As a kid, Crystal King was a picky eater.
"We grew up on processed food. My father was traveling a lot, and my mom had three kids, and just trying to feed us and keep her sanity meant a lot of Hamburger Helper and Trix and mac and cheese," she said. "I think my blood was actually probably orange from Kraft Mac & Cheese."
You'd never guess it from reading her novels. King's first book, Feast of Sorrow (2017), centers on Marcus Gavius Apicius, the real-life gourmand of ancient Rome whose name appears on the cover of the world's oldest cookbook. Recipes and excerpts from that book are scattered through the story of his fictional slave and chef, Thrasius, who is responsible for his epic dinner parties. References to things like peacock meatballs, anchovy-entrail sauces and fried hare livers, which would have sent the adolescent King into dry heaves, are described in loving detail. Even more startling, King said that she didn't just write about those things—she cooked them.
"Because I'm writing about people who left cookbooks behind, real people who left cookbooks, I don't think that I could understand the story [without testing the recipes]. I really wanted to be able to cook and experiment with those cookbooks so that I could understand the flavors of that time frame," she said.
So, how did a finicky eater develop such an adventurous palate? The answer is simple: She fell in love with a third-generation Italian.
"When I met my husband he was a lot more adventurous, and I thought, 'I like this guy. I'm going to try everything once,'" King said. A friend's gift of a book by legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher helped, too. "Her books were amazing, and it kind of opened my worldview up a bit," King said.
Her fascination with Italian culture sprang from a similar font. King started learning the language in order to build a stronger relationship with her husband's bilingual family, and the dominos of obsession fell from there. Soon, she was burying herself in dusty texts and cookbooks that would eventually become Feast of Sorrow, and daydreaming about traveling to Rome.
"For ancient Rome for Feast of Sorrow I read Suetonius and I read Cato the Elder's treatises On Agriculture and lots of source material," she said, admitting she has also built quite the collection of cookbooks, both ancient and modern.
King eventually made it across the pond, and those now-annual trips were instrumental for her second book, The Chef's Secret, which hit shelves this February. Set in 16th-century Italy, more than 1,500 years after Feast of Sorrow, the historical novel is another blend of fact and fiction, centering on the life and death of Bartolomeo Scappi, who once served as private chef to the Vatican. On Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m., King will bring the page-turning novel to Boise for a reading at Rediscovered Books. It will be something of a homecoming for her. Though King lives in Boston and teaches at writing centers and universities across the country, she graduated from Centennial High School and her family still lives in Boise.
In many ways, The Chef's Secret is a classic historical drama, full of intrigue, star-crossed love, family turmoil, shocking revelations and twists of fate. What sets it apart from other fiction of that sort is the cuisine, which once again is practically a minor character. King waded so deep into food research that she produced a companion cookbook—free to download on crystalking.com under the Historical Food tab—just as she had for Feast of Sorrow. It holds 27 recipes from Scappi's cookbook (adapted by King, her husband Joe, and a team of food historians and cookbook authors) like turnip soup, duck liver crostata, pumpkin cheesecake pie, sour cherry-coriander ice cream with honeyed pine nuts, and other surprises.
"There's actually a fried chicken recipe that's 500 years old, so fried chicken is not southern. It's actually fried chicken, it's breaded and you fry it, and it's chicken, but it's made with strange spices. You brine it in vinegar with coriander, cloves and cinnamon, and then you flour it and fry it," she said.
For many of King's fans, the food takes center stage. One advance reader of The Chef's Secret filled her entire Thanksgiving menu with its recipes, and King said that since Feast of Sorrow's release, she has thrown more than one dinner party/book signing, partnering with professional chefs to recreate ancient and Renaissance-era Italian meals. Unfortunately, no such party is slated yet for Boise, but considering King's family connection to the City of Trees, there's still hope for a food-filled future visit.
"That is like the best experience, to be able to sit down and have a meal that might have tasted somewhat like it would have tasted from another chef and another time," she said.