Later on this month we are cooking a heroic feast for 50 at the Brighton Festival. A literary theme is our only limit to creativity. For inspiration we tore straight into the library to research the greatest fictional meals since the dawn of time.
In the pantheon of literary debauches the account of Trimalchio's feast (Cena Trimachionis) rates pretty highly. It is an episode that appears in Petronius' first-century satire, Satyricon. Guests eat through a series of choreographed surprises including monster's eggs, unguents raining from the ceiling, a beast hunt, exploding cakes, slaves, a 200 pound boiled calf wearing a helmet, memento mori and a surprise visit from the fire brigade.
Of course Rome was not entirely populated with people like Trimalchio. The account is satirical, ripping into the vulgarity of a nouveau riche freeman. The feast however poses a challenge for the daring cook as it has the all the makings of a grand spectacle or shameful disaster. We'll be reaching for our copy of Apicius's De Re Coquinaria, the single surviving Roman cookbook to work out how to present this ambitious meal.
The process of fashioning a meal for contemporary dinners based on a fictional banquet written 2,000 years ago led us to think about a universal formula for feasting. Are there certain processes, approaches and activities that guarantee a glorious meal (or when they go wrong at least make it memorable)? Here are some of the techniques we use in a bid to be hailed as the ultimate host.
1 A Brew your own booze. This is impressive and inexpensive trick and the equipment required creates a great alchemic lab feel. And (until you've got the hang of it at least) it will be like nothing your guests have ever tasted.
1 B Make sure everyone has enough. Most people would think twice about drinking anything that can fuel a car but when it comes to alcohol they make an exception. That's probably because ethanol is also a fast acting medicine for social inhibition and small amounts (about .05% of the blood) causes feelings of euphoria and encourages conversation, song and dance. With the aid of this legal and time honored psychoactive drug the impact of the entertainment you provide will be multiplied with every glass... up to a point
NB Remember what you're dealing with. When the blood alcohol level reaches around 0.1% people are likely to be staggering round knocking things off your mantelpiece and replacing them with vomit. At .4% they'll be drifting off into unconsciousness and death. If you take a look at the statistics from Russia - where vodka is the nation's favorite tipple, you see just what the impact can be. In The Times in 2009, ran an article on the subject. Professor David Zaridze, led the international research team and calculated that alcohol had killed three million Russians since Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to restrict sales in 1987. He added: "This loss is similar to that of a war." You have been warned.
2 Make sure you have a smoke machine handy. Why shouldn't your party employ the elements of a film set or rock band arena tour. Just be wary that sometimes neighbors call the fire brigade.
3 High impact canapés are a winner. My favorites are breaded coxcombs in DIY vol au vent. If you're serving something that everyone has eaten before then you're spoiling their appetite without impressing them.
4 Cook a pig's head and trotters. It's a centerpiece you can snack on and you get a lot of bang for your buck. In the past we've used the cooked trotters as cigarette holders. The possibilities are endless.
5 Have some overproof spirits around for setting stuff on fire. As mentioned before alcohol is an excellent fuel. It's volatile and flammable but burns at a relatively low temperature so isn't as dangerous as some of the more noxious chemicals we regularly use.
6 Hollow out bits of fruit like pineapples, melons and pumpkins. Freeze them to use as a massive glasses at the party. Tropical!
7 Make it seem like the room is full of people. The best feasts have a bustling tavern atmosphere. If you're are worried about not having enough guests move all your furniture into your designated feasting room. It'll feel packed and can double as a fun assault course for your guests.
8 Turn down the lights. Bright lighting makes people feel like they have to behave and that's not what you want.
9 If you want guests to dance the music has to be loud enough. People will only dance if the music is over 85 decibels.
10 Take advantage of the sexiness of cigarettes and tobacco products. They may contribute to cancer but everyone likes a bit of danger at the end of the meal. After all the occasional fag isn't as bad as an unwanted pregnancy. We make flower arrangements out of cigarettes and cigars that are brought to table with the coffees for a pumping finale.
If you follow Trimalchio's lead, the final elements of the meal can be served with a memento mori (he chooses a little silver skeleton) to encourage people to make the most of life and perhaps reach for a final cocktail. Here's how Trimalchio heralds the final stage of the meal.
'Look! Man is just a bag of bones.
He's here, and gone tomorrow!
We'll soon be like this fellow, so
Let's live! Let's drown our sorrow!'
Declaimed by Trimalchio in Satyricon
Pop down on the 23 May to the Hendrick's Library, to see how it turns out for yourself.
Bompas & Parr will be hosting a Literary Feast in Hendrick's Library of Delightfully Peculiar Writings at Brighton Fringe on 23 May. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit, www.brightonfringe.org