Let's have a TV dinner: Now you can cook the food from your favourite programmes
Sure, when you think of The Sopranos, your first thoughts may be of Christopher and Paulie almost freezing to death in Pine Barrens, Uncle Junior reaching for his trigger or murky fate of Tony Soprano's horse Pie-O-My. But what you'll also remember is the food.
There's the authentic Avellinese cucina of Tony's favourite gaff Vesuvio (and its post-arson, insurance-job incarnation Nuovo Vesuvio) or the murderous gloom of Satriale's Pork Store. Then there are the many big poolside barbecues and wonderful family meals at the Sopranos' family home. Not to mention that famous final scene at Holsten's diner where the Soprano family share a bowl of onion rings that are "the best in the state".
The HBO masterpiece is a TV show swimming in food. Even when Tony gets in late and eats a cold dish of baked ziti straight from the fridge, ziti food is central to the mise-en-scene, if not the plot itself.
Such was the foodie appeal of The Sopranos that it inspired not just one cookbook but two. The first The Sopranos Family Cookbook was written in the voice of Vesuvio chef patron Artie Bucco; the second Entertaining with The Sopranos "by" Carmela Soprano. The two Sopranos books were written by Allen Rucker and Michele Scicolone, an Italian food expert, chef, tour guide and author of 14 books on Italian cuisine.
"I don't have a lot of patience for TV," Sciolone tells me when I ask her how a New York food-magazine writer got tied up with the mob.
Sciolone had hardly paid any attention to The Sopranos when HBO asked her to create the family's recipes. But as soon as she caught up with the action she was engrossed and saw what a big deal cooking was in the show.
A big reason for that was David Chase, the show's creator, who made sure that the southern Italian food he'd grown up on would play a big role in both the show and the book.
Recalls Sciolone: "He [Chase] said, 'We must have a recipe for sfogliatella', a pastry very popular in Naples. It's layers and layers of very crispy dough filled with ricotta and semolina. He said whenever anyone on the show would say sfogliatella, they'd be bombarded with requests for a recipe. There were very specific recipes that he wanted, either from his family or from his memory or that played an important part in the show."
I t helped that Sciolone and Chase shared similar backgrounds. Both their families originated from near Naples. As did the Sopranos. The food all three families would have eaten as third/fourth generation Italian-Americans would have been similar and, says, Sciolone, that made it easy for her to imagine how Carmela would make her marinara sauce and Sunday gravy.
The latest cookbook to emerge from TV is similarly authentic. True Blood: Eats, Drinks and Bites from Bon Temps is the foodie companion to another HBO show. Like The Sopranos, the vampire drama is rooted in food (as well as blood). One of its principal locations is Merlotte's bar and grill, which serves up Louisianan soul food. In the book's preface, the show's creator Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) writes: "I grew up in a small town in the South, so fried chicken, grits and succotash were a part of everyday life.My mother's green bean casserole, forever seared into my tastebuds' memory, holds a very dear place in my heart. So when I sat down to write a show about the people of Bon Temps, Louisiana, it was no wonder that so much of their lives would revolve around food. It feels tremendously organic for the drama (and comedy) to go down over pitchers of Abita and burgers at Merlotte's."
The accompanying cookbook features recipes from the self-described "Queen of Cajun Cooking" Marcelle Bienvenu. They may be written in the guise of the show's characters – take the annoyingly named Get You Some Wings and Fly Away "by" Merlotte's chef LaFayette Reynolds – but the recipes are as good, and authentic, as you could hope to recreate at home in grey Britain. Similarly, another HBO show that revels in its southern American roots is Treme, David Simon's follow-up to The Wire, which follows a group of jazz musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans. The book, due early next year, features a foreword by bone fide food superstar Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential), who consulted with the producers on a Season Two storyline that saw chef Janette Desautel leave her New Orleans kitchen in an attempt to prove herself in New York.
Other attempts to parlay the popularity of a TV show into book sales come with the Desperate Housewives cookbook by Christopher Styler, a food consultant who – as well creating recipes for Bree Van de Kamp's chicken cutlets saltimbocca – has worked on Jamie Oliver's US series Food Revolution and developed recipes for companies such as OXO and San Pellegrino. The Nineties' biggest show, Friends, also inspired a cookbook. Oddly, despite one of its leads being a chef (who doesn't seem to spend all that much time in her kitchen), Friends is one of the less foodie TV shows. Despite that, Jack Bishop's recipes for (ugh) "comfort foods for when 'it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year'" include "Misery Meatloaf" and, of course coffee recipes accompanied by a generous serving of Friends dialogue and photos.
Nor is this a modern phenomenon. In 1979, piggybacking on the popularity of the sugary TV series, Harper Collins published The Little House Cookbook, featuring 100 pioneer dishes (pumpkin pie, vanity cakes) inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on The Prairie books. Again these were meticulously researched over eight years by its creator Barbara M Walker.
And that's the odd thing about these tie-ins. They might be aimed at pop-culture fans and punctuated by forced recipe names and lots of pictures of James Gandolfini et al stuffing their faces but, actually, the recipes in them tend to be accomplished, authentic and decent. I'm not sure if I'd really want to display True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps next to the Silver Spoon on my cookbook shelves but – frankly – I think Maxine Fortenberry's "Coleslaw Comeuppance" could compete with any of the slaw recipes I've tried.
And what better creations to justify eating dinner with the TV on?
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