Attila stands on the steppes with his men. Blood seeps through arrow holes in their arms. Knife and stab wounds can be seen in their legs. There are sword cuts, blunt trauma, broken limbs, but they do not cry out, complain or even frown. They are dreaming of revenge because they know no other life. They want to fight. They are battle weary but fantasize about how they will stick it to their enemy. In the meantime, they use makeshift bandages and tourniquets, made out of rope, horse hair and old tough jerky.
Attila’s brother and right hand man, Bleda, by name and nature, is oozing blood from his upper arm. “We don’t need to nick our horses if we get thirsty, Attila. We have plenty of blood to drink.”
“You lose too much, plus we have yak milk to drink.” Attila took a slab of gruel, with the consistency of wet cement and plastered it onto Bleda’s arm.
“Your gruel is famous for being lumpy,” said Bleda, “and it makes a good blood stopper, but we should eat it. The men have groaning bellies.”
Attila shook his head. “No one can eat my gruel, no matter how hungry they are, so let’s put it to good use.” He plastered the porridge-like substance on the men’s wounds. It was cool on their skin and acted like a bandage to stop the bleeding.
“Maybe one day we will be able to eat our food instead of using it like this,” said Attila.
“I will eat it after the wound is clotted.” said Bleda. “Then it’s dual purpose.”
“No. We should eat something warm and nourishing.” said Attila.
“If we ride on, we will catch up.”
Attila shook his head again. “Our time will come for revenge. It is not now. Tonight, we eat and sleep.”
“What will we eat, if not this?” Bleda looked at the cement on his arm.
Attila spoke his horses name softly and it trotted over. He stroked its neck lovingly and peeled back the saddle to show a mares bladder of meat, onions and wild garlic that had been mashed and cooked there. A horse and rider could whip up a tasty stew this way, as a result of friction and warmth, on the long forays through the steppes.
“We have this.” he said, patting the bladder, “washed down with fermented yak milk.”
“It’s certainly a better dish than your gruel.” smiled his brother. “My stomach growls already.”
They made camp and shared the stew. “This would be good with bread.” said Attila.
“Those men we fought with yesterday,” said Attila, “their women make good bread.”
“We will have to make their women our women.”
“Or get their bread.”
A few days later, the Huns, who hadn’t died of their wounds, set off again to conquer the neighbouring tribe with the decent bread. More ingredients for stew had been gathered and mashed under saddles in the long journey across the steppes. It was decided the gruel would be made only for medical purposes.
It was another bloody battle and both tribes had a stand off, lest they kill each other and cancel each other out. They camped again, a little away from each other, to think and plan their next move. A few more of Attila’s soldiers died that night.
Bleda lay awake, unable to sleep. “Hey, Atilla,” he whispered, in the dying light of the fire. “You awake?”
“I am now.” he grumbled.
“I can’t stop thinking about how those men smelled.”
“The men we fought. You must have smelled spices and herbs about them, quite delicious smelling spices.”
“So, you’re thinking about condiments Bleda, rather than the three men we lost tonight?”
“Yes, but, look on the bright side, there’s more food without them.”
“That’s not a typical Hun response.” mumbled Atilla, from under his horsehair blanket. “Our life isn’t about food Bleda. It’s about feeling the brisk cutting wind through our hair, being one with our horses on the desolate and unforgiving steppes. It’s about blood lust, the ruthless conquering of other tribes, forcing them to submit through sheer terror and might, and finally, through sweet surrender to our dominance and seamless immersion and integration, to our way of life. Then they become one of us.”
“I know, but…I was wondering… imagine what a bit of seasoning would do with your stew?”
Attila fell silent.
“Well?” said Bleda.
Attila pulled the blanket over his head.
The next day, after a breakfast of yoghurt and noodles, and another long ride through the sparse countryside, the men faced the opposing tribe, yet again. A long and senseless battle ensued. This time, both groups, retreated a few hundred yards from each other, in view of each others camps.
“Look at them.” said Bleda, as he bled out. “So far and yet so close.”
Attila narrowed his eyes at the tribe, sitting, lying and dying, just a little way off. His visibility was poor. A strong wind storm was building as dusk fell. “They’re tough but one more round and we’ll have them. We’ve twice as many men.”
“I’ll have a word with them and see how they’re feeling.”
Atilla looked at Bleda incredulously. “Feeling?”
“I mean, I’ll just see how they’re doing.”
Bleda took medical supplies, which consisted of a bowl of porridge. With some of the more able bodied men, Atilla made basic tents, beds and fire for cooking. Bleda returned as night settled in. “We had a vote and we’ve decided to cancel the next battle.”
Atilla blinked at his brother. “The other tribe is weakening. One more push and we’ve got them. We could blow them over right now. Just one more day.”
“We took a walloping Atilla. We lost horses…and men.”
Attila went to his horse and stroked it lovingly, then glanced at the enemy tribe. “Liked the way you said horses first. But the men are also important.”
“I agree. We should take a rest, then back to base.”
“We’ve travelled too far to give up now. I can’t understand your thinking Bleda. Those men are child’s play.” He thumbed at the wounded tribe ahead. “It’ll be like taking candy from a baby. How are we supposed to conquer the Jurchen next month like we planned, if we can’t take on half a dozen dying men?”
“The 19th.” said Bleda. “We need to put that on hold for a bit while your leg heals.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my leg.”
“It’s falling off your torso.”
“I can still fire an arrow.”
“Your arm’s broken too.”
Attila lifted his right arm. “I can use this…and my teeth.”
“Come on Attila, admit it, you’re a mess. We’ve decided that we will ask the other tribe to join us for dinner in our tents.”
Attila looked at Bleda incredulously.
“We’re going to have a cooking competition instead.”
“I’m a warrior, not a cook!” said Attila. “I leave cooking to the women.”
“You don’t understand, it’s becoming really manly to cook. Everybody’s doing it. Surely you have some good recipes under your belt Attila. What about your maggoty cheese and yak milk pudding?”
“I don’t do that any more.”
“If we had a little chat with them, they might give us tips on how to make our gruel taste and look better.”
“And lose our valuable medical supplies?”
“But think about your stew Attila, it has heaps of potential, with some nice fresh bread on the side and some herbs and spices, to season. It would go down a storm.”
Atilla put his hand up. “Enough! I won’t hear any more about food. I’ll run you through myself!”
“One of these days Bleda…”
Atilla walked away.
“Where are you going?”
“How about a nice warm glass of mares blood for a nightcap?”
“Have you been bleeding my horses again?”
“I may have nicked a vein.”
Attila raised an eyebrow.
“It was ages ago, an old wound, the horse is fine. The blood however, is most refreshing.”
“I must admit, I am a little thirsty.”
“One glass of refreshing mares blood coming up!”
Bleda fetched the glass of blood and gave it to Atilla, but not before he’d laced it with a heavy dose of a natural plant sedative he’d found in the wilds. Attila drank it in one gulp. He was out like a light before the drinking songs had broken out. While he slept like a baby, Bleda invited the opposing tribe to their camp.
The tribe gathered around the welcoming fire and swapped recipes and cooking methods through the night. They got into heated debates and discussions about whose food was cooked better or prepared well. They let Attila’s men taste their bread and eat their gruel. “This bread is fresh,” said Bleda, “and such a springy soft texture.” They dipped the bread in the gruel. There were approving noises all round. “This is delicious.” said Bleda. “What’s in it?”
“Rice, wheat, lentils, chickpeas…and a balance of herbs and spices.” said the leader.
After eating the bread and the gruel, Bleda let him and his men taste Attila’s famous stew. They nodded approvingly and licked the wooden platters clean. “This is amazing.” said the leader. “I would recommend some of our herbs and spices, to go with it, perhaps a pinch of horse sweat, but not too much, you don’t want to spoil the delicate flavour.”
The two tribes decided they would stop fighting each other, for the time being, and tomorrow they would have a cooking competition. As they talked, the night grew old and Attila slept on.
The next day, Attila woke with a thunderous headache. He put his hand on his head and groaned. “That must have been some mares blood I drank last night.” He stumbled to his feet and folded up his blanket. He could hear a commotion outside his tent and wondered if they’d started battling with the opposing tribe without him. He may have had a hangover to end them all, but he was sure some of his men would have attempted to wake him. He didn’t like to miss the start of a fight.
The noise made him feel delicate but he pulled open the flap of the tent. Instead of seeing men running each other through, and blood spurting this way and that, there were people sitting cross- legged on the grass, nursing makeshift bowls. They were lovingly stirring the contents of various delicious smelling concoctions with large wooden spoons. In another area, men were pinching aromatic herbs and spices between their fingers and sprinkling them over bowls of soup. In another, a group of men were kneading bread. It smelled wonderful. Attila rubbed his eyes, perhaps he was still asleep. He rubbed them again. No, he was awake alright.
“Ah, you’re awake!” said Bleda. “For a moment, I thought I’d given you too much.” He slapped Attila on the back with a floury hand. “Good job you can take your drink…and your downers. Come here, wait ’til you see this.”
I am still dreaming, thought Attila, as he walked with Bleda to the various cooking stations.
“Look at this gruel Atilla!Taste it. It’ll get rid of your hangover.”
Before he could protest, someone was spooning the glorious soup into his mouth. “What is it?” asked Attila between mouthfuls.
Bleda clapped his hands together and paused for dramatic effect. “It’s gruel!”
“It’s not my gruel.” said Attila.
Bleda dragged Attila away, to another cooking stall. “Now, have a taste of this. It melts in the mouth.”
Atilla took a bite of bread while everyone waited with baited breath. He was pulled away to two horse riders side by side, surrounded by a small crowd of people. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Inspect the horses ass.” said Bleda.
Atilla did so.
“No, higher up.” said Bleda. “Under the saddle.”
Atilla quickly peeled back the saddle of one of the horses.
“Here, side by side,” explained Bleda, “are the two competitors. Under that saddle is your famous stew and under the next one is the stew of the other contestant, the opposing tribe. We will get two riders to jump up and down on the horses to mash and cook the two stews. We will do this under clinical conditions. The cooking will take place over an allocated time, say an hour, for practical purposes, which will simulate the mix of friction and heat made on, say, an hours ride through the steppes. Then we will judge the stew and see which one is the best.”
Atilla looked up at the horse riders. “But I’m the only one who can make my stew!”
Bleda laughed. “Of course and if you feel up to it…”
Atilla didn’t need to be asked twice. His hangover was mostly gone, thanks to the delicious breakfast he’s just had. The horse rider got down and Attila took his rightful place on top of his beloved horse and stew cooker. “Let the games begin!” he yelled. Everyone cheered.
“Right, on your marks -get set-go!” said the adjudicator. The two warriors jumped up and down on their horses, mashing together meat and veg until it was reduced to a tasty stew.
The other tribes gruel won hands down, as did their bread. Atilla won in the stew section. A feast followed, with all the winning and even the losing dishes being consumed with great relish. Attila gave their awful gruel to the other tribe as medical supplies and also some of the wild garlic so they could make garlic bread for the first time. The other tribe allowed a choice selection of their finest herbs and spices to flavour Attila’s stew. They had a most delicious banquet. Mares blood and fermented yak milk was served and prizes were given to the winners at the end, entitled ‘The Best Of The Steppes’
Attila proudly stood, while the adjudicator placed a makeshift necklace round his neck. “This is to certify that Attila’s stew is the best in the land, certainly the best in the steppes.”
“Speech! Speech!” cried the men.
Attila cleared his throat. “Thank you. I would like to name my stew Butt Grinder Casserole.” Applause rang round the steppes. “I hope it’s a dish that is recognised for its cooking method, as much as its taste. And I would like people to think of me every time they eat Butt Grinder Casserole.”