Before they became the main ingredient in marinara sauce and the element without which lasagna would be bone-dry, tomatoes underwent a long strange journey.
On the coast of what is now Honduras, Christopher Columbus "first encountered what is believed to have been a tomato — a small fruit eaten by the native peoples, usually mashed with chilies," recounts Adam Schell. "In the Nahuatl language which dominated Central America in pre-Columbian times, it was called the tomatl. In one of his journals, Columbus mentions sharing a 'spicy red soup of sorts' — the forerunner of gazpacho? — with a group of natives. From Spain," to which Columbus duly returned bearing seeds, "the tomato somehow made its way to Italy."
And it is there, in sun-soaked 16th-century Tuscany, that Schell set his debut novel Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust, and Forbidden Fruit, which he calls "the nearly, almost entirely true tale ... of how the tomato came to Italy." A nod to both Shakespeare and Gabriel García Márquez, with characters talking in rhyme, the plot finds Jewish tomato farmer Davido — whose ancestor sailed with Columbus — falling in love with Mari, the Catholic stepdaughter of a greedy, nasty olive grower. Meanwhile, an enormous purple-skinned priest and a cast of rowdy, randy, hungry, and sometimes hapless characters prepare for the village's Feast of the Drunken Saint.
"The theory is that Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition brought the tomato with them as they immigrated to Italy," explains Los Angeles-based Schell, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland) on Sunday, Aug. 2. "Because the tomato evoked the Love Apple from the Garden of Eden, Italy reacted to it with great suspicion. Food historians posit that the tomato was cultivated and eaten, especially by the Jews of a small Tuscan city called Pitigliano, shortly after its introduction in the early 16th century. However, the first mention of the tomato in an Italian cookbook does not appear until 1692."
The author's years spent working and traveling in Italy — and his previous occupations as olive-picker, apprentice chef, restaurant critic, and film producer — helped prepare him to write a book that entails historical detail, a distinctive locale, and serious technical challenges in the form of rhymed lines that evoke what Schell calls "the countrified style of speech common to small villages and hill top towns" in Renaissance-era Tuscany. Writing in rhyme wasn't his idea, he says. It was one of his characters':
"Early on in my writing process, in one of the first scenes between Giuseppe and Benito, Giuseppe started speaking in rhyme, and Benito answered him in rhyme. And from there, I just had to listen to how these characters wanted to talk to one another. It wasn't always easy ... and likely added an extra year or so of work on the book," Schell admits. "But it felt entirely right." 11 a.m., free. GGPBooks.com
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