You know what it’s like. It’s getting late and you discover that there’s nothing in the house to eat. Alternatively you arrive home after a hard day at the office to discover that cook has taken the day off because her elderly mother is unwell and your lady wife is dining that evening with her philosophical society. Now obviously you could turn on your heel, leave the house and walk back into the city and dine at one of your favourite watering holes.
But it’s been a hard day, the rain is blasting across the city in sheets, or you’ve just got too much to do. Wouldn’t it be useful just to be able to click your fingers and have a meal spontaneously appear?
Now in a modern, go-ahead and thrusting city like Port Naain, where criminals are rarely led for execution through the better parts of the city, (unless somebody decides to pay for it so that they can enjoy the spectacle of having their servants hurl ordure at them) and the beggars run their own licensing system, it’s obvious that somebody will have given thought to this problem.
Now there are informal arrangements. I know several more mature ladies who will get a note from a friend, a gentleman admirer, or even a rival for the services of a particular cook saying, “Don’t bother arranging dinner tonight, we’ve over-prepared and I’m having the coachman fetch round a little something. Honour demands that the ‘little something’ is piping hot, exquisitely cooked and will feed at least six. Still this isn’t something you can rely upon.
Then there are plenty of pie sellers in the city. I’ve written extensively about them in the past. But they all have their shop or their pitch. Perhaps as night falls they will walk a street or two to try and find that last customer who clears their tray for them, but again, this isn’t something you can rely upon.
From memory I think it was Colban Stainburgh who made the greatest steps in delivering cooked food to the house. Colban, easily recognisable in the sleeveless red jacket he always wore, was a visionary as well as a baker. When he hit upon a perfect pancake recipe he realised that he could take things forward. He didn’t merely sell the pancake, he would have a choice of fillings. So you could have minced orid, spicy mixed fowl, sausage and three mustards, or stewed fruit with his celebrated whipped sugar-cream.
He soon learned it was worth cooking up a batch later in the afternoon because so many people would stop by and purchase something for their evening meal. For the single person on a budget they were an excellent and economical choice. Not only that but the whipped sugar-cream does give you the feeling that your life contains significant little luxuries and is a real boost to the morale.
Now like all fine artisans, Colban and his family lived ‘above the shop.’ Also the family meals were cooked in the shop kitchen. So when somebody knocked on the door after the shop was technically shut, Colban would still serve them. Then one evening a small boy with a basket knocked on the door and thrust a silver vintenar into Colban’s hand. “Master Elwaite wants three minced orid, two spicy mixed fowl, and five fruit and sugar-cream.”
Colban thought nothing of it, took the money, made up the order and sent the child off into the night, with a fruit and sugar-cream pancake for himself. Obviously Master Elwaite mentioned the success of his scheme because others started to copy him. But not everybody has a spare small child to send. One gentleman discussed the matter with Colban. They noticed that the gentleman’s house could almost be seen from Colban’s shop. So the gentleman raised a pole in his garden and when he wanted something, he would run a flag up the pole. Colban would send the standard order with one of his grandchildren, and the gentleman would pay the child when the meal arrived.
This system spread, and not just with Colban. Other shops realised that this was something they could get involved with. The first problem was the means of communication. The various traders realised that the system needed a minimum of two flags. So the customer had a flag which they raised, so all the traders knew that person was interested in purchasing a meal. But the customer had to raise a second flag to say which trader they were interested in purchasing from. Not only that but some of the traders decided to offer a choice, so you could pick from a menu. So the customer would raise three flags. The first would identify them. The second would say who they were purchasing from, and the third would be a number, so perhaps they wanted number 1 on the menu.
Obviously this system wasn’t perfect. As menus got more complicated, I know one person who discovered they had inadvertently ordered number fifteen when in reality they had intended to order one and five.
Also there was the problem of having your customer within line of sight. One or two traders experimented with paying people living in the upper floors of the Warrens to act as repeater stations. This vastly increased the area you could service.
But even then the system had complications. Distribution was a problem. Whilst there may be no shortage of interchangeable small boys to do the delivery, they are not entirely trustworthy. Colban discovered that a small boy can, whilst running, lick the sugar-cream from a pancake without leaving any other traces.
Still these are teething problems and can be overcome with planning. What brought the system down was the arrival of autumn with the nights drawing in. There is no point of having a flag system if nobody can see the flags. Some did try using lanterns, or even flaming torches. Alas these led to signalling systems of hideous and pyrotechnic complexity. After several unfortunate and much publicised fires, people gave up. By and large it was accepted that the only reliable system in winter was to give your order to a suitable boy and have him collect it. Colban added a twist of his own to the system. When a child collected an order, he gave them a large piece of toffee to chew. Whilst he did get through quite a bit of toffee, it reduced the complaints about missing sugar-cream.
It’s amazing what happens in Port Naain
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Includes the unexpurgated account of the Mudfold and Cockeren feud, the dangers inherent in light music, and how Tallis first met and wooed Shena.
As a reviewer commented, “This is a collection of stories about Tallis which go to show that it’s not all drinking afternoon tea or partaking of soirees for a jobbing poet. We discover some of his early life, some of the society feuds he became entangle with, and the story of how he met his wife and acquired the boat on which they live. Great little tales!”