Fiction | June 01, 1990
A Tasteful Revolution
A TASTEFUL REVOLUTION by Josip Novakovich
Time: The first decade of XX century.
Place: Potgrad, a small town in Slavonia—the southern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Martha knelt to the forest ground and touched a soft moist round mushroom resembling the bald head of a man. She scratched the surface with her thumbnail to see whether it was an edible mushroom; if the color didn’t change, it would be. The white matter dimmed into purple. “No, I won’t poison him!” she whispered, and hearing herself, was startled. Gradually, however, a serenity appeared on her face, and her thin lips curved slightly into a Mona Lisa smile, if it could be called a smile—anyhow, a mysterious expression in the corners of her lips.
At home she cut a couple of logs with an axe in the cellar, and put several splinters into her kitchen stove over glowing embers. She sighed as she laid the mushrooms onto a knotty cutting board of oakwood, and with her fingers broke the large mushrooms into small pieces the way a minister breaks bread in Holy Communion. In each mushroom piece she tucked bits of garlic and rose hips, and dipped them in peppered olive oil. She cut large onions in half and squeezed out one layer of onion after another, making onion cups for mushrooms and chevre, which she placed in the oven.
Barging into the room, Mr. Kovach, without greeting his wife, exclaimed: “Uh, what smells so delicious? Wait, don’t tell me!” Sniffing like a bulldog through his thick nose, he said, “Hm, mutton, onions,” and his voice lost its clarity, because saliva was getting in the way.
After his wife had helped him out of his coat, Mr. Kovach sat on a chair, which looked woefully small for him. He rubbed his hands as if some agreement were about to be made, or at any rate something agreeable to be done with his hands. He pursed his lips as if to spit into his palms as lumberjacks do when some hard cutting is to be done, but he restrained himself. There was no danger of blisters; his hands were soft owing to his occupation; he was a clerk.
He put the stuffed onions into his mouth. You could hear his tongue parting from his palate, to which it had been momentarily glued by the melting food and saliva. He smacked his lips and grunted, while Martha shivered with disgust. Gulping another stuffed onion, he closed his eyes so that the sense of sight would not detract from the pleasure of smelling and tasting. When he opened his yes, they were moist and hazy.
His wife stood at the table waiting to hear what next palatial whim to please as his personal waitress and cook. And, as a matter of fact, they had met when at the delicate age of 40, incapable of cooking for himself, Mr. Kovach ate at the restaurant where Martha was a cook. Her family had been very poor and she had been bond to remain poor herself; she had nothing to recommend her: she was not good looking, and though she was extremely bright, she could not count on a bright future because intelligence in a woman was considered perilous for domestic comfort. So she had been apprenticed at the Suckling Pig, where, owing to her talent, she had progresses so quickly that within a couple of years she became a chef. Undone with her succulent cooking, Mr. Kovach had sent her a letter.
Dear Miss Martha Berich:
My name is Peter Kovach. You don’t know me but I know you. From the way you cook, I could tell you are a sensitive person with a fabulous imagination. Judging by how you use spices, you are romantic. In that way we similar—in being romantic—except, my imagination is not as good as yours, which is a guarantee that I am not making all this up; knowing that my imagination is limited, I trust my judgment. I am an accountant at the Central Bank and my income is good enough to keep a family, yet I am a bachelor. I would like to ask you herewith to become my wife. You need not make up your mind at once. If you need to be acquainted with me before hand, you could meet me at the Flower Circle at three in the afternoon next Sunday.
Yours with all his heart,
Martha hadn’t been unhappy without marriage, yet she had accepted the offer as an opportunity for a change. The wedding feast which had taken place at Martha’s old home left a humiliating pain Martha’s chest for years: Mr. Kovach’s relatives had, between moments of drunken abandon, gathered enough sobriety to cast down supercilious glances at Martha’s relatives, at their simple clothing, unrefined manners, dirt floor; and although Martha’s relatives held good manners to be a device to confuse and embarrass simple folk and to show them where they do not belong, they had blushed, on their own turf.
When he opened this eyes at the meal, Mr. Kovach looked vaguely not at Martha—as a rule he hardly ever looked at her—but at a garish painting of a huge green wave through which the sun shone. He pushed his wine glass forward, and said: “Some more wine!” Martha poured him some yellow/green win (so-called white). He gulped it while staring at the wave as if drinking directly from the painting.
After dinner his face was as read as a sea crab. He lay on the sofa with his boots on. He rustled the pages of the local newspaper, and finding nothing of interest, grunted: “Could you take off my boots?” Martha did as he wished. Both of his big toes stuck out through his woolen socks. Martha took off the sticky socks and cut his nails. He rolled from the lying position to a sitting one—rolled is the best description because of the rotundity of his body—and demanded that his feet be washed in lukewarm water. She soaped his feet in a maple tub with a large bar of yellow soap and scrubbed his soles with a tough brush, while he laughed because it tickled him.
He lay back to continue reading the paper, which, several minutes later fell out of his hands; his arms dropped and he began snoring. The expression on his face was of utter satisfaction—a baby who has had plenty of warm milk, and is now dreaming of more.
Martha washed the dishes, scrubbing the plates painstakingly. She darned his socks. She washed laundry by hand; the dirtiest laundry she put on the stove and cooked so that the whole kitchen was enshrouded in a cloud of steam, which precipitated against the window; drops of water swerved down the glass in jerks. Then she hung the laundry with wooden clips on ropes across the backyard—huge underwear, shirts and trousers, which gave the impression of several broad two-dimensional invisible men hanging in visible clothing. She did all that to the music—a symphonic result of the most sonorous snoring coming out the windows, the grunting of pigs from the pigsty (it was legal to keep pigs in the town), the shrieking of proud egg-laying hens in the hay on the pigsty attic, and the screaming of a child on the next block who was most likely undergoing some essential lesson in acquiring good manners at the hands of his loving parents.
When she finally had some time to herself, she alternately gazed at the distant blue mountains and read from the Bible, including this passage about her namesake: “…a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.’ ”
Martha Kovach exclaimed: “What a thankless guest! It was she who invited him, not Mary, it was her house, not Mary’s, and it was she who served him, not Mary!”
Then she flipped many pages back and read a shalt-not passage about cooking the meat of a calf in its mother’s milk. Why should it be specifically forbidden to cook like that if it weren’t very tasty and tempting?
Her thoughts were interrupted, because Mr. Kovah woke up and grunted that he wanted coffee. So while he stretched, yawned and rubbed his thick eyelids and dropping eyesacks, she stood near the stove, crushing beads of coffee in a brass pot with a piece of iron shaped as a bone of the forearm. Afterwards, flames licked the pit directly through a small opening in the iron stoveplate. She laced the coffee with brandy because she knew that her husband did not want to run the risk of becoming alert; he merely wanted to be awake.
Since their sow had only one piglet rather than the twelve which she had initially had, one for each of her teats, Martha easily milked enough out of the sow to cook the only remaining piglet in its mother’s milk, without spice, plain as it was. The piglet made Mr. Kovach’s blood boil with desire; and he devoured it, with grease making his cheeks and lips shine. Martha couldn’t eat the same meal because she felt sorry for the piglet. She cooked cabbage, celery, hot peppers, parsley, carrots, with piglet feet and ears in the same milk, and Mr. Kovach found that a delicate stew.
The good cooking reflected on Mr. Kovach’s body. First, after marriage, he had grown gracefully plump and his skin smooth: general signs of well being. His plumpness evolved until he became very large in circumference, positively larger than his station in life would call for and warrant. That kind of build would suit the county judge, the chief of the police, and the main banker, but not him, a clerk. With so much circumference, which is to say, symbol of authority over a great domain, he looked misplaced in his office. He would have progressed in it, for by no means was he a dull fellow, yet because of his great and constantly gratified appetite he was too sleepy to work with concentration, and the lowly station which he occupied, he occupied with difficulty, hardly fitting behind his desk. Since in those days people did not have any cars—at least not many in Austro-Hungary, which was not the most advanced area of the world technologically speaking (let alone in the provinces)—prestige had to be gained by investing in something else that was visible. The most assuredly conspicuous place for the investment was the belly. Wherever you went, you could make a statement of being prosperous enough to eat well and to relax well.
The reputation of his kitchen spread around the town. Wherever he passed in the streets people turned round, conversations hushed, and instead of admiring his status by his bulk, they whispered about Martha’s craft. He became ancillary to his wife: a walking proof of her great ability precisely because he could hardly walk.
He was proud. He began inviting distinguished members of Potgrad to have dinners at his home, and nobody declined. So the best physician, lawyer, bankers, and even the count came to pay the pleasant tribute to this phenomenon of culinary art.
One such evening he ate and drank and so did his guests, a physician, a banker, and the orthodox priest. They joked, embraced and sang, and then again ate. She was so busy cooking and serving the party that she had no time to eat, and it simply wasn’t conceivable that she could sit at the same table with the elevated gentry. She had to serve them in style, with platefuls lowered onto the table always from the left of their shoulders, empty plates lifted from the right; with wine poured with a quick twist of the wrist in the end, so that no wine would trickle down the bottle like dark red tears and leave purple stains on the labels. Martha rushed, working as if she were some goddess from India, with several couples of hands rather than only one. Now and then her large brown eyes flared as she watched the gentry, and she said to herself under breath: “What simple creatures these people are. All they want is to eat and laugh. And that is what she gave, both hearty and tickling meals.
She learned how to combine subtlety with substance from her talent for timing, molding and combining, and from the Hungarian cuisine which, unlike the subtle insubstantial French cuisine, offered enough to hide the spice for the hide-and-seek game of tasting. She created a smoke screen of glaring spice so that the most intriguing spics passed unnoticed beyond the throat where they spread their intoxicating influence. In grilled mutton she smuggled shredded and raw nettles into the stomach (relying partly on hasty chewing by debilitated teeth of the gluttons), where they would creep out and begin their commando action, by tickling every so lightly. The tickle in the stomach needed to get scratched—which is to say, more food was needed—and the more scratched it was, the more tickled and the more scratched it wanted to be—you know how tickling is—and Mr. Kovach, who had demanded that his servings be particularly spicy, rose from one pitch of laughter to another, until he suddenly lost his sense of humor and keeled over.
The crimson color of merriment withdraw from his face, and purple remained.
His funeral procession was very long. Martha shed some tears at his grave pit as the recipe for sending a husband into an uncertain eternity required. Mr. Kovach’s relatives looked at her from time to time in silence, examining her carefully. Many people wept around the grave pit, and it was hard to tell whether for sorrow or for joy. Death of a banker, even of a lowly bank-clerk, is always a complex matter.
People observed everything that was going on at the verge of the grave pit. In the small town there were many semi-professional funeral goer—old people and housewives, for in funerals they could have the previews of their own deaths, they could daydream of their beloved souses put in the coffin, and enjoy the highest achievements of the art of … of any art for that matter: if catharsis is the essence of art, then there is more art in a graveyard than in hundreds of museums and concert halls, and perhaps it is with that guiding knowledge that museums are arranged like catacombs and concerts like funerals, with pianists like morticians, and pianos like caskets. While thrilled by the sight of a casket being lowered into the ground, many old inhabitants of Potgrad were alerted to their keenest awareness and perceptiveness. They studied the family structures knit and torn around the deceased. You could see how much who wept, and you could not immediately decide whether the tears were faked. You had to study the tear-shedders: if their grief passed quickly, you couldn’t believe its authenticity! After many careful studies, you developed intuition so that you could judge at the grave without a follow-up study. According to many such astute psychologists, the tears of Mrs. Kovach showed a real bereavement, but since she was a masterful cook, they supposed she could produce, without being bereft, tears of real bereavement, if called for by the occasion—and the occasion certainly did call for them.
Mrs. Kovach inherited Mr. Kovach’s house. She wore black 366 even days and after the length of the odd year expired, she opened several letters, one from physician and another from the Count of Potgrad, and while walking through her living room, she read that the count asked for the honor of her hand. When she got so far in the letter, she was near the fireplace. She let the letter glide into the fire and admired how the flames turned from red to blue, and from blue back to read. A slight smile appeared on her lips, warmed by the flame.
Everybody in the county was invited to the wedding feast that followed, even the peasants. The feast raved for three nights and two days; the third day was a stillness after the storm, a trembling and shivering in hangovers. Amidst the valley of Potgrad there was a navel-like hill, and atop the hill the castle, surrounded by a park richly endowed with buses from which for three nights came calls and shrieks of birds from all sorts of zones: tropical, subtropical, moderate, immoderate, Arctic and Antarctic. Ever since then, the biological genealogy of the town dwellers has been a speculative science.
The count had the largest barrel, eight yards long, brought out from his cellars and cut in half; the halves were joined to form an 8-shaped wine pool in which he and Martha took their conjugal dive. After they had climbed out of the pool, the townspeople were free to jump in the pool, and when they were out, the peasants could swim there too.
The town dogs devoured everything that fell from the feast tables. They interrupted their gustatory pleasures now and then to chase cats, who appreciated the wisdom of the creator for creating trees and at the same time doubted the very same wisdom, for the existence of dogs was definitely at odd s with a good design of the universe. And the squirrels, mistrusting the invaders of the kingdom of leaves, rushed toward the periphery of the park, flying from one tree to another. The trees around the castle became fruit trees on which cat eyes grew. Thousands of eyes glowed fire. On the highest tree there were no glowing eyes until near the top, where a pair of owl’s eyes flamed. The eyes gave rise to the legend:
that the owl was one millennium old, and that the wild feasting brought the Owl so much remembrance of early birdhood and of the days when the unchristianized Slavic nomads arrived in the valley and feasted, that Owl’s tears began to fall as fire drops onto the ground, where they sank, bring terror among the worms of the soil. One tear went as deep as where the oldest snake of the hill lived. The tear touched the snake’s eye, and the snake went blind in the one eye, the only one that it had; the other one it had lost when it had crawled too deep in the ground and seen a glimpse of the fire in the center of the earth. Those Owl’s tears could never die: there was so much grief in them. Even now the tears warm up the soil beneath Potgrad—and if you doubt it, go to Potgrad, and you’ll see the vapors that arise out of the ground. That is how the town became a hot springs spa whose waters cure one from sclerosis and insincerity. There are very few who dare bathe in the spring waters.
And even nowadays people retell the legend in Potgrad.
Late at night the overfed dogs fell asleep, and the cats flew down from the trees and had their fill. For years later the townspeople claimed that the cats organized themselves into an army and concertedly attacked the inert dogs; that was the explanation for why for more than a decade after the feast most dogs in Potgrad were ugly—crippled, blind, and without ears.
Martha’s bony face, crooked nose, and deeply set eyes, against her elegant clothing and the splendor of her new surroundings, looked outright noble. She had no duties—she had several servants—except that the count often begged her to cook for him. He ate, drank, hunted and wanted to be entertained by funny stories. But it seemed to him that nobody in the region had any sense of humor, except him, and so for entertainment, he resorted to retelling stories. Nobody laughed at them, but he did not know that. He roared so much with laughter at the end of each story and his eyes were so filled with tears, that he could neither see nor hear anything except himself.
What a waste, though Martha as she looked at the count and the large room; this huge building to serve only one man, and not much of one at that!
Several times a week Martha cooked hearty and tickling meals—venison, pheasants, wild ducks, rabbits, whole nations of ants, snails, and other sylvan inhabitants, as well as crabs, caviar, eels, frogs—all boiled in butter and lard; and the food, while being served at the table, was placed above a flame, so that it still hissed, twisting in its oil as the count landed his fork in it, and continued to twist even in his mouth. The count became more and more buoyant with food; his body leapt to all sides, as if wishing to claim more space.
Martha helped him in his expansionistic tendencies like a martial arts master, who uses your own momentum, helping you along your chosen path, to overcome you, so that wherever your end is practically your own doing. She mixed foods and spices so that gas would expand his belly. While dropping juicy wild blackberries coated in Belgian chocolate into his mouth, he laughed so loudly that you couldn’t hear the popping of champagne corks.
His belly expanded pressing against his heart, but the heart wouldn’t yield its rightful territory and accepted the race of expansionism. The heart stretched itself out in all directions and exploded. The explosion was so powerful that it tore the count’s rib case. Pieces of the heart muscle flew, a couple stuck to the wall. One piece of his heart shattered a window pane and when it fell on the ground outside, a kitten caught it, and tossed it around, as if it were a dying bird, still capable of flight .After eating it, the kitten died in terrible spasm: either the heart was so poisonous, or there was a piece of glass stuck in the heart.
Without waiting for the customary period of mourning to be over, Martha converted the castle into an elementary school. And for decades in the county there were no children, not even the children of the poorest peasants, who could not afford basic education.
Josip Novakovich was born in Yugoslavia in 1956, His books include Yolk; Salvation and Other Disasters; April Fools Day; and Infidelties: Stories of War and Lust. His most recent book, Three Deaths, was published in 2010. He lives in Montreal.
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