PROSATIO SILBAN DIDN’T ACTUALLY MEAN to offend a decedent cook – but sometimes, that’s just how the game-bones fall.
This is how it began: The culinary mercenary was browsing his favorite secondhand book-and-scroll shop in the city of epicurean Pormaris when he happened upon a slim and ancient rag-paper codex titled Mistress Areo’s Instructions for Serving a Hungry Household. Intrigued, he leafed through its yellowing pages. Recipes he had never heard of met his curious eyes – rice trifle; stuffed beef gut; potato pudding; crushed-buckwheat and noodles – and a smile slowly spread across his face.
These were intended for home cooks rather than professionals, he thought. But I’ll wager tomorrow’s daily special that I can enlist one or two to my own unique service. So thinking, he paid the nominal flyleaf-scribbled price and pointed his steps homeward.
Back in his galleywagon, Prosatio Silban sat at his preparation counter, sipped at a mug of hot yava, and examined his find more closely. The publication date was some three centuries past – nearly half the Uulian Commonwell’s very existence – and it was remarkable that the book, written in an archaic style, had survived the intervening span. Tastes have certainly changed since then, he thought. Many of these dishes, while easy to make, are too heavy for modern sensibilities. Take this one for example – Wild Lard Soup? Nobody uses lard anymore, wild or not. It’s unhealthy, cloying, and leaves an unpleasant after-texture in the mouth. However, this technique and spice blend may lend themselves to an interesting interpretation…and with a few substitutions…oho.
He drained his mug and stood. Time to get to work.
* * *
The galleywagon’s interior was redolent with the sort of aroma that only slow, intentional cooking can create. At his six-burner fatberry-oil stove, Prosatio Silban stirred a large pot in which thick chunks of smoked moa-leg and three types of colorful beans floated in a lustrous, earth-toned bath. He tasted, raised an eyebrow, dipped three fingers into his salt cellar, sprinkled, stirred, tasted again, and nodded.
All mostly as it should be, he thought with a tentative smile. But perhaps a bit more cinnamon? And what if, in addition, I – wait. Am I being watched?
The beefy cook glanced toward the galleywagon’s open upper half-door but saw no one. He looked in the other direction and almost dropped his spoon.
Outlined against the black silk curtain hiding his sleeping-berth was the misty grey figure of an old woman. She wore long-ago popular garb (long-sleeved shift, tight bodice, and voluminous skirts), a severe expression, and spoke in a voice reminiscent of wind-skittering autumn leaves.
“Thou’rt doing wrongly,” she said. “Please desist.”
“Thou’rt doing wrongly,” she said. “Please desist.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Prosatio Silban.
“Thy cooking. It be a grave disservice to the original recipe. Stop it now, I urge thee.”
“Who are you?”
She drew herself up and replied, “I be Mistress Areo, and I know this recipe better than thou dost. For it is I who put it into the book thou’rt consulting. Who told thee to substitute oil of olives for wild lard, and poultry for pork?”
“My informed intuition. As a cook with more than a quarter-century’s experience, it seemed to me the right thing to do,” Prosatio Silban said. “This dish may have been palatable in your time, but it is no longer so. Times change, and tastes change with them.”
“Thou dost not understand,” his ghostly visitor exclaimed. “This dish were vitally important to the hunchback-boar hunters of Pigwood. They would prepare it annually, when the hunt which were their livelihood made necessary mickle labor to provide for a bitter winter. To alter their recipe would deny and dishonor its origin! Thou can’st not change a thing and call it the same.”
“I do not deny that, nor the skill and care of the hunters who first cooked this soup,” replied the cook. “But regional cuisine is a living, organic entity. Cultures collide and intermingle, and their foodways adapt. Ingredients are substituted when they become unavailable or undesirable in the new culinary context, or changed to serve new eaters. And there has not been hunchback-boar in that part of the Commonwell within living memory. All that remains is the village’s name.”
“Then thou shouldst not cook it at all, instead of bastardizing it as thou hast done. Thy liberties be too many, and thy variation too great.”
“Who is to say what ‘bastardizing’ is? Who is to say when a variation is ‘too great’?”
“The cooks who did invent the dish in question! They must not be ignored.”
“I do not intend to ignore them. I wish to respect their ways, but in a way that my people will appreciate. If only…”
Prosatio Silban paused, eyes downcast, and rhythmically tapped his foot for a dozen heartbeats. Finally, he looked up at the annoyed specter.
“How if this,” he said quietly. “I will adapt this delicious recipe as I have done, but when I make it for my clientele, I will explain how this soup came to be, how and why I changed it – and how culturally important it was to those who first created it.”
Now it was Mistress Areo’s turn to pause. Her silence had stretched almost into oblivion when she replied: “Done. But I will be ever near thee to judge thy sincerity.”
“Mistress Areo,” Prosatio Silban said with a smile, “I can think of no higher honor.”
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)