Fiction writers benefit from reading books on craft, but they also can learn from books about routine yet important activities we humans do—like eating. Even tongue-tied fictional characters can “talk with their hands” when they cook and eat. The scene I enjoyed writing most in Mortal Things features two such widowers, one old and one young, fashioning an impromptu pasta e fagiola from a very bare cupboard.
Nonfiction books about food culture fill several shelves in my house, and one of my recent favorites is Stanley Tucci’s Taste: My Life Through Food, which I recommend to writers and readers alike.
While there’s room in my reading life for “food porn,” Stanley Tucci’s Taste aims a fair sight higher, and he succeeds, entertaining readers with good stories and reminding them of the vital role food and food culture play in our lives. Fiction writers make use of all aspects of human life, including food and food preparation, to give readers a way to understand their characters. I read Tucci’s book while doing final edits on Mortal Things, my novel that will be published on October 4. In it, characters interact while preparing food and over shared meals. Even when alone, their food experiences can prompt deep dives into their emotional history, as it does for all of us.
Granted, Taste is a celebrity memoir, but Stanley Tucci’s film work and what I’ve read about him always have suggested that he’s probably more of an ordinary guy than most famous actors. Tucci’s acting range is broad, but he can evoke the Everyman character better than most other actors. Unless he’s playing a monster, we believe in and root for his character. This quality comes through in Taste and is one of the reasons that I think many readers will find it appealing.
But the food memoir is not the first time his passionate and endearing persona has worked its magic. In the documentary television series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, he brings viewers to fascinating food environments and to the people who create wonderful food. We meet amazing restaurant and food industry artists—from chefs to humble grassroots farmers and cooks—and Tucci makes us feel like we belong. He brings us along on these forays the way friends or relatives would show you the secret food glories of the exotic place where they’ve relocated.
In more ways than one, Tucci has indeed relocated. Today, he lives in England and rubs elbows with A-list stars of cinema, globe-trots to various exotic locations, and has developed friendships with famous as well as unknown food creators to the point that he can walk into many a fine restaurant (or private home) and be treated like, well, royalty. Or like a family member.
Family runs through Taste so tellingly that it might be considered a sub-theme. Yes, readers hear great stories behind tantalizing dishes, complete with recipes—Will I dare attempt to follow his recipe for the epic Timpano?—and they learn about the complex and important role played by food in human life and culture, but they also are shown how family fits into all of this.
Once you’ve read the chapters about Tucci’s early food-centric family life in a fairly typical Italian-American family (neither poverty-stricken nor bourgeois), the actor’s adult explorations into food culture make complete sense. Those years with his immediate and extended family left him knowledgeable about, interested in, and passionate about food. He knew in his brain, his heart, and in his skillet-grasping hands about food’s cultural importance and about its vital role in connecting people, even strangers. Tucci’s relationship with food provides no small part of his identity; it factors into how he sees himself and understands how he fits in the world.
His mother’s cooking (and his entire family’s intense engagement with food, cooking, and eating) launched him into a life of profound interest in food and what it means to us. Perhaps his authority, credibility, and authenticity as a food fanatic would have developed absent his mother’s touch in the kitchen, but I doubt it. He learned from that loved and well-fed childhood that he was part of something larger than himself. He developed passion for what humans can do that is good and nourishing to others, especially those whom they love.
The book is not all peaches and pizzas. Life’s storms impact his life, as they do with all of us, and he walks us through that too. Through it all, Stanley Tucci has not forgotten where he came from and who nurtured his young life, literally and figuratively. The book’s ending leaves the reader concluding that Tucci’s children may likewise remember their own blessings.
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Mortal Things, my novel, will be published October 4, and if you’d like to pre-order it, you can do it on the nedbachus.com website or at Tree of Life. If you’re in Philly, join us for the book launch at the Mermaid Inn TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY on October 4 at 7 PM. https://www.treeoflifetreeofjoy.com/mortal-things