WE’VE ALL HEARD OF LOST arts. But what about lost artists?
Prosatio Silban rolled out of his sleeping-berth and onto his ornate braided rug, studying the bedside mirror with worry etched on his face and defeat slumping his shoulders.
I can’t do this anymore, he thought at his downcast image.
His apathetic gaze slid from coldbox to pantry to preparation-counter, hoping to rouse a spark of nascent passion – or at least, mild interest. His weary spirit remained dormant, and for want of anything better to do, he sighed.
I can’t afford to lose my long-practiced skills, he thought, drumming his fingers against one leg. The bottom of my coin-jar is visible! This is no time for time off, no matter how desired or even necessary. What am I to do?
Without looking up, he called out a listless, “We’re closed.”
A double knock interrupted his gloomy meditations. Without looking up, he called out a listless, “We’re closed.”
The knock repeated.
Grumbling, Prosatio Silban made his way to the galleywagon door and cracked open its top half to reveal the eager face of a marketplace porter.
“It’s break-fast time, Master Prosatio!” the youth announced. “Shouldn’t you be cooking?”
“Yes. But not today.”
“But we are many, and all of us hungry!”
“Go somewhere else,” Prosatio Silban insisted, scowling. “Skewered meat is a fine way to begin the day, especially for laborers, and Arriao is just down the market-lane.”
“Go away!” He slammed shut the upper door, fuming at his own incapacity, then hung his head in self-hatred.
I need help, he thought, and gave vent to a heart-rending groan. Fortunately, I know just where to look for it.
* * *
“… And I even had to post a ‘TEMPORARILY CLOSED’ sign over my painted menu-board, just to get them all to quit bothering me,” Prosatio Silban muttered, his head in his hands. “I didn’t want to, but what else could I do? I spent the rest of today wandering the city streets and looking for inspiration, but nothing came. Even my desperate prayers to Scofi, Imparter of Culinary Wisdom, have gone unanswered. I have never felt this way before, and to be quite honest, it scares me.”
His elbows were supported by the long teak bar in the rear of Pelvhi’s Chopping-House, the favored (and noisy) haunt of epicurean Pormaris’ hospitality workers. The eponymous owner nodded at her longtime friend in sympathy.
“It happens to all of us at some time or another, though not many will admit it,” Pelvhi said.
“It happens to all of us at some time or another, though not many will admit it,” Pelvhi said, and spread wide her arms. “After all, we’re professionals – we set our jaws, bite down, and grit and grin our way through.”
“I tried that,” Prosatio Silban said, shaking his head.
“It didn’t work.”
The cook cleared his throat to mask the uncomfortable silence. “Has it ever happened to you?” he asked.
She smiled. “On occasion. I get so that I can’t look at another glass, much less fill one. But that horrid beast can be banished. D’you want a suggestion?”
The taverness leaned forward. “Relda Ramat, head chef at Everlasting Feast,” she said. “She has helped me in the past. I think she might help you, too. But you’d best wait until after the dinner rush.”
* * *
Everlasting Feast was unique among Pormaris’ countless eating-houses for its varied all-vegetarian fare, particularly its earthy soups and vibrant, innovative salads. The modest brick building in the city’s storied dining-district featured clear, lozenge-paned windows framed by potted plants within and trailing ivy without.
Prosatio Silban lounged in the late-night alley outside the restaurant’s back exit, thinking dark thoughts and waiting for the staff to leave.
Prosatio Silban lounged in the late-night alley outside the restaurant’s back exit, thinking dark thoughts and waiting for the staff to leave. He did not wait long.
“Could I be of service you?” asked a wise-eyed, willowy young woman, keys a-dangle in one hand.
“That depends,” he replied.
“Do you know, or can you lead me to, Relda Ramat?”
“Who wishes to know?”
“Pelvhi told me to seek her out. My name is Prosatio Silban.”
“Ah.” A bright smile lit her face. “‘The Cook For Any Price,’ yes?”
He bowed, hiding a mirthless smirk. “Most of the time,” he said.
“Well. That is different. I am she. Come this way.”
Inside Everlasting Feast’s clean and spacious kitchen, Prosatio Silban offered Relda Ramat a brief account of his recent troubles. “So you see,” he finished, “I am at more than something of a loss as to what to do. How can I practice my trade without the motivation?”
The chef nodded. “Pelvhi is right – that does happen to all of us, at one or another time. Happily, there is a cure.”
“And what will you charge me for administering it?” he snorted, surprised at his own cynicism.
She smiled again. “Nothing more than the deep satisfaction of helping a troubled colleague. Yours is not a difficult matter, but it is rather an intimate one. Sit here, take three slow, deep breaths, and close your eyes.”
He obeyed, creasing his brow in abashed anticipation.
“What do you like most about cooking, when you do cook?” Relda Ramat asked quietly.
“Oh … well, all of it. But mostly it’s the subtle transformation, via heat and purpose, of raw ingredients into a finished meal.”
“Just listen to my voice, then, and I shall spin for you a sensory tale of the brief life and eternal career of the humble onion…”
His mind drifted away on the flow of her vivid descriptions …
His mind drifted away on the flow of her vivid descriptions: staccato chopping, loud sizzling, and wood-scraped iron; the hot green smell of olive oil, yielding to an inexpressible brown tang; hard white opacity becoming soft, dark-edged translucence.
How beautiful, Prosatio Silban thought, enraptured, as his breathing became less frantic and more even. The symmetry of one moment, of one substance, melding into the next…
“Next,” Relda Ramat murmured, “let us move from the ‘what’ to the ‘where’ – as in, ‘Where have you most enjoyed doing this?’”
He found himself standing at his oaken preparation-counter, a broad steel chop-knife in his calloused right hand. He was dicing a blue onion – one quick cut to make a flat bottom, followed by three partial horizontal cuts, three vertical, and finally a sequence of evenly spaced lateral slices as the curvy cerulean segments mounded in succession on the well-used countertop. A quick scoop and they were into a heavy iron skillet, filling the galleywagon with an unmistakable sound and aroma.
It’s as though the onion is frying itself, the cook thought, his heartbeat slowing, and I am but a witness to an extraordinary, ancient process.
Other separate ingredients serially engaged his hungry senses – a golden potato, a pink fidget-hen thigh, a handful of plump sailor’s-cap mushrooms. Each traveled its own slow, intense, and luxurious way from rawness through intention and application to delicious edibility.
By degrees, as these agreeable scenes unfolded in his mind, Prosatio Silban was engulfed by an inexplicable but blissful ague. He trembled, straightened, and, for the first time since forever, smiled.
How was I ever beset by doubts and worries in the first place? he wondered with a pleasant shiver. It all seems like some fevered phantasy, or at best, a bad joke.
“Now,” Relda Ramat whispered in conclusion. “Let your sense-memories draw you back into your private place of power.”
The cook-errant’s smile widened as he opened his eyes. “I am already there,” he said.
Once again the onion made its magikal journey, this time joined to ground mutton, spinach leaves, and loosely scrambled eggs. Prosatio Silban’s nimble spatula deposited the result onto a blue porcelain plate; he scattered over it a garnish of grey-green pungentine, laid the plate on a lacquered bamboo tray, added appropriate utensils, and exited his galleywagon.
“Order up!” he called out in triumph, as he bore aloft the steaming dish to meet his waiting customer. “And please,” he added as he set down the tray, “take the time to appreciate it.”
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want the first 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)
Doing what you love for a living can sometimes come back to bite you in the butt. When “want to” becomes “have to…”
That’s one reason I try never to get paid for doing something I love.
Indeed. I love to remind people of the meaning of the word roots of “amateur.”
I have a beloved translation of Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiology of Taste” in which the translator (as perhaps also the Great Man himself in his native French?) uses the phrase “an amateur of (thusandsuch).” I like the usage so much that I try to work it in everywhere appropriate.
Sounds like what I had for dinner 2 nights ago but I used Portuguese sausage instead of ground mutton.
‘Round these parts, and with ground beef sted mutton or even sausage, that tasty menu item is known as a “Joe’s Special.” (I think it was invented in San Francisco; that’s where I first had it, anyway.) Good eatin’!