“Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome” (Touchstone), by Crystal King
If true gastronomy resides at the intersection of food, art and culture, then Crystal King’s debut novel can only be described as a gastronomical delight.
Like much of the best in historical fiction, “Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome” features a protagonist plucked from relative obscurity. In this case, it’s a wealthy first-century Roman gourmand named Apicius, who, in his time, was best-known for his lavish feasts and, in present day, remains credited as inspiring the world’s oldest surviving cookbook. And there is Thrasius, who is a slave.
The drama begins immediately as the novel opens with Apicius examining, and then buying, 19-year-old Thrasius, who already possesses a reputation as the region’s finest chef. A terrified Thrasius stands on the block wearing only his credentials displayed on a nameplate around his neck while Apicius pounds him with questions about his culinary specialties.
And we’re off.
King spent five years not only cooking extensively with the ingredients of the time in order to replicate the recipes in the ancient cookbook, but she also learned Italian, visited the country repeatedly and studied ancient texts. And her research shows. Every page oozes with remarkable insights not only into the foods and cooking style but also the culture, politics and social stratification of the time.
King’s writing style is spare and simple, but she brings to vivid life the twists and turns of both families - slave’s and master’s. However, it’s the food that’s the true main course in the 450-page book. Each section begins with a recipe, ranging from honeyed wine and mustard beets to grilled mullet and dormice.
The ending is satisfying, but readers are left hungry for more - if only for more of ancient Rome’s decadence.
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