By Crystal King
Marcus Gavius Apicius was a wealthy patrician who lived in Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Stories about this extravagant epicure have come down to us, and he is said to have published the very first printed cookbook.
Crystal King has taken the love of luxury, the obsession with fine dining and the notion of the chef as a star – themes we recognize in our own time – and mixed them up with history in a fine concoction of a novel.
Since it is a stretch to imagine that a patrician would actually do his own cooking, King has imagined Thrasius, a slave who turned Apicius’ dinner parties into the most sought-after in Rome. In the book, Apicius founds the first-ever cooking school, with Thrasius as its manager.
King shows for us the frescoed halls, the fountains and gardens, the markets, the fine architecture and the slums of ancient Rome. The brutality of this world is made clear in the very first sentence when Thrasius is shown on the auction block awaiting purchase as a slave.
Absolute power being as corrosive as it is known to be, King shows us what happens to slaves and to women who disobey or who are forced to marry men they loathe. Intricate to the plot too, is what happens when the power of Caesar forces men to curry favor with him.
This book was a compulsive page turner for me. I loved the recipes that preceded each chapter, tried to imagine eating them, and realized that Roman tastes differed greatly from our own.
Still, I’m going to try some of them. Although I draw a line at snails cooked in milk.