Celebrity Chefs, an Ancient Gourmand and a Set of Immortal Knives

I’ve been following The Debutante Ball since its inception a decade ago. I had always dreamed of being a Deb and I’m extra excited to be the first blogger to kick off the 2017 Debutante Ball. On behalf of the new Debutantes, I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to the 2016 Debs for all of their insight, advice and inspiration to us all.Apicius1709fr

Years ago I completed my M.A. in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston. For my synthesis project, I developed a non-fiction book proposal that encapsulated my research on creative writing exercises for writers in medias res–in the middle of a writing project. The problem was, I was a nobody. I had no platform. I had no credibility. Agents liked the idea of the book but thought that I needed to prove myself first. I either needed to teach or I needed to write a novel (or someone else needed to write one) using my writing exercises. I took up teaching and ended up having the opportunity to teach at some of Boston’s most prestigious universities. I also started writing a novel.

I’ve always loved food history and food writing, so naturally, I gravitated toward writing a novel with that theme. The first idea I had for a book involved an arrogant but talented celebrity chef who possessed a somewhat magical set of knives that had been handed down over many centuries. In researching the origin of those knives, I stumbled across a little anecdote about an ancient Roman, Marcus Gavius Apicius (pronounced Ah-peek-ee-us), who lived an extravagant life and died in a crazy way. The oldest known cookbook bears his name. I was enamored with the idea of the knives starting with Apicius and I wrote a scene about how he had the knives made as a gift for his chef. When that scene was finished, I realized it was miles better than the original novel I intended to write and that’s how FEAST OF SORROW was born.

Apicius was an insatiable gourmand who traveled the world looking for the choicest ingredients for his feasts. Pliny and Martial both mention him and his legacy as a lover of luxury. Seneca references his tragic death in his Consolations. Narrated by Apicius’ fictional slave and master chef, Thrasius, and set against the politics and culture of Imperial Rome, FEAST OF SORROW imagines the course of events that might have led to Apicius’ dramatic demise.

FEASTFEAST OF SORROW was a fantastically fun book to research and to write. My husband and I have recreated many of the dishes and some of them have become regular additions to our daily meals. Writing the book also fueled my love of Italy and led me to learn the Italian language. I can speak enough now that Italians don’t automatically switch to English when having a conversation with me!

Those knives are still in the picture. Apicius still gifts them to his cook, Thrasius, at a crucial point in the novel. They also make an appearance in my novel-in-progress, THE SECRET CHEF, which is set in Renaissance Italy. Who knows? Maybe a future novel will still have that celebrity chef and the same set of knives. And as for that original proposal about the book on writing exercises? Maybe that’s in my future too.

This year’s Debutante Ball will be a fun one, particularly for me as I get to know my fellow Debs, Amy, Lynn, Tiffany and Jenni. We’re a very diverse group, with books that are extremely different from each other’s. I am so excited to take the plunge with these five talented women! Now, onward, into the 2017 Debutante Ball year!

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Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.

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This article has 3 Comments

    1. Thanks, Sophie! In researching ancient Rome I was often struck by the parallels between our worlds. When I think of Apicius I think of the Michelin chefs whose life revolves around whether or not they have a certain number of stars. The thinking is very much the same.

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