PROSATIO SILBAN PLACED THE LADEN fork in his mouth, deposited its contents, removed the utensil, and commenced chewing.
I have lost count of how many servings I’ve eaten, he thought. It’s a wonder this hasn’t sickened me yet.
He smiled at the woman who had cooked it, then nodded. From an inner pocket in his long vest he produced a writing-stick and small rag-paper notebook. Mercino Thuar, of Hobble’s Digs, he jotted. Full texture, good use of seasonings, not too sweet. A definite contender.
“Congratulations,” he told her. “You have qualified. Please bring your entry to epicurean Pormaris in one week’s time for the final judging.”
The Cook For Any Price was approaching the end of his long and near-wearying quest to discover who in the Uulian Commonwell could create the best finfruit pie.
The Cook For Any Price was approaching the end of his long and near-wearying quest to discover who in the Uulian Commonwell could create the best finfruit pie. The simple and beloved dessert dated back to the Commonwell’s founding, and almost everyone he visited had put their subtle personal touches on the centuried recipe – a flavor enhancer or different crust perhaps, or a varied consistency of filling – save those who did not vary from the so-called “original” by so much as a pinch of salt or dusting of sweetbark.
His survey had commenced at the behest of the Ranking Culinarian, an old friend and colleague, whose many charges included administering the Pormaris-based Refectionists’ Guild and its allied institution, the Archive of Gastronomic Artifice. Prosatio Silban had first thought the assignment a lark, but he soon realized the burden which Crasso had placed on his semi-reluctant shoulders.
“I want you to treat this with utmost seriousness,” Crasso had said. “Although the task may seem trifling, you must remember that it concerns a vital piece of our cultural history. Much grave sentiment is attached to this dish, and I expect you to conduct yourself in an apropos manner.”
“Of course. But why have you chosen me?” the cook asked. “There must be others whose palates are more refined, and who will detect greater nuances of flavor and texture.”
“To be blunt? No one else is as well-traveled and well-known,” his friend replied. “You will be speaking with both amateur and professional cooks, and are more approachable than anyone in the Guild. Your ‘yea’ is sincere, and your ‘nay’ is kind. In short, you are the best man for the job.”
Now, a bare two months of dayrides later, Prosatio Silban was beginning to wonder if Crasso had it in for him. He had tasted his way through the Commonwell’s Three Cities and many of its Thousand Villages, sampling interpretations of home-cook and house-chef, noble and rustic; their hand pies, slab pies, and round pies; with latticed, floating, and classic upper-crusts. His final objective resided in Pormaris’ industrious and fragrant Bakers’ Quarter. Last stop, he thought with a sigh, as his galleywagon wheeled along the City of Gourmands’ busy morning streets.
Presently, he came to an arched wooden door set in the front of a two-story brick building, under a sign reading, The Brothers Momogi: Old Flavors, New Tastes. The cook-errant grinned as he climbed down from the driver’s bench. I already like their philosophy, he thought, and knocked thrice.
After a moment, the door opened wide to reveal a burly man with a goatee and a shock of close-cropped black hair, wearing a flour-flecked green Guild apron over an expensive-looking tunic and kneebreeches. “Greetings!” he all but bellowed. “Masters Roicho and Dachang are at your service.”
“Which one are you?” Prosatio Silban asked.
“I am Momogi Dachang. Some call me ‘The Innovator.’”
“I am Momogi Dachang. Some call me ‘The Innovator.’ My sibling and colleague, Momogi Roicho, is working in the kitchen. He answers to ‘The Teacher.’ And you must be the one known as the ‘Cook For Any Price.’”
“How did you know?”
“Your reputation precedes you. That, and we have been expecting your visit for some time. Come into the back.”
The first thing Prosatio Silban noticed after stepping inside was the happy, sweet-and-savory redolence of good things to eat. Dachang conducted him down a long dark corridor, which echoed with a distant clatter and bang. At last they entered the bakery proper, warm with the glow from three wood-fired ovens; a waist-high central table was neatly piled with tins, pans, rollers, baskets, pie birds, bench scrapers, and other bakers’ tools. At one end, on the other side of a half-dozen well-browned loaves, lay something hidden beneath a plate-sized and filigreed silver cover. Before one of the ovens, and bearing a long bread-peel, stood a strapping man with medium-length, slicked-back hair, and a goatee and garb similar to Dachang’s.
“You must be the judges’ judge,” said the man, dusting off his hands and offering one to Prosatio Silban. “Momogi Roicho,” he said. They shook, and the cook-errant said, “Please do not allow me to interrupt. My mission is to taste, not intrude.”
“No intrusion at all,” Roicho said. “May I show you our entry?”
“Then behold!” said the baker, and lifted the cover.
At first, Prosatio Silban didn’t know what he was beholding. Inserted edgewise into a mass of dark red – preserves? Puree? Pudding? – were more than a dozen small pastry-chips similar in shape to shark fins. The whole resembled nothing that the cook had ever seen, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it until Dachang broke the awkward silence.
“This is finfruit pie, deconstructed into its component parts,” he said. “Here, I’ll show you.” He scooped up with a pastry-fin some of the dark red whatever-it-was and conveyed it to his open mouth. As he chewed, he indicated Prosatio Silban to follow suit.
So he did. The “fin” was crisp and pie-crusty, and the jellied red substance tasted of the very essence of finfruit.
“It’s good, right?” Roicho asked.
“It’s good, right?” Roicho asked.
“Mmm,” was all Prosatio Silban could manage. “MmmmM!” He swallowed, then smiled with pleasure. “Wonderful. Is this your idea, Master Dachang?”
“The concept, yes,” Dachang replied. “I credit my brother with the shaping and implementation. We also both make it a point of honor to use only the best ingredients obtainable. The finfruit, which we process in-house, comes to us from an exclusive provider.”
“The ‘fins’ are baked separate from the ‘filling’ so they don’t get soggy. Everyone can experience a crisp crust in every bite,” said Roicho. “We believe that when it comes to cooking, it doesn’t matter what you do so long as the result’s delicious.”
“I happen to agree with that attitude,” Prosatio Silban said. “Without question, this is the most delicious and unusual ‘finfruit pie’ presentation I have ever tasted. However …”
“’However?’” the brothers chorused.
“However. The terms of the contest dictate that entries must conform to certain guidelines. With no bottom crust, and no definable top crust, your entry might not be judged on its merits. It is an inspired creation, and undeniably delectable, but would the other judges see it as authentic?”
Dachang and Roicho exchanged looks. “Authenticity’ is an arbitrary notion,” Dachang said. “A people’s foodways adjust to their circumstances. When cut off from their original and essential fare, they make do with whatever they have. We are but following our ancestors’ example.”
“Creativity comes from the tension between tradition and innovation,” added Roicho. “Finfruit pie, as we know it, is itself an adaptation of an older recipe brought by our people when we settled here, eight hundred years ago. The fruit then grew wild, and has only been cultivated relatively recently. Thus, you could say the pie is not strictly Uulian at all.”
“Those are excellent points, to be sure,” Prosatio Silban said. “But there is also the question, ‘How far can you change a thing and still call it by the same name?’ Well. I will report my findings to the Ranking Culinarian as well as to the competition judges. I do hope to see you both at the judging in two days. May Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration, continue to bless you and your labors.”
* * *
As befitted an event of such magnitude, the Archive of Gastronomic Artifice’s vast auditorium was thronged with competitors – cooks of every stripe, station, age, and description – and also with scads of the curious public. On the tall dais was an enormous table thick with sweet-scented entries, including Roicho and Dachang’s. From his adjacent seat among the judges, Prosatio Silban could see the brothers near the great hall’s front. Crasso, clad in elegant white long-tunic and green apron with gold trim, stepped to the blackwood lectern and raised his hands for quiet.
“We gather tonight, as we have since several hundreds ago, the Year of the Grateful Supplicant. Finfruit pie was then a new concoction. None then knew the place it would hold in the Uulian heart and hearth. As the years rolled by, it became the centerpiece of every celebration, an anticipated feature of holiday and holy day alike. From a field of near-countless entrants, one has brought forth a dish that current diners would recognize as excellent, and of which the ancients would be proud. The deserving cook will receive prizes both monetary and practical.”
At this point, Crasso unrolled a vellum scroll and raised his voice.
At this point, Crasso unrolled a vellum scroll and raised his voice. “And the award for this year’s Finfruit Pie Trial is … Viatta Sorrar of Hat Creek!”
A grey-tressed woman near the back of the room raised her arms in delighted triumph. Making her way to the front amidst the crowd’s loud applause, she mounted the dais to receive her honors. “Thank you, thank you!” she told the judges.
Crasso handed her a good-sized wooden box with the Archive’s insignia painted on the side. Tears in her eyes, she returned to her seat, and the Ranking Culinarian again raised his hands.
“The evening is not yet over,” he declared. “From the same field of candidates, one entry has emerged to remind us that adaptation is an essential component of gastronomy. Please offer up vocal praise for the creative reimagining of this classic dessert by the Brothers Momogi, of epicurean Pormaris!”
The look on Dachang’s and Roicho’s faces mingled incredulity and amazement with a touch of frustration. They rose from their seats and waved acknowledgement to the cheering crowd, then sat down again. Prosatio Silban – bearing another, smaller insignia-painted box – descended from the dais to meet them.
“Well done,” he said as he shook their hands in turn.
“Apparently not,” Dachang said. “You were right – they didn’t judge our creation on its merits.”
“Are you angry?”
“Not angry as such,” said Roicho. “Disappointed. We would have preferred to have been recognized with the others, rather than stand out alone as ‘inauthentic.’”
“I can understand that. You have enacted change. And change can take time for people to process. After all, the original finfruit pie also took some time to catch on. But now is the time for you to receive the accolades due those brave enough to try.”
“Do you think so in truth?” Dachang asked.
“I do,” Prosatio Silban replied. “For you have proven something more important – that the delicious need not be the enemy of the traditional.”