Culatello

Friday at 1. That was the deadline.

***

Wanted: 5 well-groomed, reliable, experienced cater waiters for a high society function. $8.00/hour. Call Fulton Exotic Catering, 212-555-9830.

The advertisement was simple enough, and $8.00/hour wasn’t bad. I called, interviewed, and was hired, and recommended my two roommates to help round out the team. We’d been working the circuit for years and were known to not flake on events. As we sat in the catering shop listening to Diane Fulton rattle off instructions, my mind repeatedly returned to one thought: the menu.

My roommates and I didn’t make our living as cater waiters. We’d been skimming exotic foods from catering jobs and selling them in dark web auctions for years. We bragged to each other about various acquisitions and had a running competition to see who could steal the weirdest food and sell it for the highest price. Brad’s Wagyu beef steak got us a new gaming system. Vincent’s donkey cheese paid for our storage unit. But I currently held the title: two servings of bird spit soup paid one months’ rent on our dingy, tiny studio apartment.

“What’s the actual event? The ad didn’t say.”

Two celebrities I’d never heard of were uniting their powerhouse families. The party was the announcement and no expense would be spared. Excitement bubbled within me as dollar signs flashed through my mind. With such a large event, we’d easily be able to make multiple lifts.

When Diane finally arrived at the part I was waiting for I was not disappointed. Caviar, Chilean sea bass, truffles. And right at the top of the list was culatello di zibello, a cured meat so rare only about 30,000 pounds of it is produced a year. Diane ordered 20 of those pounds. My heart skipped. This would be the biggest score yet.

We had to get organized. Individually swiping steaks and cheese is one thing. Stealing a 20-pound shipment of rare Italian meat is another. Vincent, Brad and I needed a plan.

That night we discussed our options.

“The food will already be prepared at the event. We’ll have to do it the day before, when it’s delivered.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t we walk in with salami and swap it in the freezer? Who’s going to see?”

“Anyone who watches the security tape.”

“Come on, guys, think. We don’t have a lot of time. I just put the ad up for the auction. The Cater Capers Auction goes live Friday at 1.”

“I got it!”

“How?”

“Fat Louie.”

***

The culatello was scheduled to arrive at the shop at noon, Friday. Diane looked up at the chime of the doorbell, only to be disappointed and confused to see Brad. Everyone was supposed to be at the venue setting up.

“What are you doing here?”

“We forgot the seating charts. We don’t know where the name cards go.”

“I could have emailed that to you.”

The door chimed again, saving Brad from blundering through a made-up excuse. Again, Diane’s expectant face dropped.

“How can I help you, sir?”

The customer stood 6 feet tall. But it wasn’t his height that was eye-catching. Moving at a glacial pace, the 400-pound man waddled up to the counter.

“I’m looking to host a party and I want it to be unforgettable. Your ads boast a unique experience with bizarre foods. I think you’re the person to help my party stand out. I’m here for a quote.”

In a stained sweatshirt that could double as a medium-sized tent, and basketball shorts that hung halfway between his knees and his cankles, Fat Louie did not strike the image of a man looking to host a memorable soiree. Diane took him in, unsure what to think. The doorbell chimed a third time.

The delivery man stood directly behind Fat Louie, completely disappearing from view. Diane leaned over, trying to make certain he had what she was waiting for.

“Excuse me one moment, sir.” Diane rounded the counter, circumnavigating Fat Louie to sign for her package. Brad, who had conveniently placed himself at the end of the counter, intercepted her on her way back to finish with her customer. As he predicted, she handed off the package.

“Can you put this in the cooler please? Now sir, let’s talk about your party.”

“Actually, before we talk, can I please use your bathroom?”

“Certainly, it’s right around the corner.” Though her words were ingratiating her tone belied frustration. She needed to get to the venue. Her desperation was part of the plan.

“Let’s get these off you,” Brad said, stepping from behind the bathroom door as Fat Louie entered. Fat Louie lifted up his sweatshirt to reveal two pancetta hocks hanging from straps around his neck.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to move naturally with this much pork hanging off you?”

Unsure if he was talking about the meat or his massive size, Brad kept his mouth shut. He busied himself affixing the culatello in place of the pancetta. A knock on the door startled them both.

“Sir? Everything okay in there?” Diane’s voice was heavy with anxiety.

“I’ll be out in a second,” Fat Louie answered. The scent of salted meat filled the bathroom. Fat Louie’s mouth watered. He reached for the handle as Brad put the pancetta in the shipping box and ducked back behind the door.

“Wait!” he hissed.

“What?”

“Forgetting something?” Brad nodded towards the toilet.

“Oh, right.” Fat Louie shuffled over and flushed the toilet, washed his hands, then tottered back. Diane stood on the other side of the door, her impatience barely contained.

“I’m sorry, moving around isn’t that easy for me.” Fat Louie said. He knew his size made people uncomfortable and used it to his advantage when needed.

“No problem. Listen, I have an event to prepare for. If you wouldn’t mind leaving your name and number, I’ll call you on Monday and we’ll arrange a time to talk about your party.”

Fat Louie agreed. Using his girth as a plow he herded Diane back to the counter area, giving Brad enough coverage to sneak the box into the cooler.

As Fat Louie recited his information, the scent of the savory delicacy suspended from his neck wafted upwards. Diane smelled it too but made a show of not noticing. As Fat Louie exited, triggering the door chime once again, Brad emerged from the back.

“Found the seating chart! We should get over there.”

***

Thirty minutes later Vincent met Fat Louie at our storage unit. Once inside and away from view, Fat Louie wrestled himself out of his sweatshirt.

“Dude, you’re late. Our ad says the auction starts at 1. We can’t start it until we have the product.”

“I’m sorry. I got hungry on the way over here. Don’t worry, no one saw.”

“No one saw what?” Vincent held up one of the hocks of meat, inspecting very obvious gnaw marks. “You’re late because you needed a snack? And you ate our meat?”

“I couldn’t help myself. It smelled so good. Don’t judge me.”

“This is going to come out of your cut.”

“Forget about my cut. Give me whatever you slice off to clean that up. It was amazing!”

“Whatever, we’ll talk about it later.”

Vincent helped Fat Louie free himself from his charcuterie shackles. As he wrapped the meat in a baby blanket, he watched Fat Louie re-enter his sweatshirt. On his way out, Fat Louie paused for one last longing look at the meat before leaving.

***

“It’s 12:48. The Cater Capers don’t miss advertised start times. What the hell took so long?”

Vincent walked up the street, our “baby” strapped to his chest. He had thrown a blanket over the top, ostensibly to shield the infant from the sun. It was, in fact, to disguise that our baby had no limbs and was actually ham.

“Blame Fat Louie. He stopped for a meat break.”

“Oh my God, how old is your baby?” The cooing came from behind. A visibly pregnant woman sidled up to us, reaching for the blanket.

“Oh, no, please don’t. I just got her to sleep. I’ve had to walk almost three miles to get her down.”

I stared at Vincent, astounded at how quickly he transformed into the father of a newborn pork loin, bouncing up and down pretending to soothe it.

“I understand. I’m not looking forward to sleepless nights either. But it’s worth it, right?”

“Absolutely.” Vincent leaned down and kissed what was supposed to be the top of an infant’s head. Knowing that he was kissing a cut of meat whose name translated to “little ass” was almost enough to break me. I looked down at my feet to stifle a laugh.

The woman’s husband walked up from behind and placed his hand in hers.

“Sorry, honey. I couldn’t find a parking space.”

“That’s okay.  I don’t’ think I want Thai food for lunch anymore, though. Let’s find a sandwich shop. I’m suddenly in the mood for ham.”

The guy shrugged his shoulders as if to say “cravings, right?” They said their goodbyes and walked away. Once the couple was around the corner, Vincent let out a sigh of relief. I erupted in a torrent of laughter.

“You done? Diane is going to freak if she realizes we’re both missing. Oh, and Fat Louie wants to be paid in meat.”

“Come again?” I asked as I strapped the baby carrier to my chest. It was only a half a mile to the apartment, but we didn’t want to make the exchange right out front.

“You’ll see why when you unwrap.”

***

Miraculously, I made it home with two minutes to spare. Climbing the stairs was more challenging than expected, and I briefly wondered how new mothers did such things. I opened the door, intending to flip open the computer and start the auction, then leave. But before I could I needed to address the elephant in the room.

“Fat Louie, what are you doing here? And how did you get in?”

Fat Louie was breathless from his trip to the fourth floor.

“I came…as fast as…I could.”

“I’m sure you did. I can’t talk, though. I just came to drop off this meat, then-”

“That’s why I’m here. I wanted to get to you before you started the auction.”

“Why? Did something happen to the meat?”

“No. I want it.”

“Louie, this is $1,500 worth of meat. With a bidding war we could make triple that.”

Louie threw a wad of $100 bills on the counter. “That’s five grand. I’ll take all of it.”

“Sold! Good luck getting it out of here.”

A covetous look, like a lion stalking it prey, washed over Fat Louie’s face. “Don’t you worry about that.”

***

“Did you start the auction?”

I managed to sneak into the venue unnoticed. Diane was so distracted by the chaos of preparing for the event that my absence went unnoticed.

“No.”

“What do you mean no? Our ad said the auction went live at 1! These are repeat customers, we can’t let them down. What are you-“

“I didn’t have to start the auction. Look.” I produced the wad of cash from my pocket.

“Where did that come from?”

“Fat Louie. He was in the apartment when I got there. I don’t know how he made it up four flights of stairs without having a stroke, but he wanted all the meat and dropped the cash immediately. How could I say no?”

“That fat bastard. If he wanted it so badly why didn’t he say so at the storage unit?”

“Does it matter? This is the biggest score we’ve ever made!”

“Hey, guys?” Diane’s voice rang down the small hallway. I stuffed the cash back in my pocket and wheeled around.

“Would one of you run back to the shop? I’m going to prepare the culatello here tonight. One less thing to worry about tomorrow.”