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For Stanley Tucci, food is like religion — and cancer almost took it away

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. With Thanksgiving, we begin the season of cooking and eating with friends and family. Today we feature our interview with actor, writer and director Stanley Tucci. Though he's appeared in more than 70 films, including "Big Night," "Julie & Julia" and "The Devil Wears Prada," as well as countless TV and stage productions, it seems Tucci these days is been thinking more about food than acting. He's published two cookbooks and recently hosted a six-part series on CNN called "Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy." In each episode, he chooses a region in the land of his ancestors and talks to people who create and serve amazing food and, in some cases, those who raise the crops and livestock they come from. In the Bologna episode, he talks about the origins of Parmesan cheese and is treated to the opening of a huge wheel of the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STANLEY TUCCI: SEARCHING FOR ITALY")

STANLEY TUCCI: Milk is king in Emilia Romagna. The white cows are the Bianca Modenese breed, unique to the valley of the River Po that runs through this region.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bravo. Bravo.

TUCCI: Emilia Romagna's medieval monks, hungry for a long-lasting cheese...

It's like a magic act.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

TUCCI: ....Invented Parmigiano. Thank God for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one. Open. Smell, smell, smell. This is - the smelling is unbelievable. The smell is unbelievable.

TUCCI: Oh, my God.

DAVIES: There's plenty of that kind of enthusiasm for food in the series and in Stanley Tucci's new book. It's a memoir not about his performing career, but about his experiences with and love for great food, starting with the cooking of his parents and grandparents, who not only served great dinners, but packed his lunchbox with offerings unique and delicious. The book also describes Tucci's battle with an illness that took away his sense of taste and smell and for a long stretch made it impossible to eat solid food at all. He's back to cooking and eating, we're happy to say, and he joined me last month to talk about us his new book, "Taste: My Life Through Food".

Stanley Tucci, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TUCCI: Thank you so much. Thank you.

DAVIES: You know, having read this book, I think I want to relive your childhood just for the food. Tell us a little about your parents, where you grew up.

TUCCI: Well, I grew up in Westchester County - Katonah, N.Y., about 50 miles north of the city. And my parents were both Italian American, and their parents had come from Italy. And they were all great cooks. And so I grew up with really, really amazing food, but not only just the food, but it was also the sort of enthusiasm for food and the interest in food. Everything revolved around what you were going to eat that night, what you were eating for lunch, what you - so it couldn't help but become a huge part of who I am.

And as you mentioned in the introduction, when I went - when I would go to school, you know, I went to the local school, I brought - you know, you'd bring your lunch. I never bought lunch. Maybe I bought lunch twice in, you know, 12 years. But I would bring whatever was left over from dinner the night before usually in some other form. So if we had veal cutlets or chicken cutlets, I would have those on a - have those as a sandwich. If we had eggplant parmigiana, it was - that was also incorporated into a sandwich, things like that. And I would bring a full - like a grocery bag was my lunch (laughter) as I got older because there was so much food in it.

DAVIES: Your mom, you say, was a terrific cook. Give us a couple of your favorite dinners you remember.

TUCCI: Oh, my God. Just about everything she makes is incredible. They would make - on a Sunday, they would make a classic ragu. This came from my father's family. And that was meatballs that were fried, but they're very delicate meatballs. They're not in any way heavy. They're - it's sort of half bread, half meat, but very delicately seasoned, too, and then those are put into the sauce at the last minute. It's a meat-based sauce. And we would have that with the - put in for the last like hour, and then that sauce would have been cooking for a few hours, and we would have that as a Sunday meal.

But even during the week, as I said, we'd have delicious veal cutlets when veal was not as expensive as it is now. And there was always a salad. There was always some sort of vegetable, you know, whether it was just steamed, you know, green beans or something or sauteed zucchini. She also made a pasta with broccoli that was just one of the most delicious things ever. Really, really simple stuff - but to this day, some of the best food I've ever had.

DAVIES: And I love your description of the conversation around the table, including your father's repeated insistence, his repeated insistence that maybe this is the best she's ever made of this particular dish.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: We would have the same - you know, there was a very - you know, she would make, let's say, something like pasta con piselli, which is just a little pasta, little ditalini, little - or ditali, they're called sometimes. And that would be cooked in a very light tomato sauce with a - sort of extra onions for sweetness and peas. And you'd have it - it almost had a soupy-like consistency to it, and it was absolutely delicious. And my father, again, he would just say, my God, this is the best you've ever made. You know, we had just had it like two weeks before or a week before. But every time he said that, and he meant it, which I thought was funny.

DAVIES: You write about your maternal grandparents. Did they come over from Italy, or were they second generation?

TUCCI: No, no. They came over. They came...

DAVIES: Calabria, right?

TUCCI: Calabria, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. And you said your grandmother was a great cook and her - the kitchen was always very busy, but there was this auxiliary kitchen in the basement. What went on there?

TUCCI: Well, the basement was where she had this - well, my grandfather had, like, a little workshop down there because they had a big garden out back, and he was always sort of constructing things for the garden, whether it was a rabbit cage or, you know, fixing up a little shed he had built or something like that. And she had this auxiliary kitchen. So she had this gas stove - I believe it was a gas stove - downstairs. And there was a big table and a big sink, and then there was also, like, a washing machine, but one of the old washing machines that you'd roll, put the stuff through and roll it, like hand crank it.

And that was where she did a lot of prep work. And if we had a really big party in the winter, we would often just eat down in this basement. And it was just fantastic. I mean, she would make her pizza dough down there. She would make her bread dough down there. And we - I remember cooking chickens with her down there, plucking chickens down there after, you know, she had, you know, decapitated them or basically strangled them. (Laughter) And it was just wonderful. Everything was about eating and cooking and preparing, preparing and enjoying food, growing food, everything.

DAVIES: I think one of my favorite descriptions - recipes, if you will - in the book is the description of your grandfather's making of tomato paste, which he would store in soda bottles down in the basement. You want to just give us how this worked?

TUCCI: Yeah. So, it's not a paste. So...

DAVIES: OK, sauce.

TUCCI: ...Basically, it's like a passata in a sense. So a passata is where you don't have any of the skin or the seeds, right? So what you're doing is, you're getting all - some of the tomatoes came from the garden, and some of them he would - they would buy. And they would take them, as far as I can remember - and they would take them and you put them into pillowcases. And then you have, like, big, galvanized, you know, tins - drums, right? And you would squeeze them, all the tomatoes, through the pillowcase. And what came out is this beautiful, beautiful red juice. Then you had soda bottles, probably - that were probably from the 1930s, I swear. And they were - you'd fill them up with this juice and put it in a bay leaf and a little bit of salt. And then you would put - you would cap it. They had a capper, you know? And then you'd - because you could buy the caps. And they used the same bottles every year. And then you would take that, and you'd boil it to pasteurize it. Or is that what it is, pasteurizing, I guess? Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And you end up with these pillowcases that look like relics of the St. Valentine's Day massacre (laughter).

TUCCI: Yes, exactly as I wrote in the book. Yes.

DAVIES: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Now, your grandma - your grandparents emigrated from Italy. And you write that, you know, life was hard there and that the poverty they faced kind of shaped some habits around food that they brought over. You want to describe that?

TUCCI: Yeah, and which I think is the case of just about any immigrant who - you know, most people immigrate because they want a better life someplace else. I mean, obviously, that's why there are so many refugees today, is that they need a better life. And, I mean, Italy was - southern Italy was incredibly poor, still is very poor in many areas. And there weren't the opportunities that America had. So what that does, of course, if you you're - everything - if you're growing everything in southern Italy and you're growing what you're eating, you can't - I think you can't help but sort of transplant that, those habits, when you move.

So many Italians always had a garden. No matter how big that garden was - the backyard was, you always had a garden. You were always growing something. And that's what they did. And they grew every kind of vegetable imaginable. They had - excuse me. They had fruit trees. They had a fig tree, which you had to bury every year. So you bent it down, wrapped it in plastic and buried it because it couldn't sustain the winters. And they had rabbits. When my mother was young, they had goats. They maybe even had a cow or something (laughter). So you were - it was always about that. And so much of their food, they just got it out of their garden.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with actor Stanley Tucci. He has a new book, a memoir about his life with food called "Taste: My Life Through Food." We'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Stanley Tucci. He has a new book called "Taste: My Life Through Food."

We're not going to talk a lot about your movies in this interview. This is - I really loved the book about food. But I got to talk about "Big Night," which is a movie you made 25 years ago. You co-wrote, co-directed it. It's a story about two brothers, Italian immigrants, who have an authentic Italian restaurant in a town in New Jersey. And in the film, you're one of the brothers. You're the waiter, the front man, who's the businessman who's kind of willing to give customers a more Americanized version of Italian food if that's what they want. Your brother, Primo, the chef, is militantly committed to true Italian cuisine.

And we're going to hear a scene here where a couple is dining in the restaurant. And the woman has ordered risotto and isn't so sure about it and asks for a side of spaghetti. And you're a little reluctant here because they're two starches. They don't exactly go together, but really because you know that your brother, the chef, will object to this pairing as a desecration of Italian cooking. So what we're going to hear is you speaking briefly with the couple. You're the waiter. And then we'll hear you in the kitchen trying to persuade your brother, Primo, who's played by Tony Shalhoub, to make the spaghetti the woman wants. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG NIGHT")

CAROLINE AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) I just - well, I'm just - I mean, it's just not what I expected. But I get a side order of spaghetti with this, right?

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Why? Well, no.

LARRY BLOCK: (As Man in Restaurant) I thought all main courses come with spaghetti.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Well, some, yes. But, you see, risotto is rice, so it is a starch. And it doesn't go really with pasta.

AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) But I don't...

BLOCK: (As Man in Restaurant) Honey, honey, order a side of spaghetti, that's all.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, please, just come on.

TONY SHALHOUB: (As Primo) I want to know for who.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Just make the side order of spaghetti, please.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Secondo, I want to know for who is it for.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) For the lady with the risotto.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) What? Why?

TUCCI: (As Secondo) She likes starch - I don't know. Come on.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) B****.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) I'll make it myself.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. Who are these people in America? I need to talk to her.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Oh, please, Primo, what are you going to do, tell the customer what she can eat? That's what she want. This is what the customer ask for. Make it. Make the pasta. Make it. Make it. Make the pasta. Come on. Let's go.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) How can she want? They both are starch. Maybe I should make mashed potato for another side.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, look; don't - OK? - because they are the first customer to come in two hours...

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. She is a criminal. I want to talk to her.

DAVIES: It's still funny.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: Even I laughed.

DAVIES: Yeah. That's our guest, Stanley Tucci, and Tony Shalhoub in the film "Big Night." You know, it's interesting, as I listen to that, your voice is higher. Is - did you do that for the role? Or has your voice deepened over the years?

TUCCI: No. I was - Jesus, I think I just got old.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TUCCI: I think I got old and my voice got tired (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, I - you know, if people in the audience haven't seen this film, find it and watch it. I tell you, I still remember scenes after 25 years. It's very much about food. You really were committed to this project. This was close to your heart, wasn't it?

TUCCI: Yeah, very much so. And I had wanted to write something about a restaurant 'cause I was fascinated by the structure of a restaurant, the way a restaurant worked or didn't work and - because I had worked in restaurants. And I loved the idea of telling a story about Italians that didn't involve the Mafia. So I started writing, and I was writing a whole bunch of stuff over a period of years. And then I asked my cousin Joe Tropiano to write with me. And over - oh, my God, it took us quite a while 'cause we were both - had - you know, I would go do a job, and he had a steady job. And so we ended up with this script, and - but a lot of that really came - a lot of that stuff - 'cause we shared a maternal grandmother. You know, a lot of the recipes were - or just the love of food and the understanding of food and sort of Italian behavior was very much, you know, from our childhood.

DAVIES: You know, the other connection that I wanted to bring out when we heard that scene about the woman doing this awful thing of trying to eat spaghetti with risotto is that...

TUCCI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...In your descriptions of a lot of these recipes and your family's practices, there's a little bit of a hard edge here about what you do and don't do with Italian cooking. Like, one of the things you hate is seeing just any pasta paired with any sauce, that there has to be - you know, you got to have the right kind of pasta. Like, what's an example of a bad coupling of pasta?

TUCCI: Well, you wouldn't put, like, a Bolognese with star pasta, OK? That's just weird and gross. It'd just be mush. So you need something formidable that's going to stand up to that sauce, the sort of richness of that sauce. And you would use - in Bologna, they'll use, like, a homemade tagliatelle. They might use pappardelle. But certainly, you're also going to use that in - you're going to use lasagna and make a lasagna with it. So those are - they're good, strong pastas, not quite as strong as a dried pasta - right? - because they're fresh pasta, but to serve - even with a Bolognese, you'd serve, like - maybe you would do it with - or you could have it maybe with a rigatoni or something like that.

But so - I mean, and this is the way it is in Italy. It's one of the reasons I wanted to make the TV show about, you know, regional cuisine is because, yes, it's regional, but it's also - each person is incredibly specific about (laughter) what they're going to make and then what pasta goes with it or what sauce goes with - I mean, that's the way Italy is. That sort of very specific, almost dogmatic way of thinking regarding food is what I was brought up with.

DAVIES: You wrote that bread was not eaten with pasta, just...

TUCCI: No, never.

DAVIES: Just after - no, never.

TUCCI: Never. Never. No, it couldn't - you wouldn't - you just couldn't do it. I mean, you just wouldn't do it (laughter). And butter was never put on the table, right? So butter was only put on the table when we had meatballs that were fried on a Friday night and - but they were fried. There was no sauce. They were just fried in olive oil, and they were absolutely delicious, and you'd have those with bread and butter. It was a really nice combination. And then you'd have a green salad afterwards. And that was your meal.

DAVIES: You know, you write that your father would often cook on Friday nights to give your mom a break. And by then, like, the budget was stretched a little thin. Sometimes those were a little spare. And one of the first recipes in the book is a very simple dish of your father cooking pasta with garlic and oil. It - really tasty. But the last instruction on the recipe is cheese is not allowed. (Laughter) Now, why would this be? A lot of people would love to grate some Parmesan on there.

TUCCI: Yeah, you would, but it changes the flavor profile of the entire dish, becomes a completely different dish - maybe not in a bad way, but you'd - what you would need - you'd want something more to help it. You would want to add some of the pasta water in and toss it up with the cheese in the pan. Do you know what I mean? So - because otherwise, it would just be claggy and kind of not good. But what you really want is that kind of strange freshness that you're getting from the little sprinkle of paprika if you use it and just the utter simplicity of garlic, oil and salt. It couldn't be simpler.

DAVIES: And you never cut your spaghetti. This drives you crazy when you see a grown person cutting spaghetti on a plate, right?

TUCCI: I mean, that's just - what is that? That's just ridiculous.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TUCCI: I don't even understand that, you know? I (laughter)...

DAVIES: Well, I think it's because they - it's so awkward sometimes to have a big string of pasta hanging from your mouth. So it's to avoid embarrassment or spills, maybe.

TUCCI: Yeah, but it's more embarrassing to cut your pasta.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: We're listening to my interview with Stanley Tucci, recorded last month. His new book is "Taste: My Life Through Food." We'll hear more after a break, and we'll hear a bit of our 1989 interview with Julia Child. She's the subject of a new documentary. Also, Justin Chang reviews Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "Licorice Pizza." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "LEMON TWIST")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my interview with actor, writer, director and food enthusiast Stanley Tucci. He's appeared in many TV and stage productions and more than 70 movies, including "Big Night," "Julie & Julia" and "The Devil Wears Prada." He recently hosted a six-part series on CNN called "Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy," each episode exploring one region of the country and its distinct cuisine. Tucci has written two cookbooks, and he has a new memoir about his lifelong interest in great cooking. It's called "Taste: My Life Through Food."

I wanted to talk about the illness that you suffered because it definitely had to do with your ability to enjoy food. You know, your first wife, Kathryn, died in 2009 from breast cancer, and you married Felicity Blunt, who happens to be the sister of Emily Blunt. And you write in the book about how with both you had a lot of mutual interest in great food. It's really a throughline in your life. So you have this wonderful set of relationships with food. And then a few years ago, you end up being diagnosed with a kind of oral cancer. This began in the saliva gland. Is that right?

TUCCI: No, no. It began - it never was in the saliva gland, but my saliva was severely compromised - basically, for all practical purposes, disappeared - during the treatments and for a long time afterward. I still don't have all my saliva back. It was at the base of my tongue, but it manifested itself - the pain was referred pain up in my jaw - at the back of my jaw. So, you know, they thought it was a tooth.

And so I was misdiagnosed for two years. I did acupuncture. I tried a whole bunch of different things, and nothing worked. And finally, the tumor became so large that it was quite visible to this one doctor here who happened to be a salivary gland guy. And so he looked. He goes, look; this is what you have. This is what you're going to do. And I was horrified. I was terrified. Luckily, it had not metastasized, and that was a really, obviously, good thing.

But the treatment was brutal - brutal. And after three years, you know, I'm cancer-free. But after three years, you know, I'm still not back to normal, because the other is the extremely high dose of radiation they had to give me.

DAVIES: Heavy radiation and chemotherapy - and while this is happening, what happened to your sense of taste and smell and...

TUCCI: Disappeared - not that it - I can't say it disappeared. It didn't disappear. I wish it had. What happened was everything tasted like you know what. And everything smelled like that, too. And that went on for months and months and months and months. My mouth was so compromised, you know, it becomes just completely ulcerous. I had to have a feeding tube for six months. I couldn't even drink - during the treatment and even a bit afterwards, I couldn't even drink water because it burned my mouth so much. And still, to this day, I can't really eat spicy things at all. It was horrible. I was basically bedridden for six months.

DAVIES: Right. And you had small children. You actually - your daughter, Camilla, was actually born at the...

TUCCI: Yeah, she was born in the same hospital where I was getting treatment in New York. And it was at Mount Sinai, and these doctors were absolutely incredible. I feel very, very lucky to have found these doctors.

DAVIES: So now do you - I mean, you said that you don't - you can't eat spicy food. You don't have quite your normal amount of saliva. But does food taste like it should? Can you enjoy the spaghetti with zucchini?

TUCCI: Absolutely. Food tastes, yes, like it should. Except sometimes fruit tastes odd. I don't know why. But so that's odd. But everything else, no, it tastes - in fact, it's almost heightened now. So I can smell things that I couldn't even - that I never would have been able to smell before. And I can taste things much more quickly. Like, I'm much - hyperaware of what things taste like now.

DAVIES: You know, you write that you chose to tell the story of the illness in the book in part because the experience taught you how important food was to you, not just as sustenance or, you know, sensual pleasure, but that - a comfort, a challenge and a way of connecting with people you love, including generations that have gone before. You know, when you eat these meals of your ancestors and when your parents are gone, people will know them in some way through that. And this struck me as a lovely insight, and it also struck me as - it kind of reminds me of the comforts and connections that many people get from religion and religious ritual, to connect to generations and people through it.

TUCCI: Yeah, it is (laughter) - I suppose it is a kind of religion for me. I'm not a religious person, but if there is one thing that's holy, it would be food.

DAVIES: You know, you mention movies in passing in this book - not a lot about them, sometimes in a slightly disparaging way. You'll say...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...You know, I had to spend all this time on a movie that nobody should see. You do have an entire chapter on the catered food that gets served to actors and crews. You know, but I wonder if acting is now kind of a craft that you know and you use from time to time and - but you don't feel the same passion for?

TUCCI: I feel passionate about it when - if I see something and I really want to tell that story and be a part of that story. I do - the only thing, really, for me about acting is waiting. I love - when the camera starts rolling, it's fantastic. But (laughter) you know, 80% of being on a movie set or more is just waiting if you're an actor. And that's very boring. You - it's very hard to concentrate on anything else because, you know, you never quite know when you're about to go on set. And you need to reserve your energy, besides. So it's really just about that. And I think for somebody who likes to do a lot of things, like I do, I find that idle time really frustrating. So I think that's my (laughter) - that's really my problem with it.

DAVIES: Do you audition these days? Or do you just get roles?

TUCCI: No, no, no.

DAVIES: No.

TUCCI: No, not for many, many, many years. Thank God.

DAVIES: Well, Stanley Tucci, it has been fun. Thanks so much for talking with us.

TUCCI: Oh, well, thank you so much. It's been really great. Thanks.

DAVIES: Stanley Tucci, recorded last month. New book is "Taste: My Life Through Food." Coming up, we listen to a bit of our 1989 interview with the one and only chef Julia Child. She's the subject of a new documentary. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NIGHT FOR SWINGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.