23 Feb 2006

I heard about Vincent Schiavelli’s death during the holidays just as I was realising the dream of my life: spending a day on a Caribbean beach — a Cuban beach, to be precise. “HAPPY CHRISTMAS” I casually texted my sister in England. “VINCENT SCHIAVELLI’S DEAD” came back her reply, a few minutes later. In Cuba, the party daily Granma didn’t report the news and, at eight o’clock every evening, the TV Noticiario only seemed to speak about Fidel, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez and hospitals. It was only when I got home to Italy that I found out that Schiavelli, 57, had died of a terminal disease in Polizzi Generosa, in the province of Palermo, his family’s village.

At the start of the twentieth century, Andrea Coco, a monzù, or cook, in the kitchens of the local Polizzi Generosa baron, a member of the powerful Rampolla family, set out for La Merica and settled down in Brooklyn, where he was joined by his fiancée; the two soon got married. This, in a nutshell, is the story of Vincent Schiavelli’s grandparents, a story he tells together with that of his own childhood in Bruculinu America, a book packed with anecdotes and reflections about Italo-American customs, habits, festivals, characters and street life. The atmosphere is like a cross between The Godfather and West Side Story. ‘Growing up in this place was like having one foot in the mid-twentieth-century United States and the other in mid-sixteenth-century Sicily,’ writes Schiavelli in the introduction.

One of the leitmotivs of the book is the love of food and cooking that Schiavelli inherited from his grandfather (there’s even an appendix with 14 Sicilian recipes). He conserved that love for the whole of his life even when, as a graduate in dramatic arts at New York University, he set out for Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune in the film and television business. Success wasn’t slow in arriving and Schiavelli was soon one of Hollywood’s most sought after character actors. A great friend of Milos Forman, he had parts in all the Czech director’s American films, from Taking Off to Amadeus. According to my calculations he played as many as 91 parts in as many movies: who can forget his performances as crazy man Fredrickson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the subway poltergeist in Ghost and Dr Kaufman in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Dies?

It was in Hollywood, at a congress of the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) that he found out about Slow Food. He was so struck with the movement’s philosophy that he decided to team up with Panos Nicolau (a Greek-Cypriot film and TV producer, no less a food lover than himself) to found the Slow Food Los Angeles Convivium. Five years later, he even came to Bra, to the headquarters of Slow Food, to chair the jury at the first ‘Food On Film’ festival of ‘gastronomic shorts’ (the third will be held, again in Bra, from April 26 to May 1). It was on that occasion that I first met him and had the chance to admire his humour, his culture and … his American-accented, old-fashioned Sicilian dialect.

In recent times, Schiavelli was returning more and more frequently to Polizzi Generosa — at least once a year. He intended to open a cookery school for foreigners there and was also playing with the idea of writing a novel based in the Brooklyn of his childhood. It’s a pity for all of us that the book will never see the light.

John Irving, a collaborator of Slow Food, edits and writes for a number of the movement’s publications.

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