I heard her from across Wholey’s Fish Market in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
“Best bisque you’ll ever taste! Don’t leave without it!” Her voice, tangy and tart, firm and persuasive, carried across the rows and rows of dead-eyed fish staring woefully at me.
I let that voice lead me away from the seafood section to where she stood on a stool above a cart that held a pot full of lobster crab bisque. I looked up at her, and saw on the collar of her black turtleneck a two-inch-tall, four-inch-long, fake-diamond-encrusted pin that spelled out J-E-S-U-S and shone like a supernova.
I paused for a moment, unsure. Was this Jesus bisque?
My pause gave me a chance to examine her nametag: Ticki. I noticed that more pins hung from her turtleneck, half-obscured by her red Wholey’s apron. To the right of J-E-S-U-S sat a thick cross, and beneath it sat the face of Jesus, twisted in pain, presumably because a crown of thorns pressed into his forehead. Both the cross and the likeness of Jesus’ face sparkled like clusters of stars when the woman scooped some of the lobster bisque out of the pot and into a plastic tasting cup.
Fake diamonds, I realized, also covered every available surface of the cross and much of the detail on Jesus’s face.
Perhaps Ticki saw my mouth hanging open, because she repeated her mantra and pushed a plastic cup in my direction. “It’s the best bisque you’ll ever taste. And here’s a recipe to make a quiche to go with it. Have it for Thanksgiving.”
I took the cup and downed the bisque like a shot. Although I don’t really consider myself a connoisseur of anything except Star Wars one-liners, I love soup. And this bisque, was, as Ticki had said, the best bisque I’d ever had.
It looked and tasted like a milk-diluted sunset over the Jersey Shore, when the evening breeze comes in from the sea: light and creamy, a little salty. A chunk of crab meat stuck to the bottom of my cup and I scooped it out with one of those miniature plastic spoons they give you at boardwalk ice cream shops to sample a flavor.
Two of my friends came up to try the bisque. Ticki said, “Ladies, put it over pasta. Put it on a pizza. Make a seafood pizza.”
She watched them eat, her pins throwing dots of light around us. “Do you like it?”
We all nodded as we picked up our $8.99 quarts. I wish I would have picked up two. Or five.
“I like you,” she said to my friend. “And you, and you,” she said to my second friend, and then to me. She looked directly at each one of us, and I felt that her overly shadowed eyes could see more about me than I wanted them to.
At the checkout line, a stream of people behind me clutched their quarts of bisque to their chests. I considered yelling “It’s a trap!” to see how they’d react, but I refrained.
I wondered for what items these shoppers had come to Wholey’s, items now abandoned in favor of the one, the Precious, the bisque. Perhaps some whole smoked Canadian whitefish, or skin-on filets of wild Alaskan salmon, or sushi rolls from Andy’s Sushi at the front of the store, or one of the live fish you can pick out of the aquarium and watch them whack to death and then gut and de-scale. Ticki’s voice had drawn them all to her cart, and now the bisque propelled them to their kitchens, where they could eat it.
When I got home, I pulled the bisque out of the bag and showed it to my husband as if I were presenting him a mint-in-box Luke Skywalker action figure from 1977 that I had found at a yard sale for $1. We steamed a huge pot of rice — I wanted to prove that Ticki hadn’t put me under some kind of spell — heated up the bisque, and sat down to an episode of Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 version).
“This might be Jesus bisque,” I said while the opening music played and told us how many humans were left alive in the universe.
He took a bite, and I looked at him expectantly. A ship exploded on the television screen.
My husband, not one to get too excited about anything, shrugged. “It’s pretty good.”
I kept my eyes on the screen, on the expanding debris cloud that used to be a spaceship, and let the bisque warm me from the inside.