Kings raise their Statues and Churchmen build Cathedrals. A Cook leaves no Monument save Crumbs.
I don’t know about your family, but for mine, the holidays provide a great excuse for eating. Eating fancier foods than is the norm, and eating more indulgent foods than are the norm, sans shame. What better time to revisit Lawrence Norfolk’s sublime historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast?
Set in Britain and opening in 1625, we are introduced to young John, a village outcast due to his mother being a witch (actually she’s a skilled midwife). When mother and son are forced to flee their home before the onslaught of religious fervor, they seek refuge in the deep haunt of Buccla’s Wood, a place steeped in mystic lore. To stave off boredom and hunger, John’s mother reads to him from the mysterious book that she had carried with her from their burning hut.
‘They wrote it down, those first men and women.’ His mother laid her palm flat on the book. ‘In here. And those that came after them wrote it anew, generation upon generation. They hid their garden in the Feast. Every green thing that grew. Every creature that thrived. They all had their place at Saturnus’s Table.’
John’s mother teaches him to read from the words that accompany the fantastical illustrations in the book. He learns herbs and seasonings, the names of plants that had been buried deep in lost culinary knowledge, the preparation of all sorts of wondrous dishes and fanciful concoctions. John’s mother knows he has the gift of the master cook, just as she knew that it was his calling to maintain the Feast. “Now you will keep it, John. For us all.” The book becomes more than knowledge; it becomes sustenance itself.
But one frigid day John returns to their hiding place to find his mother dead and the book burned; he knows he must strike out on his own, holding within himself the knowledge of the Feast of the generations that had come before and now lives only within him. In time, he finds himself at the hold of William Freemantle, the Lord of the Vale of Buckland, where he catches the eye of the Master Cook with a demonstration of his ability to identify the spicing of a prepared dish.
A chance encounter brings John to the attention of Lord Fremantle’s daughter, the lonely and sequestered Lady Lucretia, which gives him an early lesson in status and station as well as in the frailty of trust. Aloof and stubborn “Lucy” is Lord William’s only family; her mother died in childbirth and Lord William’s heart died with her. Buckland Manor’s royal chambers are not a joyful refuge for a lost and lonely girl. John, however, thrives down in the kitchens, learning and eventually creating dishes both simple and exotic according to the needs of the Manor. Yet even the remote Vale of Buckland is affected by the waves of religious and political zeal that threaten to tear Britain apart; loyalty to King and country can become a liability as Cromwell seizes power, and the specter of armed conflict touches the lives of the lowliest servant as surely as it does their masters.
Rich in history viewed not from the heights of power but from the everyday realities of a self-sustaining landholding buffeted by the ambitions of potentates and madmen, John Saturnall’s Feast blends historical fact with a mystical sensibility based in the palate and settled in the stomach. Each chapter is prefaced by an illustration and narrative as if from a 17th century cookbook, giving the modern reader insight into (at least what feels like) genuine food preparation of an earlier time.
Heat water in a Kettle so that you may endure to dip your Hand in but not to let it stay. Put in your Lampreys fresh from the River for the Time it takes to say an Ave Maria.
Sometimes the misdirection that Mr. Norfolk uses to create tension is confusing, but generally the writing in this novel is very engaging and fresh. John Saturnall’s Feast indeed excels, with a seasoned and flavorful delivery that pleases the sensibilities while being consumed, and leaves the reader full and sated once the book is finished.
Here’s to glorious (literary) feasting!