Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Cat in the Pan

By Patricia Winton

He popped onto my TV screen soon after I moved into my first Roman apartment. The program, La Prova del Cuoco—The Cook’s Challenge—had been on the air for a couple of years at that point. A zany mix of professional chefs, amateur cooks, and even children, the program demonstrated the Italian obsession with food. The most serious notes came from Beppe
Begazzi, an expert on Italian cuisine, and especially, on the basic ingredients. His pedantic pronouncements about where to forage for the best porcini, how to cook bistecca fiorentina, when to eat sausage, or how to ensure the freshest salad greens provided a seriousness to the otherwise rapid pace of the show. His dark eyes and closely cropped white hair gave authority to what he said. Often clad in a plaid shirt with a bolo tie or a sweater, he fascinated me. I’ve learned a great deal from Beppe.

When I began creating characters for my mystery stories, I realized that my heroine needed a sidekick. A schoolmasterish figure like Beppe would do well. From this kernel of an idea, Nino Nardo emerged. He’s about 30 years younger than Beppe, who’s in his 70s. Unlike Beppe, his bald head shines above an impeccable business suit. Over time, Nino has become very real to me. He adopts his professorial voice when he wants to make sure the heroine understands something. He recognizes his weakness, and often gives her an apologetic smile when he’s gone too far.

Beppe, too, can be over the top, but in my mind, Nino is such a separate entity that his image wasn’t tarnished when Beppe fell from grace a couple of years ago. At the time, Antonella Clerici, the show’s host who had been working with Beppe for several years, was on maternity leave. She knew how to slow him when he rode his hobby horse too fast. Her replacement, a former beauty queen named Elisa Isoardi, did not.

In the segment that got him fired, he talked about coniglio del tetto—roof rabbbit—a term used to describe cats. In earlier shows, he had talked about how people ate everything, including cats, during the hungry 1930s and 40s. On the broadcast in question, he gave a recipe. Poor Elisa stood mute, even sinking behind props, as Beppe described how to wash the cat in a flowing stream for three days before cooking.

As I look at the program in Youtube now, I think he was winding her up. The station’s manager had recently announced that Elisa would remain on the show, barring Antonella’s return after her maternity leave. I think Beppe was quite possibly trying to demonstrate what little control Elisa had. Animal rights groups denounced the program, talk shows debated the issue, and Beppe didn’t return. Antonella told journalists that she knew how to keep Beppe in check, but Elisa’s lips quivered as she spoke about her cat, Othello.

Things are back to normal in the world of television now. Antonella hosts the show again, and last year, Beppe returned as well. In my fictional world, Nino is headed for trouble, but not for eating cats.

I write on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers. I hope you’ll drop by. And please visit my website at www.PatriciaWinton.com






4 comments:

Kath Marsh said...

Really enjoyed this post. And I'm sooo glad Beppe and Antonella are back!!

Patricia Winton said...

I'm glad you liked it. I'm glad they're back, too.

Polly Iyer said...

I'm not sure if the cat cooking was the real thing or satire to unnerve his co-host. Did he really mean it? Surely not. Did he offer any defense? As an aside, he looks like Peter Graves who played Jim Phelps in Mission Impossible.

Patricia Winton said...

While I think his talk about eating cat in earlier shows, when he talked of wartime deprivation, was real enough, I think he was trying to unnerve his co-host here. I hadn't notice his resemblance to Peter Graves before, but I think you're on to something. My character Nino doesn't look anything like that.