If you’re looking for detail on the career of the great character actor Stanley Tucci, you should probably pass on his lovely new memoir Taste: My Life Through Food. Nowhere in its 300 witty pages will you learn what inspired Tucci to become an actor or how it felt to wear a lavender bouffant wig in The Hunger Games or to kiss Colin Firth in Supernova.
At age 60, “edging toward the mid-to-late autumn” of his years, Tucci finds that food – specifically, the way food connects him to the people he loves – means more to him than show business. A handful of celebrity co-stars make cameos in Taste, but only because they happened to be sitting across from him at a memorable meal. This book focuses on Tucci’s more intimate food experiences: the aubergine parm hoagies his mother packed in his childhood lunchboxes, the coq au vin he ate on his first date with his first wife, Kate (who died of breast cancer in 2009), magnificent breakfasts on German film sets (”Someone please employ me there again”) and how he is passing family culinary traditions onto his children, one salami sandwich at a time.
And what rich traditions they are. Tucci grew up in semirural Westchester County, New York, where he once found his immigrant Italian grandmother skinning a squirrel on the porch. Bottles of tomato sauce, simmered over an open fire and strained through a pillowcase, lined the shelves of the damp basement where his grandfather made cloudy purple wine. “Was it the best wine in the world?” Tucci asks. “No. Was it the worst? Very close. Did it matter? No. It was part of my grandfather, whom we adored, and that made it the sweetest liquid ever to pass our lips.”
This fusion of love and food is what gives Tucci’s book its sweetness. He writes of his family’s rituals with tenderness, from the Christmas timpano (a mighty pastry drum stuffed with ziti, salami, cheese, eggs and meatballs) to the epic Independence Day picnics at which guests played bocce, sang “Yankee Doodle”, drank jug wine and feasted on sausages and peppers. Of his mother, Tucci writes, “I can honestly say that on the four-burner electric stove she used throughout my childhood and on the gas hob that replaced it many years later, she has never cooked a bad meal. Not once.” The book includes a handful of recipes, including the meaty Tucci family ragu that I am eager to try.
Tucci adores restaurants almost as much as home cooking. He lovingly describes the defunct Manhattan eateries that sustained him as a struggling young actor, places like Big Nick’s, which sold “enormous, greasy, bloody burgers on plump buns”. There will always be a place in his heart for the Carnegie Deli, where towering pastrami sandwiches nourished body and soul “when you popped in late at night after a few too many at a cheap downtown bar, en route to the one-bedroom apartment you thought you’d be living in for the rest of your life if someone didn’t give you a job soon”.
Apparently, someone gave him a job fairly soon because within a few chapters Tucci is supping at glamorous restaurants in far-flung locales like Vancouver, Normandy and Reykjavik. Even when the food isn’t fabulous – he’s not a fan of Icelandic puffin – it makes a good story. In one of funniest scenes in the book, at a Normandy bistro, Tucci and his companions, including Meryl Streep, rashly order andouillette, a mysterious French sausage. Tucci looked down at his plate when it arrived and announced, in colourful language, that it looked like a male horse’s privates. Streep concurred. Redolent of cow intestines, it tasted even worse than it looked and everyone sheepishly sent back their andouillette and ordered omelets.
Since 2012, Tucci has been gradually moving food to the centre of his professional life. He’s written two cookbooks and earlier this year won an Emmy for his TV series In Search of Italy, a tantalising tour of the country’s distinctive regional cuisines. But in the darkest of ironies, in the book’s penultimate chapter, Tucci reveals that in 2017 he was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. The gruesome treatment didn’t just nauseate him, it also made even water burn his mouth “like battery acid”. For six months, he poured his food directly into his stomach via a feeding tube. Happily, Tucci is once again able to savour favourite dishes that he lists on a page toward the end of the book, from “chilli con carne (extremely mild!)” to “a fried egg on a very thin toasted bagel”. Reading this book will make you more attentive to the glorious – or modest – food on your table, and to the people with whom you are privileged to share it.
Jennifer Reese is the author of ‘Make the Bread, Buy the Butter’.
© The Washington Post