|Crystal King, photo by Wayne E. Chinnock|
Crystal King is the author of the new novel The Chef's Secret. She also has written the novel Feast of Sorrow. She has taught at various universities, including UMass Boston and Boston University.
Q: How did you learn about 16th century chef Bartolomeo Scappi, and why did you decide to write a novel based on his life?
A: When I was doing research for Feast of Sorrow and wanted to understand more about the ancient Roman gourmand Apicius, I kept coming across the name Bartolomeo Scappi as one of the most important chefs in the history of Italian cuisine.
I picked up the cookbook more out of curiosity than anything else. But I found that the cookbook is very readable and there is a lot of really fascinating information about the various regions where the food is from and about Bartolomeo's employers in the papal kitchen, and the various cardinals he worked for.
But there's not much about him and his life. There's a few small details like his nephew and apprentice, Giovanni, worked for him, and we know about the banquets that he created for his wealthy employers. But we don't have any idea where he lived or how much money he made or if he was in love or if he had any children. And so I really thought, this has to be my next book, I want to explore his life.
Q: What did you see as the right blend of the historical and the fictional as you wrote the novel?
A: In my first novel I was very careful not to take too much liberty with history, maybe because it was the first book I'd ever written. But in this book because we know so little about Scappi, I had a lot of leeway to make things up. I toyed with the history of other people from that timeframe as well, but where I did so it was also because we didn't know that much about their personal histories. And I figure that I'm writing fiction so I can make some things up.
But I always try to stay true to the general facts of the time and the way that certain things in history unfold. And where I take liberties, I want to be very clear with my readers so I always put that information in the Author’s Note.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I begin my research usually when I'm reading other books, other histories. I spend a great deal of time trying to understand everything I can about my real characters and the time in which they lived. When I have the structure of the book, I will often reach out to historians for more information, and I will attempt to go to the places that I talked about in my books, which means a trip to Italy. For my first two books I started in this way.
However, for my third book, I had the book idea in mind and visited several of the cities where the book takes place before I began writing about those locations. I think that will lend a different flavor to the book.
I wasn't in a position to be able to make a trip to Italy when I first began writing but now I have that ability, and I do believe that walking in the places where my characters walk makes a huge difference in helping me bring the story to life, and making the reader feel like they're a part of that world.
I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that in 1577 there was a comet that appeared in the sky that was seen by people all over Europe for almost two months straight. I was really struck by this, and that it would be seen in the sky for so long.
I imagined what this might have been like for the people who didn't understand what a comet was. Then I started thinking about the framework for the book, and I realized the comet made a perfect frame for what I wanted to accomplish, so that was a super happy surprise.
Q: Have you tried any of Scappi's recipes, and what do you think of them?
A: I've tried many of Scappi’s recipes. They are sometimes strange, sometimes delicious, and always surprising. In the Renaissance they were enamored with spice and with sugar. The wealthier you were the more of those items you could afford, and you would liberally put these ingredients into your dishes.
Scappi put sugar in everything. He also added rosewater, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and coriander to almost everything. Even his fried egg recipe calls for the egg to be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Yuck! On the other hand, he has some scrumptious recipes for pies and for roasted and braised meats that are just as delicious for modern palates today as they probably were 500 years ago.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a book that is also set in the Renaissance about the meat carver for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a man named Vincenzo Cervio. He was a real person but like the other historical figures I have written about we don't know much about his life.
He left behind a manual of carving that is striking because at that time one wouldn’t carve the meat on the table, you would hold the meat in the air on a fork, and carve the bird or the piece of meat in the air so that the meat falls miraculously in place onto the noble’s plate. This story is a very fun one told from two points of view, and one of those points of view is a strong female protagonist.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I just started a YouTube channel! I post at least once a week about food, history, books, cookbooks, writing and whatever else catches my fantasy. I’d love for people to come by, check out my videos and leave a comment to let me know what they are thinking.