Bath Literature Festival: Corn is a food for thought


Fans hoping for a flavour of Tracy Chevalier the person, rather than as the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, won't have been disappointed at the Bath Literature Festival today. Literally.

Chevalier, who has just published The Last Runaway, described how the taste of fresh corn on the cob helped establish her main character Honor Bright, a British-born Quaker who helped slaves escape the pre-Civil War deep south of the America to freedom in the north.

US-born Chevalier, who has lived in Britain for the last three decades, remembers that plucked-from-the-field taste well. "It just isn't the same here – it's usually been in the supermarket for days."

Honor Bright has travelled the other way. From Dorset to Ohio. And even when she's most disillusioned with her adopted country, "she had to admit that fresh corn on the cob and maple syrup are good things".

Rupert Thomson, who wrote This Party's Got to Stop, also had a food tale to tell. His new book Secrecy, an entwined love story and murder mystery set in 1690s Florence, features a man with a past, Gaetano Zummo.

Zummo, a real-life sculptor, creates "extraordinarily sensual" naked figures in wax which attract the attention of Cosimo III, the pious, next-to-last Medici ruler who was fascinated by the bizarre. "The Marquis de Sade also loved Zummo's sculptures," Thomson discovered during his research.

Like the painter Caravaggio,the sculptor is on the run from his native Sicily. So he's a little nervous of meeting the grand duke. He delays the encounter for days.

As a greeting gift to Florence, the grand duke's private secretary brings Zummo a great delicacy – a phial containing truffles. But this serves only to feed his paranoia.

"When he gives this to his boarding-house keeper to make him a risotto,  it's full of white, wriggling worms."