Wednesday, September 12, 2012

John Saturnall’s Feast, by Lawrence Norfolk. Grove Press, 2012

‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ is set near the start of the English Civil War. John is the child of a woman who is a sort of outcast; an herbalist and midwife, she lives on the outskirts of the village and doesn’t go to church. Of course this means she is thought of as a witch. When a plague runs through the village, she is blamed and they are run out of town. They take up living in a deserted house in the woods, living on late season fruit and chestnuts. She is dying, of both starvation and disease, but before she dies, she teaches John to read from a book about a strange feast held in Buccla’s Wood. It encompasses every form of food; fish, fowl, vegetables, sweets, mammals are all included, and the feast is for everyone, not just the rich as is the way of the land at the time. At her wish, after her death, he is taken to Buckland Manor where he is put to work in the vast kitchens. 

John’s life changes totally. Used to being alone or with only a couple of people, he is now constantly pressed by people on all sides. He works every minute of the long day and falls directly into a sleep that never seems to be long enough. Still, given the time and place, it’s a good situation. Food is abundant here, he’s living inside, and after awhile he gets to learn cooking. He’s in a better place than a lot of people.

This is primarily a love story; a love that crosses classes and is forbidden- preserving estates and titles takes precedence over love. It’s also an adventure story; the kitchen staff marched with the lord of the manor when he went to war supporting King Charles, and they were expected to fight with the soldiers. I liked the characters. They are not likable all the time; they do stupid, human, things sometimes. But, in the end, it’s a story about food.

We might think that cooking back in those days was fairly primitive, but it wasn’t. It was actually very sophisticated. One of the culinary trends back then was to create dishes that looked like something else – parts of animals and birds sewn together to create a mythical beast, meat in pastry to look like a bird, sugar creations in the shape of just about anything. Cooks vied to create the most elaborate and surprising dishes- a sort of Iron Chef, Stuarts edition. Most of the year, the diet was rich and varied; the manor supplied fish from its own ponds, poultry, eggs, dairy products, pork, honey, wheat, fruit and vegetables (they did eat their ‘sallets’) and much was stored for winter. A stable trade system meant the upper classes enjoyed sugar and spices. The sheer amount of person power it took to feed a manor was incredible- most workers were specialists, turning the spits in the kitchen, washing the endless stream of dirty dishes, plucking fowl, managing the fish ponds, the dove cote, the hen houses, the spice room, making the salads, cutting up the meat… and all those people had to be fed, too. You can see how a book can be created around a kitchen of the era! The food, and John’s relationship to it and how he uses it to speak to the lady of the manor, is lovingly detailed, much more so, really, than the people.

Food was not always plentiful, however. It was easy to starve back then. The stark difference between the incredible plenty of the start of the story versus what they have to deal with when the Roundhead soldiers steal the food from the manor and destroy what they cannot take shows how dramatically life can change. John falls back on how he and his mother lived in the woods, and on what he learned from the book of the Feast. He is the hero of the tale, for all the people living on the manor.

What the Feast was is never made clear. It’s like a myth of a Golden Age, when all were equals and food was plentiful. Was it a pagan community that had existed in the woods before Christians arrived? Was it a myth to comfort the reader, a dream to hold onto? Did it have a direct bearing on John’s ancestors? Was the book a semi-magical teaching aid that allowed John to excel in the manor kitchens later? In the end, it doesn’t matter. It allowed John to hold on and to save the manor.

‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ is a story of cycles and renewals, both earthly as the wheel of the year turns and spiritually, as human hope and happiness comes up again and again. 

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