British writer Lawrence Norfolk is known for layered historical novels -- his previous efforts, "Lempriére's Dictionary" and "The Pope's Rhinoceros," were ambitious blends of historical fact and fiction. Each work clearly involves laborious research; Norfolk's latest, "John Saturnall's Feast," took 12 years to write.
"John Saturnall's Feast" spans nearly the entire life of the titular character. In a 17th-century village, young John's mother teaches him all about wildlife, as well as the local tale of Buccla, a witch who gave a great feast in honor of the pagan god Saturn. After villagers -- led by a religious zealot who has gained local prominence -- begin to suspect John's mother is a witch, John escapes to the kitchen of the local manor, Buckland House.
Norfolk lavishes loving attention on the workings of a 17th-century manor-house kitchen. A miniature world unto itself, with its own rules and traditions, the kitchen is a place of formidable labor. Even washing dishes is an epic task: "The scullions plunged their arms into the troughs, scrubbing and splashing, only pausing to yell 'Washing out!' before pulling the plugs. Then ash and grease-thickened water poured onto the flour, washing about the boys' ankles."
Our culture is currently going through quite a phase of chef worship, gobbling up works by Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver, and watching chefs compete against one another on "Top Chef." "John Saturnall's Feast" at times seems like a 17th-century "Kitchen Confidential"; while there is certainly a plot, Norfolk seems primarily interested in describing the making of food and the politics of the kitchen, delighting in the historical kitchen jargon: "The boys maneuvered their loads around the chafing dishes and stacked them next to the firedogs. In the hearth's cavernous mouth rose the wheels, handles and poles of the spit."
John moves up through the ranks of the kitchen staff, while in the background historical events come and go. King Charles II visits the manor house; the Civil War erupts and the men of the manor house are sent to war; John struggles to keep the household together during the austerity of Cromwell's regime.
Throughout it all, there's a love plot involving John, the aristocratic Lucretia and Lucretia's lily-livered suitor, Piers. This clichéd love triangle takes up a great deal of the book, but feels undernourished by the writer. There's more passion in Norfolk's descriptions of the kitchens.
The physical book itself is a work of art, full of beautiful illustrations and recipes (or "receipts") in 17th-century style. Still, this adds to the sense that "John Saturnall's Feast" is at its heart an enjoyable, historically themed cookbook. The plot serves as a way to get to the "good stuff" -- the descriptions of making food.
Laura C.J. Owen is a freelance writer living in Tucson, Ariz. Read more of her writing at www.lauracjowen.com.