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Medieval Cook Woodcut

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 dough.
        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 and maggots.
        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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