Book Pairing: Tomato Rhapsody & Castello di Meleto Chianti Reserva 2012

tomato rhapsody

Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust
& Forbidden Fruit

by Adam Schell.
New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

If ever a fruit was cultivated that pairs well with wine, the tomato is it. Slice it on a sandwich, ladle it on pizza, toss it with pasta, or layer it between mozzarella and basil with a drizzle of olive oil, the tomato simply cries for a glass of vino.

In Tomato Rhapsody, make that a full bottle as the story of the humble tomato is elevated to the height of Bacchus himself. Set in 16th century Tuscany, the story follows the love-at-first-sight meeting between Davido, a young Ebreo (Jewish) farmer who cares for his tomato plants so much he sleeps beside them, and Mari, a beautiful Catholic girl who has an equal passion for growing olives.

“Lush, round, slightly ribbed, a shade of red unmatched in all of nature, with a melding of yellow,” alas, the sexy tomato is considered by good Christians to be the fruit of the devil. Thus, theirs is a forbidden love united by a forbidden fruit.

For the Jewish settlers to remain and flourish in Tuscany, they must educate their neighbors to the tomatoes’ rich goodness. That opportunity comes at the Feast of the Drunken Saint – a festival that, among other things, pits one’s stamina for drinking wine against one’s ability to stay on the back of a donkey . . . with one’s hand tied behind one’s back . . . pummeling one another with the free hand . . . for twelve laps around the town square. All villagers agree it’s the perfect way for Davido to prove his worthiness to Mari.

But as Shakespeare would say, “A happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story,” for like a Shakespearean comedy, the lovers must go through much more agony before reaching the happy every after when they learn, “The truth my heart tells me looms above, that if we choose each other, God will protect us, for God is real and God is love.”

In many ways, Tomato Rhapsody reads like it was written by the Bard. The villagers speak in rhyming couplets, the humor is bawdy, the structure follows a three-act play, and there’s even a fool who delivers asides. Rounding out the cast of villagers is a Padre whose appetite for food surpasses his love of God, an evil stepfather determined not only to sell off his step-daughter to the highest bidder but also take over the fertile farming land owned by the Jews, a ready knave to do his bidding, and a ruling lord who descends from “a long line of inbreeds, half-wits, perverts, pedants, scoundrels, tyrants, sodomites and syphilitics.” (No wonder he wants to become a humble peasant.)

Since the novel is based on the introduction of the tomato to Italian cooking, the author sprinkles the book with recipes such as Mari’s One-Pan Roasted Tomato Sauce with Black Olives and the Good Padre’s Lemony Tomato & Mink Panzanetta Salad.

Family, tradition, religion, love, food, wine. Tomato Rhapsody hits all the right notes for an enjoyable summer read. Buon Appetito!

My Wine Recommendation

castello di meletoOne of the oldest and most esteemed vineyards in Tuscany (established 1256) is Castello di Meleto, and their2012 Chianti Riserva Vigna Casi is the wine to drink. This single-vineyard Riserva has the dark color and dense concentration of flavors you would expect from Chianti, but it also has a soft side that brings notes of cherry, blackberry and spice. Our lovers would approve. The 2012 reached its maturity in 2015 so it can be drunk now. $30.

 

Book Pairings: A Nearly Perfect Copy & Mumm Napa Brut Prestige

 

A Nearly Perfect Copy

A Nearly Perfect Copy
by Allison Amend
New York: Random House, 2013.

Is a lie ever justified? Can deceit lead to happiness?  Allison Amend examines this tangled web in a story set in the art world. Elm works for Tinsley’s, a New York auction house established by her grandfather. She has “the eye” – the ability to see art as if through the eyes of the artist, a “transubstantiation” that seems spiritual as if she hears the art speak. Her area of expertise is seventeenth- through nineteenth- century drawings and prints, which makes her “the go-to person for a New York Times quote, the one who took big clients to dinner, a member of the board of trustees of two museums and the art consultant to a trendy, invited-members-only downtown social club.”

But Elm’s eye has suffered since a 2004 vacation in Thailand when her son was lost in a tsunami. Somehow she managed to make it to the shore with her daughter but her son, Rolan, was never found. Her husband was right beside him. She knows it wasn’t Ian’s fault, after all, some 240,000 were killed, but could he not have saved one little boy?

At an art patron’s home, she meets a couple who loved their Rhodesian Ridgeback so much they’re investigating having him cloned. It’s an audacious idea, but her depression is so great, her grief so deep, that it gets her thinking.

In Paris, Gabriel is the quintessential starving artist. A graduate of a prestigious art school, his gift is his ability to create derivative drawings of masters, especially the Spanish painters of the late 1800’s. He knows how to prime canvasses with gesso, making them so smooth the paint glides. He knows how to mix his own colors – “stark cobalt, aquamarine nearly glowing, or a navy, so dark, as to masquerade as black” – the colors so often used by the artists he emulates. When he takes brush in hand, he channels these painters onto the canvas. Compared to his original art which has been described by teachers as lacking inspiration, voice or spark, these works glitter.

Through his girlfriend, Colette, who also works for Tinsley’s, he receives a proposition from her uncle – create canvasses in the style of the Spanish masters for a client who is furnishing a hotel. Such a simple job; what easy money. Why shouldn’t he finally make his art pay? How could he possibly know that it is destined for a New York auction house?

A careful reader can see where Amend is going with this story. Like Faust, each character makes a deal with the devil. Elm is so deep in deceit that she doesn’t question the art that crosses her desk. If she wants to recreate her son, she needs lots of money for the exclusive French doctors who do the procedure. In contrast, Gabriel simply wants to hold onto his girlfriend, pay his rent and get some respect in the art world. He’s torn, but it’s better than selling canvases beside the Seine.

Amend complicates the plot even further by overlaying Elm and Gabriel’s story with the continuing effort by US and French authorities to reunite art taken by the Nazi’s to the families of the owners. It seems the uncle not only wants to pass off Gabriel’s work as authentic but also to claim it was recovered stolen property. His logic is seductive: “Say you borrow twenty euros from someone. Then you pay them back. Does it have to be the same twenty euros?”

As Elm and Gabriel consider their options, the reader gets an insider’s look into the world or at and art forgery. It’s big business. While the central characters are at times dislikeable, the minor characters fill in the spaces their conscience has skipped. Lying is a web but a seductive one. A Nearly Perfect Copy is not a perfect novel, but it’s close enough for an enjoyable read.

My wine recommendation:

Mumm-BrutPrestige-LG_e3b4Ah, the French aperitif. What a wonderful ritual. Whether shared with friends before a meal or at a book club meeting, my favorite is Kir Royale. In a fluted glass, add crème de Cassis or Chambord liqueur to champagne. Save the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label for another occasion and choose instead Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Its fresh apple aromas will balance nicely with the black current of the Cassis and its price will satisfy both your palette and your wallet. Santé! ($22)

 

 

 

Book Pairings: Miss Jane & Muscatine Rose’

Miss-JaneMiss Jane: A Novel
by Brad Watson
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016

Jane Chisolm fears few things. Not snakes or coyotes or screeching owls or cyclones or lightening or God or even her own strangeness. Her entry into the world takes place in central Mississippi in 1915 with the aid of Emmalene, the midwife, and Dr. Thompson, who hitches his wagon to the porch railing just in time to see the crowning head of what he hopes is the last child for the parents. Fifteen minutes later, as he holds a lantern over the crying baby, he sees something that gives him pause. After he is fed a plate of chicken and dumplings, he rides back to his house with a jar of homemade whiskey tucked at his feet as payment for his services and ponders how to help the helpless baby. In the years to come, he becomes Jane’s closest friend and medical advocate. But for now, his thoughts echo the words of the baby’s father: “Good lord. What trouble have we gone and brought into this world now?”

In a novel that is equal parts haunting reality and delicate beauty, Brad Watson tells the story of Miss Jane, born to live a hard scrapple, isolated life due to a rare genital malformation that makes her both incontinent and incapable of conception – conditions that render her a social outcast. Watson modeled the character after his own great-aunt, Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay.

At its heart, Miss Jane is a book about character and how people, when confronted with life’s limitations, either fall under the weight or bear the load and move on.

Jane’s parents are already heavy-hearted before Jane enters their lives. Ida still grieves the loss of her favorite child, William, who died at three. Her grief has turned her into an angry, bitter woman with dark thoughts who, on the night Jane is conceived, only remembers waking “in a rage of silent tears.” Her husband uses work and whiskey to quieten a similar rage in his heart. As a toddler, Jane is basically left to the care of her sister Grace, who at the age of ten, witnessed the birth. Until the child can learn how to care for her own “accidents,” Grace is the one who changes the diapers or allows her sister to run about the property with a bare bum. While at first such an upbringing seems cruel, to Jane it feels like liberation. She loves being in the woods with just the pecking of the birds and forest animals, “the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels.” She feels comfortable there, “as if nothing could be unnatural in that place within but apart from the world.”

Later, when she persuades her mother to allow her to attend school, she quickly realizes and accepts that she is different. Her solution is to spend time exclusively on the family farm. She teaches herself to read with books from Dr. Thompson and learns to count by managing the till of her father’s country store. She learns about creation from her observations of the farm animals. Watson describes Jane’s relationship with nature as one might talk about a lover – the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom

By the age of sixteen, she is tired of being alone, which segues to the most loving and tender part of the book – her attraction to Elijah Key who lives on a nearby farm and his mutual attraction to her. Carefully watched over by her father, she attends community dances and learns the pleasure of flirtation. But her joy is short-lived when Dr. Thompson reminds her of how cruel it would be to lead the young man on with no hope of bearing children with him.

Then the crash of ’29 comes. Years pass. Grace moves to town. The farm fails. Ida grieves. Chisolm drinks. Dr. Thompson still tries to find a surgeon who can correct Jane’s condition. Possible suitors come and go. Crows angle over fields; hawks hover for mice; light cold breezes blow; pecans grow in neglected groves. Throughout it all, Jane lives her life – lonesome, yes, but at peace. She learns that life doesn’t require perfection to be lived to its fullest.

“If you get down to it,” Dr. Thompson tells her toward the end of the story as they watch a flock of peacocks in the yard, “You’ve had love. And as I understand it, once you have something like that, you have it forever.”

It is a tender moment between a widower whose own marriage was not filled with love and a woman who knows far more about love than many more experienced in its arts. The scene is a fitting ending to a story that touches the heart from start to finish.

My wine recommendation:

old-south-winery-miss-scarlett-sweet-muscadine-rose-mississippi-usa-10325204While Miss Jane sometimes drank her daddy’s apple brandy, I think she would also find to her liking Old South Winery’s Sweet Scarlett Muscatine Rose. Made from grapes grown in Natchez, MS, the wine is similar in color and sweetness to White Zinfandel and goes great with party foods, desserts or just sipping on the front porch. $10