Title: John Saturnall’s Feast
Author: Lawrence Norfolk
Published: 04 September 2012 (first published 1 August 2012 by Bloomsbury)
Publisher: Grove Press
Genre: historical, romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
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 story of 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.” From what I understand, the Feast is not just a meal, but an act of worship, a kind of knowledge about the natural world, and a generous attitude toward life. Keeping the Feast is about bringing forth life from the earth, nurturing it, and using its bounty to create culinary pleasures that are shared with others. The First Garden is a paradise of abundance and eating:
Date Palms grew in the First Garden. Bees filled the Combs in the Hives and crocuses offered their Saffron. Let the first Dish be great enough for All to dip their Cups. Let the Feast begin with Spiced Wine…
Saturnus created more gardens in the air and the rivers, before planting orchards. Each of these he populated with animals and plants and “[e]ach garden yielded a surpassing dish”. The First Garden was later named 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, scattering them across the world.
This tale finds several parallels in the novel, the first of which happens 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 one of his own. For a while John and his mother live off the land, but when winter comes Susan eventually starves to death in the cold.
John is taken to Buckland Manor, where he’s put to work in the kitchens and taught to cook. He possesses an uncanny sense of smell, which his mother said was “a demon in his throat […] A demon who knew every smell in Creation”. John’s sense of smell is not as keen as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s in Perfume, but it makes him an excellent cook. Cooking is, of course, part of his purpose in keeping the Feast, and is tied up with everything his mother taught him. Part of his duty is creating a book containing his recipes and his knowledge of the ingredients he uses. In between chapters of the novel are extracts from this book, written by an adult John, describing the complex recipes for the decadent dishes made in 17th century kitchens for nobles and royals.
These recipes are almost beyond belief. Everything is made from scratch of course, and every recipe sounded like it would take at a day to make, often requiring hours of mundane effort or 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. How anyone ate that, I don’t know. The Spiced Wine on the other hand, sounds so rich and delicious as to be mythical; I can’t imagine anyone today going to the effort it takes to make it.
The quantity of food that goes in and out of the kitchen is staggering (and mouth-watering). Fresh produces arrives daily or comes straight from the land, lakes, and fields of the manor – fruits, vegetables, fowl, fish, meat, nuts, honey, milk and herbs. I hadn’t heard of many of the ingredients, but I still wanted to try almost every concoction.
The food, as you may have guessed, was my favourite thing about this beautifully written novel. ‘Sensual’ will probably be the word most often used to describe it, and I must have been sighing with longing as I read. I also had to admire Norfolk’s depiction of a 17th century kitchen and the household it serves. John Saturnall’s Feast is superb historical fiction, transporting you effortlessly into the life of this small but vibrant world. The kitchen is sort of a class of its own, with its own rules and hierarchies. For example, no stranger, no matter how noble, is allowed to enter the kitchens without the permission of an officer of the kitchen. The kitchen itself is huge, with rooms for things like curing 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 starts out in the scullery, where he washes dishes for hours on end, barely raising his head. Then, he learns the minutiae of cooking techniques. Later, he cooks for hours on end paying careful attention to every detail. And that’s just a normal day. When the Manor is host to guests, the work intensifies. When banquets are held, the servants struggle upstairs to the dining room, groaning under the weight of immense dishes or tureens of spiced wine. The sad thing is that the people who work the kitchens from morning to night are never seen to enjoy the delicious things they make. In between shifts, they sit down to a bit of bread (but not the good bread) and porridge. At best, the cooks sample their dishes before sending them upstairs. It’s all a matter of class, and no one questions it. 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 prepare food and wash dishes.
Other parts of the narrative give us a glimpse of what’s going on upstairs – a completely different world where the kitchen is seldom mentioned. It seems bizarre, at times, that people are NOT thinking about the hive of activity going on in the kitchen beneath them. But, as Norfolk mentioned in a video about the book the people upstairs would probably never come down to the kitchens. Most of the household parts are told from the perspective of Lady Lucretia, the daughter of the Lord of Buckland. Lucretia is a child when we first see her, and she has an odd habit of fasting, as her mother used to do. Whatever her reasons, it seems insane for her to eschew food when you know how much effort goes into cooking it for her.
John’s great culinary challenge comes about a decade after his arrival at Buckland. He’s called to cook for Lucretia after she goes on a hunger strike to protest her betrothal to a boy she can’t stand. A family dictate prevents her (or any woman) from inheriting the Buckland estate, and to avoid losing it she has to marry into a related family. John’s task is to cook something so delicious, that even Lucretia will not be able to resist it. If she ends her fast, she is essentially submitting to betrothal. Every day John cooks for hours and then waits patiently while she ignores him and his dishes. A tragedy, I thought. I would have given in the moment John described one of his many sublime creations, and found myself married to a buffoon for the sake of dessert. But Lucretia has more determination than that, and John’s daily ritual is the beginning of a romance that’s doomed from the start. Not only are the pair thwarted by 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, even though poor John only goes to war as a cook. The heavier themes come to the fore – duty, family legacy, and the contrast between religious fanaticism and the peaceful unity of the Feast. Throughout the novel, Norfolk elegantly entwines these themes with food, myth and history, and the whole is a beautiful, delectable, and touching. It can be a tad slow at times, but this is a book to savour, not a page-turner. Given what Norfolk has achieved here, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up one of his other historical novels, even though I don’t often dabble in this genre. There are some books that simply defy preference. If you love food, you should read this. If you love historical fiction about this period, you should read this. But mostly you should just read it because it’s a lovely piece of storytelling.