The Cook's Tale: Maybe Not A Fragment
By Richard Embs
A minor though engaging character in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the
Cook. Like the other pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Canterbury,
the Cook has his chance to tell a tale, but his story seems oddly
truncated, abruptly cut off just as it was beginning to gain momentum. This
has led some critics to refer to the tale as the "Cook's fragment," as
if Chaucer lacked the time or interest to complete it. But is the tale
really a fragment, or is it merely our imagination that is fragmentary?
I maintain that, with the aid of two reasonable assumptions, we will
find that the Cook's tale, far from being a fragment, is a complete,
coherent, and startlingly ironic story, worthy of Chaucer's canon.
We first encounter the Cook in the General Prologue, and learn that he
is an energetic and competent fellow. He roasts, boils, broils, and
fries with gusto and wields the flavoring materials of his day:
marybones, or beef bones containing marrow; poudre-marchant, probably
dried and powdered marc to give food a tart flavor; and galingale
(Cyperus longus), a sedge with an aromatic root similar to ginger. It
took a skilled cook to create a satisfying meal from the monotonous and
crudely preserved foods of the Middle Ages.
Our Cook may have been something of a tippler because "wel coude he
knowe a draught of London ale." Ale was a popular beverage at the time
because it was safe to drink -- disease bacteria were suppressed by the
alcohol -- and in an age where food was often dried and salted, safe
drinking water was an important commody. Beer, essentially ale flavored
by hops, did not appear until a century after Chaucer.
Medieval folk were partial to highly flavored concoctions which gave
zest to a dull diet. There were the montreux, or montrews, which
consisted of boiled meat or fish pounded to a paste, mixed with bread
crumbs, stock and eggs, and again boiled, and finally seasoned with
pepper and ginger. And there was blankmanger (blank mang, blamanger),
shredded chicken blended with rice which had been boiled in almond milk,
and the mixture seasoned with sugar and sometimes salt, cooked until
thick, and then garnished with fried almonds and anise seeds.
Our modern blancmange can hardly compare with this.
The narrator of the prologue notes with disquiet a "mormal," or ulcer,
on the shin of the Cook. And here we make our first assumption. Let us
say that this lesion is not a simple skin infection but a sign of a
serious underlying disease such as leprosy or even a venereal ffliction.
This would account for the narrator's great unease. One would hardly
want such a cook handling one's food!
In the prologue to the Cook's tale we discover that our Cook is an
affable and good-natured person, but also something of a rapscallion. He
is in the habit of selling old and "stale Jakkes of Dover" (meat pies) and
regularly drains pasties of their blood (or gravy). Chaucer may
be referring here to Cornish pasties, named after Cornwall, which were
turnovers consisting of a meat and vegetable mixture enfolded by pastry
The Cook's shop is infested by flies attracted by the spoiled meat he
sells. Pilgrims who buy his roast geese are unhappy to find themselves
eating the "parsley" therein, probably an ironic reference to dead flies
Having heard tales of cuckoldry from the Miller and Reeve, the Cook is
now eager to tell his own tale of cuckoldry.
He relates the story of an "'prentice" in his city (London) who spends
his time gambling, drinking, reveling, and wenching, and sustains his
vices by stealing from his master. Finally the master throws him out of
the business and the fellow moves in with a friend who has the same
interests as himself. The friend's wife is a prostitute.
And now we make our second assumption: the Cook's tale is his own life
story; it is autobiographical. We note that the 'prentice worked for a
"victualler," an innkeeper who dealt in food and drink, just as the Cook
does. And it is easy to imagine our scoundrel of a Cook leading
the same dissipated life that so characterized the 'prentis. He knew
what he was talking about.
The Cook ends his tale with the words: "Anon he sent his bed and array
to one he knew, a fellow of his sort, that loved dys and revel and
disport, and hadde a wyf that heeld for countenance a shoppe, and swyved
for hir sustenance."
At first glance this seems to leave the story line hanging in the air
just as it was becoming interesting. But, as we shall see, this ends the
story properly; the Cook needs to say nothing more.
We can well imagine now the mixture of nervous laughter and groans in
the Tabard Tavern that greeted the Cook's final words. For his twenty
nine fellow travelers would quickly realize three things: (1) the tale
was autobiographical; (2) the 'prentice/Cook had several amorous
encounters with his friend's sluttish wife; and (3) the mormal with its
underlying pathology is a souvenir of these encounters.
Such an irony is worthy of the genius of Chaucer.
©1998 Richard Embs. All Rights Reserved. |
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.
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This page was created for Anniina Jokinen by Susanna Jokinen on May 27, 1998. Last updated on September 5, 2009.
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