Love Apples

Adam Schell's tomato tale celebrates a once-forbidden fruit.

Before they became the main ingredient in marinara sauce and the
element without which lasagna would be bone-dry, tomatoes underwent a
long strange journey.

On the coast of what is now Honduras, Christopher Columbus “first
encountered what is believed to have been a tomato — a small
fruit eaten by the native peoples, usually mashed with chilies,”
recounts Adam Schell. “In the Nahuatl language which dominated
Central America in pre-Columbian times, it was called the
tomatl. In one of his journals, Columbus mentions sharing a
‘spicy red soup of sorts’ — the forerunner of gazpacho?
— with a group of natives. From Spain,” to which Columbus
duly returned bearing seeds, “the tomato somehow made its way to
Italy.”

And it is there, in sun-soaked 16th-century Tuscany, that Schell set
his debut novel Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust, and
Forbidden Fruit
, which he calls “the nearly, almost entirely true
tale … of how the tomato came to Italy.” A nod to both Shakespeare
and Gabriel García Márquez, with characters talking in
rhyme, the plot finds Jewish tomato farmer Davido — whose
ancestor sailed with Columbus — falling in love with Mari,
the Catholic stepdaughter of a greedy, nasty olive grower. Meanwhile,
an enormous purple-skinned priest and a cast of rowdy, randy, hungry,
and sometimes hapless characters prepare for the village’s Feast of the
Drunken Saint.

“The theory is that Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition brought the
tomato with them as they immigrated to Italy,” explains Los
Angeles-based Schell, who will be at A Great Good Place for
Books
(6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland) on Sunday, Aug. 2. “Because the
tomato evoked the Love Apple from the Garden of Eden, Italy reacted to
it with great suspicion. Food historians posit that the tomato was
cultivated and eaten, especially by the Jews of a small Tuscan city
called Pitigliano, shortly after its introduction in the early 16th
century. However, the first mention of the tomato in an Italian
cookbook does not appear until 1692.”

The author’s years spent working and traveling in Italy
— and his previous occupations as olive-picker, apprentice
chef, restaurant critic, and film producer — helped prepare him
to write a book that entails historical detail, a distinctive locale,
and serious technical challenges in the form of rhymed lines that evoke
what Schell calls “the countrified style of speech common to small
villages and hill top towns” in Renaissance-era Tuscany. Writing in
rhyme wasn’t his idea, he says. It was one of his
characters’:

“Early on in my writing process, in one of the first scenes between
Giuseppe and Benito, Giuseppe started speaking in rhyme, and Benito
answered him in rhyme. And from there, I just had to listen to how
these characters wanted to talk to one another. It wasn’t always easy
… and likely added an extra year or so of work on the book,” Schell
admits. “But it felt entirely right.” 11 a.m., free. GGPBooks.com

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