Minor Keys No. 14
The importance of food in societies through time has two obvious sources. The first is that we eat to survive and so we ritualize food and exalt it, making it central to our various measures of the quality of life. We are what we eat. The second is that it represents the most obvious route to friendship. We offer food to bond with another. Traditionally, particularly in more nomadic or isolated societies, a stranger is housed and fed and no questions asked. Do you bite the hand that feeds you? For royal courts the opportunity to eradicate the ruler, at the moment when all guard is down, is always there. Food poisoning was an act that struck at the heart of the ritual of proclaiming friendship and kinship, where all enmity was supposed to be banished. It is hard today to feel the intense power of this human tradition given that everything we do today has become distanced and displaced, particularly through our virtualising of relationships with mobile phones, laptops and social media. People still go out to restaurants to eat together but the act is almost always a carefully choreographed one, even on first dates with strangers. They are not usually invited into the home for a first viewing, nor is a cold call knock at the door answered with, “Come in and eat.”
To guard against the royal guard being dropped, so to speak, food tasters were employed by courts. None took this more seriously than the head cook whose very life depended on food reaching his/her masters, perfectly presented, tasting sensational – and carrying a guaranteed list of healthy ingredients excluding additives such as strychnine or arsenic. In Azimuth we never meet the head cook but he is referred to here, by a royal maid:
“The head cook is well liked as a master. Though he swears and shouts he is very fair to all. Why, he had to dismiss a young cook only yesterday for pilfering but he still took pity on him and gave him a week’s wages.”
I’d imagine, like many of the minor characters being fleshed out in these blogs, he comes from generations of cooks. From an early age he was groomed by his father, himself the revered chef of a noble family, to go out to the market, to choose produce carefully, to experiment with complementary flavours and textures, to explore the staple crops, herbs and spices of other cultures, to research the effects of food on sexual activity, physical health and sleep until, in the end, the head cook became an expert all round therapist.
To remain at the top of his profession – head cook to the emperor – he had to be a harsh task master. He was sympathetic, if loud and dictatorial, to his staff and developed a tight coterie of loyal workers. It was very hard for any family to get a son apprenticed to him for he refused bribes on that score. His most difficult emotional issue was in the employment of a food taster. It was a paradox that this individual , the recipient of all that was great in the culinary arts, would be the ultimate indicator of the head cook’s professionalism at the kitchen end of the food chain. At the other end, at the emperor’s own table, was a second taster who tried everything on his plate in case an assassin had poisoned the food en route from kitchen to table. He was never allowed to meet this second taster in case the bond that they developed would represent an Achilles heel in the security of the Emperor. The head cook’s fame came not only from his immense gifts in cookery but from the fact that at least ten tasters had died in his kitchen, defending the emperors with their stomachs. The head cook consoled himself while crying bitter tears, by insisting to himself that these victims had tasted food that would have caused the very gods to salivate.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)