The flavours settle across my tongue in shapes and colours. Sweetness pools, smug and tarry, like pitch seeping from a sun-warmed beam. Quicksilver balls of sourness skitter for a moment, then freeze into shards that fall like icicles brushed from a windowsill. Tiny pricks of vinegar mark out the footprints of the wasp. I let it all dissolve into golden light. (Kazan, Appetite 2)
A book to satiate every sense, Philip Kazan’s Appetite explores the nature not only of food but also of art and its relation to the flesh. With colourful descriptions setting one salivating at every turn of the page, he makes us aware more than any other novel of our own appetites – our hunger, our fleshly desires, and most of all the desire to fill the senses with beauty. It is this desire, our appetite for beauty or perfection, perceived and savoured through the senses, which gives rise to art; and it is because of this that Nino Latini must cook.
But as he rises through his career as a chef, Kazan’s protagonist finds himself gradually removed from the joy of pure and simple cooking to cooking for the entertainment of the rich and famous. Art is diminished: his dishes still satisfy every sense – indeed, they dazzle and overwhelm – but they remain devoid of a key ingredient. Life, a breath, a spirit. Food becomes a spectacle as empty as the human corpse Nino must watch being dissected, and in which Nino sees himself, as much as the makeshift golden corpse he later sets on the table before the Pope is also an expression of his dead self. He is a gold-plated automaton, holding nothing but flesh. And as he is empty so is his food; for while once his food was cooked and served for the pleasure of the appetite, now even as his food increases in splendour and sensuality it serves only black and insatiable greed.
In the end, though, he finds the key ingredient that has always been missing in his dishes: the elusive flavour that he once tasted in the streets of Florence in a simple broth of tripe sold by a street vendor. It is love, he says; but at the same time it is not just love – it is the whole of Florence through which, to Nino, this love runs. And so the only feast that Nino cannot remember is the feast at his own wedding; for as Kazan writes, ‘appetite must have a moment when it is sated’ -and it is sated, not with the overwhelming of the senses, but with the simple joy of living which can be found in love. So the story is wrapped in a life-celebrating warmth that comes not from the roaring furnaces of a grand kitchen but from the plain unadorned honey and cheese fed to Nino by the unconditional kindness of a peasant woman – from the common steaming bowl of tripe cooked by an old peasant it for love of his wife, and, at the beginning and end, enveloping his remembered tale like a sweet embrace, the golden fuzz of peach, fed to Nino by the hand of his love. Flesh is nothing without spirit, Nino finally learns; it means nothing to satisfy the body alone while the heart is cold and numb, or shut away and silenced. Kazan’s tale is a most of all an ode to the joys of both flesh and spirit: living – being and feeling alive – requires both. That’s when appetite can finally be sated, and that, Appetite reveals, is art.