New HNS Feature: Exploring Food as the “Great Connector” in The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Crystal King is celebrating the release of her new novel, The Chef's Secret, her second book featuring one of Italy's most influential chefs, and I recently had the chance to ask her a few questions on behalf of the Historical Novel Society.


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.”


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