Cambridge Chefs Bring the Food in Crystal King’s “Feast of Sorrow” to Life

feast of sorrowNothing like a good read, a glass of wine and a fig cake cooked from a 2,000-year-old Roman recipe. Photo: Crystal King.

“This was a feast indeed, a rare treat of a novel so richly evocative that the reader cannot help but lose themselves in the wonder of arriving in ancient Rome.”

From the Goodreads review quoted above to NPR’s food blog The Salt, critics and writers are devouring local author Crystal King’s novel Feast of Sorrow, a tale of ancient Rome in which the food is so carefully researched and specifically conjured you’ll wonder if she didn’t somehow travel through time to experience the dishes herself.

Which is funny, since this isn’t the story she set out to write at all.

“I was originally writing a different book entirely,” King chuckles.

Feat of Sorrow tells the fictionalized tale of real-life gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, who was likely the wealthiest Roman in first century AD. Apicius traveled the world looking for the most luxurious ingredients and aspired to be gastronomic advisor to Caesar, and it’s partly thanks to him that King could so accurately depict the dishes of the day: “The legacy that he left us is a cookbook that bears his name,” she explains. “It was compiled in the third or fourth century, and it’s the oldest known cookbook.”

King has always been interested in food; she’s a voracious reader of food memoirs and has a passion for dining out and for food history. So when she encountered Apicius’s story as she worked on a different book about a contemporary chef, she decided to dig a bit deeper.

Soon, she found herself so swept up in the food and drink of ancient Rome that she and her husband—another food fanatic—began cooking the era’s recipes themselves, both from Apicius’s cookbook and from Roman cookbooks written by present-day food historians.

“As I was writing to book, I realized that I kind of need to understand what these flavors are and how they’re put together,” King explains. Because the food and drink of Apicius’s time isn’t like the Italian fare you’re thinking of—there’s very little pasta, for example. They didn’t have lemons or eat tomatoes, and they didn’t have forks. They did cook with flamingo and peacock tongues, and they ate dormice, a rodent similar to a flying squirrel.

Also on the menu? Boiled sow’s vulva. “We’re not gonna eat that,” King laughs.

But some of the fare in Apicius’s time is easily adaptable for today’s palate. King says his cookbook contains something like 165 recipes for sauces, and ancient Romans actually ate french toast and donuts.

King’s Apicius obsession eventually resulted in a companion cookbook for the novel that features Roman recipe adaptations from some of the area’s most notable chefs, including Barbara Lynch and Benedetto‘s Michael Pagliarini and Renae Connolly, who will even serve a three-course, Apicious-themed meal at the restaurant tonight. (“He is a real food geek at heart,” King says of Pagliarini. “He gets so interested in the history.”)

All told, King spent more than a year researching Roman history and food—traveling to and from Italy, learning Italian. She’s hooked, and says her second book is about an Italian Renaissance chef.

Almost of sounds like she’s just looking for excuses to eat and drink her way through Italy, no?

“There are worse places to do research,” King admits. “It’s not been any sort of chore to work on the book, that’s for sure.”