PEOPLE – Cut To Peppers

07 Feb 2003

The address printed on the invitation was Via Monte della Farina 62, but the puzzling thing was that I find myself standing outside an antique shop! Giuseppe’s message speaks about a ‘Calabrian cocktail party’, so I was expecting to find a bar or maybe an enoteca or an osteria. I’m at the rear of the Teatro dell’Argentina, according to the directions given me, so this must be the right number. A man at the door notes my bemusement and asks “Looking for the graduation party? Down at the bottom on the left”. I later discover that ‘Anticaia & Petrella’ is a famous party place in the center of Rome, but for someone like me who’d never heard anything about it, it came as something as a surprise, after turning past a large art-nouveau mirror standing between two purple sofas, to find myself in a long narrow room with a vaulted ceiling packed with happy revelers of all ages. I see Giuseppe Gagliardi at the end of the room smothered by playful hugs and embraces. This morning, Thursday December 19 2002, Giuseppe had his graduation ceremony at Rome University and the entire Gagliardi family set out from Calabria at four o’clock in cars filled to brimming with food—cured meats, cheeses, jars and clattering bottles of red wine—to be here in time to prepare the buffet to celebrate their prodigal son. It’s a grand sight. Never mind a ‘Calabrian cocktail party’, this is a good old-fashioned banquet. Naturally enough, there are peppers of all shapes and colors: from the bunches of bright red chillis used for decoration to the dark green peppers in oil, beautifully set out in a large serving dish, to the pinky red piquant ones in sauce and served in small portions, which, explosive as they are, they tell us to ‘handle with care’. Alongside the peppers, it’s a triumph of homemade pickles and delicacies preserved in oil: sardines, wonderful mushrooms, small tender cauliflower florets, baked aubergines, black and green olives. Then come the cured meats: the inevitable toothsome soppressata, salamis, some fiery others less so, juicy hand-cut ham, and a whole suckling pig turned into porchetta over the fire according to the most ancient of methods. Then there are the cheeses: oily caciottas, tender provolas, sapid, fine-scented pecorinos. Last but not least, cakes, biscuits, vin santo, limoncello … It’s Giuseppe’s granddad who bottled the red wine, and to honor his grandson he’s had special labels printed with a photo from the short film Peperoni, the film with which today’s graduate won the Golden Snail Award at the inaugural Slow Food on Film festival last April. The film recounts a romance in fifties Calabria. The girl’s family is diffident and to persuade her old man to agree to the wedding, the young pretender subjects himself to the ancient ritual of dragging a huge tree stump round the village. What eventually does the trick and allows love to triumph, is a great lunch he serves with his grandma’s fabulous peppers. Tempted with food, the head of the girl’s family gives his blessing and everyone lives happily ever after. Seeing them all here, the healthy faces and the infectious smiles of the Gagliardi family, from the ageless grandparents to the smallest grandchildren, I grasp the genuineness of Giuseppe’s inspiration and the sincerity and passion of his film tribute to his native region. For these are the qualities that won his work the sympathies of public and jury alike. The proof of the pudding—in this case, Peppuccio’s foolproof authenticity—is in the eating. In fact, the subject of his thesis was—you guessed!—food in the cinema. While the party heats up, the toasts proliferate and accordion music literally incites song and dance, starring, incidentally, the guest of honor, the president of the jury of Slow Food on Film, actor Vincent Schiavelli, who happens to be passing through. In the middle of the mayhem, I manage to capture a few comments from Giuseppe.

1) First things first. Congratulations for your degree, Doctor Gagliardi! I know you wrote a thesis on food in film, a subject I’m obviously fond of. How did you approach it?

Food in film is the subject that interests me the most. I believe that seeing food in a clear-cut expressive context is at once familiar and fascinating for the viewer. After all, this medium within the medium has been cooked up in many different sauces, by the most diverse directors from the most various schools. For my thesis I approach the subject from a scientific point of view. More specifically I analyze the continuity of Le grande bouffe. Ferreri uses food in a different way from all other directors, since in his films it’s first a synonym of obsession and, secondarily, an instrument of death. He doesn’t see it in a toned down way or as a vital function of man. As we all know, he loved to provoke.

2) Since you’re an expert on the subject, what, in your opinion, are the greatest masterpieces of ‘gastronomic cinema’?

My instinctive reply would be Like Water For Chocolate by Arau. Another masterpiece of the genre—if, that is, we can speak about a genre—the most substantial of the bunch, is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

3) Tell us something about yourself. A potted biography of Giuseppe Gagliardi.

I’ve just graduated and I’m waiting not to find a job but to make a film. I’m obviously hoping that somebody’s going to be prepared to invest in my ideas.

4) Food seems like your way of keeping in touch with your native region Calabria, with your roots. Is that right? How important is food in your life and family?

Very important. Eating is like speaking. It identifies you immediately. Recently I traveled to Germany for a new project. There I found a number of Calabrian emigrants. One of them complained that Germans don’t know how to do two fundamental everyday acts: eating and dressing.

5) What are your projects for the future? Have you got anything in the pipeline for the next Slow Food on Film festival?

I mentioned this project in Germany. It’ll be a sort of fictional documentary in which one of Calabria’s most famous groups, Il parto delle nuvole pesanti, turn up at a Calabrian pizzeria up there to play. They were done up the way seventies emigrants used to dress. It’s at once a musical and a culinary film in the sense that the aim is to see how our cooking has been shaped by the ‘cold’ tastes of the Germans.

The last vision I have of Giuseppe after all the warm hugs and embraces is of him being pulled up onto the stage by a throng of merrymaking friends and relatives. He’s wearing a necklace of chillis and, on his head, matted with, confetti, a laurel crown, while in his hands he, the director, is holding a cardboard Oscar. He’s laughing like mad and singing along with the rest of them. He’s the picture of happiness.

Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival

Adapted by John Irving

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