“The Basting King” by J. K. Bywaters

“Do you know why the water tower for King William County is shaped like a turkey baster?” I asked. I nodded towards the bulbous-topped tower some short ways to the north. She arched her brow. She was looking at the tower, but the arch was for me. A samara of awareness drifted briefly through my conscious mind, and if I had followed its path, its writing across the sky would have spelled out thoughts to the effect of how interesting it is that through simple cadence and the subtleties of intonation, one can make clear the difference between asking the same question in two very different ways — ‘Do you know? Because I do not know, and I have long been curious about the point,’ or the more pertinent ‘Do you know? Because I do, and I am prepared to tell the tale.’

“No…” she said. The light turned green, and we were the first to pull away.

“Well,” I said. “My theory is this:

“The fact of the matter is that regency is often a very tedious affair. There are all manner of awfully officious responsibilities that one has to manage, you know, and, in his heart of hearts, I don’t believe that William wanted to be king very much. Now, he did his duty, of course, but I believe that there must have been a great many times when he just slipped away for a little while. And, most generally, his agents and attendants knew that he was not to be found in the royal gardens, nor in the library, nor in the stables, nor even out on a hunt or on some spree or other. No, when King William had had all he could stand of being king for some little while, it’s to the scullery that he was most likely to retire. And there, he would displace the cooks from their stations and get in the way and generally make a nuisance of himself, but he was a royal nuisance, you know, as he was the king, so what could any of them say? Of course, they all offered to make for him anything at all that he would like to have to eat, but he declined their offers, though not unkindly. He liked to be in the kitchens. He liked to cook. He liked to bake well enough, too. And being the king and all, you know, he kept a rather more magnificent kitchen than most anyone else around. He did not always know which ingredients were which, nor what tools and implements were meant to perform what function, but his cooks were quick to help him. They always stood ready to help, but for the most part, King William liked to do as much of the work himself as he could possibly manage. All of his various and sundry cooks ended up each making of him- or herself what we would today call a sous chef when good King William was in the kitchens. And though he appreciated what could be done with a good pot of boiling water, or a large skillet over the fire, it was with the ovens which he was most wont to work. He learned to make breads and pastries and such, and had a talent for working wonders with root vegetables. The things the king could contrive! Parsnips with pink peppercorns and pomegranates. Neeps with nettles and neroli. A rugelach of arugula and rutabaga with rue —”

“How did he make a roux in the oven?” she asked.

“Not roux, rue,” I said. “The Greeks called it peganon, you know.

“But it was with the meats that King William became most adept. Anything was fair game: game and fowl —”

“Gamen fowl?” she asked, arching her brow at me again.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t think so,” I hastened to reply. “Certainly they had odd tastes in those days, or tasted odd things, I should say, things that should seem uncommon strange to us, but I don’t believe that they would ever have eaten vulture. Crane, though, and peacocks, and larks, and geese and swans, and game hens, and partridges, and pheasants, and possibly grouse. Certainly duck.”

“It’s very easy to cook any of those in such a way that they end up very, very dry, you know,” she said knowingly. “I would imagine it would’ve been even easier to do so in King William’s day, what with the ovens that they had to use. Whatever did he do?”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” I said. “He did his due diligence with a turkey baster, though it wasn’t called that, because turkeys were harder to come by in that part of the world at that time than one might think. And in the beginning, at first, King William must surely have cooked more than his share of dry birds. And, being something of a perfectionist, he lamented this a great deal, and swore, which is why the word ‘baster’ came to be used for that particular tool, you know, as it shares the same root word as ‘bastard.’”

I paused. I chanced a brief look at her. “I am concerned for your eyebrow. Do you not think it may come off altogether? Are you not worried for it? What if it were to get out of the window? We are driving rather quickly, and there are a great deal of fields of crops along the side of this road, and woods and bracken besides; I’m not sure that we would ever find it again, if it were to get out.”

“I am not,” she returned. “Are you suggesting that King William invented the turkey baster?”

“I am,” I allowed. “I am putting it forward as a viable theory of both the etymology and applicability of the baster. And I propose that it is this oft-overlooked event — which would have perhaps been higher on a list of accomplishments for a person of lower birth, but which, for a king (a person more likely to have any number of worthy and noteworthy accomplishments), was somewhat diminished in scale — which ultimately lead to King William becoming known as ‘the basting king.’”

There was a pause.

“And hence, why, when the county of King William was founded some years later, and some years after that was duly fit with its own water tower, the tower was made into the likeness of William’s own most cherished kitchen implement.”

“Hmmmph,” she replied dryly.

“Have you nothing else to say to this?” I inquired mildly. “Though — ah — I do forget: you are not from Virginia. You are not so easily interested in our quaint local histories, nor in the origins of our utilitarian architecture. You can perhaps be forgiven if you have little enough to say about our beloved basting king.”

“All I will say is this:” she said thoughtfully. “It is a great mercy to the citizens of King William County that the king was not more prone to making pancakes.”

“Oh, quite right,” I returned. “Or to whisking omelettes.”

“Or pitting cherries.”

“No, too right. That wouldn’t have worked out well for the citizenry at all. Would’ve made for a most unattractive and barely functional tower.”

“Perhaps you ought to write something up for the newspaper,” she said. She furrowed her brow, which was a great relief to me as she drew in the more wayward of the two and held it firmly in place for a moment. “Do you people have such a thing as a newspaper, or something like it?”

“We do,”  I said. “And perhaps I shall, at that.”