Excerpted from The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella. Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Capella. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Q&A with author Anthony Capella on his novel, The Wedding Officer
Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
Marcella Hazan’s vast cookbook The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It looks like a cookbook—and it is, a brilliant one—but really it’s a guide to the recipes for life. ‘The taste [these dishes] have been devised to achieve wants not to astonish but to reassure. It issues from the cultural memory, the enduring world of Italian cooks, each generation setting a place at table where the next one will feel at ease and at home.’ ‘…It is a pattern of cooking that can accommodate improvisation and fresh intuitions each time it is taken in hand, as long as it continues to be a pattern we can recognise; as long as its evolving forms comfort us with that essential attribute of the civilised life, familiarity.’ Wow. Who writes recipes like that any more?
Many writing experts advise “write about what you know.” Do you agree with this? And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author?
No, I think this is outdated. These days, with the internet and online bookstores, we can all of us access knowledge very quickly—certainly fast enough that you can easily become expert about the period or milieu in which your book is set. The point is that you have to really want to acquire that knowledge. So I would say, write about what you love. And if you know so little about it that the process of learning what you need to know will excite and inspire you, then so much the better—you’ll excite and inspire your readers.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
In my case, I was visiting Naples with a bunch of food-loving friends. I happened to take along Norman Lewis’s wartime memoir, Naples ’44. He was there during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944 as an intelligence officer —and one of his tasks was to prevent Allied soldiers from marrying their beautiful Italian girlfriends: the high command had decided there were so many of these relationships it was getting out of hand. I immediately thought it was a delicious idea for a novel. I then started to think about a man doing that job who fell in love with an Italian woman himself…. The character of Livia, who is the intelligence officer’s cook, followed on from that. Like so many ideas, it was a case of two thoughts colliding: the idea of the wedding officer, and then the way that Italian food might change his attitudes to his job.
Can you tell us about the book you are working on now?
I’ve just finished The Various Flavors of Coffee, which comes out at the end of August. It’s the story of a young would-be poet and bohemian in 1890’s London who gets involved in the coffee trade. It’s an even more sensual story than The Wedding Officer—and although it’s comic in parts, it’s also sometimes darker, too. I think of it as being like dark chocolate or black Italian coffee: that hint of bitterness makes it all the more enticing.
When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
From the Hardcover edition.
Why I write about Italian food…
by Anthony Capella
The air is warm and sluggish, as thick as honey, perfumed with wild lemons, myrtle, and the scent of the rosemary bushes that surround the restaurant’s terrace, their leaves turned to pot-pourri by the sun. Above you, vine leaves provide a shady arbour for the uneven wooden tables that spill into what the locals euphemistically call the piazza, but which actually resembles a dusty car park. On one side of the square is the church, on the other this osteria, a tiny restaurant-bar, as sparse as the building opposite is baroque. Gilt belongs to God: here the sensual treasures are all on the plate, or in the view which stretches for miles over the sun-filled valley below. And while the church might be visited once a week, many villagers patronise the osteria almost every day. Come noon, farmers drive from their absurdly tiny fields on their absurdly tiny tractors; their wives collect the children from school and stroll chattering down to the piazza; the priest closes up his confessional and strides across the square; the electrician and the architect arrive together in the architect’s Fiat. Even the attractive young widow reputed to be the village prostitute pulls a shawl around her shoulders and makes her elegant way to her usual table.
To begin with there is antipasto. Sweet peppers filled with capers, olives, breadcrumbs and basil. Mozzarella, made this morning from the milk of the two buffalo which graze the tennis-court-sized pasture below the restaurant; so fresh it oozes tears of pungent whey. Curiously-shaped tomatoes the size of grapefruit from the owner’s garden; bread so full of holes it resembles Swiss cheese; a bowl of fat green olives. Wine arrives, then pasta tossed in a creamy sauce scented with lemon leaves—the same lemons, and the same leaves, that hang from the trees dotted around the terrace. For many, that is enough, but the working men and farmers also tuck into costata, veal cooked with garlic and oregano. The children eat ice creams; the priest and the electrician both order a grappa. Others finish their meal with a peach, sliced into the remains of their wine, or bolt a thimble of coffee. Then, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a schoolchild, a prostitute or a tourist, it is time to go home for a siesta… Tomorrow they will all return to the same place for a different variation on the theme: the same local ingredients, endlessly re-arranged in different combinations.
What is it about an Italian meal like this one that satisfies me so deeply? Why do I enjoy even the thought of it so much that I have set, not one but two novels in Italian kitchens? In part, of course, it may be because I have an idealised, outsider’s view of what these little communities are like, when the truth is that humanity’s vices exist in Italian villages just as much as anywhere else. But there is something else, too, something about Italian culture that speaks to a deep-seated desire in all of us to celebrate the everyday, sensual pleasures of the table.
Italians have a wonderful word, campanilismo. Literally, it means an unthinking, almost belligerent loyalty to your own bell-tower—in other words, to the patch of soil from whence you come. It is a particularly Italian phenomenon—even today, someone from Alba might identify themselves as being an Albesi first, then a Piedmontese, and only tangentially as Italian. In part, this was because Italy was still not a nation some twenty years after America became the United States (there are one or two unconquered hilltop outposts, such as tiny San Marino, which cling to their status as republics even now.) This, in turn, was a result of Italy’s topography. One of the most mountainous countries in Europe, it was for many centuries a real struggle to get from one valley to the next. Thus what became important was what was under your own feet—your family, your village, your fields. It is in many ways the opposite of the American dream, with its culture of celebrating movement, motion, empty spaces and open roads.
One of the things, therefore, that draws me to writing about Italian food is its sheer regional diversity. Take pork, for example. Of course, pigs are reared everywhere. But in the Langhirano valley, near Parma, the pigs are fed on the whey left over from making the local parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and the hams are exposed to salty breezes from the Adriatic as they cure. (Some farmers even hang them outside when the weather is mild, taking them in again at night, like washing.) The result is a meat so creamy it can be spread with a knife, which in turn becomes the basis of rich local dishes such as trippa alla parmigiana. But just sixty miles away, in the warmer valleys around Florence, pork is more likely to be served as finnocchiona sbriciolona, a salame flavoured with fennel seeds. These more rustic, rural meats are best enjoyed with pane toscano, rough Tuscan bread, and a glass of cherry-flavoured Montalcino wine—which just happen to be exactly the condiments to hand. Or, on the other side of the mountains in Le Marche, it will come as porchetta, suckling pig stuffed with juniper berries and myrtle leaves from the densely wooded hillsides.
Or take Italian wine. Not for the Italians the dull reliance on four or five standard grape varieties, from cabernet to chardonnay and back again. Italy has an astonishing 2,000 indigenous grapes, most of them only found in one tiny pocket of land. Often they are further modified by geology: the name Greco di Tufo, for example, describes not only the white grape of the village of Tufo in Campania, but the sulphuric stone from which the houses themselves are made. The stone lends its mineral flavour to the wine—you can literally taste the place in every mouthful.
In one of my favourite restaurants, Trattoria della Posta near the pretty hilltop town of Monforte D’Alba, there is nothing on the menu that would not be familiar to a local time-travelling in from a hundred years ago—yet almost nothing that you would find on a menu in nearby Venice or Milan. Peppers stuffed with rabbit, tajarin pasta with chestnuts, cardoons dipped in a hot pepper sauce, mushrooms, smoked bread, wild boar—this is food of the northern mountains, hearty and strong, most of it caught, dug or picked from the forest rather than the field.
A totally different culinary destination is to be found fifty miles south, in the valley of the Po river. Here there are no forests, but the farm reigns supreme. These people discovered the philosophy of the production line a thousand years before Henry Ford, but in a uniquely Italian way. Each village or town specialises in a different ingredient. San Giovanni in Persiceto is famous for its melons; Ferrara, a few kilometres on, for its truffles. Neighbouring Altedo is known for its asparagus, while Budrio is renowned for its potatoes. In Medicina you pass endless fields of onions, while in Bazzano the road snakes through mile after mile of cherry trees. From chestnuts to carrots, peaches to honey, there is nowhere here that has not identified and nurtured its own little pocket of excellence.
The Wedding Officer is set in Naples, in Italy’s deep south, and this is a different cuisine again. The type of cooking here was once known as cucina povera, peasant food, but it is also rich and gutsy, the volcanic soil making the flavours of vegetables and fruits particularly full. This is a countryside where asparagus grows wild, and where olive trees often support a vine and a tomato plant as well. Buffalo mozzarella comes from the only cows hardy enough to graze the salty, malaria-infested marshes that once bordered the coast, while ingredients such as tomatoes and even pasta were brought here by wave after wave of sea-borne invaders.
To write about food is always to write a fairy-tale—there is a reason why so many of our oldest stories are about magic cauldrons, poisoned apples, gingerbread castles and the like: these are the staples of life. But to write about Italian food is to write about something even more fundamental. It is a way of telling stories that tap in to our oldest human instincts: the desire to nurture, to succour, to wrest sensual pleasure from the harshest conditions; to celebrate life, in all its endless bounty and variety. “One becomes fluent in a cuisine as in a language, steeping oneself in its idioms, getting its accents right,” said the great Italian food writer Marcella Hazan. For a writer, that ancient language is an even richer medium for storytelling than words.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What aspects of Livia’s personality are illustrated in the novel’s opening scenes? What parts of her identity fade after Enzo leaves, and what aspects are intensified when she is on her own?
2. Discuss the different types of hunger described in The Wedding Officer. Which ones are the most powerful—the hunger for companionship, food, or sex? In what way do James’s and Livia’s appetites change throughout the novel?
3. Why did James’s superiors believe it was necessary to regulate the marriages between servicemen and their Italian girlfriends? What did the interview questions indicate about the gulf between reality and pretense during this episode in history?
4. Chapter twenty-one ends with Livia feeling furious because of James’s apparent lack of interest. What do their different approaches to courtship say about their cultures?
5. Initially, James says that he doesn’t have much authority. What power does he really have? What does his experience indicate about a person’s ability to make change, regardless of what the official limitations are?
6. Discuss the issue of language as it plays out in the novel. How does it help and hinder the characters to have limitations in their ability to communicate? In what ways is food a universal language? What did James’s “food language,” which forbade things like garlic and emphasized potatoes over pasta, say about his personality?
7. Livia highlights the sensual pleasures of food when she serves the officers snails and peas, all still in their shells. What other ways does she have of using food to seduce?
8. How familiar were you with Italy’s experience with the war, and the rise of Mussolini? What aspects of history and culture in The Wedding Officer surprised you?
9. How did the economics of war become a sort of weapon as well? Was James right to try to eliminate the black market? How does corruption become defined under these circumstances? Beyond the issue of nutrition, what does it do to a community to deprive them of their national cuisine?
10. In chapter thirty, James is exasperated to discover that Livia doesn’t measure any of her ingredients. What turning points does this scene capture? What do they eventually teach each other about intuition and rules?
11. Livia deeply resents the Allies. What does her story demonstrate about the role of liberators in a foreign land?
12. Would you have given in to Alberto’s demands if you had been in Livia’s position? Was the survival of her family always the top priority in her life?
13. Livia tells James she is adamant in her support of communism. What aspects of history are captured in this conversation? What makes communism so appealing to her? What is her understanding of its promise?