IT WAS A GREAT HONOR to speak before a throng of one’s peers at epicurean Pormaris’ Archive of Gastronomic Artifice – but it was also not without its terrors.
Prosatio Silban made a point of perusing the Archive at least once a year to research new recipes or rediscover old ones. The grand museum of, and showcase for, the cuisines and foodways of the Uulian Commonwell and surrounding Exilic Lands was also an occasional venue for “TED” (Taste-Engaged Discourse) presentations. Thus, you may imagine the beefy cook’s surprise, delight and anxiety over being asked to address his colleagues on the topic: “Cultural Competency and Eclectic Refection.”
A matter close to my heart, he thought, reading the gilt-edged invitation. “In pursuit of bringing favored fare to countless tables, you have engaged with a multiplicity of palates,” it said. “We would like you to set the tone of our conference with a personal and instructive account taken from your considerable experience. The evening session is scheduled for two weeks from this writing.”
Please. Let me overcome my dread of speechifying and conduct myself accordingly.
By Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration, he implored of the Archive’s patroness, his brow creasing with worry. Why did You – and they – choose me? Please. Let me overcome my dread of speechifying and conduct myself accordingly.
That thought was uppermost in his mind as he prepared his dissertation. He did have a good store of topical stories; the real challenge was in choosing which one would be the most appropriate – and how to do so against a backdrop of other busy appointments in the City of Gourmands. How will I ever find the time? he asked himself. I suppose I’ll have to make the time.
Came the day of his speech, Prosatio Silban was all nervous laughter and sweaty palms. The meeting-hall where the talk was to take place was filled with hundreds of green-apron’d cooks of every gender and ethnos he knew, and some he didn’t. He recognized more than a few friends in the audience, but they were swallowed up by the sheer number of his professional fellows. I’ll just pretend I know everyone here, he thought, because in a way, I do.
The Archive’s director, Master Gastronome Ilmus Darwan, was well-known and -thought of by nearly every cook and victualer in the Commonwell. He stepped to the dais and raised a silence-evoking hand.
“Welcome to this season’s symposium on serving our world’s varied and resident peoples with attention and sensitivity,” he said. “Our keystone speaker’s business is a unique one. All he knows on any given day is that he will, hopefully, be cooking for someone somewhere – but when he awakens, he often knows neither who nor what. Please welcome with warmth ‘The Cook For Any Price,’ Master Prosatio Silban!”
Polite applause, with whistles here and there providing emphatic counterpoint. After some heartbeats, the noise died down, and the honoree cleared his throat.
“Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you all tonight. It is a privilege to share with you one of my initial experiences as a cook-errant,” he began. “It is with some trepidation that I do so, because although language is a little-appreciated aspect of our work, you will see that it occasionally looms larger than we would prefer.”
The great hall was silent but for the sound of night-singing crickets.
The great hall was silent but for the sound of night-singing crickets. Prosatio Silban poured a glass of water from the carafe on the podium, took a long quaff, and smiled.
“My first assignment was in a small lakeside settlement not far from here, inhabited by a delegation of the M’zei. As you may know, those yava-brewing mystics are strict vegetarians – save for their love of mollusks – but at the time my tale is set I was still somewhat new to the craft and ignorant of my new customers’ preferences. Their language was likewise then not quite familiar to me, and I came away from their consultation with the mistaken idea that they preferred meat rather than shunned it. Consequently, I cleared out my ox-drawn galleywagon’s coldbox and filled it with a fifth-manweight of assorted animal protein, both game and domesticated.
“Upon my arrival that summer morning, my hosts welcomed me with the dignity befitting a visiting head of state. I was ushered into their village’s communal kitchen, outside of which I had parked my galleywagon. As I commenced unloading, you may imagine the shocked look on their faces when they saw what I had brought for their feast!
“‘Didn’t you request this?’ I asked their headwoman. ‘No! Never! Not!’ she replied in broken Uulian. ‘Take away and do not return!’ I repacked what I had unloaded, and somehow managed to convince her that I could make good my error if given a chance. With no small reluctance, she agreed to let me try. Although I was young and inexperienced, I was also resourceful and, like any cook, willing to do anything to please my client. Thus, I set out with two of the M’zei for the forest bordering their village, there to forage for ingredients.
“The day had dawned warm, and grew quite hot as we browsed the settlement’s semi-tropical surroundings. I was under something of a time constraint, as much of what we gathered – roots, tubers, and other dense or fibrous vegetables – needed long cooking in order to become edible. We had acquired a sizable assortment of culinary constituents and returned to the village to begin preparations. I entered my galleywagon to collect some necessaries when an ugly smell intruded upon my senses. The meat! My coldbox, a typical cube of magiked glacier-ice, was failing a test by the merciless heat – and, perhaps, my hosts’ extreme disbelief in magik.”
At this point, Prosatio Silban was gratified to hear a number of shocked gasps from different corners of the hall.
At this point, Prosatio Silban was gratified to hear a number of shocked gasps from different corners of the hall. He continued:
“Fortunately, I was alone in the galleywagon. My mind churned as I told the M’zei I would join them momentarily. How could I dispose of the meat? and do so without being noticed? As I pondered my predicament, I heard the sound of furious barking. I opened the galleywagon’s upper half-door and was horrified to see a pack of wild dogs ringing the vehicle, apparently attracted by the smell of decaying meat.
“Now, some of you may know that I was not always a cook. Prior to donning the green apron of our profession, I wore the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant. Wasting no time, and acting mostly from learned reflex, I sent a frantic and fervent supplication to the minor but oft-invoked deities Atluuk, Maker of the Fortuitous Escape; Calman, Patron of Necessary Unpleasantness; and Donekar, Watcher over Unintended Mishap. I did not expect a reply but, when I looked out the door once more, I marveled to see the M’zei chasing the dogs into the neighboring woodland. Working with abundant gratitude and speed, I managed to convey all of the meat in stages into the lake, where it sank beneath the water – out of sight and smell and without anyone becoming aware of what I had done.
“Or so I thought.” He paused, then pressed on through the knowing chuckles.
“As I finished my odious task, the headwoman approached. ‘Have polluted our water?’ she asked with a forbidding air. Before I could reply, the barkative dogs returned and splashed into the lake, where they wasted no time in uncovering the evidence of my desperation. With growls and snapping aplenty, they tore into the meat and did not stop their noise until they had devoured it all” (another pause) “and later that night, the M’zei likewise did not stop eating until they had devoured their last-minute repast.
“While I was and am grateful to the gods, and also the dogs, for a swift rescue, to this day I blame myself for not having paid closer attention to the M’zei at the outset. It was a deep lesson in the importance of detail: something no cook should lack in their talent-cache, and its absence being something from which even the gods may not reliably save us. After all, in the final measure, we are each responsible for our craft – and its consequences. Thank you.”
Prosatio Silban sighed imperceptibly, then bowed as the crowd thundered its approval. Done to a turn, he thought, and smiled — this time, with relief.