Book Review: ‘Taste,’ by Stanley Tucci

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Nonfiction

In “Big Night,” Stanley Tucci’s character owns a restaurant in New Jersey.
Credit...John Clifford/Samuel Goldwyn, via Everett Collection

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Oct. 5, 2021Updated 9:08 a.m. ET

TASTE
My Life Through Food
By Stanley Tucci

My interest in Stanley Tucci’s gastronomic doings was seriously flagging when, in the nick of time, he got to the part about digging into a horse phallus with Meryl Streep.

He recounts the episode about two-thirds of the way through “Taste,” his food-focused memoir, and reveals that it wasn’t really a platter of penis before them but could so easily have passed for one that he blurted out as much, along with an expletive. Streep was unbowed. “She cut off a small piece,” he writes, then “chewed gingerly” before delivering her verdict.

“Well,” she decreed, “it does have a bit of the barnyard about it.” That first bite was her last.

Tucci and Streep were in France to promote the movie “Julie & Julia,” in which she played Julia Child and he was Child’s husband. They had gone to an out-of-the-way restaurant, intent on flaunting their epicurean bona fides. And they had ordered the house specialty, andouillette, assuming it meant many little andouille sausages, which they loved. It in fact meant one monstrous sausage of pig intestine, for which they discovered considerably less affection. So they swallowed their pride, along with gulps of wine to banish the offal truth, and asked for omelets instead. Food adventurism has limits.

Food reminiscences apparently don’t. Since the appearance of the book version of “Julie & Julia” in 2005, scores upon scores of like-spirited volumes with the effective subtitle “What I Cooked” or “What I Ate” have been published, and while the years, locales and motives for the meals vary, the essential form remains the same. An author who has feasted more widely, knowledgeably, intently or oddly than the average omnivore mines memories of his or her experiences, serving the reader virtual victuals that are seasoned, ideally, with insight and inspiration.

So Tucci’s “Taste,” whose actual subtitle is “My Life Through Food,” enters a bloated genre that has a high bar. Is his eating life so distinctive that it stands out from all the other writers’ and warrants expansive narration? The answer is yes and no. I kept wishing he’d teased out more themes — beyond, simply, his gusto — to tie together his days as an Italian-American boy whose lunchbox shamed his classmates’ and his international jaunts as a movie star who judges locations based on the quality of food in and around the set.

[ Read our profile of Tucci. ]

Absent that connective tissue, “Taste” at times seems less like a labor of love than an exercise in brand extension. Tucci has, in collaboration with family members, produced cookbooks. One of his early films, which he not only acted in but also helped to write and direct, was “Big Night,” about a quirky restaurant and a very important dinner. And he has a popular culinary travelogue show, “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” on CNN. A memoir was missing. Now it’s not.

The most striking aspect of “Taste” is its curiously handled twist. Just 28 pages before the end of the book, he flashes back from scenes of pandemic tedium in 2020 to announce that in 2017, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer and subsequently went through a brutal regimen of radiation that obliterated his appetite for a while. He “ate” through a feeding tube in his stomach for almost six months.

I’m not spoiling anything by sharing those details: Tucci went public with his ordeal in news stories in early September, well ahead of the publication of “Taste,” advance copies of which were sure to spill the secret of his (past) illness. That made me wonder why he didn’t begin his book with the tumor and the possibility that, even if he survived it, he’d be robbed of culinary pleasure forevermore. (Fortunately, he wasn’t.) As a framing device, that would have added poignancy and urgency to the meals that followed. As an abrupt development near the book’s end, it is disorienting — though still harrowing.

“Taste” takes you through Tucci’s life in a largely but not entirely linear fashion, and I enjoyed eavesdropping in its early pages on a loud and food-proud Italian American family much like my own. (Nearly a decade ago, for an article tied to the publication of “The Tucci Cookbook,” I ate with Tucci and his parents at his home in Westchester County, N.Y., where the expansive kitchen and array of culinary devices attested to the genuineness of his hunger.) There’s a priceless exchange between his mother and her mother about a bulging doggie bag that the older woman fills and insists be taken home.

“What’s this doing in here?” Tucci’s mother asks, finding the very cheese that she’d given to his grandmother hours earlier.

“But you like it,” his grandmother replies.

“So do you,” says his mother. “That’s why I bought it for you!”

“I got enough cheese,” his grandmother counters.

Among southern Italians, culinary generosity and culinary bullying look an awful lot alike.

Italy factors heavily into “Taste,” as Tucci keeps circling back there to sample and learn more about its food, though engaging scenes pop up all over the globe: in Vancouver, where an Italian restaurant becomes his home away from home; in Egilsstadir, Iceland, where he’s lamb-struck; in London, where he and his wife-to-be, Felicity Blunt, pluck the feathers from two dead pheasants from a local restaurateur, lending new definition to the phrase “lovebirds.” Tucci is a game, amiable tour guide throughout.

But the tour itself is a bit of a jumble. He toggles breezily between passages told in straightforward prose and anecdotes rendered in movie-script dialogue; between lessons on the composition of a particular pasta dish and mini-tutorials on important culinary figures; between recipes, menus and timelines; between salty language and fussy references (a martini is his “crepuscular tipple,” while his and Felicity’s newborn is their “sweet issue”). It’s easily digested but undercooked.

And it may leave you feeling slightly underfed. Oh, there are antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci aplenty, along with vini galore. Tucci is voluble about what, in a hedonistic sense, he shoveled and poured into himself. But he’s more reticent about what, in a spiritual sense, was already there. He provides less detail about his first wife’s early death or about his decision, after having had three children with her, to have another two with Felicity than he does about the preparation, serving and savoring of timpano, a gigantic drum of pasta made semi-famous by “Big Night.” It’s the focus of 10 pages. “Taste” asks for your time and attention and yet, in a manner too common among memoirs by celebrities wary of the public eye, holds you at something of a remove.

But Tucci’s celebrity has an upside: other celebrities, including but hardly limited to Streep. Here he is in Paris, shooting the Robert Altman movie “Prêt-à-Porter” and supping with the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni. Back home, he and the actor Oliver Platt try their uncertain hands at the roasting of an entire pig. And no less a heartthrob than Ryan Reynolds accompanies him to the extraction of his feeding tube, a procedure nearly botched because the physician is mooning over Reynolds. Tucci at one point apologizes for his high-level name-dropping, but he needn’t. It’s a spice that most of the “What I Ate” books don’t have.

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