Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Viking vs the Sandwich

Dear Ellie,

Here is a story for you that I technically started a year ago when your mother was on bedrest.  We were about 4 days into it and I hadn't eaten anything but yucky hospital food for the better part of a week.  That's when I encountered a sandwich most fine.  It was like an oasis in a desert, and when I took that first bite, it was as though it was satiating not just my hunger, but my soul (slight exaggeration).  I knew then that I wanted to write you a story about a delectable sandwich.  I plugged at it here and there for months and one year later, I came up with this story.  It's about a city of cooks and chefs who, when faced with an invasion by vikings, unleash a secret weapon.  Here it is: The Viking vs The Sandwich.


Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

In a far away land in a far away time, there once was a city on the River of Rhine.  Hamburg it was called, and it was famous throughout the land, but for reasons that might surprise the typical man.  Some cities are known for their wine or their sheep.  Their armies or statues or hills that are steep.  But Hamburg was different, it was known for some other thing, and its the reason why they defeated the worst of viking kings.  

Hamburg had never fought in a war of their own, they were peaceful and loved for the good will they had sown.  But when down from the North came Warlord Ungar the Stout, there were fear in the hearts of all whom lay South.  They sailed into Lubreck and defeated their fleet.  They smashed through the armies of Cologne and of Preetz.  After sacking ten cities and torching their lands, the city of Hamburg was next in Ungar's plan.

The Count who ruled Hamburg knew nothing of war, but for Ungar he still had a battle in store.  Yet in the face of a viking army, the townsfolk were in a hopeless mood, for they were known not for armies nor weapons, but simply good food.  They were cooks and brewers, waiters and bakers, chefs--- armed not with swords--- but simply salt shakers.  How could they stand against an enemy so strong?  An army of vikings, who would be at their city before long.

The people of Hamburg came out to the street, to hear the Lord Count give them his very best speech: "We've never gone to a battle but we're brave nonetheless.  And after all, haven't we faced very similar tests?  Ungar has faced flaming arrows, but we've faced flaming stoves.  He's faced burning cities, but we've faced burning coals!  Sharp swords are scary, but so too are kitchen knives.  He faces dangers every day, but as a chef, so do I!"

Inspired by his speech, the people formed war bands, but with no real weapons, they grabbed whatever at hand.

There were farmers with pitchforks.  Grocers with totes.  Butchers with cleavers and scary meat hooks.  With mitts on their hands and pots on their heads, bakers manned catapults which hurled stale french bread.  Waiters and waitresses who were used to such toil, stood on the ramparts with hot cooking oil.  The restaurants' best chefs and the kitchens' best cooks, donned their best frying pans and thickest cook books.  With the bravest of hearts they prepared for the fight, but Lydia the Steward shook her head at the sight.

"This is no army," said Lydia to her brother the Count.  "We stand not a chance if we fight Ungar the Stout.  We should fight him on our terms if we're to beat such a man.  We should use what we're best at, and I have just the plan."

The Count leaned in closer, intrigue in his eyes, "I'm all ears, dear sister, just what have you devised?"

There was a moment of pause.  A second of suspense.

"The Sandwich," Lydia said, her lips tight.  Her eyes tense. 

"The Sandwich?" the Count gasped.  "The one that killed Uncle Geoffry the Broad?"

"No," Lydia said, "Geoffry ate too much bacon from wild hog."

"The Sandwich," the Count said, "The one that killed Cousin Edith of Wales?"

"No," Lydia said.  "She died from too much pig tail."

"The Sandwich," the Count said. "The one that killed loveable Aunt Beaty?"

"No," Lydia said.  "She died of her type two diabetes."

At that, the Count threw up his hands, finally gave up, "Okay, dear Lydia, of what sandwich do you speak of?"

"Think back far," Lydia said.  "To a time most medieval.  To a time when our ancestors made a sandwich for a special kind of evil."

The Count shrugged, growing close to defeat, but when he finally understood he jumped to his feet.

"The Sandwich!" the Count declared.  "The one that killed Henry the Tyrant!"

"Yes," Lydia smiled.  "And his death by sandwich was no accident!  That's the one we'll cook.  We'll make it twice the size!  And when Ungar comes knocking we'll pretend its his prize."

"But how do you know he will eat it at all?  What good will it do?  It must be in his belly before the sandwich can strike true!"

"Trust me dear brother," said Lydia with a grin.  "A hunger for power, a hunger for land, and hunger for conquest... is not so different than a hunger for a sandwich."

So with hope in his heart, the Count sent out a decree.  And at that, the city folk set down their weapons and went on a cooking spree.

They cooked through the day and all through the night, but before long, Warlord Ungar had come with his army, looking for a fight.  From afar, the Count could see them come near, and the sight of the vikings made his knees knock in fear.

There were bezerkers with axes.  Men painted blue.  Huscarles with hairdoes with swords skewered through.  With scars on their faces and helms with big horns, soldiers howled warsongs with rigor and scorn.  The Jarls of the vikings who had most to gain, cracked whips over thralls who then bellowed in pain.  The navy's best oarsmen and the army's best Karls, battered on shields and let loose with fierce snarls.  With rage in their hearts they prepared with great might, but when they came to the walls there were no townsfolk to fight.  Instead, the gates were thrown open, and they were shocked at the sight.

On every road and alley, in every home and storefront, on every stove and table, there was every kind of cake and bread, every kind of meat and poultry, every kind of sweet and candy.  And then a voice called out from across the city's broad avenues.

"Welcome to our fair city," announced Lydia the Steward from the great hall.  "We welcome you with open arms, and offer a feast to you all!"

The vikings, tired and weary from a long campaign, had been driven by hunger to be nearly insane.  As their hot anger melted, their rage put at ease, they sheathed all their weapons and set out to feast.  The barbarians wasted no time shoveling food in their maws, and the townsfolk just stood there simply watching in awe.  As their hunger was sated, the vikings sat down for some wine, and decided they should be finished raiding the River of Rhine.  Tired of the conflict and a war that was deadly, the vikings grew chummy and even quite friendly.  The vikings and townsfolk together sang songs through the night, but Ungar the Stout was not pleased--- not at all--- by the sight.

The viking Warlord picked up his ax and barged through the great hall, for he was not happy, not happy at all.   He cared not one bit for how well he was treated, and instead barged over to where the Count was seated.  He plunged down his ax upon a plate of stew, and cleaved the whole table entirely in two.

The gesture was obvious, Ungar was displeased with his prize, and what else could one expect of a man so outsized?  His height was colossal and he smelled like a wolf den, and all things about him were as large as ten men: his muscles, his arms, his beard which was sullied, his double chin, his ego, his prominent belly.  He stood on a chair, shouted down at the Count, and all throughout the hall, townsfolk and viking alike, cowered before Ungar the Stout.

"We came here for conquest, and we feast in its stead!?  What glory is food when we came here for heads!?"

There was silence throughout the hall, a moment most tense, but then Lydia the Steward finally broke the suspense.

"You came to our city looking for a fight, but we offer, mighty Ungar, a special culinary delight.  A sandwich, who's majesty you have never seen before.  A sandwich, most regal, tasted by few lords."

Ungar the Stout bellowed in laughter.

"I've defeated a hundred men with my bare hands, I've conquered castles and cities in far away lands.
 When it's battles I lust for, why would I want such a thing?  I crave glory and conquest about which the glee-men will sing!  Seas to cross.  Warriors to maim.  Gold and treasure and kingdoms to claim.  A petty sandwich?  It poses no threat, if its only as challenging as the fork I must heft!"

"I'm so sorry, my lord, for I forgot to mention..." Lydia said, "within such a sandwich lie these things in contention.  We deliver it to you now, a spoil that's most grand, befitting a man whom so proudly stands."

At that, Lydia snapped her fingers.  The doors to the Great Hall flung wide.  In came waiters with cakes and with pies.  There were jesters juggling, dancers swirling, and behind it all, Ungar's prize.  When the sandwich rolled in, Ungar's eyes opened wide.  So large, was its girth, that his Jarls stood aside.

A sandwich most fine lay on the platter before him.  A sandwich, indeed, that sprawled like a fertile kingdom.  There were forests of lettuce, rivers of grease, valleys of mayonnaise and mountains of beef.  Lakes made of ketchup and an ocean of gravy, upon which sailed proudly a grilled mushroom navy.  Volcanoes of turkey that spewed molten cheese and grasslands of spinach that were rolling with peas.  Salt plains of pickles, draped like a shroud.  Tall peaks of peppers where steam swirled like clouds.

The Viking Warlord's eyes grew hungry.  His belly rumbled.  In this sandwich were all the things he'd ever lusted for.  When his royal taster took a bite of the sandwich to test it for poison, his eyes rolled back in his head.  He went lurching straight for more, but then Ungar slapped him aside and on to the floor.

"Insolent wretch!  You would take what is mine?!" said Ungar to his taster.  He then looked wickedly at Lydia and the Count: "I'll conquer this sandwich and its mountains of meat, but your city is next on the menu, for my hunger is deep!"            

At that, the Warlord launched an assault on the sandwich.  His fingers pierced the bread like spears.  His incisors cut like swords, his molars gnashed like battering rams.  Pound after pound of the sandwich disappeared into his stomach and was seared by the acid like a green country side set alight in fire.  All watched in awe as inch after inch of the sandwich fell to his ruthless advance.

"What if the sandwich fails?" the Count whispered nervously to Lydia.  "You heard his cruel hex.  If he finishes the sandwich our fair city is next!"

But no sooner had he spoken than did the sandwich fight back.  Ungar's eyes bulged from his head.  From his mouth came a gasp.  He coughed in a panic and reached for a water glass.

"He's choking!" a loyal Jarl declared, and he rushed in to help.  But Ungar put out his hand, clenched it in a fist, and with force that was galling drove it straight at his chest.  He let out a cough that echoed through the rafters, and with an expression most cocksure continued eating with laughter.

It was a terrible war of attrition, but the sandwich put up a gallant fight.  Warlord Ungar would pay dearly for every small bite.

The lettuce was slippery and he once bit his tongue, spicy mustard struck fiercely at his eyes and it stung.  With each new advance that was made by the tyrant, grenades of brave pepper corns erupted in defiance.  The garlic held up in a fried onion bastion, firing a barrage of cloves to cause Ungar indigestion.  The cheese made a sacrifice, struck out at his esophagus, and brought about a painful case of acid reflux.  But despite the gallant efforts, there was soon one bite left.  The sandwich was weakened, beat down, and bereft.

Ungar lifted the last chunk of sandwich.  Brought it to his mouth to bite.  But his teeth would not open to deliver the killing strike.

His tongue wiggled fiercely behind his incisors, but lips would not budge.    

A miracle had arrived; rescue from the jaws of defeat, for the red meat had led one last charge on the Warlord's arteries.  Ungar clutched at his chest.  Squirmed in his chair.  Slammed at the table and pulled at his hair.  He launched a pitcher of wine in the air like a spout, then down came the man who had menaced the south.

His soldiers were shocked.  His Karls were aghast.  And no one knew quite what to do next.

"Our leader is dead," said one of the Jarls, after a pause.  "But it wasn't the people of Hamburg, or even the sandwich, that was the cause.  It was his endless hunger, his gluttony, for might and for power.  A hunger never satisfied by the things he devoured.  We followed Ungar the Stout to escape famine at home, but to have hunger as deep as his will bring a life filled with tombs.  Let us find a new place, we should leave Hamburg preserved.  They have treated us fairly, perhaps more than we deserve."

At that, the vikings all mumbled in agreement.  They shook hands with their hosts and made ready to leave.

"But wait," Lydia said.  "Perhaps you might stay.  There is room for you in our kitchens and work for every day."

"Thank you," the Jarl said, his demeanor ever softer.  "But what could we raiders and soldiers ever offer?"

At that, the Count stood forward.  He knew just what to say: "You've never cooked before, but you can do it nonetheless!  And after all, haven't you faced very similar tests?  We've faced flaming stoves, but you've faced flaming arrows.  We've faced burning coals, but you've faced burning cities!  Kitchen knives are scary, but so too are sharp swords!  We face danger every day in the kitchens, but as soldiers, so do you!"

The vikings thought it over for a moment, and a moment was all they needed.  They abandoned their warships and embraced the townsfolk instead in friendship and fellowship.

Pretty soon, there were raiders with rolling pins.  Karls with tomatoes.  Marauders with maces who made mashed potatoes.  With gauntlets on their hands and donning chainmail, brawlers spun pizza dough on the tips of their flails.  Archers and footmen who were used to fierce wars, found glory and victory upon kitchen floors.  The army's best Jarls and navy's best sailors, took to the bakeries and would not accept failure.  With their hearts filled with purpose they laughed in delight.

Lydia and the Count both smiled at the sight.

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