TASTE: MY LIFE THROUGH FOOD
Interest declared. Though he is better known for The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games, Stanley Tucci played Stanley Kubrick, very well, too, in the classic HBO film The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, for which I was a consultant and which is based on my biography of Sellers.
Tucci is a dry, spare, compact actor, who keeps himself very still — an American Ian Holm — and as we discover in this superb book, the world nearly lost him.
Now aged 60, Tucci is recovering from a terrifying cancer battle. Four years ago, he began having shooting pains in his jaw, which became unendurable. He went to see a doctor in London, who immediately noticed a huge tumour at the base of the tongue. The treatment plan sounded ‘horrible and ultimately futile’ — radiotherapy, chemotherapy, extensive surgery.
Stanley Tucci, 60, (pictured) who lives in London, has penned a memoir following his terrifying cancer battle
‘I would never be able to eat or speak normally again,’ Tucci concluded. The removal of a large portion of the tongue, along with salivary glands, would mean Tucci was destined to lose his sense of taste and smell. He’d be unable to swallow and would need a feeding tube inserted in the stomach.
The only other option, suggested by oncologists at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, was to avoid surgery altogether, in favour of 35 days of very high-dose targeted radiation, a session five times a week for seven weeks, with Tucci’s head and neck claustrophobically immobilised and encased in a webbed mask. ‘I did go through with it because I had to,’ says Tucci soberly.
Side-effects were predictably unpleasant. Food tasted of ‘old wet cardboard’. His mouth erupted in ulcers. Everything smelled repellent — even traces of cooking on other people’s clothes. Tucci required large doses of morphine, resulting in chronic constipation. Even a sip of water ‘burned like battery acid’.
Therapy was required to stop the muscles of the tongue atrophying. Tucci had to regain mobility of the jaw — and for a long while he couldn’t eat steak, as there was insufficient saliva to aid swallowing.
H is tongue was saved, nevertheless, and he claims he is fully on the mend, helped by daily visits from his friend and fellow actor Colin Firth. Tucci also pays tribute to his wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, the sister of actress Emily Blunt, whom he married in 2012. She introduced him to plucked pheasant and potatoes roasted in goose fat. Instead of a wedding cake they had a wedding cheese platter.
Though Tucci is a genial and convivial fellow, the theme of Taste, nevertheless, is that of loss. As we’ve seen, he nearly lost his own eating and drinking faculties permanently — and in 2009 he lost his first wife, Kathryn, to breast cancer. She was 47.
‘Her death is still incomprehensible to me,’ he writes, ‘her absence unreal.’ There were three young children — who were to be traumatised a second time by Tucci’s own cancer dramas.
Stanley, who was raised in an Italian enclave 60 miles north of Manhattan, is the child of first-generation immigrants. Pictured: Stanley and Felicity Blunt
There is loss, too, when Tucci talks, fascinatingly, about his years of struggle in New York, trying to find work, before his uniqueness as a character actor was affirmed. He laments the destruction of the city’s atmospheric old buildings, the restaurants and theatres, entire neighbourhoods which were replaced by ‘poorly-designed dwellings for the up-and-coming at prices most people can’t afford’.
Tucci mentions beloved haunts like the Carnegie Deli, Luchow’s, the Oak Room at the Plaza: ‘The careless expurgation of famous eateries and their classic dishes made from historic recipes that helped shape a city is an enormous loss for any culture no matter how you slice it.’
Amen to that.
Tucci’s own heritage is Italian, more specifically Calabrian. He writes with zest and colour about his parents’ meals, their ‘almost obsessive focus on the quality of the ingredients’ including goats and rabbits and ‘any other animal of reasonable size that was in some way useful or edible’.
Tucci, who was raised in an Italian enclave 60 miles north of Manhattan, the child of first-generation immigrants, talks wistfully about the traditions of hunting, skinning and quartering. There is no vegetarian squeamishness here.
The Italian deep love of food is connected, of course, to the warm embrace of family. Tucci’s mother gathered the clan — grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, heaps of third cousins — by producing, on what seems like an hourly basis, dishes made with clams, mussels, shrimps, chicken, green and red peppers and pasta with broccoli.
Stanley said he discovered after his illness that food ‘basically was my life,’ not only sustaining him but enriching him. Pictured: Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci
There was lots of garlic, basil leaves and olive oil, mounds of sweet tomatoes and peaches soaked in wine. Tucci’s grandfather kept vats of ‘cloudy purple’ wine in the cellar, ‘the sweetest liquid ever to pass our lips’, even if everyone else thought it frightful plonk.
The only thing missing was butter, which is not a southern Italian staple, and is why few people in that region die of heart attacks.
As a concession to living in America, next to a General Electric plant and a nuclear power station pumping toxic effluvium into the river, Tucci’s family baked sponge cakes decorated with the Stars and Stripes. In those days, we are told, in the 1960s and 1970s, the flag wasn’t brandished as a weapon but was, for the Italian immigrants, ‘a symbol of freedom, acceptance and possibility’.
This is an affecting, nostalgic book. While the rest of the family emitted ‘moans of satisfaction’ over their ethnic dishes, Tucci remembers with amusement his small acts of rebellion — his craving for plastic tubs of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with white bread and mayonnaise.
TASTE: MY LIFE THROUGH FOOD by Stanley Tucci (Fig Tree £20, 302 pp)
He now lives in London, where jelly is called jam, but he does toast the memory of the flamboyant chef Keith Floyd.
Tucci watched Floyd’s videos during lockdown, impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge of food, marvelling at the way he knocked up a fish stew on the deck of a ship in a howling gale, prattling away non-stop to camera, never once spilling his brimming glass.
I hope Tucci, after his convalescence, is again in a position to enjoy a drink, as he loves nothing more each evening than a perfectly chilled cocktail — the gin, vermouth, Campari and orange slice that’s a Negroni (‘The sun is now in your stomach’); the legendary and powerful Dry Martini (‘Become a new person’).
Tucci says he has discovered, after his illness, that food wasn’t a huge part of his life: ‘It basically was my life,’ not only sustaining him but enriching him.
Taste enriches the reader and establishes Tucci as one of the wisest and most generous personalities of our time.
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