Day’s Life (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

IT IS SAID THAT WERE it not for the leather-lunged hawkers of epicurean Pormaris, the sun would not know when to awaken. But whether or not that’s as true as it sounds, the great island-city’s markets are indeed its economic heart.

Before they open, however, they must be supplied. Sturdy fisherfolk, each armed with breakfast-pail and lantern, constellate like fireflies along the docks and jetties at Pormaris’ southern edge. They climb aboard small craft, some mounted with triangular sails, others with only oars, and fan out across the vast iridescent Teardrop Lake in a web of light, alert for finny treasure.

The fishers’ landed counterparts congregate clockwise around the lake at the ports of Ruins-Across-the-Water, Millers’ End, Northbridge and Easting, to await the ferries that will bring them into the city: farmers and stockmen with carts and wagons well-laden with the produce of the surrounding lush countryside. Not for nothing is Pormaris called the City of Gourmands, as the region’s well-watered soil and temperate climate combine to create favorable conditions for growing almost anything and everything humans find delicious. Small but stubborn flocks and herds as well as caged fowl impatiently await their eventual fate at the other end of the ferry-trip.

As the eastern sky begins to glow, Pormaris’ watchful sentinels – in bronze chainmail and imperious manner – make their rounds with a “tok tok tok” on the locked doors and shuttered windows of the shops and stalls in the mercantile quarter, bidding the sleepers within to wakefulness.

Time for another ambitious day, thought Prosatio Silban as his eyes opened. He drew off his parrot-down comforter (Pormaris nights can be chilly) and swung his legs over the edge of the bunk at the aft end of his galleywagon.

Having dressed for another day feeding the hungry masses of the Uulian Commonwell – belted umber tunic, dark green knee-breeches and long, earthen-colored vest, black cotton-and-rubber shoes and a jaunty emerald fez with black tassel – Prosatio Silban applied his artificial eyebrows[1] and smiled into the mirror. Beware of mercenary cooks, he thought at his image. Retrieving his breakfast from the galleywagon’s pantry and stove, he carried the meal out into the cold morning air.

Prosatio Silban raised placating hands. “Take your ease, friend. With what may I please you?”

Before he tasted a bite or a sip, however, he dug into the bag of fatberry-cakes under the vehicle’s driver’s seat and selected three of the greasy maroon lumps. At the scent of his favorite food, the cook’s buopoth, Onward, let out a quiet rattling hoot. Prosatio Silban fed his quaint lumbering dray-beast, patted what passed for a flank and told him what a good buopoth he was. Only then did the cook munch reflectively on his own breakfast: a crisp poppyhorn interspersed with deep swallows from a large mug of hot, cream-laced yava. “O Hopmon of the Ever-Heavy Purse, please bring me good custom today,” he prayed aloud after finishing the pastry. He drained his yava-cup, sighed happily and took in his surroundings.

The galleywagon was parked in the large transient-trader’s lot adjoining the northern end of Victualer’s Row, which was known throughout the Commonwell as a source of and destination for a seemingly endless variety of provender. All around was a wonderland of gastronomists selling both prepared food and raw ingredients; Prosatio Silban hoped to compete with the former and take professional advantage of the latter. On one side of his portable home, a soup-seller was already filling the surrounding area with a savory fragrance; on the other was a shop purveying fine cured sausages of pork, beef, poultry, and pack-lizard. Hawkers’ cries of “What need ye?” began their tireless echo from every quarter as the hungry shopping public strolled among the waiting merchants.

The cook unslung a table-and-chairs from beneath his galleywagon, set them up, then arranged a painted menu-board proclaiming “COOK FOR ANY PRICE” in crimson and gilt lettering. When everything was just so, he stood by the board, arms akimbo, and faced the passersby with a welcoming smile.

Although it was still early, a small crowd was trickling through the street; Pormaris-dwellers liked to finish their marketing before the heat of the day made conditions of both provisions and comfort less than tenable. Suddenly, a man dressed in the mid-length bi-color robes of a rich family’s servant came rushing up, out of breath. “Master Cook! Master Cook!” he panted.

Prosatio Silban raised placating hands. “Take your ease, friend. With what may I please you?”

“I come from the house of Bo Shuda … a book-printer of some means,” the man began, then bent over with his hands on his knees. “Whoosh! Sir Bo … would ask for your professional expertise this evening … to help celebrate with a small gathering … the coming-of-age of his youngest daughter. … The pay will be commensurate. … Are you otherwise engaged?”

“Not anymore,” the cook said with a bow.

* * *

Walking through the food-shops and stalls, and chatting or haggling with familiar traders to collect the necessaries for a hired meal, was always one of Prosatio Silban’s favorite pastimes – especially when he could say, as he did this morning, “Put it on the account of my patron. I will send for it later.”

As fish and vegetables were always the first to be affected by Pormaris’ warm daytime clime, the cook always began his browsing in those particular markets. Freshwater mollusks and salted or pickled fish made fine appetizers, and thanks to the heroic labors of Uulian fisherfolk – and the small but important magik of preserved ice – they could be had in profusion. “I’ll take six dozen of the blue-rim oysters, please,” the cook asked of the fishmonger. “And let me see … that large jar of oil-packed anchovies, the same of Soharis herring in wine-sauce, and this whole fat pike. Please have them delivered to Bo Shuda’s city-house.”

In the vegetable-sellers’ market, which boasted an alphabetic variety of produce – everything from avocado pears to zucchini – Prosatio Silban scooped up a handful of yellow lentils and listened to them cascade back into their open-mouthed sack. “These will make a fine addition to our little feast,” he told the merchant. “Three pounds, please – and a dozen artichokes as well. Bo Shuda will provide the payment.”

“Take care there!” rebuked Prosatio Silban. “Those duck eggs are expensively fragile!”

The fruit-merchants’ stalls at that early hour proved daunting, even for a seasoned professional like Prosatio Silban. Fruit was one of Pormaris’ most beloved foods; maidservants, housewives with children, other itinerant chefs and the occasional restaurateur made for a mad dance to and from the well-burdened stall- and shop-counters. The unexpected benefit was that the fruit-mongers were too busy competing with each other to haggle with customers over prices. The cook walked away with the promise of crates of apples, figs, lemons, blueberries, plums, raisins, currants and a variety of nuts.

In the spicers’ bazaar Prosatio Silban marveled at the mélange of dusky fragrances as he browsed amid open sacks and tall piles of cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, and ginger, and small glass vials of saffron imported at great cost from across the Rimless Sea. At the adjacent herbalist’s he found dark bunches of parsley, dill, rosemary and basil, as well as an assortment of dandelion flowers. He also bought a good quantity of that indispensable and indescribable sweetener, rose honey.

Lastly, he stopped by the beast-market, where he hoped to procure a sturdy portion of dressed lamb, a half-dozen chickens and three dozen duck eggs. The rest of his necessaries (wheat flour and oatmeal, dairy products, olives and their oil, salt) were either provided by Sir Bo’s country demesne and shipped to his city home, or kept on hand by his employer as staples; there was no need for further buying expeditions.

Following his eventful morning, Prosatio Silban’s stomach was quietly roaring. Where to lunch? he thought. So many pushcarts to choose from…I wonder if my favorite is too crowded?

He wandered through the forest of culinary bargain-seekers until the familiar fragrance of marinated and grilled chicken tickled his nostrils. He stopped in front of a portable grill, where a puffing and red-faced man in a spattered blue apron stood tending poultry-laden skewers “Arriao!” the cook shouted warmly.

“Master Prosatio!” replied Arriao, smiling. “So good to see you, and at such an appropriate hour. I take it you’re in search of lunch?”

“More as though your lunch was in search of me. I’ll take two skewers, if you please.”

Money changed hands, and soon Prosatio Silban was munching pieces of semi-charred, spiced and tender bird-flesh whose taste made him close his eyes with pleasure. He washed down his spare but satisfying meal with deep sips from a small glass of honeyed water just as the market-clock struck the early afternoon hour. And now, to my patron’s kitchen, he thought, where the real work begins.

* * *

“Take care there!” rebuked Prosatio Silban. “Those duck eggs are expensively fragile!”

He was standing in Sir Bo Shuda’s capacious kitchen, overseeing the arrival of the morning’s promised provender. The scene was an urgent tangle of crates, casks, bottles and sacks, with a dozen servants and porters unloading or stacking the containers according to Prosatio Silban’s careful direction.

As for equipment, there was everything a needful cook could want: six-burner fatberry-oil stove; two large wood-fired ovens divided into four separate and heat-adjusted chambers; a well-stocked pantry and buttery; three massive freestanding butcher blocks; a panoply of pots, kettles, sheet pans, and skillets.

“A moment, if you will,” Prosatio Silban said to one of the porters. “I don’t seem to see the pike I ordered. Is it still on the donkey cart, under this hot afternoon sun? Fetch it quickly, or I’ll cauterize you and the donkey as well.”

“Please, Master Cook,” came the reply. “The fishmonger said the last pike was mistakenly sold by the time it came to pack your order. He did send this, though.”

The oysters had been shucked and set on iced serving-platters, like blue-edged petals of exotic frozen blossoms.

“This” turned out to be hidden beneath ice-crusted burlap, which – when the rough cloth had been rolled back – was revealed as a fine plump salmon, the same size as the pike if not larger. “My compliments to the fishmonger,” Prosatio Silban whispered with reverence. “’This’ will do nicely.”

“Your attention, please,” the cook said, raising his voice to a gentle shout. “The success of tonight’s dinner relies on your noble efforts. We have not met before today, but by dessert we will know each other as well as fellow-soldiers quitting the field of battle. Now, then – I need someone to fire the ovens and tend the stove, someone to prepare these vegetables and fruits, someone to—”

“Master Prosatio!” boomed a too-friendly voice from behind him. “We have not yet met. I am Sir Bo.”

Prosatio Silban turned, a polite smile quickly affixing itself. He bowed, then clasped his employer’s proffered and ring-crusted hand. “A pleasure to meet you, o my patron. Congratulations on your daughter’s attainment. With what may I please you?”

“You already are – rather, you seem to be making ready to so do,” Sir Bo said. “Is there any way I may be of help? I could perhaps manage the servants for you, cut some vegetables, run errands …”

Oh dear gods no, thought the cook. To his patron he said, “That will hardly be necessary; I fear that with two commanders the kitchen-troops may be forced into misfires. Please – allow me to gratify you. Pray do not give us another thought until the service arrives on your guests’ waiting plates.” So saying, Prosatio Silban clapped Sir Bo on his well-dressed and -intentioned back and respectfully steered him to the dining-room door. There’s always one, at least, he thought.

* * *

Sweat did not usually dislodge Prosatio Silban’s eyebrows, but then it had been some time since he had worked in a kitchen as sultry as Sir Bo’s. He carefully mopped his forehead with a shoulder-slung dish towel and surveyed his battlefield.

On one burner, a large pot was merrily a-bubble with eggs, an ice-water bath perched on a countertop immediately adjacent. Two other burners were dedicated to simmering rice and lentils, while a fourth pot was rank with the smell of boiling marrow-bones. Some of the servants were busy grinding spices and herbs for use in various culinary constructions; others were plucking chickens, anointing the dressed lamb with olive oil, and carefully stuffing the salmon with oatmeal, raisins and ginger. In one corner, the artichokes were undergoing a careful manicure, and in another corner three servants were attentively opening an equal number of cheese wheels (soft, semi-soft and firm).

In the middle of all this flitted Prosatio Silban – tasting here, seasoning there, dropping words of encouragement or admonition where necessary. A finer kitchen-army I have rarely seen, thought the cook. Now, if everything goes well, we can begin to assemble –

“Master Cook!” came Sir Bo’s voice from behind.

Prosatio Silban turned, forcing another polite smile. “Sir Bo! I did not expect to see you again so soon. As you can see, everything is well in hand, and —”

“Permit me to introduce my daughter, Grisla. Say hello to our cook-for-the-evening, Grisla.”

The girl – technically, now a young woman – dimpled and curtsied, the hem of her gold-weave skirt brushing the flagstone floor. “Pleasedtomakeyouracquaintance,” she said breathlessly.

“And I yours,” bowed the cook. “Now, if you will permit me –”

“Grisla is being ‘prenticed to the House of Heir Second Vajang,” beamed Sir Bo. “In his kitchen, as it happens. I thought she might benefit from observing what goes on in ours, under the hand of a cooking-master.”

By the sustaining teats of the All-Mother! thought Prosatio Silban. Aloud, he said, “An excellent idea, Sir Bo. But we’re nearly done with all the work our Miss Grisla would be learning from an Heir Second’s kitchen-battalion. Alas, such is life – opportunity so often, sadly, turns to disappointment.”

“A pity,” said Sir Bo. “Well, if there’s nothing else we can do …”

“There’s not,” finished the cook. “Except, perhaps, seeing to the comfort of your early guests. I’m sure Miss Grisla will need to acquire that gracious skill before serving the Heir Second.”

“An excellent idea!” Sir Bo exclaimed. “Grisla, shall we attend your early guests?”

Prosatio Silban watched them leave the kitchen and sighed. It’s nice to have help, he thought. But timing is everything.

* * *

There comes a time in the preparation of a formal dinner, between the last emplaced garnish and the first bite taken, that always struck Prosatio Silban as holy – not in the gods-infused sense, but as the sharp intake of an anticipatory breath. At these liminal times, the beefy cook felt as though he were standing with his toes over the edge of an abyss-crowning precipice. This is what I live for, he thought. This moment. Right now.

The oysters had been shucked and set on iced serving-platters like blue-edged petals of exotic frozen blossoms. The eggs were sliced and also presented flowerlike on platters, surrounding ramekins of different-colored sauces; pickled herring and oily anchovies lay piled on broad, stiff chukka leaves; and here and there, small mounds of olives glistened in the flickering kitchen-light.

In short, everything was ready to be served. Prosatio Silban signaled the waiters, and they marched triumphantly through the dining room door.

Behind this first course, finishing touches were being applied to the second and third. Uulian custom dictated that a feast be served in three “acts,” with each act comprising at least three components. Thus, it traditionally began with mollusks, eggs and preserved fish; the meat course comprised beast, fowl and whole fish (with at least one vegetable dish for more delicate digesters); and pastries, fruits or nuts, and cheese to close the meal.

Accordingly, an aromatic medley of roasted salmon, braised lamb and cardamom-scented chicken filled the room in the most opulent fashion imaginable. The oatmeal-and-fruit stuffed fish was nearly bursting its jute stitches; succulent lamb chunks adorned a bed of lentils, figs, currants and dandelion flowers; the chickens were golden with applied egg yolk and saffron. Blueberry-colored rice, artistically filling the boiled artichokes, completed the picture.

Prosatio Silban surveyed the afternoon’s work and smiled a conqueror’s smile. “My friends, we have done epic battle today,” he told the assembled staff. “But the war is not over, for the patron’s and guests’ palates are still to be won. They should –”

“Master Prosatio!” came, once again, Sir Bo’s shrill voice.

“Yes?” asked the cook, sighing to himself.

“I just wanted to tell you that the starters are beyond excellent. May I help serve the next course?”

Prosatio Silban creased his brow in thought. On the one hand, that is the waiters’ job. On the other hand … “Thank you for the offer, Sir Bo,” he said. “If it would please you to so do, then by all means.”

“Thank you, Master Cook. I want my Grisla to know that I have not outgrown my family’s humble beginnings, nor should she.”

The dining room door closed, and the cook smiled before turning his own attention to the desserts – a plum, currant and marrow tart of magnificent proportions; a sliced array of goat-, sheep- and cow-milk cheeses; and mounds of spiced nuts and dried apricots and dates.

I may yet survive this meal with patience and professionalism intact, thought Prosatio Silban. After all, everyone needs to feel useful.

* * *

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” beamed Sir Bo, pressing a heavy and embroidered pouch of silver-pieces into Prosatio Silban’s waiting palm. “I cannot ever remember having supped half so well. The evening was a triumph – and my dear Grisla has the happy memory of her coming-of-age to accompany her into dotage.”

“That is my business and my reputation, Sir Bo,” said the cook. “It has been a pleasure to serve your family. Thank you for the privilege.”

And with those sincere words, Prosatio Silban picked up his worn leather knife-bindle, bowed deeply to his patron, and made his exit into the cool Pormaris night.

[1] Sacreants, the Uulian holy functionaries such as Prosatio Silban used to be, undergo a thorough depilatory bath as part of their initiation. Explaining why he is a self-defrocked Sacreant is not one of the cook’s favorite tasks – hence, the eyebrows.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *