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The Food Taster    by Peter Elbling order for
Food Taster
by Peter Elbling
Order:  USA  Can
Plume, 2003
* *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

It's sixteenth century Italy. A small child watches his mother hang herself from a tree - to escape an even more horrifying death from the plague. It's all downhill from there. Ugo DiFonte's father and older brother make his life a living hell until he is old enough to take himself a wife. His lovely bride dies in childbirth and Ugo is left to raise their daughter Miranda. He treats the child like a princess and is surprised when she expects to always be looked upon as better than other people. Duke Frederico snatches Ugo and Miranda from their scraggly farm and takes them to his castle. Frederico, whose fear of being poisoned is legendary, demands that Ugo act as his new food taster.

And so a new and bawdy life begins for Ugo and Miranda. The Food Taster is chock full of descriptions of comestibles cooked at court, of lengthy banquets, and of the everyday life of the Italian nobility during that period of history. 'Chandeliers bearing hundreds of candles hung from the ceiling. Fine linen cloths covered the tables and at every place setting there were gold plates instead of trenchers ... The second course consisted of fried veal sweetbreads, liver covered with the sauce of eggplant and served with slices of prosciutto and melon as well as hot foods from the kitchen' ... a stark contrast indeed from the life of the servant or laborer.

Ugo falls into this life but then must struggle not to slip from grace. The story of how he accomplishes this is well-written - an absorbing account of a man who must use his wits to survive, and manages to do so. The basic story could be set in any period in time, but the century chosen is intriguing and the author paints vivid word pictures of the costumes, food and abodes. Ugo knows that each bite could be his last. He also knows that the Duke loves his daughter and that his daughter loves the cook. It's a brutal time when life is cheap. It's up to Ugo to save the day.

Full of intrigue, lust, humor and a glimpse of days gone by, The Food Taster is worth your time.

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