(From Elliott Walker, TODAY Producer)
Danger. Suspense. Brilliant lawyers. These are what John Grisham's many fans expect from his legal thrillers with the similarly punchy titles. THE FIRM. THE CLIENT. THE PELICAN BRIEF. Books that keep you up all night, nervously turning pages, seething at injustice.
Now Grisham is publishing his 20th book and taking a short break from all that tension. "PLAYING FOR PIZZA" is a vacation, based in part on a real trip that Grisham took to Italy a few years ago when he was researching his novel "THE BROKER." He clearly had a great time. Now, in "PLAYING FOR PIZZA," the reader is invited to share in some of his most delicious memories which he discussed with us this morning. WATCH VIDEO
Yes, there's a plot, but it serves mostly to open a window on how lovely life is in La Bella Italia. Our hero, Rick Dockery, is an NFL quarterback who is not very good at his job. After a particularly humiliating episode, he is reduced to playing in one of the least-known outposts of American football: Italy, specifically Parma, Italy, just down the road from Milan. Yes, they play American football there, passionately, if not professionally.
Some people will enjoy the football action as Rick joins the all-but-amateur Parma Panthers team, but for my money, and, I suspect, for Grisham's, the real pleasure here is the food. Normally Grisham's plots grab you by the throat; here, the big revelation here how much better Italian food is than McDonald's. The six-season NFL veteran actually cries the first time he experiences tortellini in brodo.
Rick's new hometown, Parma, is the home of Parma ham and the vastly more famous Parmesan cheese, which the locals call "the king of cheese," in a nice play on "the king of beer," which certainly featured far more prominently in Rick's food life before he got here.
Enormous amounts of time are spent at the table, as the Italians seduce Rick with their best cheese, wine, and olive oil, and talk of winning their first Italian Super Bowl. His first night in town, they surround him with local delicacies like culatello, which, his host Nino explains, comes,
"'...from the pig's leg, pulled off the bone, only the best parts, then covered in salt, white wine, garlic, lots of herbs, and rubbed by hand for many hours before stuffed into a pig's bladder and cured for fourteen months.'
"'...these are the best pigs, for the culatello. Small black pigs with a few red patches, carefully selected and fed only natural foods. Never locked up, no. These pigs roam free and eat acorns and chestnuts.'
Nino referred to the creatures with such deference it was difficult to believe they were about to eat one."
This is fun reading, and Grisham happily refers to it as "pure escapism". At this point in his career, he can afford to fool around and enjoy himself; he has sold 235 million books, after all. But it's never far from John Grisham's mind that his first book, "A TIME TO KILL," was turned down by over thirty publishers. He and his wife, Renee, divide their lives into "BF" and "AF" - meaning, "Before The Firm" (before 1991, when he published his life-changing blockbuster "The Firm") and "After The Firm". It's one example of how they say they've tried to keep it real in his last sixteen years of enormous success. He's still writing and still loves a good legal thriller (look for the next one in January, in fact).
I don't pretend to know exactly how they do it, or how well it works, but perhaps the secret of keeping your success in perspective isn't too different from the experience of learning to slow down and savor the culatello, a sausage that takes fourteen months to perfect.