A street orphan finds himself in the kitchen of an enlightened chef as a storm of political intrigues and desperate desires buffet the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
In the early-16th century, Venice is in tumult, all because of a book. The book–or, rather, rumor of the book–was everything to everybody: The doge knew it possessed the answer to curing his syphilis; the city’s all-powerful Council of Ten understood it to contain information to bring Rome begging at Venice’s door; the poor thought its pages harbored the ultimate alchemical formulas. â€œPeople believe what they want to believe,” says Maestro Ferrero, chef to the doge and mentor to Luciano, the street urchin. Just so: Newmark’s brisk and tightly knit picaresque first and foremost pokes a sharp stick in the eye of uncritical religious belief while serving as a Slow Food manifesto and extended culinary metaphor. What the much-sought book actually holds, in the guise of recipes, is knowledge: of the beauty of humanity and divinity of every soul on earth, of the openness, the humanness, of â€œall those teachers in sandals.” But Newmark’s work is more than a screed against the schemers and merchants of greed within the power structures of religious institutions, though it does a neat job of severing the cords of thrall that keep people bound to faiths even against their worst interests. It is a clutching story, with love interests and court shenanigans, odd fellows and weird sisters lurking in wait for their stage entrance, scenes of comic hilarity around the dinner table, and a high-spirited tribute to the fruits of knowledge, how ideas and foods are cousins in delighting the senses and serving as revelations, capable of swinging open the shutters of mind and letting in some oxygen and light. In her own neat piece of alchemy, Newmark takes the heft of a potato and turns it into an ode for paying attention to all the things we put into ourselves.
Intelligence is the daily special on Newmark’s menu, served with facility and skill.