John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (Grove Press)
John Saturnall and his mother Susan live in the small village of Buckland in 17th century England. They have a mythical heritage, beginning with the god Saturnus, who created the First Garden where “every green thing grew.
Every creature thrived. The first men and women lived in amity together. They knew no hunger or pain. Back then, Saturnus’s people kept the Feast.”
The Feast is not just a meal, but an act of worship, an understanding of the natural world, and an attitude of generosity.
Keeping the Feast is about bringing forth life from the Earth, and using its bounty to create culinary pleasures that are shared with everyone.
The First Garden was renamed ‘Eden’ by the priests who found it and condemned it for its ‘lust’ and ‘sloth’, declaring the Feast to be greed.
They destroyed the garden and drove Saturnus’s people out. This tale finds several parallels, such as when Susan is declared a witch, and the leader of a religious cult raises a mob to burn down her home. She and John flee to the forest, where she teaches him about the Feast and his duty to create his own. John and his mother live off the land, until winter comes and Susan starves to death in the cold.
John is taken to Buckland Manor and put to work in the kitchens. Cooking is part of his purpose in keeping the Feast, and part of his duty is creating a recipe book.
In between chapters of the novel are extracts from this book, written by an adult John, describing the dishes made in 17th century kitchens for nobles and royals.
These recipes are incredible. Everything is made from scratch, often requiring hours of effort and close attention. Some dishes are ludicrously decadent, like an entire wild boar stuffed with as many other carcasses as can fit inside it – “a Sheep, a Kid, a Lamb, a Goose, a Capon” and so on, each ‘stuffing’ smaller than the last.
The Spiced Wine sounds so rich and delicious as to be almost mythical. The food is certainly one of the most memorable things about this beautifully written novel; I’m sure it will often be described as “sensual”.
Norfolk’s depiction of a 17th century kitchen is equally admirable. This is superb historical fiction, transporting you effortlessly into this small, vibrant world. The kitchen is a class of its own, with rules and hierarchies.
t’s huge, with entire rooms for things like cured meats, spices, and wines. For most of the staff it’s not just a workplace but a home, where they sleep on pallets on the floor.
John begins in the scullery, washing dishes for hours on end. Then he learns the minutiae of cooking techniques. Years later, he cooks for hours on end, paying careful attention to every detail. And that’s just a normal day.
When the Manor has guests, the work intensifies. During banquets, the servants struggle upstairs to the dining room, groaning under the weight of immense dishes or tureens of hot, spiced wine. Sadly the people who work the kitchens are never seen to enjoy these delicacies, except to sample them for taste. In between shifts, they sit down to bread and porridge.
It’s a matter of class. From John’s perspective in the kitchen, it seems like the nobility and the Household do nothing but eat, while the kitchen staff do nothing but cook and wash dishes.
Other points of view show us the Household – a completely different world where the kitchen is seldom mentioned. As Norfolk mentioned in a video about the book, nobles would probably never enter the kitchens. Most of the Household parts are told from the perspective of Lady Lucretia, the daughter of the Lord of Buckland.
Lucretia has a habit of fasting that seems selfish when you know how much effort goes into cooking for her.
John’s great culinary challenge comes when he’s called to cook for Lucretia after she goes on a hunger strike to protest her betrothal to a boy she hates. This marriage is the only means of keeping the estate in the Buckland family.
John’s must cook something so delicious that Lucretia cannot resist it, because ending her fast will be considered a sign of submission. Everyday John cooks for hours then waits patiently while she ignores him and his exquisite dishes.
This daily ritual marks the beginning of a doomed romance. Not only are the two thwarted by class and the necessity of Lucretia’s marriage, but they’re soon separated when the Cromwellian civil war breaks out.
The novel becomes violent and tragic from here on. The heavier themes come to the fore – duty, family legacy, and the contrast between religious fanaticism and the peaceful unity of the Feast. Norfolk elegantly entwines these themes with food, myth and history, and the whole is a beautiful, delectable, and touching. If you love food or historical fiction about this period, you should read this. But mostly you should read it because it’s a lovely piece of storytelling.
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