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The Cook’s Tale

Saturday, November 21, 2020

 

I’ve had to prepare some unusual—no, weird—meals in my time. After all, when you work for a queen—who happens to be an ogress—you do what you’re told. Better to serve something odd on the platter than to be served on the platter, if you follow my meaning.

Over the years, I’ve prepared fricassees of friars, cobbler cobblers, a timbale of tailor, barbecued barber en brochette, and countless other dainties. I doubt that there are many other cooks who can tell you which cuts of man are most tender, and which require long braising to render them savory and succulent—let alone which sauces best complement them. 

A good cook also learns, over time, the masters’ taste and preferences. We become specialists, whether we like it or not. Our queen, for example, enjoyed her hunting expeditions, and I suspect that’s why she always wanted me to serve meals dressed with Sauce Robert. It is, after all, the perfect accompaniment for the most dangerous game.

Most nights, I had to prepare something different for the prince’s dinner; he did not share her taste in viands. He preferred something lighter—or, at least, less human; roast pheasant, over peasant; some pasta alla putanesca, preferably not sauced with actual prostitutes; or a charcuterie plate of palle de nonno, not made from some grandfather’s genitalia. He was careful to learn what—rather than who—was on the menu.

No one in the kitchen staff was surprised when, upon reaching young manhood, he left the castle in quest of a different kind of life—and diet—for himself. His was a sensitive nature, unlike, in every way, his mother’s. We liked to think that he took after the paternal side of the family, ‘though he couldn’t have had much memory of his father. The king had vanished, when the prince was still a small child. The king—we were told—had been “lost” while on a hunting expedition with the queen. The butler, and other members of the kitchen staff, typically use those little air quotes when speaking of the king’s “disappearance.” Ironic eyebrows, needless to say, are never raised—when the queen might see them.

The prince had been a most gentle and parfait knight; his absence affected the kitchen staff most grieviously. Years passed with nary a word of his whereabouts. We had no way of knowing if he still lived, or if he had fallen victim to barbarians or wild beasts, or—heaven help us—“disappeared” the way his father had. The endless not knowing was almost more than we could bear.

One day, after years had passed, the butler received a letter from the prince. It was fit and proper for the butler to hear from him first. He had always treated the boy, if not like his own son then as a favorite nephew. The prince begged the butler not to speak to the queen about the news it contained. He was free to tell us, however, because the prince felt that we were more family to him than the one he’d been born into. 

His big news was that he now had a family of his own, and he explained how it come to be. About a year into his travels, he’d heard rumors of an enchanted castle, deep in the forest. It had been abandoned for a hundred years. Local people whispered about an ancient curse, though no living person could remember what it was about. They just knew that they should never risk crossing its moss-covered drawbridge, let alone try raising its worm-eaten portcullis. The young prince—thinking that “if that wasn’t the very definition of a worthy quest, what was?”—immediately went in search of the old castle.

After several days of hacking his way through the dense understory of shaggy ancient oaks, he came upon the castle walls. At first, he didn’t even recognize them as such; the crumbling walls were so encrusted with thorny vines and ferns—with mosses plucking old mortar from the joints between the stones—that it seemed it was just a denser part of the forest. Since he could not proceed forward, he turned and followed the old stones to his right. Working his way around the bases of towers between castle’s battlements, he came upon the only entrance. The drawbridge had, long ago, fallen into the moat, but—as forest debris now filled the ancient water work—he was able to walk right up to the portcullis. He gave it a shove, causing much of the old wood to crumble. It rent an opening with room enough for him to pass through. Inside the castle walls, all was silent as a tomb. 

But it was not a tomb. 

Exploring room after room, he found many to be occupied by the bodies of servants—not dead, but fast asleep! At the end of a great hall, he found the lord and lady of the realm, snoring softly on their thrones. He tried, several times, to rouse them from their slumbers, but all of his efforts were in vain.

He continued searching through that eerie dormitory, at last coming to a small room in the attic. Peering through the door, he could see that it was filled with dust-covered spinning wheels. Cobwebs connected them so thickly that they appeared to be covered with sheets for storage. It was as if someone had put them in storage before going on a long trip. 

But they hadn’t gone anywhere; they were still there, lying in perpetual somnolence. 

While puzzling over the strange things he’d seen in the castle, his eyes gradually adjusted to the attic’s dim light. He could make out something other than cobwebs draped over a spinning wheel in the far corner. He made his way over to it, shuffling though a century of dust and dry leaves that had drifted in through a long-broken window. 

Brushing aside the work of countless generations of spiders, he was stunned by what he saw. It was a young woman, fast asleep like the others. She was lovely, despite the dusty gray webs in her long blond hair. A tiny drop of century-old dried blood still clung to her delicate finger. He lifted her carefully from her stool and carried her down to the great hall. He lowered her gently onto one of the long tables and stood, frozen in place, staring at her. He had never been so moved by anything he’d seen, anywhere. Nothing, or rather no one, in all his travels, was as graceful and radiant as the sleeping girl before him. Not sure of what to do next, he busied himself with picking dead leaves and bits of spider-web from her hair. Bending closer, over her face, he saw a tiny dead spider, just above her right eyebrow. He thought, for a moment, “Oh fortunate creature, so blessed as to have died for love of this princess!” He brushed it gently away, then leaned to kiss the spot.

One china-blue eye opened. 

Then another. 

They fixed in astonishment on the prince’s face, inches away.

The king and queen stopped snoring and sat up straight, in utter confusion. “Who the hell are you, young varlet?” the king roared. “And what are you doing with our daughter?”

“I humbly beg your forgiveness, sire,” the prince answered. “I found her… most strangely… dozing in an attic room, asleep beside a spinning wheel… one ancient spinning wheel among a mountain of other ancient spinning wheels.”

“Of course,” the king said, suddenly remembering, “the evil fairy’s curse!” The prince was baffled, naturally, but the king recounted a story about a slighted fairy’s ancient spite. He also explained that the prince had been destined to find them, break the curse, and that the young couple had every prospect of living happily ever after. While a trifle far-fetched, at first, it seemed like a good-enough arrangement to the prince and princess. They married and blessed the king and queen with two grandchildren—a boy named Day and a girl named Dawn—who they loved and spoiled to the best of their royal ability.

There was just one little problem. And it was the reason the prince wrote the letter to his former butler. The prince had never gotten around to telling his in-laws about his own childhood. He certainly never mentioned the inconvenient fact that his mother was literally—and not figuratively—an ogress. Not trusting his mother, he wondered if there was a way to tell her about his new family, tactfully, without being too specific about where he now lived.

The butler tried his best, but he was not successful in fooling the queen, a queen who was also a crafty hunter. A predator always knows more about the ways of her prey than the prey knows about hers. She insisted that the prince come home so she could meet her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. As it is extremely bad form to disregard the summons of a queen—or an ogress, or both—he had little choice but to comply.

What he didn’t know was that the queen had already outlined a menu for the first time that the prince would be out of the castle, leaving his family in her tender care. He had been away from his mother too long; otherwise he would have remembered that her understanding of the word “tender” was not the same as most other people’s. On one fateful day, he left the castle, on some royal errand or other, leaving the family with his mother. 

The queen tasked me to find an excuse to separate the little boy from the others, kill him, and serve him to his grandmother. To be ready for the task, I prepared plenty of demi-glace in advance, carefully reducing rich beef stock to a thick syrupy glaze, just oozing with umami. On the morning when I was to execute her orders, I began making enough Sauce Robert for her dish of petit-fils rôti. In a huge copper saucier, I melted pounds of butter, then slowly cooked chopped onions until they were transparent, but not browned. I didn’t want the finished sauce to have even a trace of bitterness. I added white wine to the onions, and reduced it until it was almost entirely evaporated. I stirred in the demi-glace, melted it, and reduced it again, concentrating its richness—then added sharp mustard to counter that richness, and act in counterpoint with the savory roast it would dress.

I then went to the prince’s family quarters. Day was over-joyed when I offered a chance to try out my secret fishing spot. When we got to the pond, a long way through the woods, I took him into a little shed. I fastened a gag around his mouth, so he couldn’t cry out—even though we were so far from the castle that no one could possibly hear him. I trussed him like a chicken and propped him in the corner. He tried to kick and scream. He was so pathetic that I nearly released him. Instead, I told him it was just a little game we were playing on his sister, and that I would soon return to free him. He believed me, laughing with his eyes.

I left him there, bound and gagged, and headed to the nearest farm, where I bought one of the farmers’ lambs. We slaughtered it together, skinned, and butchered it. I carried the meat back to the kitchen in a sack that mostly hid the bloody remains. While it roasted, I reheated the sauce. When the meat came out of the oven, I let it rest while I whisked cold butter into the hot sauce. I arranged the roasted meat on a platter, covering it with sauce. The butler carried the young boy substitute to the queen, who gobbled it down with perverse familial joy.

The next day, with the queen’s appetite renewed, I was told to fetch her granddaughter, Dawn—to be served the same way. 

I explained to the little girl that her brother had wandered off to pick berries, and I hadn’t been able to find him. I suggested that she, being much shorter, might be able to see under the low bushes where the best berries grew. Together, I said, we had a much better chance of finding the lost boy. We walked into the forest, talking about our favorite kinds of berries, until we came to the shack where I’d hidden her brother. She went in ahead of me. When she saw the trussed-up boy in the corner, she screamed—but no one else could hear her. I quickly tied her up and gagged her, but not before she bit me. 

I fear she might share some of her grandmother’s evil proclivities. 

I told them that I was doing this for their own good, and not to worry—their mother would be coming soon to make sure that they were safe. I said nothing about their grandmother’s appetites.

I went back to the farmer who had sold me the lamb. This time, I bought a young goat. We processed the animal, as before, and I took it back to the castle’s kitchen. Once again, I roasted the meat and, while it was cooking, mounted more butter for another batch of Sauce Robert. I carried the steaming platter to the queen, myself. Between mouthfuls, she complimented me, saying that she found each dish to be richer and more succulent than the last.

I bowed, gathered my carving knives, and took my much-relieved leave.

The next morning, the queen awoke hungrier than ever. She sent for me, of course. I prepared a light breakfast of left-over goat/granddaughter, baked in a savory pie. She gobbled it down, burped once, and told me what I must prepare for the night’s menu: the prince’s bride. I had seen that coming—so I just bowed, without comment, and backed out of her room.

I headed over to the castle’s guest wing, where I found the young mother weeping inconsolably. Having heard nothing about her children’s whereabouts, she paced back and forth between the window and their empty little beds, tearing her hair and sobbing. I tried to get her attention, but she did not notice me at first. When she did, she tried to send me away. “Please don’t bother me with talk of menus… can’t you see that I don’t care about anything as insignificant as food?”

Her comment stung, of course, but I did understand, given her situation.

“Please forgive my interruption, m’lady, but I haven’t come to talk about food.” I knew that it was, in one sense, a lie (a sense I wasn’t eager to acknowledge), so I switched to a more congenial subject. “I know where your children are, and can take you to them… but you’ll have to trust me and say nothing… to anyone… until we’re well away from the castle.” Her eyes opened wide, releasing the last if her tears. She wiped them away with a silken sleeve and silently nodded her assent.

Once our horses had carried us deep into the forest, I told her about her mother-in-law, and the plans the ogress had for her little family. She was horrified, naturally, but was comforted by my efforts to prevent the evil plans’ success. 

When we got to the little barn where I’d hidden the children, there was the joyous reunion I’d expected, and the children soon forgot the fear they’d felt when I left them. I suspect the pastries and sweetmeats I’d brought along for their breakfast might have had something to do with the forgiveness they showed to their former captor. We rode off to the farm I’d visited before, each of us sharing our saddle with a happy child.

I asked the farmer if he could put up a few guests, and glanced in the direction of the mother and children. He recognized the royal family, and gave me a knowing glance. “I figured something was up, the other times you stopped by,” he confided. Catching my questioning look, he answered, “While I have sold meat animals for the castle’s kitchens many times over the years, the last two were the only times when you did the butchering here.” I hadn’t realized that I was doing anything sufficiently suspicious to arouse his curiosity.

“I guessed it had something to do with the queen,” he explained. I asked, in faux innocence, what he meant. “Everyone in the realm knows there’s something odd about her,” he continued, “whenever she comes to our part of the forest to hunt, someone goes missing. It didn’t take us long to guess where they’d gone.”

I apologized for my part in their disappearances, and he was forgiving, as I had no choice but to do the queen’s bidding. He also said he’d be happy to do anything that would prevent the prince’s family from disappearing down the queen’s gullet. He admired my craftiness, and suggested that I would need a larger bundle of meat, this time, to avoid making the queen suspicious. He sent one of his sons into the forest to shoot a deer, which we butchered as before. While the deer was, technically, the product of illegal poaching—it was going to find its way to the royal table, anyway. The farmer and I privately savored the ironic amuse bouche.

I gave him my thanks, and bade the royal family goodbye. I lashed a bulging bloody sack of venison to the princess’s saddle and took the two horses back to the castle. The queen witnessed my arrival from a parapet, and nodded in lip-licking approval.

Normally, I hang game for days to age and tenderize the meat, but I knew the queen was impatient to polish off the last of those who had usurped her son’s affections. While the surrogate “princess” turned on a spit, I finished making the last big batch of Sauce Robert.

That night, I loaded a huge platter of meat—disguised by a thick napping of rich sauce—unto a cart and wheeled it into the queen’s quarters. She tore into the meat, sopping up additional sauce with every bite. She smiled her approval, and—during a brief period when her mouth wasn’t jammed full of her supposed daughter-in-law—said, “I don’t know how you do it, but we dearly love your cooking… you always have a surprise for us!”

I winced involuntarily at the thought that she had seen through my plan. But, as she continued eating, I realized that she hadn’t intended to pun “deerly.” When a ravenous ogress is gorging herself in your presence, it is possible to be overly sensitive to nuance. Recovering myself, I answered, “You’re too kind, m’lady.” Tempting fate, I added an afterthought, “if there’s any secret, it’s in the sauce.”

She looked up, quizzically—which terrified me— then dove back into the platter, waving me off. You can be sure that I was more than happy to leave her quarters! All night long, I worried that she would see through my subterfuges, and recognize my deceptions. It was a long and sleepless night, you can be sure. Then, first thing in the morning, I awoke, terrified, to the sound of insistent pounding on my door. Shaking with fear, I made my way, in dread—ever so slowly—across the room. Summoning my last reserves of courage, I opened the door. 

Just a crack.

Imagine my initial relief when I saw the prince standing there! It faded when I saw that he was red-faced with rage. He said he’d searched, high and low for his family, without success. He also asked all the servants if they knew where they might be. They told him, again and again, that his loved ones were last seen leaving the castle. With me. The prince and I had been on the best of terms, since he was a child, when I secretly served him treats from the kitchen. Now all that good will was gone. Stealing his family had undone everything. His sword in hand, he was preparing to julienne his former friend if he didn’t get immediate answers to his questions.

I begged him to come in, and—in a conspiratorial whisper—told him I knew where the princess and children were, and that they were safe. That tempered his anger, somewhat. I told him I would tell him more—once we were far enough from the castle. He wanted answers, on the spot, but he saw that I couldn’t be forced to speak. We took a few horses, but no guards, and rode into the forest.

I started, “You are aware, of course, that I know that your mother has… certain… unusual… dining habits?”

What?” Then, “how do you know about that?”

“She doesn’t prepare her own meals, does she?”

“I see.” He rode on in silence, then asked, “why are you bring that up, now?”

“While you were away from the castle, she requested some… special… culinary items.”

“So? She’s the queen. She can order whatever she wants.”

Whoever she wants, in this case.”

“You don’t mean…”

“I do, alas. She first wanted your son. Then your daughter, And finally, the princess.”

He was speechless, as pale and quivering as a well-set blanc mange

“Where are they now?” he finally managed to ask. I told him about the farmer, and the ways I had managed to fool the nasty old woman into thinking she was feasting upon princess and grandchildren. I did not, of course, call the queen a “nasty old woman,” out loud. Having recently escaped being sliced and diced by the prince, I was in no hurry to stir him to anger. A nasty old woman she might be, but it was not my place to disparage his mother.

The family reunion, at the farm, was every bit as rapturous as you might imagine. The farmer prepared a feast—that, significantly, I did not cook. The prince rewarded the farmer’s business with the title of Provisioner to the Crown, guaranteeing his family generations of steady income. Nearly everyone was deliriously happy.

Everyone except me. 

I had troubling thoughts of what the queen would do when she found that I’d tricked her. I half expected her to order me to make a huge pot of Sauce Robert, enough to drown me. Dark thoughts occupied me on our journey back to the castle. Seeing the furious queen, pacing in rage upon the parapets—when the prince and his family arrived—did not, at all, ease my fears.

I held back, while the prince rushed across the drawbridge, calling for the royal guards. They charged up to the queen’s chamber, burst through the door, and subdued the raving wild-eyed ogress. They trussed her tightly, like a giant porchetta, and heaved her unto an oxcart. As the prince was leading the troop and the cart into the forest, he turned to me. “This is one exceeding bitter dish. Might you recommend something that will sweeten it?” 

My first thought was that The Queen’s Sauce—a whiskey-flavored variation on Crême Anglaise—might make an interesting, and à propos, dessert. I then realized that there was little time to prepare it, and that I was over-thinking his request. I ran out from the kitchen with several gallons of honey. 

When the group reached a suitable spot, deep in the forest, they rolled the old cannibal off the cart. They shoved an apple into her mouth to silence her, then poured honey all over her body. Then they rode back to the castle to celebrate the coronation of the new King and Queen. 

I was promoted to the rank of Executive Royal Chef—upon my solemn promise never to make Sauce Robert again. We never found out what polished off the old queen; it could have been ravenous bears, venomous toads, or relentless ants, or perhaps all of them.



©2020, Gary Allen

 

1 Comments:

Blogger Star Lawrence said...

I can't believe I read the WHOLE thing...LOL. Remember that commercial? What fun...the writing was very graceful--and carried me along...

November 22, 2020 at 2:34 PM  

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