In my recent postings about wild fennel liqueur, I failed to mention where I where I first learned about it and how to make it. In November of 2002, I had the opportunity to cook a book signing dinner at Chez Panisse for Vincent Schiavelli, the actor and cookbook author. I had been focused on Italian food for some time and was thrilled to collaborate with him on the menu. Vincent was of Sicilian decent, having grown up in a Sicilian ghetto in Brooklyn, where english was not a necessity, long before Brooklyn was the fashionable place it is today. His first cookbook, Bruculinu America: Remembrances of a Sicilian-American Brooklyn, is about growing up in the embrace of family and a community of Sicilian immigrants, eating Sicilian food, helping his grandmother cook sauce and many other traditional dishes. It's a charming book in which the stories of community and home merge with the recipes, as I imagine they did in his life; these things are always inseparable.
The book we cooked from, his second, is Many Beautiful Things; Stories and recipes from Polizzi Generosa, about his ancestral home, where he had kept house and lived part time. It's a lovely, hand-illustrated book by a lovely man who had an immense sense of history and where he came from, and therefore who he was. At the end of the book he has an entire section about making liqueurs, simple but definitive recipes and instructions that enlightened and excited me. We served wild fennel liqueur as an aperitivo at the dinner, and it was the perfect beginning to a wonderful meal. To his delight -- and mine -- we served coppa I had made. I learned, suddenly at the last minute, that it was incorrect to use fresh sardines in pasta with broccoli, that it had to be made from tinned sardines. We had to rush out and buy some from a nearby Italian deli.
The menu was:
wild fennel liqueur
antipasto: cooked carrot salad; pumpkin caponata; rapini omelette; sweet and sour meatballs; coppa
pasta with broccoli (and tinned sardines)
veal shoulder roast with Marsala
dessert was almond crostata
Vincent was endlessly charming, generous, and enthusiastic, and we had immense fun cooking for him. He kept in loose touch in the following years, and though he invited us many times over, I never made it to his home in Polizzi Generosa. Vincent was a heavy smoker, and he died there in 2005, of lung cancer, in the home his grandfather had grown up in but had left behind for Bruculinu, America.
We all learn initially from someone else, some inspiration, then go on to develop our own thinking about our craft or art; it's like finding one's own voice. It is important to me to always keep in mind where I came from, who my mentors are, and to give them the respect and recognition they deserve. Deserving is a difficult idea -- how does one come to deserve something, and how are others to respect that? For me, it's a coming together of understanding, appreciation, and love. That, and remembering who you are. People sometimes to forget who they've learned from, and where they've come from. Without that, you can't know who you are. I always try to keep these notions in the forefront of my mind. I always say, no new food has been cooked in two hundred years. (That doesn't mean it hasn't been improved upon!) I think about that every time I cook. I explain to young cooks learning the craft of making prosciutto or other dry cured meats, that one stands in a river of tradition that goes back 2000 years.
That is my thanks to and respect for him, both of which he deserves.