Stanley Tucci is an actor, director, producer, and writer whom you’ve probably seen in many movies. Most recently, he’s known as a lover and promoter of fresh Italian food in his CNN 6-episode show “Searching for Italy.” In it, he travelled to various parts of Italy from the far north to Sicily to learn about and eat regional dishes. I loved the show and learning about the different regions and their obviously delicious food. Apparently many people felt the same because there will be a second season starting in March:
In his memoir Taste: My Life Through Food, readers learn more about his life through a series of vignettes and stories filled with wonderful people and incredible food served with much humor (often self-deprecating). It’s a fun read as tasty as the food he describes.
Tucci was born in 1960 and grew up in New York state. I’d say that his childhood was as close to idyllic as any American boy’s was at that time. He had the added advantage of having parents whose heritage originated in Calabria, Italy (the toe of the boot). His mother was a fabulous cook, and love was an invisible ingredient in her food. His school lunches were the envy of his classmates. The extended Italian family was large and loving.
After college, Tucci moved to New York to begin his acting career. He writes about finding places to eat on his tight budget in a nostalgic way, especially when he later found that many of the best places at that time had closed (e.g., the Carnegie Deli). In his food searches, he discovered some unusual pairings. A Cuban-Chinese restaurant was among his favorites. His curiosity prompted him to learn what quirks of history brought together those two cuisines.
In a few years Tucci began to find success as an actor on the stage and screen. He needed to travel for work at times, giving him the opportunity to try different foods in various regions. He married and had three children with his first wife Kate. Sadly, she developed breast cancer and died four years after the first diagnosis, leaving Tucci with three small children to care for.
Tucci continued to find success in his career. Several years later he married Felicity Blunt and moved his family to London. As his wife was in the advanced state of pregnancy with their second child, Tucci discovered that the jaw pain he’d been experiencing was caused by a large cancerous tumor at the base of his tongue! It’s hard to imagine a more disturbing diagnosis for a person with such a love of food and all that goes with it.
When Tucci learned all the facts of treatment and what he would need to go through, he considered just letting the disease run its course. However, leaving five young children fatherless and the family without his income didn’t seem right. He also learned that the cancer had not metastasized, and that the cure rate for this particular form of cancer was 90%. He decided to seek treatment, which he described in horrific detail.
As treatment progressed, food began to smell and taste disgustingly foul. Then he lost his sense of taste. Later it became too painful to eat normally, and he had to use a feeding tube to “eat.” That meant all nourishment had to be basically soft mush to get through the tube directly into his stomach. This loss of being able to taste food and to enjoy eating it normally was devastating; even worse than he could have imagined. It took him months to rebuild his strength, gain weight, and be able to eat orally again. The entire process took him nearly two years to gradually return to somewhat normal habits.
One strange after-effect of his treatment was that his life-long issues with gluten, lactose intolerance, and sugar had disappeared. His metabolism speeded up as well. His system was essentially “reset” by ridding it of the cancer.
Throughout the book readers understand that eating, cooking, and the sharing of food have great importance in Tucci’s life. While most of the book is a pleasure and interesting to read, it’s in chapter 20 where Tucci gets serious, pulls it all together, and we truly understand the importance in his life.
It was a lesson brought home to him by his cancer ordeal in that particular part of his body. Had the cancer spread to the rest of his body or had he been one of the 10% for whom treatment did not work, he’d never have been able to “taste” or eat normally again. He says:
“…[F]ood was not just a huge part of my life; it basically was my life. Food at once grounded me and took me to other places. It comforted me and challenged me. It was part of the fabric that made up my creative self and my domestic self. It allowed me to express my love for the people I love and make connections with new people I might come to love.” [p.277]
As difficult to endure as his illness was, it also taught him perhaps his most valuable life lesson.
“I must admit that years ago I never thought that my passion and interest in food would come close to eclipsing how I felt about my chosen profession. Acting, directing, cinema, and the theater had always defined me. But after my diagnosis I discovered that eating, drinking, the kitchen, and the table now play those roles. Food not only feeds me, it enriches me. All of me. Mind, body, and soul. It is nothing more than everything.
Cook. Smell. Taste. Eat. Drink. Share. Repeat as necessary.
For better or for worse, those actions are now the definition of the person who is writing this. Were I not able to perform them, I would cease to exist.” [p. 278]
And Tucci does share with readers by including many RECIPES with us along with bits of information that will improve our Italian cooking skills. (My ONE complaint is that there’s no index of recipes.)
I highly recommend Taste for anyone who loves all the things I’ve mentioned here, but above all for the food, humor, and recipes. It’s a good meal all on its own.
This book will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.