THERE ARE ONLY SO MANY variations dictated by a food’s texture and flavor, but Prosatio Silban was determined to find a new one.
It was sultry in the beefy cook’s galleywagon, but not from the season. In point of fact, he had going all six of his fatberry-oil cookstove’s burners, as well as the oven. He was poaching, pan-frying, simmering, toasting, sautéing, boiling, and confiting his simultaneous way through experimental iterations of an in-common culinary theme. And he was doing it on a deadline set by Sir Rando Stefh, a wealthy arts patron who had hired him to create a new and unique gastronomic triumph by that evening.
On the adjacent butcher-block counter was a gingerly perched assembly of ingredients that would baffle and befuddle a lesser cook: ceramic jars of sweet and savory spices; buckwheat, durum and cerulean-rice noodles; tins of fish and of preserved fidget-hen; minced lizard breast; among other alliums, a small pile of peeled green and blue garlic; dark glass bottles of brothy and stocky essences; eggs (chicken and duck); bunched herbs fragrant and pungent; a painted pot of rose honey; tubes of vegetable and fruit concentrates; petite wheels of various-textured cheese; finger-sized crystals of sugar-jade; and (rarest of all) a tiny vial of purple saffron. Each and all were being put to the combinatory test by Prosatio Silban’s agile mind, professional skill, and desperation.
He knew he was pushing the limits of both craft and cookstove, but he was in the seventh hour of his frantic labors and had nothing to show but an overtopped garbage barrel and a sink full of soiled cookware.
The mercenary cook hove a deep sigh. Ruined. All ruined, he thought.
Suddenly, the poaching and boiling pots bubbled over their rims, dousing their respective burners, and as if on cue, the frying pan’s oily medium ignited and sent flames leaping up among the ceiling-hung utensils. Prosatio Silban had been half-expecting such a situation; he grabbed the sand-bucket he kept handy for just such situations and dumped handsful here and there. The fire was soon extinguished, but the stovetop now looked like a child’s beach-castle after the tide’s arrival.
The mercenary cook hove a deep sigh. Ruined. All ruined, he thought. I never should have taken up Sir Rando’s challenge. O Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Impartation – how and why have I failed You? He sat down on a folding chair, put his head in his hands, and contemplated weeping.
His gloom was dispelled by an unexpected memory – or was it a reply to his fervent prayer? – a saying common among the M’zei sage-mystics of the far north: “When in doubt, go and see what the people are doing.” The M’zei meant it as a means of dispelling complex legal confusion, but Prosatio Silban seized upon it to apply to his current situation.
Having cleaned up his kitchen mess and emptied his garbage barrel, the cook-errant ventured forth to many-harbored Soharis’ panoplied South Marketplace in search of inspiration.
It is said of that market that, given sufficient coin, anything could be procured there – and if it couldn’t, that thing must not be – but Prosatio Silban’s quest was strictly for prepared fare. As cosmopolitan Soharis was his favorite of the Three Cities of the Uulian Commonwell, he was warmly known by most of the food vendors. However, he was single-minded of purpose and gave only automatic replies to the hails and how-are-yous of his professional acquaintances.
He perused the snack-stalls and browsed the offerings of itinerant refreshment-pedlars, keeping an open eye and mind as he wandered through the crowded makeshift lanes. A tangle of aromas arose from sizzling grills and portable smokers to tease his nostrils, and he considered in turn orange-glazed sausages, puffed and cobbed maize, candied rock-lizard, skewered meats and fish, noodle stews, wrapped lamb chunks, fried chickpea fritters, filled dumplings, broiled cheese, jumja sticks, and assorted nuts. But nothing filled him with the hoped-for inspiration, and his despondency returned.
And then, the solution struck – with enough cook’s certitude to make him grab a nearby shade-post. Stifling a victory cry, he beat a fast path back to his galleywagon.
* * *
Sir Rando Stefh deposited a laden forkful inside his open lips and chewed, closing his eyes in epicurean rapture. “A noble triumph indeed!” he enthused. “I have never tasted its like.”
Prosatio Silban’s expectant expression melted into a relieved smile. Thank you, Scofi! he thought. Aloud, he said, “I am honored by your faith in me, Sir Rando. It is most gratifying.”
“Tell me,” his client asked. “How did you devise such a wonderful dish?”
The mercenary cook bowed. “Some secrets,” he said, “are better left unrevealed.”