‘My dear, whatever’s the matter?’ cried the King in some anguish. It was not every day that the Queen burst into tears in front of him and demanded that he cancel an upcoming feast.
‘You’ll think me silly,’ sobbed the Queen, ‘but I think I’m too fat.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ countered the King. ‘Whoever has put such ideas in your head? I shall have them clapped in irons, or whatever it is that I do to miscreants and malingerers.’
‘It was a young scholar,’ said the Queen, restoring her self composure in a manner befitting a Queen, and an expositional Queen at that. ‘He has studied all of the modern methods and he has spent many hours experimenting. All of his hard work was rewarded when he made a remarkable discovery: he discovered the calorie.’
‘The calorie. It’s what makes people fat apparently. Too many and you’re a porker, too few and you waste away. They live in every piece of food and drink.’
‘But how’d you know how many there are in any piece of food?’
‘You set fire to it.’
‘Now, whilst that does sound like fun,’ mused the King, ‘you can’t then eat the food. I don’t understand.’
‘No silly, you set fire to everything in advance and then write down the results for future reference.’
The King scratched his head as he tried to wrap his regal mind around this new development. ‘Okay,’ he started, ‘two thoughts. One, it’s going to take a really long time to set fire to all that food and, two, do you not feel that you’re reinforcing some rather lazy gender stereotypes with all of this crying and the fixation on your weight? It’s not really like you. It feels like a suspiciously convenient plot development.’
‘Well you’re a fine one to talk,’ the Queen retorted. ‘There you are, a fairytale King in your castle, wearing your chainmail and carrying that silly sword around with you wherever you go. You are a walking stereotype. All you need to complete the picture is a great big dragon!’
‘Well that’s just ridiculous,’ spluttered the King. ‘Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a – ‘
The cry came up from the castle’s watchtower, an eagle-eyed guard staring off into the distance and waving his arms frantically.
‘Oh for –– sake,’ exclaimed the King, his words drowned out by the roar of the dragon as it swooped over the castle (the Queen, blessed with that special hearing ability reserved for spouses, just gave him a sharp look). The dragon flew over the fields and let out a spume of flames, torching the crops. The King’s eyes lit up.
‘Fetch me all of the scholars, the Master of the Stores and as many clipboards as you can carry,’ he commanded.
Several hours later the King looked out over the fields. The dragon sat in one corner, holding its stomach and contentedly belching out little fireballs. The kingdom’s scholars were huddled a safe distance away, soot-smeared and sweaty but happy, comparing lists of calories. The Master of the Stores just looked pissed off.
‘All right,’ said the Queen. ‘You can have your feast. Just make sure that everything is labelled so I know how many calories are in each thing.’
The King smiled and felt contented. His feast was going ahead as planned, albeit with more fruit and veg (of various colours). All of the food would be labelled to show how many calories it contained, and there would be no mention of that tricky genetic modification matter. Everything was covered; it was all going to be okay.
* * *
‘It won’t, you know,’ said a voice just behind the King’s left ear, making him jump. The King’s sorcerer glided around to face the King in a most unsettling manner and the King wondered, not for the first time, why he kept a sorcerer on the payroll. And, for that matter, what a payroll was. ‘It’s not just calories you have to watch out for,’ continued the sorcerer. ‘It is far more complicated than that.’
It would be, thought the King grumpily. Everything about this feast was turning out to be more confusing and troublesome than he had anticipated. Why, only this morning he had happily thought of food as just food. He hadn’t had to think about calories or colours or how many pieces of fruit he was eating. Why did it have to be this complicated?
‘Progress,’ said the sorcerer. ‘We learn more so we know more, then we worry more and we realise how much more we don’t know. Progress. Take my new system for managing the horse and cart traffic through that really narrow gate, for example. That’s progress. A man holds up a red flag and everyone stops. A green one and they go. And the people love it. You can see them progressing in front of your eyes. Or not, I suppose.’
‘You’ve been inventing again?’ asked the King nervously.
‘Absolutely I have,’ replied the sorcerer with a mad glint in his eye. ‘And I have so many more ideas, traffic management is only the beginning. You could use the same principle to tell your subjects which things they should eat more of and which they should avoid.’
‘Green for good, red for bad?’ the King suggested. ‘That’s actually not a bad idea. Make it happen. We can add it to the labels alongside the calorie information.’
The sorcerer clapped his hands and disappeared in a puff of smoke that left the King red-eyed and coughing. I really do dislike that man, thought the King.
* * *
As the smoke slowly drifted away in the breeze, the King became aware of a figure standing a short distance away.
‘I’m sorry to bother you your grace,’ said the woman, her head bowed and her hands shaking nervously. ‘I was hoping to have a moment of your time. It’s about your nuts sire.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Your nuts,’ your grace.
‘For the feast? You’re serving nuts at the feast?’
The King breathed easily once more. ‘Nuts. Yes, of course. What about them?’
‘We harvest the nuts your grace, the people in my village. It’s our only real way to make any money. We can’t grow crops because the fields are not good. We can’t fish and there’s nothing to hunt. So we look after the trees and we harvest their nuts to sell. It’s just, well, we aren’t getting paid right. We used to get enough for our nuts to live off. We wasn’t rich but we wasn’t starving either. But not any more. We’re not asking for much, just a fair price for our nuts.’ She looked at the King hopefully.
‘Of course you should have a fair price. You need to be able to live.’ The King scribbled a few words on a piece of paper. ‘Take this note to the Master of the Stores and you will be given a good and honest price for your nuts.’ He glanced across at the singed and smoking field and added, ‘he could probably do with restocking right now, as it turns out.’
The woman thanked him and hurried away. And the King felt good. Okay, so the price may go up a little, but as long as people were made aware of the reason why their nuts had gone up in price then it was only logical that they would be happy to pay the higher price. People were logical, weren’t they?
The King didn’t feel quite so confident all of a sudden, but he pushed those thoughts away and made his way towards the castle’s kitchens. He wanted to double check all of the preparations for the feast with the cook.
* * *
As the picture pulls back, we see the King making his way across the castle grounds; we see the sorcerer conjuring labels out of thin air; we see the Master of the Stores considering the King’s nuts. And in another corner of the castle, a scholar sits and wonders just how much sugar and salt a person should eat in a day. Perhaps that is something that should be brought to the King’s attention. Whilst over in the fields, a farmer is telling his friend about how his crops are completely organic, and his friend is suggesting that he might be able to get paid a premium for that. And another farmer pauses in his efforts to round up his chickens and wonders whether he should be charging more for his chickens, seeing as he doesn’t keep them cooped up all of the time. Whilst in the nearby village a man is deciding that he will only eat meat, and another is thinking that he will only eat vegetables, while another wants only to eat animals killed on the tracks by passing carts (but he is quite strange and people tend to ignore him).
All in all, wherever you look, the kingdom is full of people becoming more aware of their food, while simultaneously becoming more confused. If the King thought that fairly-traded nuts were the end of his problems, it would seem that he is, well, nuts.