watched as Velvet expertly fried one batch of flour tortilla chips at a time, with Twilight lightly seasoning each batch as they came out of the fryer and went onto a cooking sheet with paper towels spread over it. Sunset looked over the enormous mess they'd made; with the cooking sheet on one counter, the bowl of tomatoes and jalapeños on another, the skillet of meat and beans on yet another, and the covered double boiler full of melted cheese on a back burner, the spacious kitchen was extremely crowded. "Wow, I hope we'll have enough work space to do this at the contest," she muttered.
"It does kinda take over the kitchen," Twilight agreed as she seasoned another batch of fresh chips.
"Those chips smell rather heavenly," Rarity said. "I don't believe I've ever had flour tortilla chips before."
"You're in for a real treat," Twilight said.
Velvet finished frying the last of the chips and turned off the stove with a sigh. "Alright," she said. "Now for the final step...which we have to do at the kitchen table, because there's no room left in here." She leaned out of the kitchen. "Boys?" she yelled. "Can you set up some tray tables in the living room, please? Also, start finding a movie we can all enjoy."
"Okay Mom!" Shining Armor called back.
As Shining Armor and Night Light bustled around in the living room, Twilight pulled a large serving platter out of the cabinet beneath the counter and took it to the kitchen table. "Girls, start bringing everything over here," she called.
Sunset grabbed the chips and carried them over; Rarity carried the skillet of meat, while Velvet followed with the bowl of tomatoes and jalapeños and the double boiler. Twilight doubled back for the taco sauce and sour cream; Velvet directed Sunset to carry sturdy paper plates, plastic forks, and napkins to the living room.
Once everything was in place, the girls gathered around the kitchen table. "Now, watch carefully," Velvet said. She spread half the chips on the serving platter, squirted some lime juice haphazardly across them, then spread half the meat mixture on top of them. Once that was done, she poured half the taco sauce over the meat, then spooned half the tomatoes and jalapeños over it. She ladled half the cheese sauce on top, then added two large spoonfuls of sour cream. She then spread the remaining chips on top, then repeated the layering. Once it was done, she stepped back. "Voila," she said.
Sunset and Rarity oohed appreciatively. "Okay...those are some pretty special nachos," Sunset said.
"They're an absolute work of art!" Rarity breathed, her gaze starry. "And I'm not even that fond of nachos!"
"You'll love these," Twilight said. "Shining Armor? Can you come bring this to the coffee table, please?"
"They're ready?" Shining Armor asked excitedly as he bounced into the room. Spying the finished nachos, he rubbed his hands together eagerly and reached for the edge of a chip...
Velvet smacked his hand. "We don't take directly from the platter, remember?" she chided. "Carry it to the table, I've got the spatulas ready."
Once everyone had taken a seat in the living room, Velvet used the spatula to plate a portion of nachos on a paper plate for each person, passing them around with plastic forks and napkins. Sunset looked down at the mass of meat, beans, cheese, tomato, sauce, and flour tortilla chips before her, selected a chip, and lifted it out with a generous portion of toppings. She took a bite...
Her eyes widened.
"Oh my gosh, girls! We are so making it to the finals!"
Late Saturday morning, the Crusaders met up at the youth center. "So, you really think one cooking lesson will help us be ready for the contest?" Scootaloo asked.
"Probably not, but it can't hurt, right? Besides, it'll be fun!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed.
"If it at least makes you less of a disaster in the kitchen, Rarity'll thank us," Scootaloo muttered.
"Girls, let's just go in an' do this thing," Apple Bloom said before Sweetie Belle could screech at Scootaloo. The girls sighed and trudged after her, following the signs pointing to the cooking class.
They soon found themselves in a large all-purpose room which had been outfitted with modular kitchen equipment—rolling islands, freestanding ovens, microwave carts, and mini-fridges, all plugged into outlets in the floor. Half a dozen large sinks stood along each side wall, set in black faux marble countertops. "Wonder whut they use this room for most of the time," Apple Bloom commented.
"It's one of those rooms that can be converted for anything," Scootaloo said. "My dad says they put in those sinks on the walls when people kept breaking in and stealing the portable sinks."
"Oh yeah, your dad works here, doesn't he?" Sweetie Belle said.
"Yeah, he manages like, community funding and stuff."
"Why would they steal portable sinks?" Apple Bloom wondered.
Scootaloo shrugged. "Meth labs?"
There were roughly twenty other teenagers there; they recognized some of them from CHS, and a few more from Crystal Prep. The group milled around absently for a bit; some idle conversations were happening here and there, as well as a lot of phones out tweeting and taking pictures. The Crusaders had been there roughly five minutes when an air horn cut through the chatter, and a very familiar blue-skinned girl with ice blue hair in a ponytail bounced into the room, skidding to a halt behind the large teaching station at the front of the room. "OKAY! Hey everyone, welcome to the cooking class! My name is Sonata Dusk, and I'll be your teacher today!"
The CHS students present let out gasps, shouts, and angry mutters. Scootaloo pointed at Sonata. "HEY! You're one of those Dazzlings! The girls that tried to mind-control everybody at our school!"
Sonata put her hand behind her head and laughed sheepishly. "Heheheh...okay, yeah, that happened, but that's no reason we can't be friends and have a lot of fun together, right?"
"We are not here to have fun, Miss Dusk," a sharp, biting voice intruded. An orange-skinned woman with short blond hair and a permanent scowl attached to her face marched into the room, dressed in a sharp purple suit, her heels clicking on the floor.
"Aww, but cooking is fun!" Sonata protested.
The woman snorted, then joined Sonata at the teaching island. "Good day to you all. For those of you who don't recognize me from your many failing grades in my class, I am Miss Harshwhinny. I have volunteered to oversee today's activities, and I will offer any advice and assistance I can while Miss Dusk instructs you all." She frowned. "How this very odd girl ended up in charge of a cooking class at the youth center is beyond me..."
"Oh, I'm doing community service," Sonata said cheerfully. With a giggle, she added, "I got caught peeing on hobos in the park. I can't believe they busted me for that! I mean, HELLO! They're hobos! It's not like they're even real people, am I right?"
A deathly silence fell over the room, which was broken after several long seconds by a blue-skinned girl with salmon-framed glasses and voluminous frost-colored hair done up in two enormous ponytails: "There's something seriously wrong with you."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Sonata said with a giggle and a shrug. "Anyway! Let's start cooking!" She reached under her counter and hauled out a massive, scaly, dead fish, slamming it on the counter. A cacophony of disgust, surprise, and general dismay rose from the group.
"Oh, no way in HELL!" one Crystal Prep girl yelled.
"Eww, gross!" Sweetie Belle moaned.
Sonata put a hand to her mouth and laughed. "Juuuuuust kidding!" she said. She grabbed the fish by the tail, swung it over her head, and let it fly; it crashed into one of the sinks with a loud *whump!* and flopped to the floor.
"MISS DUSK!" Ms. Harshwhinny shouted. "Would you please behave in a civilized, professional, and not completely psychotic manner?"
"Aww, but that's boring!" Sonata whined. Ms. Harshwhinny continued to glare at her, and Sonata rolled her eyes and blew a noisy raspberry. "Fine," she said. "Okay, so, umm..." She clapped her hands together. "I've been asked to keep it simple, so we're gonna make some pretty boring stuff today, but that doesn't mean we can't have fun with it!" She smiled brightly at the class. "We're gonna make a simple menu. Meatloaf, cornbread, steamed asparagus, yams, and a cherry pie! Doesn't that sound yummy?"
"Sounds like dinner at my aunt's place," Scootaloo grumbled.
"Well I think it's a wonderful menu!" one of the Crystal Prep girls said sweetly. "If we were training to be cafeteria ladies," she added sourly.
Ms. Harshwhinny coughed loudly. "If you're all finished complaining," she said archly, "the menu selected for this class is intended to teach basic cooking techniques that will help you improve your skills in the kitchen and give you a sturdy foundation to build on."
After that, the cooking class began. For all her strangeness, Sonata proved to be a surprisingly competent cook, and explained the procedures for preparing each recipe, with minimal interruption from Ms. Harshwhinny, who only cut her off when she went off on a strange tangent or explained a step in a less-than-clear manner...
"So I like using graham cracker crumbs in my meatloaf because it gives it a little flavor you don't expect..."
"I would strongly recommend using bread crumbs. Honestly, Miss Dusk, are you certain you know how to make meatloaf?"
"Well I know what you don't want is a gravy that looks like half-dried blood mixed with vaseline on top! That's why I use half the ketchup your basic recipe calls for and substitute Worcestershire sauce for the rest. But you'll want to cut back on the mustard if you do that."
"Miss Dusk, that is...! ...actually a fairly decent suggestion. Hmm. I'll have to remember that..."
"So a lot of people make cornbread in cake pans or casserole dishes, but if you want it just right, you make it in a cast iron skillet. You wanna use the kind of skillet you'd use if you were gonna beat somebody to death with it..."
"This will not reflect well with your parole officer, young lady!"
"I remember when I used to shove asparagus up my nose for funsies! Then I started shoving it up Aria's nose. That's when she decided to shove a baseball bat up my—"
"TRY to stay on the subject of cooking, Miss Dusk..."
"And now we do the yams. I yam sure you won't have any trouble with this one, as long as you don't confuse your can of yams for Miss Tightpussy here..."
"Ouch," Apple Bloom said, "that was a low blow."
"Yeah, this is gonna end in bloodshed," Scootaloo said a bit eagerly.
And yet, the lesson continued...
"So when it's done, your meatloaf should look like a roasted brain..."
"Hey, we used to eat roasted brains all the time before you were even born, lady! I'm telling you, it totally looks like a roasted brain!"
"There went my appetite for meatloaf," Scootaloo muttered. Beside her, Sweetie Belle looked like she wanted to throw up.
"Mmm, this cornbread smells sooooo gooooood. It smells like...pornbread!"
"Ugh...really, Miss Dusk..."
The drama at the front of the room had a counterpoint further back, where the Crusaders were cooking...
"NO, Sweetie Belle! You mix out the lumps in the CORNBREAD, not the MEATLOAF!"
"Uhh, Apple Bloom? Why're you putting onions in the cornbread batter? They're supposed to go in the meatloaf!"
"Ah know, but trust me! This is how we make hush puppies fer Sunday supper! They're like fried cornbread with little bits of onion. It'll be good, jes' watch!"
"I dunno, shouldn't we follow directions?"
"Sweetie Belle, you're the last person who should be talking about following directions."
"Oh, let it GO, Scootaloo!"
"Alright, so now we add the Worshister...Worsassist...Worchestnuts..."
"Granny always calls it Whoa-Bastard sauce."
"Eww, these yams are all slimy!"
"Well don't touch 'em then!"
"Wait, so...you mean pie filling just...comes in a can like this? Don't you have to like, do stuff with the cherries and stuff?"
"It's a shortcut. Most people cookin' at home for their families don't have time t' do all the stuff you gotta do t' make pies outta fresh fruit. Ah've seen Granny do it, trust me, makin' a pie takes about five times as long as th' pie lasts once we git t' eatin' it."
"AHH! Sweetie Belle, what are you DOING?! You don't cut BOTH crusts into strips!"
"She did whut? Oh, dammit! Now we gotta start over!"
"Whose bright idea was it to let her handle the knife again?"
"Well, it ain't all bad. Ah mean, we can cut th' extra up inta dumplins an' put 'em in th' pie..."
"See? I'm not a total disaster!"
"Yeah, you kinda are..."
By the end of the lesson, the Crusaders had a meatloaf that was serviceable if not especially moist, cornbread that was a little burned and very dry but still edible with the meatloaf, asparagus that was only slightly mushy, yams that were...yams, and the single best cherry pie of any group in the class, Sonata included.
"Mmm, this is so good!" Sonata moaned as she sampled their pie. "I love how you put dumplings in the pie like a cobbler!"
"Yeah, well, we had extra," Apple Bloom said.
By the time the cooking class was over, the Crusaders were exhausted and covered in miscellaneous food stains. "Well...that didn't go too badly," Scootaloo said.
"Yeah, Sweetie Belle didn't mess up near as much as Ah thought she would," Apple Bloom agreed.
"But still, Ah dunno if we're gonna be ready in time for th' contest," Apple Bloom said. "We gotta practice every day until then."
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo sighed. "We're gonna lose hard," Scootaloo said.
"Hey now," Apple Bloom said, "don't look at it like that. Look at it this way: we're learnin' somethin' new, right? Ah mean, it ain't a total loss if we come out of it knowin' how t' cook a little better than we did before, right?"
Scootaloo was interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream. The Crusaders watched, wide-eyed, as Sonata suddenly ran past as though her skirt was on fire.
"GET BACK HERE, YOU LITTLE DEGENERATE!" Ms. Harshwhinny screeched as she ran past, barefoot and with most of her skirt and blazer missing. "I SWEAR BY ALL THAT IS HOLY I WILL STRANGLE YOU!"
The Crusaders stared after her.
"Should we...should we call somebody? Do something?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Nope," Scootaloo said.
"Ah don't know, an' Ah don't wanna know," Apple Bloom opined. "So...Scootaloo's place tomorrow for practice?"
"Better make it Monday," Scootaloo said. "And I gotta get home. Later, girls."
As dawn approached, three exhausted girls slumped wherever they could find space to slump in the booths and tables of Las Galletas Hermanas. "Two hour..." Pinkie Pie yawned. "Nap break," she finished.
"Sounds good..." Applejack cracked a mighty yawn. "T' me, sugarcube."
Filthy, disheveled, and covered in flour, batter, and icing, the girls dozed off.
Pinkie's phone woke them all up at seven thirty.
"Huzzawazza?" Fluttershy mumbled sleepily.
"Up an' at 'em, girls!" Applejack said briskly. She had dark circles under her eyes and her hair was a complete mess, but she seemed to be wide awake and alert. "We gotta move 'em out! Ah done tol' Big Macintosh t' be here at eight sharp, he'll load whut he can in his truck." She stretched. "Meanwhile, think Ah'm gonna head over t' th' school, help set up, maybe grab a shower in the gym an' change inta mah gym clothes."
Pinkie looked herself over. "Ugh, I'm a mess," she said. "Fluttershy, can you load all this stuff into your van? I need to head home and shower and stuff. I'm all Pinkie-stinkie!"
"Umm..." Fluttershy blinked, then sighed. "Alright. I'll load the food into the van. Umm...I guess I'll swing by my place and get cleaned up, then drive over to the school with everything." She frowned at Applejack. "How are you getting to the school?"
Applejack shrugged. "There's a bus, ain't there?" She stretched, popping her neck and back. "Let's head 'em up an' move 'em out!"
* * * * *
By a quarter to nine, Canterlot High School was a buzzing hive of activity. Students and their parents were turning up in every conceivable manner of car, truck, van, and SUV, unloading bags, boxes, and other miscellaneous packages of food. Signs all over the school directed traffic to either the bake sale area or the cooking contest area, and Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna were patrolling with megaphones, barking instructions as students and faculty volunteers set up tables and equipment.
"That for the cooking contest? It goes to the gym! You there, bake sale's this way! You three, help set up tables! Let's go, people!" Luna bellowed into a megaphone.
A few minutes before nine, Pinkie Pie parked her powder blue party scooter, hopped off, and bounced across the parking lot, headed for the roped-off area where dozens of tables were being set up and students were unloading wrapped and plastic-boxed breads, cookies, cupcakes, and pastries and sticking post-its and price stickers on them. She found Applejack hanging out near the "gate" of the bake sale area wearing a tight T-shirt and tiny gym shorts, leaning against a tree, tapping her bare foot impatiently with her arms crossed. "Hey AJ!" she called chipperly. She looked around. "Where's Fluttershy? I don't see her or any of our bakey-wakeys!"
Applejack groaned, shoving her hat down over her face. "Fluttershy's havin' engine trouble," she said.
* * * * *
Two animal rescue workers and a mechanic crowded around Fluttershy's van, carefully extracting a whole family of raccoons from the engine. Fluttershy sat next to the van, happily playing with a fidgety baby raccoon.
* * * * *
"What about Big Macintosh?" Pinkie Pie asked.
Applejack sighed. "He's havin' Injun trouble..."
* * * * *
Big Macintosh growled and drummed his hands on his steering wheel, eyes heavy-lidded as he stared at the Buffalo Pride Parade which was slowly crossing the main thoroughfare.
* * * * *
Pinkie's jaw dropped. "WHAT?! So you mean...NONE of our stuff's here?"
"Sure ain't," Applejack said. "Might not even git here in time, neither."
"But...but...!" Pinkie's hair deflated. "We worked so hard! And...and..."
"Y'think Ah don't know that?" Applejack snapped. "Dang it all, it's jes' bad luck is whut it is!"
Pinkie sighed. "Okay, it's cool. I got this. Find out exactly where Fluttershy and Big Mac are. I'm gonna call in..." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "The cavalry."
* * * * *
Diamond Tiara's aging butler Randolph pushed a stainless steel cart loaded with elegant-looking cardboard boxes, all pink with purple and gold decorative trim, through the maze of tables. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon barked orders at him and two other students, never looking up from their phones as the boxes were loaded onto a table.
A girl with yellow skin, red hair done up in twin buns, and a smattering of freckles bounded over with a label printer. "Okay, how much are we tagging all this?" she asked.
Diamond Tiara waved a hand vaguely. "The petit fours are all twelve dollars a box, the mille-feuille is nine dollars a box, the macarons are seven dollars a box—"
"Umm..." The label girl frowned. "You do know there's a five dollar limit on all items, right? It was in the handout and on the website..."
"Hello, girls!" Principal Celestia said as she walked over. "Well, you certainly brought quite a lot to the table!" She examined the boxes and the pastries within. "Oh, how delightful! Petit fours, macarons, mille-feuille, religieuse...you girls truly outdid yourselves! And I simply adore your presentation!"
Diamond Tiara buffed her nails on her dress. "Why, thank you, Principal Celestia! It was no big problem, really. Anything to help!"
"Wait until you see us win the Cooking Contest," Silver Spoon said with a smirk.
"If you can make pastries like this, I wouldn't be surprised," Celestia said.
"Principal Celestia, there's a little issue with pricing," the redhead with the label printer said. "They want to charge more than five dollars for this stuff."
Celestia frowned. "Well...I'm afraid we do have a five dollar limit, even if these pastries would sell for much more in any shop in the city." She laughed as she added, "why, the last time I went to Patisserie Chocolat Graisse, I paid fifteen dollars for mille-feuille just like this..." She trailed off, her brow furrowing as she leaned in and examined the boxes more closely. "Wait a minute," she said. She ran a finger over the surface of the box containing a mille-feuille, then looked up inquisitively at Diamond Tiara. "Girls, did you buy these at Patisserie Chocolat Graisse?"
"Well, of course!" Diamond Tiara said. "Only the best for CHS!"
Celestia pinched the bridge of her nose. "Of all the..." She shook her head. "Girls," she explained patiently, "you realize we have to reimburse the students half on their receipts from all bake sale contributions, right?"
"I remember something about that, yeah," Diamond Tiara said.
Celestia groaned. "Diamond Tiara, half of the cost of all this is far more than we'll make selling it! If we sell these items at the bake sale, it'll be a loss."
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon exchanged a glance. "What's your point?" Diamond Tiara asked.
Celestia facepalmed. "Do you girls even understand what a fundraiser is?"
The two girls glanced at one another again and shrugged.
Celestia sighed. "Just...get it out of here," she said. "Actually, wait." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. "I'll take two of the mille-feuille off your hands, I have a feeling I'll need a pick-me-up." She grabbed two boxes off the stack, then turned to Randolph. "You're with them, right?" At his nod, she waved a hand at the pink boxes. "Please deal with this."
"At once, mum," Randolph said. He paused, then added, "Mum? It would behoove you to know that there is another selection of food items Miss Diamond and Miss Spoon purchased—"
"RANDOLPH!" Diamond Tiara hissed.
Celestia groaned. "Let me guess. You two were going to enter the cooking contest too?"
"Well of course!" Diamond Tiara said.
"With food you didn't cook yourselves?"
"With food prepared by the finest gourmet chefs money can buy," Diamond Tiara protested as though Celestia's suggestion offended her.
"Yeah...no," Celestia said tiredly. She smiled at Randolph. "Thank you."
Randolph bowed. "I do apologize, mum," he said.
Diamond Tiara glared at him. "You are so fired," she snarled.
"I'm afraid that's up to your father, Miss Diamond."
Diamond Tiara growled, stuffed Celestia's money into her purse, and stormed off, Silver Spoon at her heels. Celestia shook her head and walked away, muttering to herself. Behind her, the volunteers helping with the bake sale looked at each other, shrugged, and spread out to help other students.
* * * * *
"Well miss, we got all the raccoons out, but you got a bigger problem," a mechanic with buck teeth, wild greasy hair, and a stained baseball cap and overalls said.
Fluttershy gasped. "Oh no! Are there kittens or puppies or squirrels in there too?" She covered her mouth with trembling hands. "Did...did some poor critter die?!"
"No, nothin' like that," the mechanic said placatingly. "It's just that they tore up your fan belt." He shrugged. "This old heap ain't goin' nowhere, an' I don't got th' part you need back at th' shop. Gonna hafta order it."
"B-but...!" Fluttershy's lip trembled. "I have to be able to get this stuff to the bake sale! I have less than an hour!"
The mechanic shrugged. "I'm sorry, miss," he said.
With a loud rumble of a shot muffler, a beat-up pick-up truck pulled into the parking lot. Fluttershy turned to see Big Macintosh turn off his engine and climb out of his truck. "AJ said you was havin' trouble," he said gruffly as he shuffled up.
Fluttershy let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, Big Macintosh, thank goodness!" she said. She blinked. "Wait. Shouldn't you have come in from that way? I mean, if you came from the school—"
"Ain't made it t' th' school yet," Big Mac said with a weary sigh. "Got held up by a parade, then AJ called, said head over here instead." He shoved his hands into his pockets. "Whut's goin' on?"
Fluttershy sighed. "My van's dead," she said. Brightening up, she said, "Oh! But you're here now, so we can load everything into your truck and—"
Big Mac opened the back of Fluttershy's van, stared at the mountain of baked goods filling the space, and shook his head. "Eeenope," he said. "No room."
"Oh," Fluttershy said dejectedly. "Well then...how...?"
A large delivery van suddenly shot around the corner, wobbling dangerously on its wheels as the driver blared the horn. The van practically leapt into the parking lot, screeching to a halt. Fluttershy shrieked in alarm.
The driver's side door opened, and a strange young woman emerged. She had pale tan skin and wore darker tan pants, a dark pink shirt with long white sleeves, and white sneakers. Bright blue eyes twinkled with mischief. Her two-tone hair was short in front, a deep pink color reminiscent of Pinkie Pie's; at the back, her hair was white and done up in a swirly bun, held back by a sky blue bow. Colorful barrettes decorated the pink part of her hair, placed at haphazard, random angles. "Suuuuuup," she said in a jovial, carefree tone.
"Umm...hello?" Fluttershy said. "Who—?"
"Name's Sugar Sprinkles," the woman said. "Pinkie Pie said you were in a jam. I owe her a solid." She giggled. "And a liquid and a gas, but that's a long story. Anyway, I'm here to help."
Fluttershy let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness," she said. "We've got all these baked goods to haul to CHS, we've only got an hour to get there, and my van's shot."
"Say no more," Sugar Sprinkles said. "Or say a lot more, speech is free and so is love, but if you wanna talk, talk while we load." She marched over to Fluttershy's van, tossing her keys to Big Mac. "Wanna open up the back of my sweet ride, big guy?"
"Eeyup," Big Mac said, catching them easily and unlocking the delivery van.
"I'll just head back to the shop and order that fan belt for you," the mechanic said as he walked over to his own truck. "I'll be in touch."
"Thank you," Fluttershy said.
Working together, Fluttershy, Big Macintosh, and Sugar Sprinkles moved all the goodies from Fluttershy's broken-down van to Sugar Sprinkles' delivery truck in less than ten minutes. Sugar Sprinkles dusted off her hands and grinned. "Well, let's get this show on the road—"
"Oh! Wait," Fluttershy said. "Maybe we should put the rest of the stuff in here too? So we can all go in one car? Big Mac's truck will be safe here."
"Eeyup," Big Mac agreed.
"Coolios," Sugar Sprinkles said. "You're the boss, dental floss!"
Another ten minutes passed, and everything was loaded into the van. Big Mac and Fluttershy climbed into the cab with Sugar Sprinkles. "Buckle up!" she said as she started the engine.
"Thank you so much for helping us," Fluttershy said.
Sugar Sprinkles laughed. "Oh, it's no big! Now, hang on tight, I'm gonna book it like a main event!"
"What?" Fluttershy asked. Then she screamed as Sugar Sprinkles put the van in gear and floored it.
* * * * *
Ditzy Doo and Sandalwood stepped back and stared at the plastic-wrapped muffins and brownies covering their shared table. "Dude, we are so righteous," Sandalwood said.
Ditzy giggled. "Yeah! Come on, let's find that girl with the sticker gun and put prices on all this."
"Here, we've got the spare," Lyra said from the next table over, where she and Bon Bon stood sticking prices on plastic boxes of croissants, wrapped loaves of homemade bread, and boxes of cinnamon rolls. She looked at their spread and giggled. "Muffins, huh? Figures."
"Those brownies look yummy," Bon Bon said as she loaded a new roll of sticker tape into the gun. "So, how much are you charging?"
"Seventy-five cents each for the muffins, two bucks for each half dozen brownies," Sandalwood said. "That about right, Ditz?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, that's right," Ditzy said.
"That's a little high for brownies, isn't it?" Lyra asked with a tilt of her head.
Ditzy giggled. "Heehee, the brownies are a little high alright..."
Lyra and Bon Bon exchanged a confused glance, then shrugged. "Well, okay," Lyra said as she took the sticker gun and started tagging the merchandise.
Bon Bon gasped. "Lyra! We gotta head for the cooking contest and start getting ready!"
"Oh, shoot!" Lyra passed the sticker gun to Ditzy. "Gotta go, wish us luck, bye!"
"Good luck!" Ditzy called at the girls' retreating backs.
* * * * *
Applejack tapped her finger against her arm. "Whut's takin' so long?" she wondered.
"Don't worry, they'll be here any—"
A parade of honking horns and startled screams tore through the air.
A delivery van careened onto the street in front of Canterlot High School, screeching to an abrupt halt at the curb. The passenger side door flew open, and Fluttershy jumped out, followed by Big Macintosh. "Nopenopenopenopenope!" the latter muttered over and over again as he dropped to his knees and started kissing the ground. Fluttershy, for her part, staggered over to the portal statue, leaned against the marble base, and threw up all over the ground.
"See? Right on time!" Pinkie Pie said cheerfully, bouncing over to the delivery van. Applejack followed her, wide-eyed and shellshocked. She rushed over to Big Macintosh and knelt beside him. "You okay, Big Mac?"
"Eeeeeenope," Big Mac wheezed.
Sugar Sprinkles got out of the van and stretched. "Whee, that was fun!" She waved at Pinkie. "Hi Pinkie Pie!" She walked around to the back. "Got everything!"
"Great! I knew you'd come through! Hey, Applejack! Come help us unload!"
Big Mac waved her off. "Go ahead," he said. "Ah'm gonna...walk it off."
Fluttershy stood up and delicately wiped her mouth with a kleenex she'd produced from her pocket. "I actually haven't had any breakfast or even cleaned up or anything, so I think I'll get something to eat from the bake sale then head for the gym to...to clean up or something."
"Gym's off limits," Applejack said. "They're settin' up th' cooking contest already."
"Oh," Fluttershy said. "Well...okay. I'll just get something to eat then." As she wandered over to Ditzy's table, she espied the brownies and licked her lips. "A little chocolate is just what I need right now..."
Pinkie Pie started pulling boxes out of the van. "Wow, I'm amazed only a few of our bakey-wakeys got messed up this time!"
Sugar Sprinkles laughed. "Yeah, I upgraded the suspension and added some shock absorbers in the back," she said. "Kinda needed to after all those bad reviews on Bark, y'know?" She smiled. "Need me to stick around and help? I don't really have anything to do today."
"Sure!" Pinkie said happily. "The more the merrier!"
"May I have your attention please!" Principal Celestia's voice called out over the public address system. "The Cooking Contest will begin in thirty minutes! All entrants who have not yet signed in, please report to the gym now or you will be disqualified!"
"Oh hey, a bunch of my friends are in that!" Pinkie said.
"Really? We'll have to take turns checking it out," Sugar Sprinkles said.
"Hey, uhh...whoever you are," Applejack said as she unloaded a stack of pies, "whut'd you do t' mah brother an' Fluttershy?"
Sugar Sprinkles shrugged. "Some people just can't handle a little aggressive driving..."
Two dozen modular kitchen stations had been set up in the gym. Big orange electric cables snaked across the floor; the ventilation system was running double time as intermingled steam and smoke filled the air above the various stoves, ovens, and grills the students participating in the contest were using. On the floor, loud chatter and the sound of chopping, mixing, and sizzling overtook the gym. In the bleachers, conversation buzzed as the spectators—of which there were quite a few—watched the mayhem.
"Welcome to our first annual Canterlot High Cooking Contest!" Principal Celestia said into a microphone at the judge's table which had been set up on the south end of the gym, beneath the LCD scoreboard. "Our aspiring young student chefs will be graded on preparation, presentation, creativity, and taste. In the preliminary round, the top eight contestants will move on to this afternoon's quarterfinals.
"And now, let me introduce our panel of judges. I, of course, am one of the judges. To my left is Ms. Harshwhinny, who I'm sure many of you know."
The orange-skinned woman with short blond hair and a dour expression seated beside Celestia nodded once.
"To my right is Dean Cadance from Crystal Prep Academy, who agreed to join our panel of judges because she enjoyed her time here during the Friendship Games." With a smirk, she added, "and because she's a foodie."
The pink-skinned woman with three-colored pastel hair seated on Celestia's right gave a nervous laugh and waved; a huge cheer went up from the stands, mostly from the male portion of the audience.
"And to her right, representing the student body of CHS and providing a peer perspective on today's proceedings, Canterlot High's most celebrated athlete and spirit captain, Rainbow Dash."
Rainbow Dash waved to the stands with a cheeky grin.
"Judging for the preliminary round will be performed as each entrant's dishes are ready to be plated," Celestia continued. "Contestants, when you're ready for your food to be judged, bring it to the judging table on the service cart provided."
Sunset Shimmer looked around the gym as she sliced a small ham. "Wow, looks like there might be some fierce competition here," she said.
"I can't believe Dean Cadance is one of the judges!" Twilight said excitedly as she pounded chicken breasts flat. "I had no idea she was going to be here!"
"My goodness, are my sister and her little friends making fried chicken?" Rarity asked, craning her neck to look at the Crusaders' prep station.
"Sure looks like it," Sunset said. "If they're using the Apple family's chicken recipe, that'll guarantee them a spot in the quarterfinals."
"I see Saffron Masala is here today," Rarity commented. "That's a little unfair, given her family runs a restaurant and I know for a fact she cooks there on weekends." The others followed her gaze to see an orange-skinned girl with reddish-purple eyes and long, thick raven hair, who was busy unloading bowls of pre-prepared ingredients from her cooler while a Dutch oven heated up on her stove.
"Well, the rules didn't say anything about being disqualified if you're a professional," Twilight said. "Even though that's pretty much why Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy stayed out of this."
"Well, more because after the Friendship Games it'd be really unfair for them to enter a cooking contest," Sunset pointed out. Frowning, she added, "Although...looking around, I don't see much dessert making going on." She snorted. "Flash and his friends are barbecuing. Why am I not surprised."
"Hey, check out Mr. Intensity over there," Rarity said quietly as she worked on assembling chicken cordon bleu. The others followed her gaze to a male student who looked a couple of years older than everyone else, though that largely had to do with his shaved head, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and scrubby rust-red goatee. He had light blue skin and dark grey eyes, and wore dark trousers, heavy brown work shoes, and a royal blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His face was set in a studious frown as he tossed something in a sizzling skillet. A stack of blue corn tortillas sat off to the side next to a stack of Supperware containers.
"I don't think I've seen him before," Twilight said.
"That's Negra Arroyo," Sunset said with a slight frown. "Wasn't expecting him to be here."
"That bothers you?" Rarity asked.
Sunset shook her head. "Just surprises me," she said. "I mean, he keeps to himself and doesn't get involved in school activities." Her forehead crinkled. "Honestly? He does intimidate me a little. He's the only guy in this entire school I was never able to dig up anything on back when I was, y'know...a terrible person."
"Well, he certainly seems to know what he's doing," Rarity said as she watched Negra Arroyo work.
"And so do we, so let's do our best," Sunset said, and the girls returned their attention to their chicken cordon bleu.
* * * * *
Pinkie Pie watched Fluttershy worriedly out of the corner of her eye even as she made change for a customer. "Hey AJ?" she asked.
"Is it me, or is Fluttershy a little...off today?"
Applejack followed Pinkie's gaze to where Fluttershy was wandering around the Bake Sale, a somewhat glassy look in her eyes and a dreamy expression on her face. Every time she bumped into somebody, she giggled, played with her hair, and started flirting with them—whether they were a guy or a girl, no matter how old they were. Sales were doubling at every table where she flirted with the male customers—and even some of the female customers. The older female customers were leaving in disgust, however, and a few parents with younger children were steering their families away from Fluttershy.
"Huh," Applejack said. "Yeah, she's actin' funnier'n a rodeo clown." She shrugged. "Must be from bein' up all night and not gittin' enough sleep. That can do mighty odd things to ya."
"Maybe," Pinkie said slowly, frowning. "I'm not sure that's—"
"Heeey party people," Sugar Sprinkles said as she walked up to the table, licking her fingers. "That dude with the green dreads? He's got some righteous space cakes over there."
"Space cakes?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head. "I've never heard of those. I've heard of spice cakes, I've heard of cosmic brownies..." She blinked. "Wait, you mean Sandalwood? He brought brownies, didn't he?"
"Oh yeah, he brought brownies alright," Sugar Sprinkles said with a sly giggle. "The best kind."
Applejack's eyes narrowed. "Ah'm gittin' one'a them bad feelins," she said. "Whut's so dang-falutin' special 'bout them brownies? 'Cuz Ah'm pretty sure Fluttershy ate like, a half dozen of 'em while we was settin' up."
"Whoa, Miss Soft and Sweet partakes? Righteous," Sugar Sprinkles said. She craned her neck to look around, then giggled. "Looks like she's having fun." Pinkie and Applejack followed her gaze; Fluttershy had found Big Macintosh, who was sitting in a steel folding chair out of the flow of foot traffic, and was now perched on his lap with her arms around his shoulders.
Applejack's jaw dropped. "Whuuuuuuuuuuuuh..."
Pinkie frowned. "Partakes? What do you—" She broke off, glancing back at Sugar Sprinkles. Her eyes widened. "Wait, you mean...?" She suddenly rushed over to the table where Sandalwood and Ditzy Doo were selling muffins and brownies. She grabbed Sandalwood by the hair, dragged him off to the side, and hissed into his ear, "Dude. Are those pot brownies?!"
"Well yeah, brah, they're my own special recipe."
Pinkie Pie dropped him, jaw slack with disbelief. She threw her hands in the air. "Are you insane?!" she hissed. "You can't sell pot brownies at a school bake sale!!"
Sandalwood frowned. "You can't?" he asked, scratching his head. "Didn't see nothin' in the rules about it, dude."
Pinkie stared incredulously at him. "Uh, DUH!" she cried. "Because it's common sense!"
"Oh. Huh. Wow." Sandalwood shrugged. "My bad."
Pinkie scowled. "How many of those have you sold?" she demanded.
"Uhh...I dunno. A lot?"
"A lot...?" Pinkie echoed. "Oh no, this is a disaster!"
"Sorry, brah," Sandalwood said.
Pinkie pinched the bridge of her nose. "Just...get the rest of them off the table, don't sell any more." She shook her head. "I just hope you don't wind up getting the school sued or anything."
Sandalwood scratched his head. "If you say so..."
Pinkie Pie stalked back over to her own table. At Applejack's questioning expression, she sighed. "Yeah, so Fluttershy's kinda stoned," she said. "Those brownies she ate? Marijuana."
Applejack stared at her. "You gotta be kiddin' me."
"Nope," Pinkie said in an uncharacteristically flat, sour tone. "I mean, really, who brings pot brownies to a bake sale?!"
"Somebody who knows what the people really want?" Sugar Sprinkles suggested as she munched on a brownie.
"Oy," Pinkie groaned, blowing on her curly forelock.
Off to the side, Big Macintosh toppled over backwards, and Fluttershy landed on him with a flirty giggle.
* * * * *
The very first contestants ready to be judged were Snips and Snails.
Rainbow Dash tilted her head as she studied the two flattened mini pizzas on a plate in front of her. "Biscuit pizzas?" she asked.
The judges looked at each other. Cadance raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's different," she said. "Still, they're just mini-pizzas. Not exactly hard to make."
"It's not how hard it is to make, it's how it tastes, eh," Snails said as he added a small cup of dipping sauce to each plate. "And that you know what goes with it."
"Alright, boys, tell us exactly what we have here," Celestia said as she examined the mini-pizzas critically.
"Sure thing, Principal Celestia!" Snips said. "We flattened out some Hawaiian rolls and topped 'em with spicy pepperoni, prevalo—provalova—"
"Provolone?" Ms. Harshwhinny supplied with a raised eyebrow and a scowl.
"Yeah, that," Snips said, "and my mom's special marinara sauce." He pointed at the dipping cups. "Try 'em with the honey chipotle ranch."
Rainbow Dash wasted no time in dipping a mini-pizza and taking a big bite. She grinned. "Yeah, okay, I can roll with this," she said.
"They're not bad," Cadance said. "I don't know if I'd call it cooking exactly, but they're not bad."
"Rather pedestrian," Ms. Harshwhinny said with a frown. "Also, there's not much creativity here."
"Now now," Celestia said as she wiped her mouth. "Not all cooking has to be elaborate. Besides, using Hawaiian rolls for mini-pizzas is creative enough. I certainly never would have thought of it. And this chipotle ranch! I can tell you boys mixed it yourselves."
"Heheh, yeah," Snails said. "The honey chipotle ranch you can buy at the store isn't hot enough. We make our own."
"Yeah, you definitely mixed up a hot enough sauce," Rainbow Dash said, gulping down her bottled water.
* * * * *
Negra Arroyo approached the judges' table with a platter of blue taquitos.
Rainbow Dash blinked at them. "Uhh, why are they blue?" she asked slowly, poking at one as Negra Arroyo plated it with a dollop of sour cream and placed it in front of her.
"I don't think I've ever had blue corn anything," Cadance remarked.
"Definitely getting some points for creativity here," Celestia said. "So, taquitos! What's the filling?"
"Shredded carne asada," Negra Arroyo said in a voice that was rich, strong, and mellow, "with a blend of queso menonita, queso panela, queso asadero, and roasted red peppers."
The judges blinked at him. "I have no idea what any of that is," Rainbow Dash said.
Negra Arroyo gave her a slightly condescending look. "It's beef and cheese," he said in a biting tone.
"Oh. Cool." Rainbow picked up the still-hot taquito, wincing as it almost burned her fingers, then took a bite. Her eyes widened. "Holy crap."
"Those are some rather eclectic ingredients for a singularly pedestrian appetizer," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she folded a napkin and carefully picked up a taquito.
Negra Arroyo favored her with a raised eyebrow and a tilted head. "Any dish is art, if you appreciate the subtlety of cooking," he said.
"Oh. Oh, this is good," Cadance said, eyes wide. "This is the best taquito I've ever had." She swiped it through the sour cream and took another bite.
"I agree," Celestia said, finishing hers quickly and licking her fingers. "I don't think any Mexican restaurant in town has taquitos that good."
"That's because they use substandard ingredients and their cooks are barely adequate," Negra Arroyo said. "If you want art, you turn to an artist."
"Well, your arrogance aside," Ms. Harshwhinny said, "I have to say that your presentation and creativity alone are far beyond what I expected from this contest, and the flavor of your dish...well, it speaks for itself."
Negra Arroyo inclined his head politely. "Thank you."
* * * * *
Pinkie Pie wandered through the contest floor until she found Twilight, Sunset, and Rarity. "Hey girls, how's it going?" she asked.
"Oh, it's a total disaster," Pinkie said chipperly. "Someone brought some pot brownies, Fluttershy got into them, now she's stoned off her yellow fanny and by Monday she's gonna to have a really wild reputation to live down."
Rarity gasped. "Oh dear!" She looked around the room, fretting. "We...we have to do something—"
"Nono, it's cool," Pinkie said. "Already handled it. Kinda. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know in case Fluttershy gets the munchies and shows up here that she's a teensy bit out of it."
"But...!" Twilight protested. "We should tell Principal Celestia—"
"Like I said, it's taken care of..."
* * * * *
"Right, so! Here's the deal," Miss Cheerilee said to Sandalwood and Ditzy Doo, an overly bright smile pasted onto her face and one eye twitching. "You hook me up with a dozen of those brownies a week, and Celestia and Luna never need to know about this."
"Done deal," Sandalwood said.
"We're really sorry about this," Ditzy said sheepishly, rubbing the back of her head.
* * * * *
Trixie pushed a cart with a steaming wok, a rice cooker, a stack of plates, and a box of wrapped chopsticks up to the judges' table. "The Grrrrreat and Powerful TRRRRRRIXIE! has arrived with a winning entree," she announced.
Cadance raised an eyebrow. "Oh? We'll be the judges of that."
"Ugh, Trixie," Rainbow groaned, facepalming. "Can we get through this with less of you running your big and annoying mouth?"
"Rainbow Dash, behave," Celestia admonished.
Trixie flipped her hair. "I will ignore that, Rainbow Splash," Trixie said, "because today, TRRRRIIIIIIIXIE! will prove that she possesses one skill you will never master!" And with that, she swiftly and expertly prepared a plate for each judge and placed them on the table, along with a pair of chopsticks each. "BEHOLD! Trixie's deluxe pepper steak, with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts!"
On each plate, served over steaming white rice, was tantalizing pepper steak with bright green bell peppers, tomato wedges, crisp water chestnuts, and succulent bamboo shoots.
"Ah, pepper steak," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "A simple enough dish to prepare, nutritious and filling. One does not normally see it with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, but variation on a basic recipe is a sign of creativity."
"You can never go wrong with water chestnuts," Cadance said.
"It smells good," Celestia said as she unwrapped her chopsticks and separated them. The others did likewise and dug in—Rainbow Dash with some difficulty as she tried, to Trixie's amusement, to figure out the chopsticks.
"Points for presentation with the culturally appropriate dining implements," Ms. Harshwhinny remarked. "This is skillfully prepared and most delicious."
"This steak is so tender!" Cadance said. "I love the way the bamboo shoots bring out all the other flavors."
"This is an unexpected delight," Celestia said. "You've surprised me, Trixie."
Rainbow Dash finally gave up and picked up her plate, using the chopsticks to shovel food into her mouth. After a few bites, she groaned. "Ugh. Can't believe I gotta say this. This is pretty good, Trixie."
Trixie preened. "But of course. Was there ever any doubt?"
"Yes," Rainbow Dash informed her with half-lidded eyes over the edge of her plate, a glare whose effect was ruined by the bits of rice stuck to her face. "Yes there was."
Trixie sniffed haughtily and stalked away.
"Oh my," Cadance said, blinking.
* * * * *
"Hey girls!" Rainbow Dash said, waving cheerfully as Twilight, Sunset, and Rarity approached the judges' table.
"Hey Rainbow Dash," Sunset said.
"Twilight! I'm so happy to see you getting involved in things like this!" Cadance said with a bright smile. "You've really come a long way in a short time."
Twilight blushed and ducked her head, but smiled. "It's nice to see you, Dean Cadance."
Celestia leaned forward and smiled, resting her chin on her hands. "So, what do you girls have for us?"
"For our prelude," Rarity said, "we have prepared a simple yet elegant classic." She and the other girls each placed a small covered plate before each judge, then uncovered them. "Chicken cordon bleu!"
"Oooh, that's one of my personal favorites," Cadance said, licking her lips.
"Isn't that inside information or some such?" Rainbow asked, glancing skeptically at Twilight.
Twilight's eyes widened. "N-no it isn't!" she defended hastily. "I had no idea Dean Cadance was going to be a judge today, let alone that she liked chicken cordon bleu!"
Cadance laughed. "Calm down," she said. "We're all going to judge every dish fairly, even those presented by personal friends. Right, Rainbow Dash?"
"Heh, right," Rainbow said. "I mean, you girls are my friends and all, but..." She shrugged and smiled gamely.
"Perfectly alright, darling, we intend to succeed solely on merit," Rarity said primly.
Ms. Harshwhinny, meanwhile, had carefully cut into her cordon bleu and was scrutinizing it. "Well, your preparation is nothing short of excellent," she said. "Your presentation is fine." She lifted a bite to her lips and tasted it. "And this is quite a fine example of a well-made chicken cordon bleu."
The other judges tasted theirs, and nodded in agreement. "Oh yeah, that's good cordon bleu," Cadance said.
"Indeed it is," Celestia agreed.
"I don't think I've ever had chicken cordon bleu before," Rainbow Dash remarked. "Tastes kinda like a hot pocket."
Rarity gasped. "A...a hot pocket? Why, I'll have you know—"
Twilight giggled. "Well she's not wrong," she said. "Besides, I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that hot pockets were inspired in part by chicken cordon bleu and calzones."
"Hey, I like hot pockets," Rainbow said placatingly. "And I like this."
"Well done, girls!" Celestia said. "I think the three of you have an excellent chance of advancing."
* * * * *
Rainbow Dash's mouth watered as Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo approached the judges' table with a paper-towel-lined platter of golden, crispy fried chicken and a basket of hush puppies.
Celestia smiled. "Granny Smith's recipe?"
Apple Bloom giggled. "Well, Ah am an Apple." She placed the platter on the table while Scootaloo set down the hush puppies; Sweetie Belle supplied paper plates and napkins for the judges.
"You girls do know we'll only have one sample piece each, right?" Cadance asked as she espied the pile of chicken and hush puppies.
"Yeah, sorry about that," Apple Bloom said. "They're country recipes. You can't make 'just a little'."
Celestia laughed. "I doubt very much it will go to waste in any case." She selected a thigh and two hush puppies; Rainbow Dash took a drumstick and two hush puppies. Cadance took a breast and one hush puppy, while Ms. Harshwhinny took a wing and a hush puppy. The judges silently ate their chicken and hush puppies; once they were done, they looked up at the expectant girls.
"That was some good fried chicken," Rainbow Dash said, licking her fingers.
"I'm not overly fond of fried chicken, but that was surprisingly tasty," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "The hush puppies were perhaps slightly dry, but well-prepared."
"I don't think I've ever had chicken that good," Cadance said with a smile. "If we didn't have a whole day's worth of tasting and judging ahead of us, I'd eat a couple more pieces!"
The three girls giggled and hi-fived, then left the table with their leftovers.
"Darn it," Rainbow grumbled, "I kinda wanted another piece."
"Now, Rainbow," Celestia said, "it won't do to be overly full. This is a marathon for our stomachs." She grimaced and reached under the table, pulling out a bottle of liquid antacid. "Fortunately, we'll have a nice long break once we're done with the preliminaries."
* * * * *
Fluttershy and Big Macintosh wandered into the gym. Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity had long since finished cleaning up their station and had joined the small party which was gathering around the "potluck table" at the back of the gym, where contestants who had already submitted their dishes for judging had taken their leftovers for a first-come, first-serve buffet. A lot of it had already been picked over, but more dishes were being added by the minute. Sunset had a big piece of lasagna on a double paper plate and was savoring it by the wall, while Twilight and Rarity had cups of lemonade and were discussing the presentation of other contestants' various entries.
Fluttershy wandered over to her friends, a broad, somewhat glazed smile on her face. "Hey girls," she said in a syrupy, giddy tone. "Mmm, what smells so good? I feel like I could eat a horse." Giggling, she sidled over to Sunset and leaned over her. "You think I could, Sunny? You think I could eat...a horse?"
Sunset stared up at her, eyes wide. "Uhh..."
Rarity coughed. "How about..." She grabbed Fluttershy by the arm and led her along the table. "How about some fried chicken instead? I do believe some delicious fried chicken just appeared...oh my," she trailed off. "Gone already. Hmm."
"There's some pizza down here," Twilight called, waving. "Some quesadillas, too." She shuddered. "If you like that sort of thing..."
Fluttershy tilted her head and considered. "Well, okay!" she flounced over to the quesadillas, grabbed one, then bobbed over to the pizza, put a big slice on a plate, and folded the quesadilla up on top of it. She picked the whole thing up and took a big, gooey bite.
"Gaah," Rarity opined.
Big Macintosh sat down heavily beside Sunset, popping the top on a soda can. Sunset glanced at him. "You look like hell," she said.
"Eeyup," Big Mac grunted.
"Wanna talk about it?"
"Is it because of Fluttershy?"
"Eeyup. Well...nnnope." Big Mac frowned. "Kinda."
"What'd she do, anyway? Pinkie didn't say exactly."
Big Mac blushed. "Don't wanna talk about it," he said. "Wouldn't be decent. Just...she ain't herself right now." He frowned. "Ah only hope she ain't too tore up about it all when she sobers up."
"Yikes," Sunset said, eyes wide and mind whirling.
"After church tomorrow Ah'm headin' over t' Sandalwood's place with a tank o' weed killer," Big Mac grunted, chugging his soda.
* * * * *
Lyra and Bon Bon approached the judges' table with a baking dish; Bon Bon spooned a small serving of their dish for each judge into shallow paper bowls and provided forks as she placed them in front of the judges.
Rainbow Dash blinked at the colorful pile of sliced vegetables in sauce that sat before her, tilting her head. "What's this?" she asked.
Ms. Harshwhinny smirked. "Ratatouille," she said. "Interesting."
"Wow, it looks exactly like it did in that one movie!" Cadance said.
Celestia smiled mischievously. "I have a feeling they used that exact recipe, didn't you girls?"
Lyra rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "Well...yeah," she said.
The judges tasted the ratatouille.
"Hmm...I dunno about this one," Rainbow said. "I mean, it's not bad, it's just..." She waved a hand vaguely. "I dunno."
"It's adequately prepared," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "You followed the recipe quite well."
"I always wondered what it tasted like," Cadance said. "I didn't realize it had so much eggplant in it. Not that that's a bad thing! I like eggplant on occasion."
"I think you girls did an excellent job," Celestia said. "Though I'm afraid I'll have to take points off for creativity since, well...you did copy a movie here."
Lyra and Bon Bon had the grace to look embarrassed as they returned to their station with their remaining ratatouille.
Rainbow Dash passed the remainder of her serving to Cadance. "You want mine?" she asked. "I know it's probably good, but to me it tastes like rat patootie."
Ms. Harshwhinny facepalmed. Cadance giggled.
* * * * *
Flash Sentry, Beats, and Skunk Rock ambled up to the judges' table with serving dishes laden with barbecued chicken, grilled sausages, grilled potatoes, and grilled whole ears of corn.
Rainbow Dash leaned forward with interest. "Now that's what I'm talkin' about," she said.
Skunk put a sausage and a potato on a paper plate and handed it to her. "Here, got a nice big hot sausage for you, Rainbow," he said.
Rainbow glared at him. "Don't go there," she growled as she accepted it.
Celestia facepalmed. "Teenagers," she muttered, shaking her head. "So, you boys decided to grill," she went on in a brighter tone. "That's certainly a safe option."
"You'd think so," Beats grumbled, casting a sideways glance at Flash.
Flash ignored him and plated a chicken wing, an ear of corn, and a potato for Celestia. "The sauce is a family recipe," he said. "It's never failed to win a cookoff in fifty years."
"I see," Celestia said. As the other judges were served, she picked up the chicken wing and took a bite. "Oh!" she said, her eyes wide. "I do see!"
"Oh. Oh, this is good," Cadance said as she took a bite of a chicken leg.
Ms. Harshwhinny took a huge bite of a sausage, chewed it intently, then swallowed. "Yes, the sauce is quite good," she agreed. "And you boys have clearly practiced your grilling technique."
"Yeah, this is some good eatin'," Rainbow agreed.
Celestia looked up at the three boys. "You're not by any chance hoping to get through the entire contest just on grilling and this amazing sauce, are you?"
The boys looked at each other. "Kinda, yeah," Flash said with a shrug. "It's all we've got."
Celestia chuckled and shook her head. "Well, good luck to you," she said.
* * * * *
Saffron Masala wheeled a curry pot up to the judges' table. "I apologize for the delay," she said.
"It's no problem," Celestia said. "You're well within the cutoff time, though you are the last entrant." Indeed, all around the gym, most of the kitchen stations had been cleaned up, and most of the contestants had either finished the remainder of their preliminary entries themselves or put them on the table at the back of the gym, where an increasingly large crowd of students, faculty, and parents were mingling with cold drinks. Some of the students were still cleaning their stations, and Flash Sentry's grill was still hot and ready to go just in case he and his friends advanced.
Saffron bowed her head politely and ladled curry over white rice. "I have prepared lamb curry from a traditional family recipe," she said as she served each judge.
"Your family owns a restaurant, do they not?" Celestia asked as she spooned up a bite of curry.
"Yes," Saffron said. "I do work there on weekends, in the kitchen."
"Hmm, that gives you a slight advantage," Ms. Harshwhinny said.
"Lamb, huh?" Cadance asked. "I can't say I've eaten lamb very often."
"I don't think I've ever had curry," Rainbow Dash said. She took a huge bite. Her eyes bugged out. "Whoa," she gasped.
"It is a little spicy," Saffron said apologetically.
"It's exactly the right level of spicy," Celestia said. She ate another bite. "You really know how to blend your spices and how to work with lamb, Ms. Masala."
"Hmm," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "I'll be honest. With a wealth of restaurant experience at your disposal, curry is too simple a dish to present for a competition."
"I thought it would be best to start with something simple," Saffron said, wringing her hands. "Save my better dishes for later."
"I'd say that was a smart move," Cadance said. "It seems to be what most of the serious contenders are doing, anyway. Although, we have seen some pretty complicated stuff just in the preliminaries."
The judges finished their curry, then conferred. "Thank you, Ms. Masala," Celestia said. "If you'll add your curry to the potluck at the back, then clean up your station, we'll be announcing the results soon."
Saffron nodded again and moved away. The judges looked at each other.
"Some pretty stiff competition," Cadance said. She looked down at her tablet where she had been recording her scores for each contestant. "I gave a lot of these kids some pretty high marks."
"So did I," Celestia said.
"I wasn't expecting to be impressed with very many of these students," Ms. Harshwhinny admitted. "Selecting eight to move on will not be as easy as I anticipated."
"Well, I know that Negra Arroyo guy's moving on," Rainbow said confidently.
"Yeah, I agree there," Cadance said.
"Alright, let's add up our scores and look at the numbers," Celestia said. "Then we can discuss the results and make our decision."
* * * * *
Pinkie Pie and Applejack sold the last of their massive pile of baked goods, then leaned back with a sigh. "Well, that's that," Applejack said. "Whut say we mosey on over t' th' gym an' watch th' rest of th' cookin' contest?"
"Sounds like a good idea," Pinkie said. She yawned mightily. "You think Fluttershy's come down from the brownies yet?"
"Ah dunno," Applejack said.
"Hey, Pinks, I'm gonna head on out now," Sugar Sprinkles said. "This was a blast! If you need my help again tomorrow, totes gimme a call, okay?"
"You bet!" Pinkie said. "Thanks for the help, Sugar Sprinkles!"
As Sugar Sprinkles left, Applejack shook her head. "You know some of the strangest people, Pinkie Pie," she said.
Pinkie giggled. "Oh, Sugar Sprinkles is nothing. You should meet my tennis partner Wade..."
* * * * *
"May I have your attention please!" Principal Celestia called over the speakers. Everyone in the stands, as well as all the participants cleaning up their stations, looked up expectantly.
"We've finished examining the preliminary round scores and conferring about the results, and we will now announce the eight contestants who will move on to this evening's quarterfinal round!"
All eyes turned to the scoreboard above the judge's table, which displayed eight blank, numbered squares.
"Unlike the preliminaries," Ms. Harshwhinny said, "the quarterfinals and semifinals will be direct elimination matches. While all contestants will continue to prepare their dishes simultaneously, your performance against your designated opponent will determine whether or not you advance."
"We've decided to make it an elimination match because a lot of the preliminary round scoring was too close to call," Cadance put in. "We're worried that trying to choose the top four from the quarterfinals to move on would be problematic."
"Besides, elimination matches are more exciting!" Rainbow Dash added with a grin.
Celestia rolled her eyes. "Without further ado, the following students advance to the quarterfinal round!"
As she read each pair of names, pictures of the advancing students appeared on the scoreboard, with a "VS." graphic appearing between each pair of photos:
SUNSET SHIMMER, TWILIGHT SPARKLE, AND RARITY VS LYRA HEARTSTRINGS AND SWEETIE DROPS TRIXIE LULAMOON VS APPLE BLOOM, SWEETIE BELLE, AND SCOOTALOO FLASH SENTRY, BEATS, AND SKUNK ROCK VS SNIPS & SNAILS NEGRA ARROYO VS SAFFRON MASALA
"Oooh, we made it!" Rarity squealed delightedly.
"Wow, I wasn't sure we'd make it," Twilight said. "There's some pretty stiff competition!"
Sunset chuckled. "I'm just glad we're getting a chance to put all our hard work to use." She blinked. "Not that I think all the time we spent together these past two weeks would've been wasted if we didn't make it! I just—"
"We understand completely, darling," Rarity said with a smile. "Win or lose, we had a lovely time cooking together and learning new things, but we are, after all, here to win!"
"You did it, Apple Bloom!" Scootaloo cheered. "Your chicken got us in!"
"We did it, girls," Apple Bloom said. "Now, c'mon, we gotta finish cleanin' up this mess so we can get busy on th' next round."
Lyra and Bon Bon looked at each other, clasped hands, and bounced up and down excitedly. "Best friends forever!"
"IN IT TO WIN IT!"
Flash and his bandmates exchanged a hi-five, then went back to grilling. Trixie afforded herself a self-satisfied smirk and bragged loudly to absolutely nobody, for nobody was listening. Snips and Snails chuckled evilly at each other like idiots, rubbing their hands together gleefully. Saffron Masala let out a huge sigh of relief and hummed to herself as she finished cleaning her station. And Negra Arroyo made no show of reaction to the news whatsoever beyond washing his hands and setting to work preparing the ingredients for his next dish.
An air horn blew, drawing everyone's attention.
"I appreciate that some of you want to get right to work," Celestia said, "but we need to take a short break so the staff can clear out some of the clutter. Those of you who have been eliminated, please pack up your remaining supplies and move to the bleachers. Those of you who are advancing to the quarterfinals, return to your stations now, but don't do anything yet. Everyone else, stay at the back of the gym or around the bleachers. We'll continue on with the quarterfinal round in thirty minutes."
Outside a modest two-story suburban house twenty minutes from Canterlot High...
Applejack tapped her foot and waited after ringing the doorbell. It took a while, but eventually the door opened just slightly, and a woman with curled red hair and large square-framed glasses peered around the edge. "Oh, Applejack! Good afternoon, dear!"
"Afternoon, ma'am," Applejack said, tipping her hat. "Ah brought Fluttershy home. She, uhh..." She grimaced. "Better if Ah explain it inside."
Mrs. Shy gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. "Oh...oh dear. Is something wrong?"
"Well..." Applejack frowned and looked off to her side. "Dang it all, Shy, git over here!"
As Mrs. Shy opened the door the rest of the way, Fluttershy half-staggered, half-skipped over, giggling. "But they're peeonies, AJ!" she sang.
Applejack facepalmed. "Git inside, ya idjit," she muttered, pushing Fluttershy past her mother and stepping into the house herself.
Mrs. Shy blinked several times. "Umm..." She pointed at Fluttershy. "What...happened?"
Applejack sighed. "Some dumbass brought some pot brownies t' th' bake sale, an' Fluttershy got into 'em pretty hard. She didn't know they was whut they was."
Mrs. Shy's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh dear."
"She's startin' t' come down a mite," Applejack said tiredly, "but we all agreed it'd be fer th' best if somebody brought 'er home, an' Big Mac's had about all of 'er he can stand fer one day, so Ah drove 'er over."
Mrs. Shy frowned. "What do you mean, your brother's had all he can—"
Applejack held up a hand. "Let's jes' say Fluttershy gits powerful flirty when she's stoned," she said. "Anyhoo, with her van bein' outta commission an' all, that's pretty much it fer us an' th' bake sale, an' she's gonna need t' sleep this one off 'til Monday anyway."
"What happened to the van?" Mr. Shy asked as he wandered in from the den.
"Fan belt," Applejack said. "It's kinda stranded at Las Galletas Hermanas."
Mr. Shy sighed. "That old van goes through more fan belts," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe it's time we finally get rid of the old girl."
"Well anyhoo," Applejack said, "Jes' so you know, it ain't th' school's fault or nothin'. About th' pot, Ah mean."
Mr. Shy chuckled. "Oh, the old pot brownies at the bake sale thing happened to us when we were kids too, isn't that right, Mother?"
Mrs. Shy giggled. "That's kind of how we ended up with Fluttershy in the first place," she said.
"Ah did not need t' know that," Applejack muttered. Shaking her head, she waved. "Gotta git back t' th' school, cheer on mah friends in th' cookin' contest. Ah'll check up on 'Shy tomorrow."
"Alright, dear. Thank you so much for taking care of her!"
From the living room, they heard a crash. After a moment, they heard Fluttershy call out: "Mom? The carpet doesn't match the drapes..."
Most of the cooking stations in the gym had been either removed or condensed down; eight portable kitchen setups remained, each attended by a quarterfinalist. Additional modular countertops had been provided for the quarterfinalists, as well as extra appliances on request.
"Alright, everyone!" Principal Celestia called over the loudspeakers. "The quarterfinals will now begin! As with the previous round, judging will be conducted as each contestant's dish is ready to be served. However, in this round, the contestants will be scored directly against their designated opponents."
"Now, just to remind you of who's facing off against who," Dean Cadance picked up, "These are our match-ups:
"Sunset Shimmer, Twilight Sparkle, and Rarity versus Lyra Heartstrings and Sweetie Drops!"
The named girls waved as the crowd in the bleachers applauded them.
"Trixie Lulamoon versus Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo!"
Polite applause rang out as Trixie took a theatrical bow, while the younger girls just waved.
"Flash Sentry, Skunk Rock, and Beats versus Snips and Snails!"
More polite applause as the boys waved and laughed.
"And lastly, Negra Arroyo versus Saffron Masala!"
The applause was more muted this time, as neither student was terribly popular. Saffron made the best of it, while Negra Arroyo didn't even bother looking up from his preparations.
Celestia took over once again. "During all final rounds, Octavia Melody will be wandering the floor, speaking to the student chefs, providing a commentary on the action.
"Quarterfinalists, your two hours begin...NOW!"
At one station, Scootaloo frowned as she began unloading ingredients. "I can't believe we're going with meatloaf and cornbread," she said.
"Well, we know it's somethin' we can make," Apple Bloom said. "Besides, we're gonna zip it up a bit. An' we've got them mashed sweet taters t' fall back on, too."
"I've never had mashed sweet potatoes," Sweetie Belle said as she started peeling a sweet potato.
"Me either," Scootaloo said. "I'm honestly a little curious."
"Here, crush them Bitz crackers," Apple Bloom said, handing a box of crackers to Scootaloo. "Ah'm gonna git workin' on th' meat."
As the girls worked, Octavia wandered over to them, holding a microphone. "And what will you girls be making for the quarterfinals?" she asked.
"Spicy meatloaf, cornbread, an' mashed sweet taters," Apple Bloom said.
"Hmm, a very down-home menu," Octavia said. "Somehow that's not terribly surprising." She tilted her head. "Are those Bitz crackers?"
"For the meatloaf," Scootaloo said as she pounded a zipper bag full of crackers with a meat tenderizer. "We're trying something a little different."
"How interesting," Octavia said. "Good luck to you girls." She wandered over to Negra Arroyo's station. "And...what do you have for our judges for the quarterfinals?" she asked.
Negra Arroyo ignored her, focused on his preparations.
"Well!" Octavia said in a slight huff. Scowling, she moved on.
Rarity frowned. "Charming fellow," she said as she sliced pork for their okonomiyaki.
"And I thought Crystal Prep students were rude," Twilight muttered as she grated a daikon.
"And here we have Sunset Shimmer, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle," Octavia said as she approached. "Three of the most popular girls at school." She shot Sunset's mixing bowl a quizzical look. "It seems as though you're making pancake batter..."
"Sort of," Sunset said as she crammed a food processor full of cabbage and shredded it. Once she was satisfied, she dumped it into the batter and mixed it in.
Octavia's brow furrowed. "Shredded cabbage in pancake batter?" She shook her head. "I can't begin to fathom what you girls are working on here."
"I think I know what they're making," Celestia said from the judges' table, a pleasantly surprised smile on her face. "If it's what I think it is, I haven't had it since my trip to Neighpon back when I was in college."
Rainbow Dash looked up from her tablet. "I put pancake batter and shredded cabbage in Foodle and got back some word I can't pronounce," she said. "Whatever it is, it's a real recipe."
Cadance glanced over Rainbow's shoulder. "So it is something Neighponese," she said. "That sounds interesting!"
Lyra gave Bon Bon an alarmed look as she cut up chicken. "I don't know if I like the sound of that," she said.
Bon Bon rolled her eyes as she poured from two bottles into a metal bowl. "Whatever they're making, it sounds like a mess," she said. "We're making the classiest dish around! How can cabbage pancakes or whatever compare to coq au vin?"
Lyra smiled. "You're right. We've got this in the bag!"
"And now let's see what Trixie is up to," Octavia said as she crossed over to Trixie's station. "Hmm. I see you're browning steak, and you also have some potatoes on to boil...a simple steak and potato dish?"
"Nothing simple about it," Trixie said snootily as she rolled out dough.
"Really?" Octavia challenged. "Because I couldn't help but notice you have a potato ricer."
Across the floor, Sweetie Belle asked her friends, "What's a potato ricer? Does it turn potatoes into rice?"
"Maybe it rices them up!" Scootaloo said. "You know, like a car!"
Apple Bloom groaned. "It's fer makin' mashed taters," she said flatly. "Now focus, y'all! We can't screw this up!"
"Hey, if all Dripsie's makin' is steak and mashed potatoes, we got this in the bag," Scootaloo said dismissively.
* * * * *
Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity were the first contestants ready to present their dish. The three girls wheeled their serving cart up to the judges' table; four plates with steaming pork okonomiyaki sat in a line. The tops had been drizzled with sauce and garnished with mayonnaise, applied in thin lines shaped with a fork. "Judges," Twilight said, adjusting her glasses, "We present pork okonomiyaki."
"Oh, this is very creative, girls!" Celestia said.
"It does look quite interesting," Ms. Harshwhinny said.
"Yeah, I looked this thing up and it sounds...kinda funky, but I trust you girls," Rainbow said.
"I think it's amazing you girls came up with something like this," Cadance said. "Why don't you explain the dish for the benefit of the audience?"
"Sure," Sunset said. "Okonomiyaki is a Neighponese dish, popular in certain areas of Neighpon. It's not what you'd call high cuisine; it's actually sold from roadside food carts in some places. The basic idea is it's a pancake with shredded cabbage in the batter, topped with whatever meats and vegetables you feel like adding. In this case, we used pan-seared pork, daikon radish, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and green onions. The sauce is an authentic recipe we found online, and we used mayonnaise as a garnish, which is also a traditional preparation."
"It doesn't sound like much," Rarity said, "but it is quite excellent."
Celestia cut off a bite and tasted it. "Mmm," she said. "This takes me back." She smiled. "How long did you girls practice to get this right?"
Sunset smiled sheepishly. "Well, I make this myself about once a month at home, but for the contest, we spent about a week practicing. We made it with just about everything we could think of. Beef, shrimp, pork, chicken, even vegetarian. We decided on pork because it seemed to work best with the cabbage."
"I wholeheartedly agree with that," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Your presentation and preparation are excellent, and this tastes quite delicious."
"Wow, this is pretty good," Rainbow Dash said. "I mean, you wouldn't think a cabbage pancake with a bunch of crap on top would be any good, but this really is!"
"I agree," Cadance said. "I'm impressed, girls. Well done!"
"I do have to ask one question," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "You spent a lot of time and effort on mastering this one dish. Why use it as your quarterfinal entry? With this level of skill, I'm certain you had other dishes that would've passed this round and the next easily. I would have expected something like this to show up in the final round."
"To be honest, we weren't too confident of this," Sunset said. "We're saving our better stuff for later. I mean, if we move on."
"If this isn't your ace, I'm a little scared to find out what is," Cadance said in disbelief.
Once the judges finished their okonomiyaki, Celestia picked up her tablet. "Alright, judges, please enter your scores now." As the other judges entered their scores, Celestia added, "After each entry is judged and scored, the scores will be displayed on the scoreboard behind us."
The three girls looked up at the scoreboard, tense and nervous...
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): SUNSET SHIMMER, TWILIGHT SPARKLE, AND RARITY
The girls' jaws dropped. A massive cheer rose from the crowd. Whooping with joy, Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity grabbed each other in a hug and jumped up and down.
"Very well done, girls," Celestia said with a smile.
Lyra and Bon Bon looked at each other, dread in their eyes.
"We're so boned," Lyra moaned.
* * * * *
Once they were finished cleaning up their station, Twilight, Rarity, and Sunset found Pinkie Pie in the bleachers and joined her.
"Way to go, girls!" Pinkie cheered. "You totally rocked it!"
"Well, it certainly does seem as though we'll be advancing, doesn't it?" Rarity said.
"Lyra and Bon Bon look kinda depressed though," Sunset said. She frowned worriedly. "I mean, I wanna win and I'm happy with our score, but I never wanted to cause anyone to have that crushed-soul look ever again..."
"Eh, it's a contest," Pinkie said dismissively. "It's all in good fun. Besides, they'll get over it."
"So who do you think we'll be up against in the semifinals?" Twilight wondered.
"Hard to say," Sunset said. "I hope it isn't Negra Arroyo, though. I have a feeling he'll be the toughest competition here."
"I'm not so certain," Rarity said. "I mean, Saffron Masala has experience working in an actual restaurant." She craned her neck. "So, my sister and her friends are making a country feast, I heard?"
"Yep," Pinkie said. "Though it seems Apple Bloom's doing most of the work. Sweetie Belle's just peeling and cutting stuff mostly."
"And Flash and his bros are still grilling," Sunset commented. "They're up against Snips and Snails, right?"
"Yeah," Twilight said.
Sunset snorted. "Well that'll guarantee them a spot in the semifinals," she said. "Those two idiots can't even microwave a burrito."
"I dunno," Pinkie said. "I've been watching them and what they're doing is...well, weird, but my Pinkie sense tells me they actually came up with something cool."
"Huh. Well, we'll have to wait and see."
* * * * *
Scootaloo snuck a glance over at Trixie's station. "Okay, I give up," she muttered. "I have no idea what she's doing."
Sweetie Belle was busy mashing sweet potatoes with a hand mixer—under strict supervision from Apple Bloom. "What's she doing now?"
"Okay so it looked like she was makin' these little pies," Scootaloo said, "and then she started puttin' steak and stuff in 'em, but now she's just pilin' up mashed potatoes on top."
Apple Bloom's brow furrowed. "Huh," she muttered. She shook her head. "Well, nevermind her. Let's focus on our own cookin'."
* * * * *
Snips and Snails were the next contestants ready to be judged.
Snails proudly presented a casserole dish with a flaky, golden-brown layered crust covering the top. "So this is our Poodle Noodle Strudel, eh," he said.
"It's an original recipe we came up with ourselves!" Snips proclaimed.
Cadance wrinkled her nose. "I'd...I'd work on that name if I were you," she said. The audience laughed.
Ms. Harshwhinny frowned. "Boys, I was watching your preparation quite intently," she said. "I have...frankly little confidence in what I saw happening there."
"I don't know," Celestia said with a quirk of her lips. "I think these boys are onto something, and the name almost made me giggle." She coughed. "Alright, boys, tell us about your, erm, 'poodle noodle strudel' while you plate it for judging."
Snips used a pie server to cut into the 'strudel' and serve four portions into shallow plates. As he did so, Snails explained, "Okay, so...what we did was, we made some mac and cheese, and we cut up some hot dogs into little pieces and kinda fried 'em in a pan a little bit, then we took some canned crescent rolls and kinda flattened 'em out and rolled 'em together to make like a crust, and we put the whole thing together in a casserole dish and baked it in the oven."
Rainbow Dash frowned. "So it's macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs baked in a big crescent roll?"
"Pretty much," Snips said as he and Snails brought the plates over to the judges. "That's why we call it poodle noodle strudel!"
"Does that even count as cooking?" Rainbow asked as she studied it. "I mean, it sounds edible, but..." She tasted it, pursing her lips as she chewed. She tilted her head. "Yeah, tastes about like I expected," she said. "Not bad."
Ms. Harshwhinny frowned. "I...suppose there is a certain degree of...lazy inventiveness? It's a ludicrous concept and very little actual skill was involved, but..." She tasted it, then shook her head. "Well, I suppose it's adequate in the sense of 'tomorrow is payday and this is literally all I had to work with for dinner'. Still, inventiveness only goes so far. I can't overlook the minimal effort that went into this."
"It's kinda bland, honestly," Cadance said. "You could've at least zipped it up a little, maybe added some thousand island dressing to the macaroni or at least a little mustard. Anything to give it a little more flavor than just plain macaroni and cheese and bland hot dogs. The crescent roll crust is a nice touch though."
Celestia dabbed her mouth with a napkin. "I agree with the others," she said. "I do commend you on your ingenuity in creating an...interesting meal, and there's certainly an element of appeal to this idea. I just think it's, well..." She made a vague gesture. "A little too 'frat boy Friday night'." She pushed the plate away and picked up her tablet. "Judges, please enter your scores now."
The other judges picked up their tablets. After a moment of deliberation, the scoreboard lit up:
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): SNIPS AND SNAILS
Snips and Snails looked at their scores, looked at each other, shrugged, and wheeled their serving cart back to their station to polite applause.
"Ouch," Sunset commented. "Flash and his friends are gonna wipe the floor with those two."
"I'm not so sure about that," Twilight said with a thoughtful frown. "It seems to me like they're just doing more of the same."
"Even so, even I would have to agree that barbecue would win over..." Rarity pulled a face. "that any day of the week. And I'm not even that fond of barbecue!"
"Gotta give 'em credit for trying though," Sunset said. She chuckled. "Poodle noodle strudel. What a name..."
* * * * *
Negra Arroyo approached the judges' table. On his serving cart was a shallow casserole dish.
"And what do you have for us this time?" Celestia asked.
Negra Arroyo began plating his dish with a spatula. "Chicken enchiladas with queso asadero and sour cream sauce," he said. Once each plate had a blue corn enchilada on it, he used a spoon to carefully deposit additional sauce on top, then sprinkled fresh chives over them. He then added a dollop of guacamole to the side of each. "And some fresh guacamole," he said. "And some pico de gallo," he concluded as he added a spoonful of fresh, coarsely-chopped salsa, then placed a plate before each judge.
"Ooh, nice presentation," Cadance said.
"Blue corn again?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"It's my signature," Negra Arroyo said.
"Having your own signature is a sign of a true kitchen artist," Ms. Harshwhinny said approvingly. "Making your own condiments fresh...I commend that."
The judges sampled the enchiladas. "Better than a restaurant," Celestia said.
"Wow, not too spicy, not too bland," Rainbow said. "I like the pico de gallo. It's a good contrast right after a bite of enchilada."
"Yeah, it all just works together," Cadance agreed.
"My only complaint," Ms. Harshwhinny said, "is that you should've added perhaps a few tortilla chips on the side for the garnishes. Other than that, this is an excellent offering."
"I ran low on tortillas," Negra Arroyo said with a shrug. "They take a while to make, so I'm saving as many for tomorrow as I can. Assuming I move on to the next round."
"You make these yourself?" Celestia asked.
"I make as many things myself as I can," Negra Arroyo replied. "I grow my own fruits and vegetables. The only things I don't make myself are the meat and dairy products I use. Everything else comes out of my own garden."
"Okay, that is awesome," Rainbow Dash said.
"Alright, let's get on with the scoring," Celestia said.
Negra Arroyo's lips thinned as he looked up at the scores. "An eight on creativity?" he asked, giving Ms. Harshwhinny a challenging look.
She returned his gaze calmly. "You have tremendous skill and an obvious knowledge of authentic ingredients and recipes," she replied, "and yet you chose to offer enchiladas. The taquitos, I could overlook as an appetizer. I was honestly expecting something of a higher level from you."
"Hmm." Negra Arroyo's lips curved down. "And yet you scored three girls who made Neighponese roadside food a ten." With a shrug, he walked away, pushing his cart.
Rainbow Dash blinked at his retreating back. "Wow," she said. "Sore winner much?"
"Artists," Ms. Harshwhinny grumbled, pursing her lips in annoyance.
"He did sort of have a point," Cadance said. "Even if he was kind of a jerk about it."
Ms. Harshwhinny shrugged. "I stand by my score."
* * * * *
Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo approached the judges' table. "Howdy y'all!" Apple Bloom said cheerfully. "We've got some good eats fer y'all!"
Cadance giggled. "My, how country," she said. "Alright, we already heard about your menu, and you girls seemed to know what you were doing, so let's get to it."
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo carefully served each judge a plate containing a slice of meatloaf, a piece of cornbread, and a spoonful of mashed sweet potatoes with butter.
"The presentation is a bit plain," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Also, the fact that you largely copied the menu from last weekend's cooking class is going to cost you." She picked up her fork and went for the meatloaf as the other judges began eating.
"Hmm. This meatloaf's okay," Rainbow said. "It's kinda dry though."
"I think the Bitz crackers worked against you girls," Celestia said apologetically. "It was a good idea, it just..." She grimaced, then took a bite of the potatoes. "Now, these turned out perfectly."
"A pour-over gravy would have done wonders for this meatloaf," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Also, the cornbread is a bit on the dry side. I've certainly had worse, but with the meatloaf as dry as it is, it's not going to help your score."
"You girls did a good job," Cadance said. "It's just...not competition-grade, I'm sorry."
The girls bowed their heads.
"Now, cheer up, girls," Celestia said. "You show promise! Especially you, Apple Bloom. I think you should spend more time in the kitchen with Granny Smith." She sighed and looked at the others. "Judges?"
The judges were somber as they entered the scores.
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): APPLE BLOOM, SWEETIE BELLE, AND SCOOTALOO
The girls looked at each other unhappily, sighed, and trudged away. They were intercepted at their station by Rarity and Sunset Shimmer.
"Don't be too upset, girls," Rarity said. "You gave it your all! And you haven't lost yet. Don't lose hope!"
"Nah, Trixie's got us beat," Scootaloo said. "We been watchin' her, she's way out of our league."
"But you had fun cooking together, right?" Sunset asked.
The girls looked at each other.
"Yeah, we did!" Apple Bloom said.
"And I'm not as much of a disaster in the kitchen as I was before this all started," Sweetie Belle said. With a giggle, she added, "For one thing, I realize now that I actually was a disaster in the kitchen. Now I at least know milk doesn't come in the cereal box!"
Sunset blinked. She glanced at Rarity, who cringed. "Okay, with that in mind, your scores in this round are pretty good," she said.
"We did better with th' fried chicken," Apple Bloom said.
"But that was just you," Scootaloo pointed out. "We hardly did anything for that."
"We'll help you girls clean up, then you can come sit with us and watch the rest," Sunset said. "How's that sound?"
The girls shrugged and nodded. With that, the five of them set to work cleaning up.
* * * * *
Flash, Skunk, and Beats strode confidently up to the table with their serving cart, which had a large metal tray on it, along with an assortment of separate packages, containers, and other stuff.
"Alright, what do you boys have for us this time?" Celestia asked pleasantly, folding her hands in front of her.
The boys looked at each other and smirked. "Well, after we saw what Snips and Snails brought to the table, we decided to change up our game plan," Flash said. "Boys, let's flip 'em up!"
And with that, the boys swiftly assembled four bacon cheeseburgers, hot off the grill, with extra sauce, crisp lettuce, sliced tomatoes, crispy onion straws, and sliced smoked cheddar.
Rainbow Dash leaned forward with anticipation, a huge grin on her face. "Alright, now we're talkin'!" she said.
Ms. Harshwhinny raised an eyebrow. "Really, boys?"
Flash shrugged. "Well, we had something else planned, but we agreed when we were planning out our menu that if one of our competitors really whiffed it, we'd coast on a classic."
Celestia smirked. "Good strategy. I'm impressed by your foreplanning."
"Even if it's a bit ruthless," Cadance added with a sneaky smile.
The boys served the judges, who took delicate bites of the burgers (with the exception of Rainbow Dash, who just tore right in). "Oh, dude, this is a good burger," Rainbow said.
"That sauce you boys are using really does bring out the flavor of everything," Cadance said. "Did you cook the bacon and the onions on the grill?"
"Yeah," Beats said. "We looked up ways to cook anything on the grill, just in case."
Ms. Harshwhinny pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Well, I must hand it to you, boys," she said, "even I enjoy a good burger from time to time, and you certainly know your way around toppings. Also, the fact that this was a backup plan in case one of your competitors failed miserably is worth taking into consideration."
"It is pretty impressive that you boys came prepared to make a dish you weren't sure you'd even need to make," Celestia said. "And I haven't had a bacon cheeseburger this tasty in quite some time." She looked around. "Judges?"
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): FLASH SENTRY, SKUNK ROCK, AND BEATS
The boys hi-fived each other and whooped as they wheeled their cart away. The judges just laughed (except Ms. Harshwhinny, who rolled her eyes) and finished their burgers. Ms. Harshwhinny shot Rainbow Dash a pointed look as she swallowed a bite. "All tens, Miss Dash? Really?"
"What?" Rainbow said through a mouthful of burger. "It's a good burger."
In the stands, Sunset laughed. "I can't help but think Flash and his friends just got graded on a curve," she said.
"Yeah, if those burgers had been up against us or Negra Arroyo, the scores wouldn't have been nearly that high," Twilight agreed. "I think, anyway."
"I believe the scoring that time was more based on their planning strategy than on their actual food," Rarity said, folding her arms.
"I dunno, those burgers looked awful tasty," Pinkie said. "I think I'm gonna go get 'em to make me one while they've still got the grill hot!" She vaulted off the bleachers.
A minute later, Twilight jumped up. "Hey, wait up!" She followed Pinkie across the floor.
Sunset rolled her eyes and stood up. "You coming, Rarity?"
Rarity shook her head, smirking. "I'm quite full, thank you." She glanced at the three younger girls. "Girls?"
"We're full too," Scootaloo said. "Which totally sucks, because I kinda want one too."
"I ate too much meatloaf," Sweetie Belle complained.
"Well, it had t' go somewhere," Apple Bloom said before letting out a huge belch.
* * * * *
"And here comes Tripsie," Rainbow Dash muttered as Trixie approached the table, a haughty and superior expression on her face.
"Be nice," Cadance whispered.
Trixie's dish was already plated; she placed a plate before each judge which contained a small, round ceramic baking dish from which rose a mound of mashed potatoes, the top of which was golden-brown. Each dish had a sprig of parsley laid carefully atop the potatoes, which were seasoned with coarse ground black pepper.
"Behold," Trixie said with a flourish of her arms, "The Great and Powerful TRRRRIXIE'S potato-topped steak pot pie!"
"Pot pie, huh?" Cadance asked. "Alright. I've never seen pot pie with mashed potatoes on top before."
"Oh, I've had that," Rainbow Dash said. "Dad buys 'em frozen. It's not bad."
"This," Trixie said testily, "is far superior to any frozen pot pie you've ever eaten or ever will eat."
"I don't doubt it," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Tell us more, Miss Lulamoon."
"Very well," Trixie said silkily, running a hand through her hair. "Beneath the artistically-whipped peaks of smooth, creamy, yet just faintly golden brown potatoes, you will find tender medallions of steak, sliced carrots, diced potatoes, and snow peas in a rich gravy made with simmered onions and just a dash of Worcestershire sauce." She tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
Rainbow Dash dug in. "'S good," she grunted through a mouthful.
Ms. Harshwhinny shot her a cross look, then delicately tucked into her own pot pie, as did the others. After carefully and deliberately chewing and swallowing, Ms. Harshwhinny said, "You have indeed presented a fine, quality example of a pot pie, Miss Lulamoon. I particularly applaud your choice of snow peas. It is not a vegetable one normally associates with this sort of fare." She frowned. "I do however question the addition of diced potatoes to the filling, given the rather generous amount of mashed potatoes on top."
"I agree there," Celestia said. "It seems like a litle too much potato. Other than that, I don't have any complaints."
"Well, you certainly know how to sell it, I'll give you that," Cadance said with a laugh. "But yeah, it's not bad. I'm not big on this much potato in one dish, especially when there's another carb involved. But that's a personal thing, I won't take points off for it." She frowned. "What I will take points off for is that you only seasoned the mashed potatoes with pepper. I'd have added some garlic and herbs to the potatoes before topping the pies and baking them."
"She's kinda got a point there," Rainbow Dash said. "You hafta get 'em down into the gravy or they're just mashies with stuff under 'em. Like I said, it's not bad, but it could be a little better."
Trixie grimaced. "Trixie...did not take that into consideration," she admitted.
"Still, all in all, a solid effort," Ms. Harshwhinny said.
"I could certainly have this for dinner from time to time," Celestia agreed. "Judges? Enter your scores now."
Lyra and Bon Bon looked at the scores, sighed, and walked back to their station. The crowd cheered for them, and they waved halfheartedly.
"Oh dear," Rarity said fretfully. "I do feel dreadfully sorry for them. We should...we should do something to cheer them up."
"I think Sandalwood still has some of those brownies," Pinkie said. The others glared at her. "Whaaaat?" she whined.
* * * * *
"We're just about to wrap up the quarterfinals!" Celestia announced. "As we wait for our final contestant, let's review the matches so far and the quarterfinalists who have already clinched their ticket to the semifinals!"
As the crowd cheered, the scoreboard lit up with a graphic depicting a tournament bracket. The eight semifinalists sat on the left; as the judges named each victor, their portrait advanced to the semifinal match-ups.
"With the only perfect score of the quarterfinal round, Sunset Shimmer, Twilight Sparkle, and Rarity move on to the semifinals!"
A huge cheer rose from the crowd as the three girls' portrait moved ahead in the bracket, while Lyra and Bon Bon were dimmed out.
"Having scored a hit with her potato-topped pot pie, Trixie Lulamoon advances and will face Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity tomorrow!"
Trixie's portrait moved into the slot beneath the other girls, even as the portrait of Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo dimmed out.
"Flash Sentry, Skunk Rock, and Beats grilled up a win against lazy bachelor chefs Snips and Snails!"
The grillmasters' portraits moved into the third semifinal slot as Snips and Snails' portrait dimmed.
"But who will their opponent in the semifinals be? Will it be Negra Arroyo, the perfectionist with the blue corn fetish? Or will Saffron Masala curry our favor and move on to the next round?"
Cadance looked down the table at Celestia with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. "You're getting way too into this," she said.
Celestia blushed. "I never get to do stuff like this," she protested. "I'm allowed to have fun, right?"
Saffron Masala finished her preparations and wheeled her dish over to the judges. "Sorry for the wait," she said. She spooned up four bowls of a chunky red stew from a slow cooker, garnishing each with a sprinkle of some yellow spice.
"More curry?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Sort of," Saffron said. "This is goat vindaloo."
"Goat?" Cadance asked. "I don't think I've ever had goat."
"Honestly, your presentation is rather lacking," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she picked up her spoon.
"I am sorry," Saffron said. "I was always taught that the smell and taste of food are more important than the appearance."
"People do tend to eat with the eyes first," Cadance said. "Speaking of which, this is making mine water and I haven't even tasted it yet."
"It does smell a bit...pungent," Celestia said. She took a bite, and nearly choked. "Oh! Oh," she said. She coughed, hastily swallowed, wiped her mouth, then reached for her bottled water, chugging it. Along the table, the other judges had similar reactions, sweating as they went for their water.
Saffron cringed, twisting the hem of her shirt in her hands. "Too spicy?" she asked.
"Where'd you get this stuff, out of a nuclear reactor?" Rainbow Dash said.
"I don't mind spice, but this is ridiculous," Cadance said. "And the meat tastes a little...off."
Ms. Harshwhinny carefully took another bite, chewing a piece of goat. She frowned. "Your meat is rancid," she said after spitting it out into a napkin and pushing the plate away.
Saffron wilted. "It...it shouldn't be..." She shook her head.
"Where'd you get this meat from?" Celestia asked.
"From the restaurant's freezer," Saffron said. "The label said it had only been frozen for two weeks..." She rushed back to her cooking station, rummaging through the freezer bags she'd disposed of. She let out a shriek of panic, then hurried back to the judges' table. "I—I'm sorry!" she gasped out. "I didn't..."
"What's wrong?" Cadance asked.
Saffron was in tears. "The date on the meat...it's dated from last year," she cried.
The judges looked at each other uncertainly. Rainbow Dash pushed her bowl away. The other judges frowned and did likewise.
Celestia coughed. "I'm...sorry, Saffron," she said. "Under the circumstances, I'm afraid you're disqualified."
Saffron bowed her head. "I understand," she said. "I'm sorry..."
"It's alright, dear," Celestia said soothingly. "Mistakes happen."
"We're not gonna like, get food poisoning, are we?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Probably not," Cadance said. "Still, it wouldn't hurt to take a little stomach medicine just to be on the safe side."
"Miss Masala, surely you noticed when you taste-tested the vindaloo that your meat was rancid?" Ms. Harshwhinny asked.
Saffron sighed. "I'm so used to pungent flavors and gamey meats from Papa's cooking that I...I didn't notice." She hung her head in shame and trudged back to her station, pushing her cart.
QUARTERFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): SAFFRON MASALA
As the crowd murmured and muttered, Celestia looked around with a sad, pained smile. "Well...that's it for today," she said. "I hope we'll see everybody here bright and early tomorrow for the second day of the Bake Sale and the semifinal round of the Cooking Contest!"
Once the microphones were switched off, Cadance groaned. "Ugh," she said. "I'm gonna need to do like two hours of cardio tonight."
"Yeah, I'm gonna hafta jog an extra lap tomorrow," Rainbow Dash said with a grimace, patting her stomach. "Think I'm gonna lay off my usual evening run tonight, though. If I run on a stomach this full, I'm gonna get cramps."
"I feel sorry for Saffron," Celestia said. "She's not a bad cook. It's just...sad that happened."
"If she'd paid more attention to the labels on her meat," Ms. Harshwhinny said with a frown. "Or purchased fresh meat from the store instead of raiding her family's freezer."
"Eh, she took a risk," Rainbow said. "I can respect that. Even if backfired on her." She stood up suddenly. "Think I'm gonna go talk to her."
Across the gym, a group of girls had the same idea. Sunset, Twilight, Rarity, and Pinkie were converging on Saffron.
"Hey," Sunset said as she approached. "Tough break."
Saffron sighed and smiled. "It was my fault," she said. "I'm simply not cut out to be a real cook like my papa."
"Aww, don't say that," Pinkie said. "You had a bad day. Everybody has a bad day once in a while!"
"I know, but..." Saffron sighed. "I was hoping to use the cooking contest to stir up business for my family's restaurant. We're not doing very well at all."
"Really?" Rarity asked. "But...every time I've been past there, it's been packed!"
Saffron groaned. "With friends of my papa," she said. "They hang around and goof off, and nobody actually pays for any food. Then real customers don't bother to come in because the restaurant looks crowded. Papa won't do anything about it because he's convinced we've failed."
The girls looked at each other. "That's...that's awful," Twilight said.
Rarity frowned. "That simply won't do," she said. "It sounds to me like your restaurant needs an intervention."
"Ooh, you mean like that TV show with the angry shouty guy who swears a lot?" Pinkie Pie asked excitedly. "That sounds like a lot of fun!" She put on a mock-stern expression and started wagging a finger in an exaggerated manner. "Fuck your food and fuck your kitchen and fuck you too and what the FUCK is this?" She giggled.
Everybody stared at her. "Don't ever do that again," Sunset said flatly.
Saffron blinked slowly. "Is...is she alright in the head?"
"Compared to what?" Rarity asked. She waved a hand dismissively. "Nevermind her, darling. I would be more than happy to round up some volunteers to come to the restaurant next weekend, spend some actual money, and spread the word about the food!"
"Yeah, me too!" Pinkie Pie said eagerly.
"Count me in," Sunset said with a smile.
"Me too!" Rainbow Dash said as she joined the group.
"I...think I'll have to pass," Twilight said. "I can't handle really spicy stuff very well. But I'll be sure to tell my brother and my dad to drop by! They love spicy food!"
Saffron looked around at them, tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you all."
"Think nothing of it, darling," Rarity said. "Now, perhaps it's best if you dispose of that toxic vindaloo."
Saffron grimaced. "Yes, you are right..." She sighed. "I am so humiliated."
"The best thing you can do right now," a new voice intruded, "is to go back to your restaurant and do a complete inventory of your kitchen."
The girls all looked around. Negra Arroyo stood there, a folding cart loaded with his supplies next to him. He looked intently at Saffron. "Your dad had year old frozen meat in his freezer. That's not just a disgrace, that's a health code violation. You need to go through every inch of that kitchen and get rid of anything that's substandard, expired, or otherwise unacceptable." He leaned close, his eyes burning into Saffron. "Anything. Do you understand?"
Saffron nodded, shrinking away from him.
Negra Arroyo looked around at the other girls, his gaze lingering on Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity. "If you make it to the finals, I'll be waiting," he said. With that, he donned a black porkpie hat, smoothed out the brim, and turned to leave. He paused, looked back, and added, "Oh. And if you know what's good for you, don't cook anything Mexican." With a sinister sneer, he said, "That's my territory."
And with that, he left.
"What a jerk," Rainbow Dash muttered, scowling at his retreating back.
"Agreed," Rarity said.
Twilight paled. "Girls, our semifinal dish is Mexican! What do we do?"
"We cook it anyway," Sunset said. "The hell with that freak. He's not the boss of us."
"Yeah, he's pretty corny," Pinkie said. "Blue corny. Get it?" she added with a giggle-snort.
"We get it," the others said with resigned groans.
Flash walked over to the group. "So...hey, Twilight. Hey, Sunset. Congrats on makin' it through. Oh, you too, Rarity."
"Thanks, Flash," Sunset said. "Do us all a favor and kick that Negra Arroyo jerk's ass tomorrow, alright? We'd much rather beat you in the finals than have to deal with him." She grinned cheekily at him.
Flash smirked. "Heh. We'll see who beats who." He glanced at Twilight, then laughed shakily. "Uhh...of course, I think you girls are gonna go all the way. I mean, you rocked it with that...thing you made. Everybody was goin' nuts!" He backed away awkwardly, nearly tripping over his feet. "So, uhh...see you tomorrow! Good luck!"
Once he left, Sunset sighed. "Geez."
"Hopeless," Rarity sang.
Twilight frowned. "Why does that guy keep looking at me like that?"
"Don't worry about it," Sunset said. "Worry about getting a good night's sleep for tomorrow." She stretched and yawned. "I am exhausted."
"Me too," Rarity said. "I do hope they think to provide the chefs with chairs tomorrow. There's an awful lot of waiting involved in cooking."
"Not the way we do it there isn't," Twilight said. "Well...I guess it'd be nice to have a chair just in case." Her phone sang out from her pocket, and she pulled it out and looked at it. "My ride's here," she said. "See you girls tomorrow!"
"Later, Twi!" Sunset waved, then rubbed her back and grimaced. "Well, I'd better get going too. Rarity, can you finish packing up?"
"I'll help," Rainbow said. "I need to move around a bit after sittin' on my ass all day."
"Thank you, Rainbow," Rarity said. "Pinkie Pie?"
"I'm gonna head over to Fluttershy's place and check on her," she said. "I'll text you later." She sighed. "I have a feeling me and the girls are done with the Bake Sale."
"All because Fluttershy got into some hash brownies?" Sunset asked.
Rainbow blinked. "Wait, what now?"
"I'll fill you in later," Pinkie said. "And it's not just that. Our whole morning was a total disaster. We're not going through that again." She giggled. "Besides, we sold over five hundred bucks' worth today, I think we did our part."
The girls' jaws dropped. "Whoa," Sunset said. "Okay, see you all tomorrow!"
The gym slowly emptied out, volunteers helping the remaining contestants clean up and pack up. By the time the last person left and Principal Celestia locked up the school, it was already dusk. She found her sister next to their car in the parking lot. "So how was your day?" she asked.
Luna snorted. "Three students and Cheerilee tried to sweep some pot brownies under the rug without my noticing. I let them off the hook since nobody got sick and only one student was noticeably high before Pinkie Pie made the culprit stop selling the brownies."
Celestia blinked. "Seriously?"
"Well, you know what they say," Luna said. "It isn't a bake sale until somebody gets baked."
Celestia rolled her eyes and groaned good-naturedly. "Well I'm looking forward to a very long date with the toilet," she said.
"That is more information than I needed, sister!" Luna cried as she got into the car. Celestia laughed, got in, and drove off into the darkening night.
Mid-morning on Sunday found the gym at Canterlot High packed. Most of the student body who weren't involved with the bake sale had assembled to watch the semifinals of the cooking contest. Four elaborate modular kitchen setups had been constructed in the center of the gym.
Applejack and Pinkie Pie sat with Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle in the bleachers. "Where's Fluttershy?" Apple Bloom asked.
"She's restin' at home today," Applejack said with a grimace.
"Is she sick? Did she have a bad reaction after she came down?" Pinkie asked.
Applejack shrugged. "Honestly? Ah think she's jes' too embarrassed t' show her face."
"What happened?" Scootaloo asked.
Pinkie Pie sighed. "Let's just say Fluttershy and marijuana aren't the best combination."
The younger girls looked at each other with wide eyes. "Fluttershy got high on weed?" Scootaloo asked.
"Not on purpose," Applejack said. She shook her head. "Anyhoo, we'll jes' hafta cheer th' girls on twice as hard t' make up fer Fluttershy not bein' here."
"Wouldn't we have to cheer them on twice as hard even if she was here?" Sweetie Belle asked. The other girls giggled.
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Alright, y'all."
The lights suddenly dimmed. The staccato pounding of snare drums filled the gym as the Canterlot High marching band entered, forming two lines leading from the north entrance to the kitchen stations. Spotlights snapped on, illuminating the path between them as well as the judges' table, where Principal Celestia, Ms. Harshwhinny, Dean Cadance, and Rainbow Dash sat.
"Welcome, everyone, to the semifinal round of the Canterlot High Cooking Contest!" Celestia greeted grandly. "In just a moment, four contestants are about to enter. Of those four, two will advance to this afternoon's finals! By the end of today, we will crown one student or group of students the supreme student chefs of CHS!
"Please welcome the students who will be competing in our own kitchen arena today! First up, three girls who certainly need no introduction, who have shown us all the magic of friendship! Please welcome Sunset Shimmer, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle!"
The band drummed wildly as the three girls entered the gym, waving to the cheering crowd. They jogged over to their designated kitchen station, where their equipment and supplies were already waiting for them.
"And their opponent, a girl who aspires to be both a rock star and a stage magician, and certainly worked her magic with food yesterday—please welcome Trixie Lulamoon!"
Before the band could even start drumming, a plume of blue smoke and a shower of purple sparks erupted from the second kitchen station. Trixie appeared with a flourish of her cape, which she tossed aside along with her pointed magician's hat. She gave her hair a flip and posed with a hand on her hip to mild applause.
"Next, we have three rockers who showed us yesterday they can rock a grill: Flash Sentry, Skunk Rock, and Beats!"
The guys strolled out to the marching band's drum accompaniment and generous applause, heading for the only station with a barbecue grill set up.
"And finally, their opponent, the mysterious and taciturn master of Mexican cuisine, the blue corn king, Negra Arroyo!"
Very little applause heralded Negra Arroyo's calm, no-nonsense entrance. He walked up to his station, took off his porkpie hat, rolled up his sleeves, and went right to work.
The lights snapped on and the brackets appeared on the scoreboard above the judges.
"Contestants, you have three hours to prepare your dishes. As before, judging will take place when each contestant's submission is ready to be served. Octavia Melody will be wandering the floor, asking questions of our cooks and reporting on the floor action." Celestia raised her hand into the air.
"Let the cooking...BEGIN!"
* * * * *
"Excuse me. You're Twilight's friends, right?"
Applejack and Pinkie Pie looked up to see a woman who looked like an older Twilight with light grey-white skin and lavender hair with two ivory streaks. To one side of her stood a blue-skinned man with dark blue hair; to the other stood a pale cream-white boy about five years older than them with shaggy two-tone blue hair. "Yeah," Pinkie Pie said. "You're her mom and dad and brother, right?"
"That's right," Twilight Velvet said. "Do you mind if we join you?"
"Sure!" Pinkie Pie scooted around to make room for them.
"Thank you, dear." Twilight's family sat down between the three younger girls and Pinkie Pie.
"We almost didn't make it," Night Light said. "We got held up by the tail end of the Buffalo Pride Parade."
"That's STILL goin' on?" Applejack cried. "Ah thought that was jes' th' one day!"
"Oh, it's making its way west," Shining Armor said. "It started out here in the sticks, then today it moved into the city where we live."
Applejack frowned. "Hey now. This here's th' suburbs, not th' sticks."
Shining Armor rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry," he said. He sighed. "Man, Cadance is lucky. What I wouldn't give to be on that judging panel today."
Velvet rolled her eyes. "Come on, boys, you already demolished one whole platter when they learned the recipe."
Sweetie Belle tilted her head. "So you guys know what they're gonna make today?"
Velvet smiled. "Oh, we certainly do," she said, her eyes twinkling mischievously.
* * * * *
"I dunno, dude," Beats said as he and Skunk chopped potatoes and carrots while Flash got the grill going. "I don't like our chances against that Negra Arroyo guy."
"I know," Flash said with a resigned sigh, "but we gotta do our best."
"And yet you're barbecuing again," the cultured voice of Octavia Melody broke in as she approached with a microphone. "You managed to do quite well sticking to your one trick, but do you really think cookout food is going to do the trick here?"
Flash shrugged. "Probably not, but it's all we've got," he said.
"Really," Octavia drawled. "You didn't bother to learn how to do anything else? Not even proper side dishes?"
"I can't even boil an egg, dude," Skunk said.
Octavia made a face. "Interesting choice, then, to enter a cooking competition. If I might ask, what was your motivation for entering when none of you can properly cook?"
The guys looked at one another, then at Flash. Flash sighed and looked away. "Well..." His shoulders slumped. "I screwed up so bad at the Friendship Games, I wanted to kinda, y'know, maybe make a comeback from that? Earn back some cred?"
"Hmm, I see," Octavia said. "Well...win or lose, you boys did make it to the semifinals, against all odds. I'd say job well done." She looked over what the three boys were doing. "So, am I to assume you're going to be making some sort of kebabs?"
"That's right," Skunk said. "Thought we'd change it up a bit and do mutton today."
"I see. That's certainly a change of pace."
"We're also gonna roast some ears of corn," Beats added.
"Well, good luck to you," Octavia said before walking away.
Across the gym, Sunset shot a pensive look at the boys. "So that's what this is all about," she said. "Here I thought he was just trying to show off for..." She trailed off. "Nevermind."
"Oh, SHOOT!" Twilight suddenly yelped. "Girls, we've got a problem!"
"What is it, darli—oh. Oh no."
The girls stared in dismay at the block of cheddar Twilight had just begun cubing...which was encrusted in blue and white mold.
"Crap!" Sunset spat. "How the hell'd that happen?!"
"I dunno, but it's a problem," Twilight said worriedly.
"It's not our only problem," Rarity moaned as she held up their onion. Which, once the outer skin had been removed, was revealed to be partially rotten.
"Gah," Sunset said.
"What're we gonna do, girls?" Twilight moaned.
Rarity sighed dramatically. "We are in a pickle, aren't we..."
Sunset took a deep breath. "No, we can handle this," she said. "You girls check and see if anything else went bad on us. I'll check to see if the judges'll let us make an emergency trip to the store."
"But...none of us can leave the gym during the contest, right?"
"I've got it covered," Sunset said. "At least, I hope." With that, she took off running for the judges' table.
"There seems to be some sort of commotion," Cadance informed the crowd as Sunset pelted toward them. Celestia motioned down the table, and all four judges killed their mics as Sunset skidded to a halt, leaning against the table, chest heaving as she panted for breath.
"What seems to be the problem, Sunset?" Celestia asked.
Sunset took a deep breath. "Some of our ingredients went bad," she said. "We caught it in time and we can still finish up well inside the time limit if we can send somebody on a quick food run. Is that allowed?"
The judges looked at one another and shrugged. "I don't see why not," Celestia said. "As long as you finish and present your dish within the time limit. Will one of you be leaving?"
"No, I'm gonna send Pinkie Pie," Sunset said. "She's a fast shopper and I trust her to know her foods. I mean, if that's allowed."
"Sure, go for it," Rainbow said.
"I have no objections," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "It would be a shame to have a similar tragedy occur as what happened to Ms. Masala yesterday."
"Yeah, do what you gotta do," Cadance agreed.
Sunset beamed gratefully at them. "Thanks," she said. She rushed back over to the others, waving desperately at Pinkie Pie as she passed.
The judges cut their microphones back on. "Pinkie Pie, please report to the floor," Celestia said. "Also, I have an announcement at this time. If any contestants discover missing or spoiled ingredients, please alert us immediately. You will be allowed to send a runner to the store, so long as you will still be able to finish cooking in time."
Pinkie Pie vaulted over three rows of spectators and landed on the floor, sprinting over to her friends just as Sunset made it back. "What's up, girls?" she asked.
Sunset looked to the other girls. "Anything else turn up bad?" she asked.
Twilight shook her head. "Just the cheese and the onion," she said.
Sunset sighed with relief. "Good. Okay, Pinkie, we need you to run to the store for us real fast."
"Sure," Pinkie said. "But it'd be faster if I took my scooter."
Sunset facepalmed. "Yes, by all means, please take your scooter," she said flatly. She fished a handful of bills out of her wallet and handed them to Pinkie. "We need a large yellow onion and a pound of sharp cheddar cheese."
Pinkie saluted. "Right away, Cap'n Cook ma'am!" She bolted for the exit.
Sunset took a deep breath. "Alright, so we can't get to work on the meat yet, but at least we can get a head start on cutting everything else up."
Octavia walked up to them. "So, you girls ran into a little problem?" she asked.
"Yeah, we had some moldy cheese and a rotten onion," Twilight said. "Could've been a disaster if we didn't have time to get more."
"Well, while you wait for your friend to return," Octavia said, "would you spare a few words for everyone?"
"Sure," Sunset said as she diced a tomato.
"Yesterday, you offered up a Prench dish and a Neighponese dish," Octavia said. "Will you be similarly exploring world flavor today?"
"Absolutely, darling!" Rarity said as she sliced jalapeños. "For the semifinals, we'll be presenting a Mexican treat." She shot a catty smirk at Negra Arroyo, who looked up briefly from his preparations and glared at them. "For the finals, we'll be dazzling you all with a taste of Bitaly!"
"You seem confident you'll advance to the finals," Octavia said. "I take it then that you don't view Trixie as a threat?"
The three girls looked at each other, then over at Trixie, who was scowling at them. "Trixie's good," Sunset admitted. "We honestly didn't expect that. But you don't win with a 'maybe' attitude."
That statement earned wild applause from the crowd. Trixie snorted and looked pointedly away.
"So what precisely are you girls making today?" Octavia asked, looking over their ingredients. "The flour tortillas would seem to indicate some sort of burritos, or perhaps soft tacos?"
Sunset smirked. "Actually, we're making nachos."
This drew some murmurs from the crowd. Octavia tilted her head. "Nachos?"
"Nachos," Twilight affirmed with a confident smile.
Octavia craned her neck and scanned their ingredients. "But...I'm sorry...the flour tortillas, then?"
The three girls looked at one another. "Shall we spoil the surprise, girls?" Rarity asked.
"Sure, why not," Sunset said. She looked around at the other competitors, at the judges, and at the audience. "We're making nachos with flour tortilla chips," she announced loudly.
Negra Arroyo looked up sharply, surprise evident on his face. Flash and his friends blinked and looked at each other in confusion. Interested and excited murmurs rose from the crowd. Even the judges leaned forward in interest.
Celestia covered her mic. "Rainbow Dash, did you know about this?" she whispered.
Rainbow shook her head. "First I've heard of it," she said. "So they're doin' like what, taco salad but as nachos?"
"Sounds like it," Cadance said. "This should be fun!"
Octavia's brow furrowed. "So then the flour tortillas you have..."
"We're going to fry them!" Rarity sang. "We're going to cut them up and fry them for fresh, crispy flour tortilla chips."
That got everybody excited.
"Well then," Octavia said, "that should be quite the treat for our judges! If all goes well, I expect you'll have half the school asking for this recipe later."
Sunset laughed. "They'll have to ask Twilight's mom, it's her recipe. It's not ours to share."
"I see," Octavia said. "Well, best of luck to you girls!"
"Duuude," Beats said as he put chunks of mutton in a bowl of sauce, "that sounds freakin' sweet."
"Yeah," Flash agreed. "I'm glad we're not up against the girls. We'd be so boned."
"We're boned either way," Skunk pointed out as he rolled carrots in a separate bowl. "I think that Negra dude's pissed now."
Flash looked over at Negra Arroyo and frowned. "Yeah, that little announcement kinda set him off..."
Octavia approached Trixie. "So, you've heard what your opponents are making," she said. "Would you care to share your menu with the audience?"
Trixie gave a haughty sniff. "Well, those girls may be bringing the appetizer, but TRRRRIXIE is delivering the MAIN COURSE!" She stepped back and gave the audience a theatrical bow. "Today, Trixie will be demonstrating her versatility with something..." She laughed into the back of her hand. "A bit more down-home. Something you might find in Applejack's little country kitchen."
"Oh? And what might that be?" Octavia asked.
"Well, if you must know," Trixie said haughtily, "Trixie is preparing traditional country fried steak with cream gravy, fried okra, and handmade seasoned crispy tater tots!" She fanned herself. "Yes, I am that amazing."
Octavia's brow furrowed. "If I remember correctly, yesterday you made pepper steak and steak pot pie. Now you're offering yet another steak dish?"
Trixie's haughty expression turned to an annoyed scowl. "I had a lot of steak," she snapped sourly.
"Well, your reputation is certainly at—ahem—steak," Octavia said, earning chuckles and groans at her pun. Trixie rolled her eyes and pointedly returned her attention to her preparations.
Rainbow Dash snickered. "Same old Trixie," she said.
"Do you have some sort of rivalry with that girl?" Cadance asked.
"Couldn't you tell?" Celestia said with a teasing smile. "They're competing for title of Bluest Girl At CHS."
Rainbow Dash blinked at that. "Uhh...we kinda threw down at the Battle of the Bands," she said. "Actually, we had a shred-off over this sweet guitar a while back, but I ended up letting her have it even though I totally won because I liked the one I was playing better and the other one was ten thousand bucks anyway."
"Ouch," Cadance said.
"Anyway, Trixie's an arrogant show-off," Rainbow said.
Ms. Harshwhinny stared at her incredulously. "And you aren't?"
"Hey, at least I got the skills to back it up!" Rainbow retorted hotly.
"If you say so," Ms. Harshwhinny drawled.
"And lastly," Octavia said from the floor, "I'd like to get some remarks from Negra Arroyo. Err, would you do us the courtesy of actually speaking to everyone this time?"
Negra Arroyo glanced at her, then shrugged. "Alright," he said as he sliced something on a cutting board.
"Very well. What are you planning to prepare for the judges today?"
"Well, since Ms. Harshwhinny criticized my reliance on restaurant fare yesterday," Negra Arroyo said, "I decided to start off with one of my own original recipes."
"Really?" Octavia said. "Tell us more!"
"I'd rather not divulge anything," Negra Arroyo said as he finished slicing and scraped his ingredients into a shallow skillet. "What I will say is that you ladies are in for something I know you'll all love."
"I see." Octavia looked over his station. "You also have flour tortillas. May I assume you're going to use them in a more traditional way than the ladies over there are?"
Negra Arroyo frowned. "I have to give those girls credit," he admitted. "Flour tortilla chips aren't something you run into anywhere close to often enough. Even if all they're making are nachos, judging by what I see going on over there, I don't doubt I'll be facing those three in the finals."
"Oh? You seem confident you'll win this round."
Negra Arroyo snorted. "Please," he said. "I think we all know by now how this is gonna play out."
"Well, there you have it," Octavia said. "I'll be reporting on the action for the remainder of the day, but for now, I believe I need a break and some water." The audience applauded as she walked over to a chair at the end of the judges' table and sat down.
"You know," Shining Armor said thoughtfully, "I think maybe going to Crystal Prep was a mistake after all."
"Oh?" Velvet asked, looking over at him. "Why's that?"
Shining Armor looked down at the floor, then around the stands. "This school is wall-to-wall hot girls," he said. "It was never like this at Crystal Prep!"
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "Ain't you a little too old t' be oglin' high school girls?"
"What? I'm not that old," Shining Armor said defensively. "Besides, I'm just sayin' it looks like going here woulda been more fun. Y'know, if I was still a teenager."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Whutever you say, pard," she drawled.
"I dunno, I thought Crystal Prep had some really pretty girls," Sweetie Belle said.
"Not when I went there," Shining Armor said. "Well, except for Cadance."
* * * * *
The contest had been in full swing for a good twenty minutes when Pinkie Pie rushed in, a grocery bag swinging from her hand, and skidded up to the girls' station. "Here you go," she said.
"Thanks, Pinkie, you're a lifesaver," Sunset said. She took the bag, extracted the onion and the cheese, then handed the latter off to Twilight while giving Rarity the onion. "Okay girls, let's pick up the pace!"
"Anything else I can do to help?" Pinkie asked.
"Nope," Sunset said. "Appreciate the save, though."
"Okay, I'll head back up to the stands now," Pinkie said. "By the way, Twilight, your family's here watching!"
"I know," Twilight said with a smirk.
As the day wore on, Octavia wandered around the gym floor, asking the chefs questions and commenting on their preparations. Trixie was the first semifinalist to present her dishes to be judged. "Ladies," she said primly as she wheeled her serving cart to the table. With a magician's flair, she plated four piping hot, golden brown country fried steaks, ladling white cream gravy over each. She then added a generous spoonful of crispy fried okra to each plate, followed by several tater tots. As she placed the plates before the judges, she said, "The steaks and okra are hand-floured and hand-breaded. The okra is fresh, not frozen, of course, and has been lightly seasoned with my own herb mixture. The golden potatoes I used for the tater tots were lightly roasted in bacon fat and olive oil before I shredded them."
"Well, I must say I'm impressed," Celestia said. "You may have a somewhat...unfavorable reputation among your peers, but you are indeed a young woman of many talents."
"Yeah, if you weren't such an obnoxious loudmouth, you'd be pretty cool to hang out with," Rainbow agreed as she cut into the steak. She took a bite and closed her eyes. "Oh yeah, that's good," she said.
Cadance chewed a piece of the okra. "Your okra is perfect," she said. "Crispy, tender on the inside...the herbs you use really enhance the flavor."
"I think perhaps the tater tots are a bit of an overreach," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "They're good, but from the sound of it, you wasted a great deal of effort on a basic side that could've been expended on creating a more innovative menu."
"I'm curious as to why you chose this for your semifinal round entry," Cadance said. "It's good and all, but after your pepper steak and your pot pie, this feels like a step backward."
"I'm afraid I have to agree," Celestia said.
"Yeah, even I'm kinda steaked out by now," Rainbow agreed. "This is good, don't get me wrong. It's not quite on Granny Smith's level, but she's been makin' this kinda stuff longer than our folks have been around. I think your pepper steak was way better than this. You shoulda saved it for the real fight."
Trixie frowned. "I hate to admit it, but...you may have a point."
Celestia smiled. "Selecting the order in which to present your dishes can be one of the most challenging parts of a cooking competition," she said.
"It's still very good, though," Cadance said as she wiped her mouth daintily. "You should be proud of yourself for a job well done, no matter what the outcome."
Trixie smiled. "Well, it's true. Once again, I have demonstrated my amazing talents to everybody at CHS." She tossed her hair.
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "And you still have more ham than you've got steak."
Celestia sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Judges, let's give Trixie her scores, shall we?"
"I'll be frank, Ms. Lulamoon," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Your mistake was in the order of presentation of your dishes. Had you selected this as your preliminary round offering, then presented your pepper steak in this round, your chances of advancing would be greater. As it stands..." She shook her head. "Well, you still received an excellent score, but your chances of advancing to the final round are slim."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure my friends have you beat on creativity," Rainbow agreed. "I mean, good try and all, but you shoulda switched it up more, y'know?"
The audience applauded politely as Trixie returned to her station to clean up. Octavia caught up with her halfway. "It looks as though your overuse of steak and your poor choice in presentation order affected your score," she said.
Trixie sighed. "Yeah," she said. "I guess I kinda deserve the bad score on creativity. Still, other than that, I'm satisfied with my scores. Trixie is far from defeated!"
Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity looked at one another. "Looks like it's all riding on creativity," Sunset said.
"Well in that case, we've won," Twilight said.
"Don't be too sure, darling," Rarity said. "Let's focus on finishing up and making our presentation. This needs to be perfect."
* * * * *
Negra Arroyo approached the judges' table with his serving cart, on which three skillets sat. On each serving plate, he spread out one large flour tortilla; he carefully portioned out a mixture from one skillet which consisted of diced tomatoes, diced chiles, slivers of onion, whole kernels of blue and white corn, and thin slices of pale, spongy-looking meat that was crispy and crinkled around the edges of each round, quarter-sized slice. On top of this mixture, he spooned guacamole, then folded each tortilla over and slid it to the side. Next, he added half of a fried corn tortilla to each plate before topping it with a sunny-side-up fried egg and salsa. Lastly, he spooned a portion of refried black beans onto each plate. "Judges," he said as he placed a plate before each, "today I have for you my original recipe, Pito Fernando. I've chosen to serve it with huevos rancheros and refried black beans."
"It looks good," Cadance said. "I recognized everything in the main dish except one ingredient."
"Ah, that would be my secret ingredient," Negra Arroyo said. "It's a delicacy."
"Oh?" Celestia asked as she picked up her tortilla and took a large bite.
Ms. Harshwhinny extracted a slice of the round, spongy meat from her tortilla and examined it intently. "Most curious," she said. "I don't recognize it. What is it, if I may ask?"
Negra Arroyo gave her a scrutinizing, ponderous look for a moment before replying, "Verga del toro." He smiled. "Trust me, you'll love it."
"It's not like, tongue or something, is it?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Something like that," Negra Arroyo said. "Just try it. You'll like it."
Rainbow shrugged. "Haven't gone wrong with your cookin' yet." She picked hers up and took a bite, even as Ms. Harshwhinny experimentally chewed a slice of the secret ingredient.
"Well, this is prepared with your usual skill," Celestia said. "Everything works together perfectly, your seasonings are just right...that meat, it's a bit on the tough side, but it has a sharp flavor that goes well with the rest of the ingredients."
"It reminds me a bit of alligator tail," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she picked up her entree and tasted it.
"I like this," Cadance said. "I'm not going to pry as to what your secret ingredient is, because every chef is allowed their little secrets. Honestly, I think I'd have preferred grilled chicken in this, but this isn't about what I like, it's about you showing us what you can do." With that, she attacked her huevos rancheros. "Your eggs are perfect," she said.
"Oh yes, the decision to plate this with huevos rancheros was a good call," Ms. Harshwhinny agreed. "Perhaps a bit too much tomato and chile with the two dishes paired together, but it's a combination you can't go wrong with."
"The refried black beans are a nice touch," Celestia said. She looked down the table. "Judges? Are we ready?"
"I believe so," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she picked up her tablet. The others did likewise...
Applause greeted the score. Negra Arroyo sketched a small bow as he returned to his station. Once his back was turned to the judges, a satisfied smirk crossed his face.
In the stands, Pinkie nodded. "Yeah, it's gonna be him and the girls in the finals," she said. "They're the only ones that have gotten an all-tens score in this whole thing."
"What'd they get all tens on?" Velvet asked. "Twiley was too tired to say much more than they won when she got home yesterday."
"The okonomiyaki in the quarterfinals," Pinkie said. "Until now, they had the only perfect ten score in the whole contest."
"I wonder what verga del toro is," Applejack said thoughtfully.
Shining Armor took out his phone and tapped at the screen. A minute later, his face turned green. "Uhh...you don't wanna know," he said. "And...neither does Cadance. Like...ever."
"It can't be that bad," Pinkie said. She craned her neck to look over Shining Armor's shoulder. Her hair exploded outward. "Oh," she said. "Huh." She shrugged. "Eh, I've heard of worse."
* * * * *
"Okay, that's the last of them," Twilight said as she took the last chips out of the fryer and seasoned them.
"Alright, let's get to work," Sunset said. Working swiftly, the girls spread half of the chips on the serving platter, then began adding layers of toppings.
"Wow, putting this all together goes a lot more smoothly when we have this much counter space to work with," Sunset said.
"It does help that we could work directly on the serving cart," Rarity said.
Massive applause broke out as Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity wheeled their serving cart to the judges' table. "Oh man," Rainbow Dash said, eyes wide and mouth open in excitement. "Those. Look. Awesome!" She pulled her phone out and held it up. As the girls approached, she took a picture of the platter of nachos.
Cadance laughed. "Well, I think Rainbow's a fan," she said.
"That is quite the impressive platter of nachos," Celestia said. "Why don't you tell us all about it while you plate them?"
"Of course," Rarity said. "These nachos consist of freshly fried seasoned flour tortilla chips topped with seasoned ground beef, black beans, sweet and mild taco sauce, a creamy cheese sauce prepared in a double boiler which consists of cheddar and jack cheeses with just a hint of sriracha sauce, diced fresh tomatoes, sliced jalapeños, and sour cream." As she spoke, Sunset carefully plated four servings of nachos, and Twilight passed them down the table to the judges.
"Wow, talk about loaded," Cadance said.
"The last time I had nachos with that many toppings," Celestia began. She paused. "I actually can't remember!"
"I would honestly say this seems more like an elaborate taco salad served in nacho form," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she hefted a sizeable bite of toppings and chip to her mouth with a fork. After chewing and swallowing, she continued, "Nevertheless, your presentation is outstanding, the creativity on display with the use of flour tortilla chips is impressive, and these are absolutely delicious. I particularly commend you on the decision to season the chips. That was an extra step most would consider unnecessary."
"Holy crap these are the best nachos ever," Rainbow Dash said.
"I love your presentation," Cadance said. "I'm glad Rainbow Dash thought to take a picture, this is definitely food art." She giggled. "You've taken ordinary junk food and turned it into something special."
"I'm particularly impressed that you used a double boiler for the cheese sauce," Celestia said. She tilted her head. "You say this recipe came from Twilight's mother?"
"That's right," Twilight said. "Mom came up with this recipe a long time ago, including the flour tortilla chips. She shared it with us for the cooking contest."
Cadance smiled. "So these are the famous 'special nachos'," she mused. "I always wondered."
"Well, even if the recipe isn't yours personally, there's still quite a bit of creativity here," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Also, the fact that you encountered a problem and dealt with it swiftly will be taken into consideration."
"Just out of curiosity, what are the chips seasoned with?" Celestia asked.
"Crushed roasted red peppers, parmesan cheese, and salt," Rarity said. "Mrs. Velvet's recipe calls for powdered blue cheese, but it's expensive and difficult to obtain, so on her recommendation, we substituted parmesan."
"Sounds like they'd be perfectly delicious all by themselves," Cadance said.
"I like how they're not too spicy," Rainbow Dash said. "You'd think with jalapeños and sriracha they'd be spicy, but the cheese and sour cream make up for it."
"Yes, my main complaint about spicy foods is when chefs do little to offset the spice," Celestia said. "Here, you've offset the spiciness just enough that the flavor of the peppers and sriracha can be enjoyed fully."
"These were a lot of work to make, weren't they?" Cadance asked. "I mean, a lot more work than nachos usually need."
"It is...a rather involved recipe," Rarity said, looking back at their station, which was covered in bowls, pots, pans, and skillets.
"Well, girls," Celestia said with a broad smile. "I must say you've outdone yourselves once again. Judges, are we ready to score?"
"You bet we are!" Rainbow said enthusiastically, licking cheese sauce from her fingers and picking up her tablet.
SEMIFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): SUNSET SHIMMER, TWILIGHT SPARKLE, AND RARITY
A wild cheer erupted from the crowd. The three girls whooped excitedly and jumped up and down, hugging each other.
"Congratulations, girls!" Celestia said brightly. "You three will be moving on to this evening's finals. Good luck!"
As the beaming girls wheeled their serving cart back to their station, they were intercepted by both Octavia and Trixie. "Trixie will be the judge of how good these nachos are!" Trixie erupted, snatching up a paper plate and a spatula and serving herself a helping. With a haughty sniff, she took a bite.
Her eyes widened.
Without another word, she wandered back to her own station, happily munching away. Rarity and Twilight giggled. Sunset rolled her eyes.
Octavia shook her head. "Well done, girls!" she said. "Once again you've achieved a perfect score!" She idly helped herself to a flour tortilla chip. "It seems it will be you three versus Negra Arroyo in the finals. Are you nervous?"
"A little," Twilight admitted. "I mean, we've saved our best for last, but that guy's pretty intense."
"I would be lying if I said I weren't nervous," Rarity said. "But mostly, I'm pleased we've made it this far." She smiled. "We have quite the finale in store for you all!"
"Well, I'm sure we all can't wait to see what you girls come up with for the final round," Octavia said. She accepted a small plate of nachos Sunset offered her with a smirk, then returned to her seat near the judges' table.
"I think your mom's recipe is gonna go viral," Sunset said.
Twilight giggled. "I don't think she'll have a problem with that."
"Only one entry remains," Celestia said into her microphone. "Boys...good luck."
Flash waved weakly at the judges' table. He and his friends looked as though they were resigned to their fate, and were tending their grill mechanically, listlessly.
* * * * *
"Well guys, let's face the music," Flash said. The three boys prepared a plate for each judge, then wheeled their serving cart to the judges' table.
"And here come our final contestants," Celestia said. She smiled reassuringly at the boys. "Now boys, there's no need to look like you're marching to the gallows. So long as you tried, that's all that matters." Earnest applause met this statement.
"Thanks," Flash said. He placed a plate containing a mutton kebab and a half ear of corn in front of each judge. "So we've got barbecued mutton kebabs with roasted red potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms. We used the same sauce we've been using all along for the mutton, but the potatoes and carrots, we did something different. We melted some butter and added some garlic and onion juice and rolled the vegetables in that. The corn's been dipped in melted butter."
The judges looked at the kebabs and corn, then at each other. "Doesn't look as awesome as those cheeseburgers, but I guess you guys did alright," Rainbow said. She picked up the kebab and bit into a chunk of mutton. "Huh. Not too bad."
"I'll be honest, boys," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "To have made it this far with your minimal approach to cooking is not something I anticipated, and had your opponents in the previous round not completely blown it, you wouldn't be standing here right now. That having been said, if nothing else, you have at the very least proven that you three are adequate to the task of hosting any backyard barbecue." She sampled her kebab. "This is well prepared, mind you. It is too simple for a competition that had reached the level the other competitors have shown, unfortunately."
"The next time there's a grilling contest in town, you three should consider entering," Celestia said. "I've never had a grilled mushroom before. I think I'll give you a point back for that alone."
Cadance sighed. "You tried, guys. That's all that matters in the end." She smiled. "Thank you for participating. It takes courage to put yourself out there, in front of all your peers. And hey, you made it pretty far."
Once the kebabs were consumed, the judges looked at each other, then picked up their tablets.
SEMIFINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): FLASH SENTRY, SKUNK ROCK, AND BEATS
The boys looked at each other and shrugged. The audience clapped politely for them. Some shouts of encouragement rang out, and they smiled and waved like good sports.
"And that concludes the semifinal round of the Canterlot High Cooking Contest!" Celestia called. The scoreboard changed to show a portrait of Twilight, Sunset, and Rarity on the left and Negra Arroyo on the right. "Our finalists are Twilight Sparkle, Sunset Shimmer, and Rarity versus Negra Arroyo!"
The audience cheered wildly.
"Congratulations to our winners, and let's have a big round of applause for the third and fourth place contestants!" Once the applause subsided, Celestia continued, "Now, we're going to take a little break before cooking for the final round begins. Unlike previous rounds, the final round judging will commence for both finalists at six this evening, so girls, Negra Arroyo, please plan your prep and cook time accordingly so that your final menu will be ready for plating at that time.
"And now for a special treat: since we don't have a potluck set up at the back like we did yesterday, we've arranged to have a pizza buffet catered courtesy of Pizza Shack! They'll be arriving shortly and setting up at the back of the gym, and I know you all must be getting hungry by now, so feel free to dig in once the pizza's here!" As the crowd cheered wildly, Celestia smiled and waved them down. "And while this pizza is being provided free of charge, we do encourage everyone to contribute to the CHS electives and activities fund. The donation boxes are located right next to the buffet table." The scoreboard overhead lit up with a view of the empty buffet table at the opposite end of the gym, highlighting four locked boxes with slots on top and the Wondercolts logo on the front.
Sunset frowned. "Crap. We gotta make sure the judges stay away from that pizza buffet, especially Rainbow Dash."
Rarity snorted. "Puh-leeze, darling. As if cheap pizza from Pizza Shack will compare to our deep dish delight."
"She has a point," Twilight said. "Besides, they're too full from the semifinals to even touch a slice of pizza. I mean, even with just four entries, they ate a whole lot."
"I will never judge a cooking contest," Rarity said, making a face. "It would positively destroy my bikini body."
"I'm a little surprised Dean Cadance agreed to this," Sunset said. "You'd think a woman that gorgeous would watch what she eats like a hawk."
Twilight laughed. "Cadance loves food," she said. "She works out at least two hours a day so she can eat like a horse."
Sunset shot her a dirty look. "Excuse me," she said. "I'm a horse and I eat very sensible meals."
Twilight paled, eyes wide. "I-I'm sorry!" she stammered. "I didn't mean to—"
Sunset tweaked her nose. "I'm just messin' with ya," she said. "C'mon, let's go hang out with your folks until it's time to set up for the finals."
Across the gym, Flash sighed as he raked ashes over the charcoal and closed the lid on the grill. "Well guys, we fought the good fight, I guess. Thanks for doin' this thing with me."
"Anytime, bro," Skunk Rock said, holding out his hand for a fistbump. Beats did likewise.
After they bumped fists, Flash stretched and rubbed his shoulder. "Alright, guess we'd better start clea—"
Flash and his friends jumped in alarm as Angus Sentry materialized out of nowhere in front of them.
"G-Grandpa!" Flash stammered. "H-how'd you..."
Angus dipped his finger in the jar of sauce still sitting open on the counter, then tasted it. For a moment, he did nothing except stare at Flash, his face set in an impenetrable scowl.
Then...he smiled a ghastly smile.
He clapped Flash on the shoulder with one hand. "You done good, boy," he said in a harsh, growling tone. "The sauce recipe...it's yours now. Guard it well. Keep it safe. Make me proud."
Flash blinked. "Uhh...thanks?" he said uncertainly. "But...we lost..."
Angus grunted. "Course you lost!" he barked. "You can't barbecue your way through this kind of contest! All those cookout competitions I won? It was all about grillin' and sauce! Even I wouldn'ta won a contest like this!"
"Oh," Flash said.
"Keep that recipe in the family, boy," Angus said sternly. And then, to Flash's astonishment, he began to fade from view.
"G-Grandpa?!" Flash's eyes widened as he could suddenly see his friends' shocked faces on the other side of the rapidly fading old man. He looked wildly around. "Somebody help! Get a doctor, call an ambulance! My Grandpa—"
"Don't be stupid, boy!" Angus boomed, his voice taking on an eerie echo. "I died twenty years ago!" And with one last menacing cackle, the ghost of Angus Sentry disappeared completely. His silver ball-topped cane clattered noisily to the gym floor.
"...dude," Beats said.
Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity stared. "Uhh...Sunset?" Twilight asked in a confused, nasal tone. "What...just happened?" She pointed a shaky finger in Flash's direction. "Was that...was that Equestrian magic?"
"I don't think so," Sunset said, shaking her head, her eyes wide and her irises contracted to pinpricks.
"S-so...th-that was a re-real g-g-ghost, then?" Rarity stammered.
"You know, I...really don't wanna think about it," Sunset said. "I don't wanna think about it at all." *Though it does explain a lot,* she mused.
Once the Pizza Shack people had shown up with a pallet of pizzas and set up the buffet, the crowds in the bleachers had begun migrating back and forth between their seats and the buffet tables, loading up paper plates and grabbing drinks from coolers supplied by the restaurant. All in all, the constant flow of traffic to and from the buffet gave the impression of a column of human ants marching back and forth.
"You know, it's funny?" Velvet commented idly as she put a slice of pizza on her paper plate. "Us here, eating this pizza, knowing it doesn't hold a candle to what you girls are about to do later..."
"Hey, you think slingin' this many pies in one day is easy, lady?" the Pizza Shack employee behind the buffet table said somewhat crossly.
"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't..." Velvet had the grace to look embarrassed. "It's just..." She looked around, then leaned close and said quietly, "My daughter and her friends are making a deep dish pizza in the final round. You know, Chicagoat-style."
The pizza jockey blinked. "Oh wow," he said. "Y'know, I've always told the higher-ups we should add that to the menu, but corporate won't hear of it." He shook his head. "Haven't had good Chicagoat deep dish since I was twelve."
"Really? It's not that hard to make at home," Shining Armor said as he loaded up his plate. "Heck, I could probably do it."
The pizza jockey shot him a look. "Yeah, 'cuz what I wanna do when I get home after a long day workin' at a pizza place is make a pizza."
"I...see your point," Shining Armor said awkwardly. "I'm just...gonna go over there now."
"Aww, cheer up, Mr. Pizza Man!" Pinkie said as she pulled a sugar shaker out of her hair and sprinkled it liberally on a slice of cheese pizza. "Sure, to you it may be a soul-crushing, thankless job, but just remember that every pizza you sling makes somebody else's sucky day a little less sucky!"
"Uhh...thanks," the pizza jockey said. He blinked. "Is that...is that sugar?"
"Yepper-depper!" Pinkie took a big bite of her sugar-encrusted pizza and stuffed the sugar shaker back into her hair. "Mmmmm!"
Velvet, Shining Armor, and Night Light all stared at her. Applejack rolled her eyes. "Don't pay her no attention, y'all. Y'git use to it after a while." She looked around the gym. "So whut d' y'all reckon that Negra guy's gonna make next?"
"Bet it'll be something Mexican," Scootaloo said.
Sweetie Belle giggled. "And it'll have blue corn in it."
"I think that'll be the major advantage the girls have," Night Light said. "From what you all told me during the semifinals, that guy's a bit overspecialized. The girls' menu has been all over the place."
Velvet winced. "I'd prefer to call it 'highly varied'," she said.
"Yeah? Well Ah call it them girls is gonna hafta make th' vittles at our next slumber party," Applejack said with a grin.
Twilight, Sunset, and Rarity looked at each other with mild alarm. "We'll...think about it," Sunset said with a nervous laugh.
* * * * *
While the spectators were enjoying the pizza buffet, workers had consolidated the cook stations from the semifinals into two large kitchen stages, one decorated with a banner depicting Sunset, Rarity, and Twilight with arms around each other and smiling happily, the other depicting Negra Arroyo with a fierce, determined scowl on his face.
At two o'clock, an airhorn cut through the general party atmosphere in the gym. "Everyone, may I have your attention please," Principal Celestia called from the judges' table. "At this time, I would appreciate if all spectators clear the gym floor. Finalists, begin preparing your stations. If you need any ingredients or supplies, you may arrange for a quick delivery if you have not already done so. The final round of cooking will begin in thirty minutes." She smiled. "Be sure to take any pizza you may still want with you to the bleachers, folks. I'm sure it'll help the nice folks from Pizza Shack with the cleanup."
As the gym floor emptied, Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity disposed of their paper plates and washed their hands in their modular sink.
"Alright," Sunset said, wiping her hands. "I think we should make the dough first and let it start rising since it's gotta sit for a little while."
"Agreed," Rarity said. "We should also inventory our ingredients now to be certain we didn't miss anything or—" She coughed delicately. "Won't have another debacle such as earlier."
Twilight adjusted her glasses. "By the way," she said, "I've been thinking, and I brought along a little something extra to run by you girls."
Sunset blinked. "Something extra?"
Twilight motioned for her friends to move in closer, then whispered, "I stopped by the store on the way here this morning and picked up a box of lasagna pasta. I was thinking last night, and I think a layer of lasagna in the middle of the toppings would really set it off."
Rarity and Sunset blinked. "Lasagna in the middle of a pizza?" Rarity asked. "That's...an interesting idea. I'm not terribly sure about it."
"If it were a normal pizza, I'd agree," Twilight said, "but this thing runs pretty deep. It just seems like, well..." She frowned. "You know that one place that has the double-decker burger with the third bun in the middle? That's kinda what I was thinking. Just some pasta to make a 'middle' to the whole thing."
Sunset pursed her lips. "Well, it couldn't hurt," she said with a shrug. "I mean, it goes with all the ingredients since a lot of this stuff goes in lasagna anyway, so...yeah, sure! Let's try it."
"I'm too curious to say no," Rarity admitted. She smiled. "Let's do it!"
Across the gym, Negra Arroyo was tending a Hibachi which had arrived shortly after the semifinals and from which sweet-smelling mesquite smoke drifted into the air. He occasionally pulled his phone out, seemingly nervous about something.
Fifteen minutes before the final round was scheduled to start, the gym doors burst open, and Sugar Sprinkles ambled in, pushing a large wooden crate on a hand truck. "Yo, got a delivery here for a Negra Arroyo?"
"Right he—" Negra Arroyo paused, blinking. "What. Is that."
"Your order from Wild & Feisty Fish Mart, dude," Sugar Sprinkles said. With a grin, she gave a crowbar a hefty test swing, then pried one side of the crate open.
Crabs spilled out all over the gym floor.
Red crabs. Blue crabs. Fiddler crabs. Horseshoe crabs. One giant coconut crab. All in all, dozens of crabs erupted from the crate, spreading across the gym floor.
They were alive. And they were not happy.
Reactions from the bleachers were a mix of laughter, shrieks, confused murmurs, and outright panic. Over at the judges' table, the four judges stared bemusedly at the teeming mass of crusty crustaceans.
Negra Arroyo was apopleptic. He stormed over to Sugar Sprinkles, angrily snatching her clipboard away from her. "I ordered. Two crabs," he seethed. "Two. Blue crabs. Just two. Not...not THIS!"
"Really?" Sugar Sprinkles asked, scratching her head and taking back her clipboard. "Nope, says right here, one Mega Crusty Crate, delivery to Canterlot High gym, care of Negra Arroyo!"
"Son of a..." Negra Arroyo glared at Sugar Sprinkles, waving his hands wildly at the expanding mess of loose live crabs. "I needed TWO. CRABS. JUST. TWO. What the hell am I supposed to do with...with THIS?!"
Sugar Sprinkles shrugged. "Dunno dude," she said. "I just take the stuff where they say take it. Peace out!" And with that, she left.
"GET BACK HERE! DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS! YOU STUPID—" Negra Arroyo trailed off as a red crab began climbing his leg. "Fuck."
Sunset, Rarity, and Twilight blinked and glanced at each other. "Oh dear," Rarity said.
"Now that is an epic fail," Sunset said in an impressed tone. Frowning, she added, "Why am I getting the eeriest sense of deja vu here?"
"I dunno, but we're gonna have to do something about all these crabs," Twilight said with a frown. "We can't just...!"
At the judges' table, Celestia tapped her microphone. "Mr. Arroyo, would you mind explaining?"
Negra stared at her. "Explain?" he shouted incredulously. "Explain?! That doped-up delivery ditz screwed up my order and let loose a ridiculously huge crate of crabs instead of the two crabs I actually ordered and paid for!"
"Ugh, shipping disasters," Ms. Harshwhinny said bitterly. "I could tell such tales..."
"Okay, but...this is a problem," Cadance said. "This needs to be cleaned up before we can even think about starting."
"OBVIOUSLY!" Negra ranted, kicking two red crabs across the floor. "You don't expect me to deal with this myself, do you?"
"Hmm...good point," Celestia said. "Folks? We need volunteers to round up crabs."
Immediately, Flash Sentry, Lyra Heartstrings, Sweetie Drops, Ditzy Doo, Shining Armor, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie bolted out of the stands. Rainbow Dash also left the judges' table, heading for the nearest pile of crabs. "We're gonna need boxes, buckets, canvas ball bags, anything we can use to round up this mess!" Rainbow yelled. "Guys, you know where the equipment room is!"
The large coconut crab, meanwhile, had migrated across the gym to the girls' prep station, and was presently menacing Rarity, who had climbed up onto one of the modular counters. "Gaaaaaah..."
"That...is one big crab," Twilight said, eyes wide.
"Go AWAY, you creepy crustacean!" Rarity yelled. She picked up a rolling pin and started hitting the crab with it. The crab waved its claws angrily.
"I gotcha!" Rainbow Dash yelled as she dashed in, jumping into the air and delivering a spinning kick to the crab that sent it flying. It landed upside down; its legs and claws waved angrily in the air.
Rarity heaved a sigh of relief as she climbed down from the counter. "Thank you, Rainbow Dash," she said.
"No problem," Rainbow said confidently. "Just uhh...don't tell Fluttershy about this, okay? She doesn't need to know like...ever."
Over at Negra Arroyo's station, Ditzy walked up to him, a blue crab hanging from a red, swollen finger on each hand. "I found your two blue crabs," she said. "Umm...a little help here?"
* * * * *
Once the crabs had been contained and order restored in the gym, Celestia blew her air horn once again for attention. "Alright, now...now that we've got that all sorted out," she said into her microphone, "if everybody will return to the bleachers, I believe we'll get the final round underway. Ladies, gentleman, you may begin cooking...now."
Negra Arroyo wasted no time in throwing his two contained crabs into separate iron pots and filling them up from large glass bottles. The girls, meanwhile, set to work cutting, measuring, and mixing.
"It all comes down to this," Rainbow Dash said excitedly into her microphone. "Who's gonna walk away a winner? Will it be Negra Arroyo and his Mexican dishes? Will it be the girls and all the awesome stuff they've made?"
"Whoever wins this round, every competitor is a winner for putting themselves out there and trying their best," Cadance said. "And I hope all of you watching this competition have been inspired to try a few new things in your own kitchens at home."
"And now, Octavia, if you would please?" Celestia said.
"Right, Principal Celestia," Octavia Melody said, standing up and taking up her microphone. "As before, I'll be checking in with our contestants, asking questions and reporting on what they're up to." She approached the girls, who were hard at work preparing their ingredients. A wet towel covered a large lump of dough; Sunset was busy seasoning a skillet of meat and tomato sauce, while Twilight was carefully cutting sheets of lasagna into strips with an Xacto knife. Rarity, meanwhile, was laying out slices of cheese on a sheet of wax paper. "And the girls are delivering on their promise to cook something Bitalian, it seems," Octavia said. She frowned at their preparations. "Though I'm not quite certain what it is they're doing. There appears to be dough rising, and Sunset is clearly making some sort of meat sauce in a skillet, but what is Twilight doing? That's lasagna, but it isn't boiling yet and she's cutting..."
"For what we're doing, some of it needs to be in strips," Twilight said. "Since I had the right kind of knife, I thought I'd go ahead and cut it before boiling it. It'll make things easier down the road."
"Err...alright," Octavia said. "So what precisely are you girls making?"
"Chicagoat-style deep dish pizza," Sunset said. "With a couple of tweaks."
"Yes, we'll be adding quite a few fun ingredients," Rarity put in as she began slicing portobello mushrooms.
"Like lasagna?" Octavia asked.
"For the layering," Twilight explained.
"Alright, and what are you working on, Sunset?" Octavia asked.
"Tomato sauce with Bitalian sausage and garlic," Sunset said.
"Well, it certainly sounds like this will be a treat for the judges!"
Over at the judges' table, Rainbow Dash was practically drooling. "Aww yeah," she said.
Cadance giggled. "I have to agree. This is going to be fun!"
"I believe this is going to be one final round we'll remember for a long time," Celestia said.
"And now let's check in with Negra Arroyo," Octavia said. "Earlier, we saw him drop two live crabs into two separate pots. So, are you preparing steamed crab?"
"Nope, just using the steaming to kill them and make them tender," Negra Arroyo said. "Once they're ready I'm going to grill the legs. I have other plans for the rest of the meat."
"Does it have anything to do with that mixture you're working on there?" Octavia asked, nodding to a bowl in which Negra Arroyo was chopping and mixing various ingredients including onions and jalapenos. A large container of corn meal sat to one side of the bowl.
Octavia leaned over the pot in which Negra Arroyo was steaming one of his crabs, gently lifting the lid a bit. "So you're—" Suddenly, she began gagging; she dropped the lid and backed away, waving a hand in front of her face. "Holy SHIT, what is that?!" she shrieked.
Negra Arroyo shot her an amused smirk, then leaned slightly into her personal space to speak into her microphone. "Whiskey," he said. "I distill it myself from blue corn. I call it Blue Lightning."
The judges glanced at one another. Rainbow Dash covered her microphone. "Is that even legal?" she asked.
Cadance frowned. "I'm not sure," she said.
Ms. Harshwhinny's lips thinned. "Well," she said, "home brewing and distillery is common among hobbyists and enthusiasts. My brother brews his own lager in his garage. Gives it to friends as gifts." She frowned. "I'm not at all certain about the legality of distilling hard whiskey. I know people do it. I don't know what the..." She coughed. "Criminality of it is."
"But...he's underage!" Rainbow protested.
Ms. Harshwhinny shrugged, then turned her microphone on. "Excuse me, Mr. Arroyo," she said. "A clarification. This, err...Blue Lighting. Do you distill it for sale, personal consumption, or...?"
"Only for cooking," Negra Arroyo replied. "I don't keep more than two liters of the stuff on hand at any given time."
The judges looked at one another again. Celestia shrugged. "Not really our problem," she said. Into her microphone, she said, "You do realize what a risk you're taking operating a still when you're not even old enough to drink, right?"
"I know the laws," Negra Arroyo replied. "I'm very careful to stay within the letter of the law." With that, he went back to his cooking.
"Y-yes, well," Octavia said, swaying slightly. "I believe I'm going to sit down for a minute and...I feel a bit dizzy suddenly..." She staggered; Rainbow Dash shot out of her chair, rushed over, and helped Octavia back to her seat near the table.
Cadance gave her a half-amused, half-worried look, coupled with a mild frown in Negra Arroyo's direction. "It would seem the fumes from Mr. Arroyo's Blue Lightning are no laughing matter," she commented.
Rainbow Dash sat down, turning off her microphone. "Dude, is that even gonna be safe to eat?" she asked. "I mean, he fuckin' drowned those crabs in that stuff!"
"Language, Rainbow Dash," Celestia said firmly. Then, with a shake of her head, she added, "It won't be any worse than the coq au vin...at least, I hope."
"I'm certain the amount of alcohol the crab meat retains won't be...terribly toxic," Ms. Harshwhinny said doubtfully. Even as she said so, Negra Arroyo removed the now very red, very dead crabs from the pot and began chopping them up.
None of them missed the fact that he'd donned a filter mask.
Rarity stared at him, her jaw dropping. "He isn't serious," she breathed.
"Holy crap, he boiled crabs in whiskey?!" Twilight cried.
"Hopefully it was mixed with water," Sunset said, shaking her head. "Come on, heads in the game, girls."
* * * * *
The cooking wore on. Octavia, recovered from her close encounter with blue corn whiskey fumes, was back on the floor.
"Rarity is now simmering mushrooms, bell peppers, and black olives in red wine," Octavia reported. "Sunset has rolled the dough out into a crust and is brushing it with a butter and herb mixture. And now she's carefully pressing the dough into the baking dish."
Once the dough was in place, Sunset nodded to the other girls. Rarity transferred her vegetables into the tomato sauce and sausage mixture Sunset had prepared and stirred it. Working swiftly, the girls spread a layer of sauce on the crust, then added a layer of each type of cheese, then another layer of sauce, and another layer of cheese. After the third iteration, they spread the whole lasagna at the midpoint, covering the filling layers entirely, then repeated the layering of fillings. Once they reached the top, they sprinkled parmesan cheese on the top layer of sauce, then laid strips of lasagna in a lattice across the surface of the pie. Lastly, Sunset sprayed the top with an olive oil cooking spray before carefully placing it in the oven. She stepped back and sighed. "And now we wait," she said as Twilight set the timer. She glanced over at Negra Arroyo's station. "So what's crab boy up to?"
Octavia cautiously approached Negra Arroyo's station, leaning carefully away from anything that was smoking or fuming. "Well, you seem to be well on your way toward...something," she said. "Would you mind telling us exactly what you're working on?"
"Certainly," Negra Arroyo said as he mashed up cornbread with a fork and mixed other ingredients into it. "I'm making cornbread stuffing for stuffed crab claws. I'm going to bake the crab claws in the oven while I'm grilling the crab legs."
"I see," Octavia said. "And what do you have over here?"
"Crab salad," Negra Arroyo said. "Southwestern style. Has a kick to it."
"I see," Octavia said. "So, everything you've made during the entire contest has been Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. Do you foresee that hurting your chances at all? After all, failure to diversify already damaged two earlier competitors."
Negra Arroyo snorted. "I'm diversifying enough," he said. "I've presented a diverse range of dishes in my preferred genre of cooking. Trixie overused steak and potatoes, and Flash and his friends didn't do anything but barbecue. What I'm doing here is art, and it's an art I excel at."
"Well then," Octavia said. "Good luck to you."
* * * * *
As six o'clock arrived, the girls took their pizza out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool, even as Negra Arroyo removed his serving bowl of crab salad from his ice chest and dressed it while he took the crab claws out of the oven and the crab legs off the grill.
Celestia's air horn sounded once again. "Contestants, your time is up," she said. "And now, if you please, bring your final dishes to the table for plating and judgment. Negra Arroyo, we will sample your dishes first, followed by the girls."
The girls looked at one another and swallowed nervously, then carefully transferred the pizza to their serving cart. Negra Arroyo hummed quietly to himself as he calmly loaded his dishes onto his cart and strolled toward the judges' table at a leisurely pace.
"Ladies," Negra Arroyo said as he began plating his final entry. "For this round, I've prepared grilled crab legs, crab claws stuffed with my own jalapeño cornbread stuffing, and Southwestern crab salad with jalapeños, black beans, and blue corn. The crabs were prepared in a bath of my own homemade blue corn whiskey to give the meat a smoky flavor. The legs and claws have been brushed with lemon herb butter."
The judges looked at the arrangement on their plates. Each plate had two crab legs, a stuffed crab claw, and a spoonful of crab salad on it, served with a fresh parsley garnish and a wedge of lemon.
"I do love a good crab salad," Cadance said as she picked up her fork.
"I've never had crab, I don't think," Rainbow said. She watched the other judges, then picked up one of the crab legs and bit into it. "Huh. Not ba..." Her eyes bugged out. "Whoa. That's got some kick."
"It certainly does," Celestia said. "Not that that's a bad thing, mind." She sampled the crab salad next. "Oh, this is excellent."
"The stuffed crab claws are certainly impressive," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "Perhaps a bit heavy on the jalapeño..." She frowned. "I think perhaps the jalapeño and the smokiness of the whiskey bath don't necessarily go well together."
"It's kind of a mouth fire, yeah," Rainbow said. She sampled the crab salad. "Ugh, it's cold!"
"It's supposed to be cold," Negra Arroyo said testily.
"Oh." Rainbow took another bite, then shook her head. "Yeah, not my thing."
"It's good," Cadance said. "But it's a little hard to taste the crab in here for all the other stuff. I mean, I think you could've left out the jalapeños in the salad."
Once the judges finished, they took notes on their tablets. "Thank you, Mr. Arroyo," Celestia said. "We'll announce the scores after we've judged your opponents' dish."
Negra Arroyo bowed and withdrew. The girls stepped forward, wheeling a serving cart with a steaming hot deep dish pizza.
"Oh yeah, now this is what I've been waitin' for," Rainbow said eagerly.
"Judges," Sunset Shimmer said as Rarity cut and plated the pizza, "for our final entry, we've got Chicagoat-style deep dish pizza. The filling layers consist of ground Bitalian sausage, tomato sauce made from fresh tomato puree, chopped garlic, herbs, portobello mushrooms, black olives, and green bell peppers simmered in red wine, provolone and mozzerella cheeses, and lasagna pasta. The pie has been topped with a lattice of lasagna strips, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and finished with an olive oil infusion."
"Right off the bat I applaud your use of lasagna to enhance the presentation," Ms. Harshwhinny said as she inspected the pizza. "The one failing of deep dish pizza is that no matter how delicious it may be, it's traditionally not a very visually impressive dish. This, however, has a certain flair to it that's quite appealing."
"Makes it look like a big ol' Bitalian pie," Rainbow said. "Pizza and pie are two of my favorite things, so that's a double win."
Cadance giggled. "Pizza is pie, Rainbow Dash," she said. "And this is certainly a beautiful deep dish pizza. It's almost a shame I'm going to have to devour it."
"Devour?" Celestia echoed with a raised eyebrow and a quirk of the lip as she cut into the pizza with a fork.
Cadance blushed, but said nothing as she cut off a bite.
"This...is awesome," Rainbow Dash said. "It'd be more awesome if you'd tossed some pepperoni in there, but it's still pretty awesome." She chewed thoughtfully. "Kinda more like lasagna than pizza, though."
"Mmm, yes," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "It's unquestionably a deep dish pizza, and your preparation and choice of ingredients is flawless, but in a way I do feel like I'm eating lasagna with a crust."
"Not that that's a bad thing," Cadance said. "Actually, in a way that's a pretty clever way to think of this."
"You girls certainly picked the best balance of ingredients," Celestia said. "Some people are tempted to add too many things to a pizza like this. You stuck with a recipe that's perfectly balanced. Perhaps an extra meat ingredient would have improved it slightly, but there's more than enough meat, sauce, cheese, and vegetables in here. An extra cheese or an extra vegetable would've upset the harmony."
"The crust is especially good," Ms. Harshwhinny said. "You girls allowed it to rise for exactly the right amount of time. The herb mixture you coated the dough with brings out the flavor."
Once they'd finished, the judges sat back, wiped their mouths, and made notes on their tablet. The three girls stepped back, standing beside Negra Arroyo.
"Alright, everyone!" Celestia said loudly and clearly. "The scores for this final round of the Canterlot High Cooking Competition will now be announced. First, we will present the scores for Ms. Sparkle, Ms. Shimmer, and Ms. Rarity."
FINAL ROUND - CONTESTANT(S): SUNSET SHIMMER, TWILIGHT SPARKLE, AND RARITY
Negra Arroyo scowled fiercely. Sunset, Twilight, and Rarity gasped, looked at each other, then shrieked in delight, clutching each other and jumping up and down as the bleachers exploded with applause.
Celestia smiled. "And the winners of the first ever Canterlot High Cooking Competition are: Twilight Sparkle, Sunset Shimmer, and Rarity!"
Pinkie Pie, Applejack, the Crusaders, and Twilight's parents swarmed down from the bleachers and rushed up to the girls to congratulate them.
"Congratulations to all our winners, runners-up, and all competitors!" Cadance said. "If all competitors would assemble on the gym floor, we'll be awarding the prizes in just a few minutes."
Once the judges switched off their microphones, Rainbow Dash got up and joined in the celebration with her friends. Negra Arroyo glared at her, then stalked up to the table. "What kind of insult is this?" he demanded. "You had her on the judging panel when you knew she's a personal friend of those girls! That isn't fair! She's biased!"
Celestia favored him with an even look. "For your information, we had a long talk with Rainbow Dash during the break between rounds," she said. "She promised she could be absolutely fair in her judging, and offered to drop out and let Octavia take her place if we didn't trust her."
"Mr. Arroyo," Ms. Harshwhinny said sternly, "you scored very well. You simply didn't win. Your final round entry—"
"Lost to a fucking PIZZA!" Negra Arroyo ranted. He'd now drawn the attention of the celebrating group, some of whom were frowning and even glaring at him. "Do you have any idea how hard I've worked for this? How much preparation, sweat, and blood goes into making and growing everything I use? I—"
"That is enough," Celestia said harshly. "You are an excellent cook, Mr. Arroyo. Nobody is denying that. Your dedication to your art is commendable. But you took a gamble in the final round that simply didn't pay off. You lost. They won. The results are fair and unbiased. Please, don't taint their victory or your second place finish by being a sore loser."
Negra Arroyo looked as though he had more to say, but after a moment of glaring at the judges with his mouth open, he clicked it shut and stepped back. "You're right," he said. "My apologies." He turned to their girls and their friends and supporters. "Congratulations," he said. "You earned your victory. You girls are good cooks."
"Thank you," Rarity said primly. "And if one day you ever open your own restaurant, I'm certain we'll all be paying you a visit. Won't we, girls?"
"Of course," Twilight said somewhat uncertainly, a nervous smile on her face.
Sunset offered a more confident smile and held a hand out to Negra Arroyo. "Friends?"
Negra Arroyo eyed the offered hand, then held himself stiffly. "I should clean up," he said, retreating to his kitchen station.
Sunset let her hand drop. "Yeesh," she said.
Rarity tutted. "I suppose not everyone is willing to accept friendship when it's offered," she said with a sigh.
"Nevermind him," Velvet said with a smile. "Congratulations, girls. You were magnificent!"
"I'm proud of you, sis," Shining Armor said. "You girls are amazing too." He clapped his hands together. "So, uhh...any chance we can get a taste of that pizza?"
The prize ceremony didn't take very long, and was met with polite applause from an audience who was growing restless.
"Okay everyone, I have one last announcement," Celestia said as soon as the last prizes had been awarded. Once everyone quieted down, she looked around at the assembled students, parents, and guests. "The official Camp Everfree iron-on patches just came in Friday, so everyone who's going on the trip needs to buy up to three shirts suitable for outdoor activities that are safe for ironing. You'll be given three patches each."
A confused murmur rose from the assembled students. Rarity raised a hand. "Forgive me, Principal Celestia, but...why iron-on patches?"
"An excellent question, Rarity," Celestia said. "Camp Everfree emphasizes student self-expression and promotes individuality and creativity. As such, you're encouraged to dress however you feel while at camp, provided you dress in a manner suitable for outdoor activity, and the camp logo is supplied as an iron-on for the shirts you'll make all your wonderful Camp Everfree memories in."
"Sounds to me like this camp is too cheap to buy T-shirts for the campers," Sunset whispered to Twilight. Twilight giggled.
"I recommend T-shirts or polo shirts," Celestia went on. "Sleeveless tees are fine, mesh shirts are not. Use your best judgment. If you don't have an iron at home, I'm sure you can find a friend who can take care of it for you." She clapped her hands together. "Okay! First week of summer break, we're set for our trip to Camp Everfree!"
A cheer went up from the juniors.
"Now, I'll have other announcements to make tomorrow, but right now, I think we're all tired and would like to get out of here," Celestia said with a smile. "Thank you all for coming, and thank you and congratulations once again to our winners and all our wonderful contestants! Goodnight, everyone!"
As the crowd began to file out of the gym, Sunset, Twilight, Rarity, their friends, and Twilight's parents gathered around their cook station, where maintenance was waiting to dismantle everything. "We'll help y'all haul all this stuff outta here," Applejack said.
"And I know you girls are probably hungry, so dinner's on us," Velvet said. "And any of your friends who want to come along are welcome."
"I'd come, but I'm kinda stuffed," Rainbow Dash said, patting her stomach with a grin. "I gotta get in a good run when I get home. Congrats, guys! Later!" With a wave, she headed for the gym exit.
"Ah think we'd best bow out too," Applejack said. "Me an' Apple Bloom gotta git home fer Sunday supper. We'll help y'all carry stuff out t' th' car though."
Once the remaining ingredients and the supplies they'd brought with them had been loaded into Rarity's car, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Pinkie Pie got in with her, while Sunset went to her bike and Twilight rode with her family. They settled on a decent burger place not too far from the school, where a good time was had by all. By the time they were finished, the girls were all fairly tired from their long day, so they parted ways, Sunset heading off to her apartment with a promise to drop Scootaloo off on the way, Rarity and her sister headed home, and Twilight's family making the long drive across town.
"You did good out there today, little sis," Shining Armor said.
Next to him, Twilight snored softly, chin tucked into her chest and glasses askew. Shining Armor chuckled and shook his head.
* * * * *
Fluttershy's attention turned from her ice cream to her phone. "Oh, Twilight and the girls won," she said with a smile. "That's nice. I'll have to congratulate them tomorrow."
"Why not text them now?" her mother asked from across the table.
Fluttershy shrugged. "They're probably pretty tired," she said. "Besides, I...I don't think I want to talk about this weekend just yet. I...I'd rather put it off until tomorrow. At..." She cringed. "At school."
"Now, dear," Mrs. Shy said with a reassuring smile. "I'm sure by now nobody even remembers what happened yesterday, what with all the excitement."
"I'm sure Big Macintosh does," Fluttershy said, blushing. "I don't really remember much, but I do remember being all over him." She ducked her head. "Oh, I'm so embarrassed..."
"There, there," Mrs. Shy said. "It's not the end of the world." She giggled. "Everybody has one of those days. The important thing is you're feeling better now, right?"
"Well, yes," Fluttershy said. "And I do have the Camp Everfree trip to look forward to with all my friends...after school lets out..."
"That's the spirit!" Mrs. Shy said. "Would you like another bowl of ice cream?"
* * * * *
Five hundred dollars. So much she could do with that. A new TV, a new tablet, maybe that new gaming system she had her eye on. Sunset's mind whirled with happy possibilities as she drove her motorcycle through the quiet streets, whistling merrily to herself as the wind whipped in her hair.
Once she got home, however...
Sunset stared, nonplussed, at the ventilated plastic box which sat next to her apartment door.
Stenciled on the side were the words "LIVE CRABS."
Her left eye twitched.
* * * * *
When Flash got home, he found his dad in the den watching TV. "Hey, uh, Dad?"
"Yeah?" his dad asked.
"Umm...so Grandpa kinda showed up at school today, during the cooking contest..."
Flash's dad turned and looked up at him, mild alarm on his face. "He did? What did—"
"Dad, something...really weird happened," Flash said nervously, wringing his hands. "Grandpa, he...he told me I'm the keeper of the sauce recipe now. Then he, well..." He shook his head. "He just...disappeared."
Flash's dad's eyes widened. "You mean he's gone?"
"Y-yeah," Flash said. "And when I say disappeared, I mean—"
"He finally crossed over," Flash's dad said with a sigh of relief. "Dad finally crossed over. I was starting to think he'd never go away."
Flash blinked. "You...you knew?"
"That my own father died twenty years ago? Of course," Flash's dad snorted. "I was there. Thing is, he's been haunting me since before you were born." He sighed. "That sauce recipe...he loved it more than he ever loved me. That's why he's been hanging around since he died. He was waiting."
"Waiting?" Flash asked. He gasped in realization. "Waiting for somebody to come along that he could trust with the sauce..."
"And it looks like that finally happened," Flash's dad said. He chuckled. "Well, at least we can stop pretending holy water and purified salt are 'medicine'."
Flash frowned. "That...does explain a lot of things. I mean...a LOT of things." He shook his head. "Why didn't you ever tell me, though?"
Flash's dad gave him a look. "Would you have believed me?"
Flash laughed sheepishly. "I see your point..."
* * * * *
Sugar Sprinkles sat atop her delivery van, which was also her home, and looked out over the river. The setting sun scattered shimmering orange sparkles on the water, making it look like a river of fiery gems. She took a deep drag off the joint she held, laid it aside, then tuned and strummed her guitar, singing to herself.
Another day, a job well done And now I watch the setting sun No crabby guys can harsh my buzz!
She paused, scratching an itch on her left leg. Her brow furrowed.
And I need a shave, I'm covered in fuzz!
Laughing to herself, she set aside her guitar, puffed on her joint again, and lay back on the roof, folding her arms behind her head.
* * * * *
Negra Arroyo knocked softly on the second door on the right in the hall of his suburban bungalow. After waiting several seconds, he opened the door and entered, flicking the light switch on the wall as he did so.
The room was small, tastefully decorated, and dimly lit. A twelve-year-old girl with light pink skin and long cherry red hair was propped up in bed, focusing intently on her tablet, earbuds in her ears.
He walked further into the room until he was standing next to her bed. "Felina," he called out.
Felina looked up and smiled, her dark eyes dancing. "Did you win?"
"I did alright," Negra Arroyo said. "I've got a present for you."
Negra walked back out into the hall, then returned with a boxed television. Felina's eyes lit up happily and she let out a soft squeal. "Just like I promised," Negra said.
"Thank you so much!" Felina said. "You're the bestest big brother ever."
Negra leaned over the bed and mussed her hair. "Want me to set it up for you?"
"Please!" Felina said, nodding happily.
"Alright." After moving the folded wheelchair by the dresser around so he could work, Negra began unboxing the TV. It took almost twenty minutes, but he cleared a space for the TV, set it up, and programmed it. "I'll have to get a guy out to set up the cable sometime this week," he said. "For now, at least you can watch Streamflix in here."
"This is the bestest present ever," Felina said.
Negra smiled. "Well, it's just a little something." He handed her the remote. "Now, don't watch too late, alright? You need your rest, like the doctor said."
"Okay!" Felina said. "You wanna watch something with me?"
"I don't know, I'm pretty tired," Negra said. He looked at Felina's mildly crestfallen expression, then shook his head. "Alright. For a little while." He sat down on the floor next to the bed. "What're we gonna watch?"
As dusk faded into night, brother and sister watched one show after another, heedless of the soft beeping of various medical devices arranged around Felina's bed.