The King's Snackmaker
Martin looked over his basket to be sure everything he required was present. Once he entered the castle gate, there would be no going back.
Life in the kingdom could hardly be considered living, and most agreed there were only two ways out. Become a member of the court, or die. The call for an apprentice snack maker to the king was Martin’s chance to leave the fetid squalor of peasant life.
He entered the castle and was shown to the preparation area. Guards inspected his basket for weapons, and the court apothecary checked for poisons. From there he began his task.
The idea had come to him while working in the fields harvesting mice for the annual feast. He envisioned a meal that could be entirely self-contained. There would be nothing to wash or carry around afterward. For that, the plate must be edible, and what would be more like an edible plate than a cross section of a loaf of bread? Sliced thinly and stacked with meat and greens, it could be capped with another slice of bread and the entire thing would be a portable meal. Hopefully, a meal fit for a king. Or a tyrant.
He pulled the bread from his basket and drew a knife from the block, the whole time under the watchful eye of the palace guards for many would wish the king dead. He sliced the bread to the approximate width of his index finger, then made a second slice of the same thickness. It was critical they be identical.
Next came the greens. He had taken great care to grow them himself, and the leaves were as tender and succulent as any found in the royal market. He placed the narrow leaves on the bread, trimming each to fit exactly within the crusted frame. It would not do for anything to protrude when presented to the king. Likewise, the entire combination should be present in every bite, so precision was essential.
A layer of greens was followed with a thin layer of the tender, red fruit known throughout the land as a tomato. He carefully sliced each one to an identical thickness and trimmed up the edges to remove the thicker skins and form them into squares that would fill out his bread canvas.
A layer of cheese, made from the finest milk from the healthiest goat in the fields rested on top of the tomato. The creamy texture would offset the crispness of the greens and the tender but firm fruit between them.
Above this went a paste made of the strange meat-like plants that grew like tiny houses in the damp and shaded areas. Some of these were known to be quite toxic, but anyone living in the fields knew how identify the safe from the deadly.
The meat was to be provided by the court, and Martin found himself looking at three different varieties: cow, boar, and pheasant. Each was cooked and set out for use by all participating in the contest. He tasted a small bit of each one, and decided that the pheasant had the best flavor to go with the items he’d brought with him.
Getting the meat to fit properly became a challenge, as the birds did not offer a large cross-section. Ultimately, he chose to chop the meat into a fine chunks and mix them into the light honey-mustard his neighbor had concocted for Martin’s quest.
With the layers complete, he placed the upper slice of bread on the stack and slid it back and forth until the entire creation could be mistaken for a single piece. In thickness, it spanned three thumbs. In area, it could just be covered by both hands resting side by side.
He placed the knife against the surface of the bread with the intention of bisecting it to ease consumption, but a sudden thought hit him. Would it be better to cut it into a pair of rectangular bits, or triangular ones? The horizontal cut would make it appear larger overall, while the diagonal would make it more intuitive as to where to start.
Then there was the matter of the crust on the bread. To trim, or not to trim? Many people felt the crust should be discarded, but an equal number thought the crust contained a stronger flavor, as well as providing an interesting texture.
His breathing became more rapid and sweat formed on his brow. He stepped away from the counter so as not to contaminate his masterpiece should the perspiration drip onto it. His throat parched and began to itch.
The bell sounded, and with its peal came a feeling like when the lighting strikes nearby on the wet ground. He stepped in, snatched up the knife, and with a series of swift cuts, created a pair of triangles; one devoid of crust. The king could choose for himself which he preferred. Kings liked deciding things, after all.
Martin covered his entry with a silver dome and, once his knife had been accounted for, carried the tray to the table to await the king.
King Tristan would have no problem sampling each of the offerings before him. He was, after all, larger than any five men in the fields. Martin marveled at the way the man was able move unsupported from platter to platter. Twice he paused before a dish, then moved on. When he stopped the third time, Martin’s heart skipped.
“What,” said the king, “is this?”
“A portable meal, sire.” Martin’s voice cracked slightly with the dryness of his throat.
He watched the king pick up one, then the other, and finally sample the crustless half.
The king’s face broke into a broad grin, and his belly shook. “This is astounding!”
Martin’s face also broke into a broad grin. Everyone who worked the fields knew the difference between the toxic meat-plants and the safe ones. Martin’s plan relied on the king’s apothecary having never worked them.
The king had three weeks.