A historical coming-of-age tale of a person and a time period (17th-century England), this is the story of a cook and his eponymous cookbook and an allegory of service and human purpose.
Norfolk’s fourth novel arrives years after the well-reviewed In the Shape of a Boar (2001). John Saturnall is the son of a witch. Or is he? He lives with his mother, who roams with her collecting bag. The center of her life is the hearth, the pot where she brews her potions—the book of recipes her bible. John's mother catechizes him with this book of earthy delights. Then the Reformation asserts itself in Buckland village in the lank-haired form of Timothy Marpot, and a plague arrives shortly thereafter. Sin, with its immense explanatory power, sin that demands correction and expiation, leads to the search for sinners: John and his mother are victimized. Their lives appear heretical. Exiled from home, John is sent to the Manor at the opposite end of the vale. There, he grows into his calling as a cook in the clattering kitchens of Master Scovell; into his consciousness of class and the wages of factional warfare; and into his awareness of the importance of his mother’s holy book. What might it mean if the feast belonged to all and not merely to the cook who prepares or the guest who partakes? Norfolk assembles his Dickensian confection of character and incident that includes love and war to dramatize this pungent question. If his characters occasionally verge on caricature, if the foreshadows fall as hard as the executioner’s axe, neither weakness subtracts from the plot’s satisfactions, arriving steadily as a banquet’s courses.
Offers much to savor, notably the details of cooking and the central question: how preparing food is different than merely cooking it.