John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

John Saturnall’s Feastjohn saturnalls feast
Lawrence Norfolk
First Edition: September 4, 2012
Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

Kings raise their Statues and Churchmen build Cathedrals.  A Cook leaves no Monument save Crumbs.

I have to believe that cooking – as an art, as a pastime, as something that has gripped our collective imaginations – has never been more popular.  Not just cookbooks now propped open and dusted with flour on kitchen counters, but magazines and picture books, cooks’ biographies, culinary journals and beyond gracing our coffee tables and piled on end tables.  There’s The Cooking Channel, Food Network, thousands of recipes exchanges, YouTube videos on instruction and technique, social media such as Pinterest gushing superlatives from the gastric sacred to the profane.  Chefs have become celebrities.  Culinary schools have exploded in attendance.  Old recipes and culinary heritages once again are being celebrated.

So there is no better time than now for Lawrence Norfolk to unveil his latest historical novel, the sublime John Saturnall’s Feast.  Set in Britain and opening in 1625, we are introduced to young John, a village outcast due to taunts of his mother being a witch (actually she’s a skilled midwife, sought out in the cover of night by those desperate for healing).  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 growing hunger, John’s mother teaches 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.’

As winter comes and food grows scarce, 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.

He could smell the rich tang of the meats.  His head swirled from the steaming fumes of the wine.  His jaw ached from the sweets which rose in heaps on silver platters while honeyed syllabubs shivered in their cups.  He felt the pastry crunch, shiny with beaten butter.  He heard the sugar-pane crackle.  The sweetmeats flooded his senses, banishing his hunger and cold.  A great procession of dishes floated up out of the pages, all theirs.

But one frigid day John returns to their hiding place after a fit of anger to find his mother dead and the book burned, and 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.

But a young boy has little knowledge of the world.  Before long, he is caught by the villagers and taken to the local priest, who (bound by a promise) presses John on to a passing trader with instructions to deliver the boy to William Freemantle, the Lord of the Vale of Buckland, for placement in the Lord’s service.  Once there, the dirty and withdrawn child catches the eye of the Master Cook (due to a chance demonstration of his ability to identify the spicing of a prepared dish), and the bigger story of John’s destiny begins.

From humble beginnings spent scrubbing dishes and pots, and again braving taunts and the trickeries of other kitchen boys distrustful and jealous of his talents, John – who has now taken the surname of Saturnall – rises in the ranks of the kitchens of Buckland Manor.  A chance encounter brings him to the attention of Lord Fremantle’s daughter, the lonely and sequestered Lady Lucretia, and 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 giving birth to the girl and Lord William’s heart died with her.  Buckland Manor’s royal chambers are not a joyful refuge for a lost and lonely girl.

But John survives and even thrives in the kitchens of Buckland, 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 can touch 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 hearth and home 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, not only setting the look and tone, but 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.

Some of the story is a bit contrived, and sometimes the misdirection that Mr. Norfolk uses to create tension is confusing, but generally the writing is very engaging and fresh.  When you have a well written story encompassing a historical period that has captured society’s imagination, the effect is magical.  Add to that the always compelling tale of a youngster’s maturity and growth despite (or even because of) adversity and you have a winning novel.  John Saturnall’s Feast excels in all these points, 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.  Would that all our literary feasts could be this satisfying!

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