Food for Prose - Umberto Tosi

 Ma and her lasagna, c. 1973
'Tis the season to be eating. In our family - as in others close and extended - we've always celebrated the holidays with food -- replete with traditional dishes prepared joyfully, savoured to the lively music of conversation. We gathered smiling - sometimes overcoming discomforts -  from near and far. Each year I've enjoyed such meals with the fine wines of cherished memories that stretch unbroken, from my own childhood through the growing up of my daughters, arrival of grandchildren, with ups and downs, joys and sorrows well into my dotage.

I name the chapters of my memoir - ever in progress - after memorable entres -- from childhood in Boston: my nonna's ricotta-stuffed ravioli and braccioli in rich ragu, as a struggling dad in Los Angeles and San Francisco: my own lightning linguine al le vongole from scratch: segue into pesto from garden-grown basil, and in California's Central Valley home-made Christmas Tamales. Time and pandemic have made such feasting difficult over the past few years. Even sans Covid, I have become less  able to enjoy life's bounties -- with more and more foods and whole categories of foods forbidden or curtailed by the crusty infirmities of age. My daughters, excellent cooks themselves, however, had carried our food traditions forward, evolving continually.

The characters in my works rarely go long without eating something meaningfully intended. Most of them live to eat. Only a few eat just to live. -Aromatic overtones from a kitchen alert a three-star chef to big trouble with her son in From Cradle to Gravy (leading my collection, Sometimes Ridiculous) for example. I spent as many long hours researching foods as I did sixteenth-century history, castles costumes, art and theatre to colour the historical fiction of Ophelia Rising.

Ophelia and Hamlet would have been contemporaries of the real Renaissance painters, poets, and the Italian royal cooks who elevated cuisine to an art form for lavish feasts to demonstrate their princes' power and largesse.

Among Ophelia Rising's culinary examples is a royal wedding party scene taken from real life accounts that reads: "... Servants took away their plates and brought more along with platters of partridge, milk veal sausages, fried sweetbreads, German-style capons baked with sweet wine and mace, raisin stuffed rolls. ... More food, more music, more toasts from the main table now – to the newly betrothed their families... The courses progressed from soups to game to fish – sweet pastry tarts stuffed with spleens of bass, mullet and pike simmered in orange juice, raisins and cinnamon. Trout tails sautéed in lemon. Lobster tails in cream sauces, eels baked in marzipan – every platter arranged artistically, with swirls of nuts and garnish ..."

As 2021 closed, I finished reading two books about food by fellow Italian-Americans: the first: actor Stanley Tucci's Taste: My Life Through Food. The second Lawrence DiStasi's new novel, Eat. Tucci's is a moving, tasty culinary confessional memoir, as intimate as a bistro dinner, replete with recipes, ending with the actor's heroic recovery from mouth cancer three years ago. 

Tucci describes in vivid terms how food has played an integral role in every phase of his life. Taste, My Life Through Food (via Literary Hub) seasoned with recipes. He begins with traditional family meals and food gardening from his childhood in suburban New York. It follows his personal life and career all the way his roles in food-related in films, including that of Julia Childs' husband in Nora Ephron's delightful  Julie & Julia and Tucci's award-winning, comedy cult classic, Big Night, which he co-directed.

Lawrence DiStasi's novel, on the other hand, is about not eating: fasting, not for any practical. political or spiritual reason like weight control, or protesting for a cause, or religious sacrifice, for fasting itself. The novel follows its-professor protagonist as he tries to intervene in a former college friend's long, dangerous fasting to achieve freedom from food altogether, and evolution towards deriving sustenance from sunlight alone. It follows the protagonists journey from concern and intervention to seduction and alliance.

He sees his old friend's point - that fasting indefinitely frees humans from having to destroy other life -- even vegetable life -- in order to survive. His fasting drama draws not only his wife, but friends, students and the administration and faculty of a Pennsylvania college town into dramatic confrontation that illuminates society's cultural and psychological passions around eating.

DiStasi serves up classic intellectual fare with his latest novel. I got to know Lawrence DiStasi back in my 1980s San Francisco days when I contributed to the Big Book of Italian American Culture -- a 1990 anthology that he edited for Harpers, filled with biographical pieces about Italian-Americans who shaped America's politics, science, and culture..Professor DiStasi, in turn, penned some memorable articles for magazines I edited back in the 70s-90s.

 Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni

Like most gourmands, I have a semi-permanent list of favourite novels centered on food -- as art, sensual experience and metaphor. Here are my current picks. Please add your own in the comments below and maybe we can create a literary menu.  

Here are my faves (each of which was adapted as a film) -- in no particular order except my peculiar tastes are:  

Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni: is a mesmerizing work of mythology and whimsy. The author exposes a spice merchant for who she really is– a goddess of savourings imparting magical powers to each of her spice concoctions in the strange Western world in which she finds herself and opens her enchanted shop.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: is an epic yet intimately personal in focus on family through food., Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate tells the first-person tale of Tita De La Garza, the youngest daughter in a family living in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrator offers each of the novel's twelve chapters as a "monthly installment" chronicling Tita's pursuit of true love and personal independence. Each instalment features an authentic recipe - something I loved about it.. The story Like Water For Chocolate unfolds with these recipes, served with secondary recipes and food references.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – Focuses on four Chinese American immigrant families in San Francisco who start a club known as The Joy Luck Club, playing majong for money while feasting on a variety of deliciously described. foods. 

 Amy Tan
Babette's FeastIsak Dinesen, as fans know, is one of five beautifully written, magical stories from the author of Out of Africa. It tells the story of a French cook working in a puritanical Norwegian community, who treats her employers to the decadent feast of a lifetime. 

Chocolat by Joanne Harris – “A charming confectioner turns a French town upside down with her bewitching chocolate creations Vianne Rocher, and her spirited young daughter.”

The Flounder by Gunter Grass: If you've discovered yourself in a strange and profound relationship with your food, for example, it talking to you, check Grass' surreal classic.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg: I loved the movie, but the novel is tastier -- filled with Southern cooking, charm, wit, heartbreak in a small town cafe.

Happy reading, writing and buon appettito a tutti in the coming year!

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Happy New Year to all from Umberto Tosi
, (department-store Santa emeritus), author of Milagro on 34th Street, The Phantom Eye, Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, High Treason, Sports Psyching and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.

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Enjoy my Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook by Light Fantastic Publishing - soon to be followed by Oddly Dead and Death and the Droid.

 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.

"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.
 

 




Comments

Griselda Heppel said…
Trust me to read this at the end of a long morning - oh my goodness you have made me so HUNGRY. Linguine alle vongole now please, and ravioli with your nonna’s ragu. All sounds DELICIOUS. Which just shows how important food is in taking your readers with you. Agree absolutely the part it plays in world building - oh wow those fabulous Elizabethan feasts with their extraordinary dishes, sugar and offal all served together - as well as keeping your characters going. Somehow when feeding your characters you nourish your readers too. Think of that glorious description of Scrooge being taken through the fresh food market by the ghost of Christmas Present. Bother, I’m even hungrier now. Lovely post.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Griselda! Bon apetit and happy feasting in the coming year!
Aliciasammons said…
Great blog--inviting us to reflect on our lives dish by tasty dish. So many wonderful meals shared with friends and family came to mind as I read. ´You are what you eat´ certainly rings true--not just physiologically, but emotionally and culturally as well. We mark our lives with the dishes we have shared with those we love. Thank you for encouraging us to view our own lives through those special meals that have nourished our bodies, our minds and our souls.

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