Exploring Food as the “Great Connector” in The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King
In Crystal King’s new novel, The Chef’s Secret (Touchstone, 2019), one of history’s most enduring yet relatively unknown chefs, Bartolomeo Scappi, takes center stage. King discovered Scappi while researching Marcus Gavius Apicius for her first novel, Feast of Sorrow. “Scappi kept coming up in records of historical Italian chefs. I was intrigued by his cookbook, so I picked up the English translation. I was struck by how little we know of Scappi today, even though this cookbook was such a huge influence on cooks over the centuries. I knew that I had to dig deeper into his story.”
But writing about Scappi required a big jump in time and custom. Fast-forwarding from the first century AD setting of her first book to the 16th century required massive amounts of research. King explains that though the Renaissance period felt more familiar due to its popularity in books and film, she undertook a lot of new research. “Fortunately for me, I love the research, so I relished the opportunity to learn everything I could about that point in time.”
But aside from untangling the political and religious history of the period, King also had to develop an understanding of the changes those intervening centuries wrought on Italian dining and entertaining. “The biggest difference between the ancient and modern era was that the ancient Romans didn’t have sugar. But wealthy Renaissance Italians did, and oh how they loved sugar! The ancients had garum, or fish sauce, and put it into every dish. By the Renaissance that flavor had long been abandoned and palates had shifted to a desire for sweetness. The most common ingredients in Renaissance cuisine were sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and rosewater. Those flavors appear again and again in dishes of the wealthy. Which sounds fantastic to many, I imagine, until you realize it was in things like their fried chicken! Another great example is how even the most simple dish, such as Scappi’s recipe for fried eggs, calls for them to be drizzled with orange juice and sugar.”
King’s research extended even further; she had fun recreating some of the recipes her chefs left behind. While some of the recipes featured in both novels would turn the stomachs of many modern readers, both chefs created recipes that are familiar and pleasing to our 21st century palates. “Ancient Roman food is far more challenging to us today than the food of the Renaissance. I’m actually not fond of fish, so cooking with garum was a huge challenge for me! But in both eras, there were foods we just wouldn’t eat today. They ate all the parts of an animal, whereas today we don’t. It’s also difficult to procure meat such as peacock, or porcupine, or crane, so it was easy enough to skip those recipes. Scappi describes various ways to cook calves’ eyeballs, for example. I skipped those recipes and went straight to the pie. And oh, the pies are amazing! Scappi had all sorts of recipes that are palatable and familiar to us, including roasted turkey, zabaglione, fritters, and pasta such as tortellini.”
But King’s novels are not just about the food. The enjoyment of food is a universal commonality—we all have to eat!—and King was conscious of this theme as she crafted her novels, using food to bring together people of different classes and backgrounds. “Food is the great connector!” she explains. “We depend on it, and we have also integrated it into every part of our lives. It’s in our religion, our politics, and our relationships with friends and colleagues. It’s also a great differentiator between the haves and have-nots. Between those who can afford lavish meals and those who serve those dining in luxury. In both of my novels, there is an upstairs/downstairs story that takes place, and I play with those relationships, crossing the boundaries of class, but doing so with food as a catalyst. Think about all the gatherings you’ve attended where you end up in the kitchen hanging out with the chef. Or if you have ever dined at a coveted spot at a chef’s counter. We are all a bit in love with the magic of a chef, and I think that’s likely true regardless of one’s station.”
Luckily for us, King’s adventures in culinary fiction will continue with a third book featuring another Italian chef. “This next one will also be set in the Renaissance, about the meat carver–the trinciante–to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was the wealthiest man in Italy other than the pope. This carver, Vincenzo Cervio, was a real person who left behind a manual of carving in the Italian fashion, in the air, as opposed to on the table. But we know barely anything about Vincenzo as a person, or about his life. And for me, that’s where all the fun comes in!”
About the contributor: Jennifer Quinlan, aka Jenny Q, founder of Historical Editorial, is an editor and cover designer specializing in historical fiction. She reviews books and interviews authors for her blog, Let Them Read Books, moderates the American Historical Fiction group on Goodreads, and serves as the volunteer coordinator for the HNS North American Conference. She lives in Virginia with her husband, a Civil War re-enactor and fellow history buff.