Former chef Adam Schell spent nine years researching and writing his first novel, Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Lust, Love and Forbidden Fruit (Delcaorte). He picked grapes and olives in Tuscany, visited libraries in Florence to read ancient Italian cookbooks and menus, and studied with a master gardener and cultivated Italian heirloom tomatoes. He talked to PW about what he learned along the way, and also shared his recipe for tomato-baked eggs.
PW: Why did you do so much research for a book that you yourself describe as a “playful absurdist romp”?
AS: I wanted to be meticulous. When you’re a chef and you read a book about food, you know when the author doesn’t have mastery of that subject. Sometimes it’s glaringly apparent. You know they haven’t done their homework. I wanted to make the [food parts] tactile, and place it so well in the 16th century, because with the story’s more farcical aspects, there’s that bit of uncertainty.
PW: What did you learn from ancient Italian cookbooks and menus?
AS: It’s fascinating how connected they were connected to the spices and the spice route. And the way they combined food—sweet and meat—was unusual. They ate plums and apricots along with meats.
PW: And what did you learn from working with the master gardener?
AS: I learned to look at gardening’s relationship to the process, not just the end result. Most people will garden because they want the tomato at the end. For the real gardener and real farmer, there is drudgery, but the love affair is pervasive. The way they treat the soil, the smell and texture of it... [being aware of that] helped solidify my understanding of the whole process and the artisan farmers’ connection to that process. It’s not just, “When do I get my beefsteak tomato?”
PW: So now you teach yoga and wrote a book about food set in Italy. There are some parallels to Eat, Pray, Love here, no?
AS: Yes, there’s a staggering amount of overlap, even down to the guru Elizabeth Gilbert refers to in the book; I had a very intense spiritual experience with that guru. And the reason she went to Italy was really, in a way, [a response to] Italy’s divine calling, which is to awaken you to the wonderful sensual qualities of life. It’s also one of the things I hope I captured in Tomato Rhapsody.
PW: What’s your favorite tomato recipe?
AS: At home, we honor the tomato on a near-daily basis. It depends on the season, but I like to eat tomato-baked eggs. It’s a variety of poaching eggs in San Marzano canned tomatoes. It’s a really sweet and simple recipe. You get some fresh plum tomatoes. Crush them put them in a pan that can go from stove to oven. You bring them to a simmer and crack some eggs into the tomato. For one number 10 can, use four eggs. Cover it and put it in a 350 oven. Go take a shower, and take it out in 20 minutes. Put some pecorino on top, put it under broiler, and then put it on toast. Put some olive oil on top, a little chives and pepper and you have a great breakfast. You’ll finding us tomato baked eggs on a weekly basis.