Features  sniffer

Literary Supplement

I am trying to find the perfect metaphor for Tommaso Palladio: perhaps he’s a pig sniffing out truffles.

We’re sitting in his living room while his mother cooks us dinner.

“Too much tarragon,” he says. “Always with too much tarragon. Can you smell it too? I should have hidden the tarragon. I am sorry.”

I tell him it’s no big deal as I like tarragon.

“Tarragon,” he continues, “has haunted me since my childhood.”

I can believe this. Tommaso, more than any other man or woman on this planet, is prone to be affected by herbs. He wiggles his nose and flares his nostrils next to me: “I hope you like your spaghetti sweet too. She’s going to overwhelm you with flavour.”

I assure him that I can handle both sweet and savory.

“I apologize,” he says.

I tell him not to worry and we begin to talk about him. Tommaso emigrated here, to Southern California, in the early 1970s from Udine, a town in northern Italy. At night school Tommaso learned English. He was taught by Ana DeLouvigne, the sister of Gabrielle DeLouvigne, who at that time was seeking to launch her perfume business.

“It was a divine intervention,” Tommaso says. “Ana came in and began to teach us about toiletries and had brought a little bag of stuff: shampoo, soap, some deodorant. She’d lift up an item and call on one of the students to identify it. Then she pulled out a bottle of her sister’s perfume which was still in its test stages. She squirted it into the air and asked us what it was. I was immediately disgusted, I must tell you. Ana must have seen me recoil or something and asked me what was wrong. And I told her: too much patchouli.”

Intrigued, Ana introduced Tommaso to Gabrielle, whose perfume was having major problems in preliminary testing. Tommaso promised to stop by the office and offer Gabrielle some advice. “He was brilliant,” Gabrielle had told me over the phone. “He just walked in with this sort of swagger that bewildered everyone.”

“I was disgusted,” recalls Tommaso. “The whole operation was foul. I told Gabrielle immediately that she was being tricked. She needed to fire her advisors immediately. Those people knew nothing about smells.”

Gabrielle hired him, and by the end of his first week Tommaso had laid much of the basis for what would become DeLouvigne’s Memories. Memories, of course, went on to great international success and is still considered by perfuming experts one of the few modern classics.

“My company was built on Tommaso’s brilliance,” acknowledged Gabrielle. “And for that I am incredibly grateful. He really is an artist.”

We are gathered around the Palladios’ dining table. I stand next to two of Tommaso’s kids, Peter and David, and across from Samantha, his wife. Tommaso helps his 83-year-old mother carry the spaghetti, which is drenched in a pulpy tomato sauce, over to the dining table. He serves us all a plate and we join hands and say grace. After my first bite of spaghetti I know that Tommaso is correct and that he probably always is: there’s too much tarragon in this sauce.

In the early 1980s, Tommaso met Samantha Douglas, who is still beautiful 25 years and four kids later. She wears her hair in a bun and screams in broken Italian. She brandishes her ladle like a sword, slicing at the children as they come running, muddied, through the kitchen.

“Children are impossible,” she tells me. The children hear and giggle.

Samantha and Tommaso were late to parenthood. He was 45 and she was 40 when their first child, Lydia, was born. They often wonder if they’re too old for this.

I inquire about their first meeting. “I was a nurse,” she tells me as she juggles four packed lunches. “Tommaso came in one day with a stomach ache. He was pretty scared. Turns out it was just gas.”

I am at the Palladio household at 7 a.m. It is hectic and beautiful. Today, I will tag along as Tommaso and his crew film part of an episode of The Sniffer Trials, Tommaso’s nationally syndicated television program.

“He doesn’t like to brag,” Samantha says stuffing a child’s limb, any limb, through a coat sleeve. “But he was headhunted by all the big perfume companies. All of them. They all came and wined and dined him and laid a big fat check under his nose. He said no.”

The two fell in love. Tommaso would stop by the hospital for any reason. “It got to the point where I thought he was becoming a hypochondriac,” Samantha laughs. “I guess love’ll make you do stupid things.”

Tommaso was unassuming in his approach. “I had to be the one to ask him out on a date,” Samantha says. “Can you believe that?”

I tell her I can.

In 1985, Tommaso and Samantha, who had quit her job, opened a clinic together with the goal of offering practical dieting advice to people in need. In 2000, Jerry Haftameier came across the clinic. He was overweight and depressed. He was also a television producer.

“When I met the guy I was greatly impressed,” he tells me as we drive over to the home of Annie Clyde, the woman who will be featured in this episode of The Sniffer Trials. “He was just so enthusiastic and bubbly. He had just turned 50. I was sitting there and thinking, ‘Boy, is this guy great or what?’ And he is. He’s really great. I lost a lot of weight and felt healthy for the first time in my life.”

Jerry drew up plans for a pilot episode of the show. It proved a hit. Viewers, just like Jerry, loved Tommaso.

Annie Clyde’s home is a mess of a bungalow. A beagle patrols the lawn, snapping and barking at strangers. Three kids terrorize the living room. Chocolate is smeared everywhere.

“I’m a bit embarrassed,” Annie confides in me. “I’’m going to be on television and this place is a mess. I tried to clean it but these kids can ruin anything.”

I ask her if she’s embarrassed about essentially defecating on television.

“Heavens no,” she replies. “I am grateful for this opportunity. I am thrilled Tommaso is here.”

The beagle has stopped barking and the cameras are rolling. Tommaso walks in with a flourish. Annie’s eyes light up. She shakes his hand and he gives her a kiss on the cheek. They both smile and Tommaso gestures toward the bathroom. Annie walks off unselfconsciously and closes the door behind her.

She emerges three minutes later and doesn’t need to force a smile. She is thrilled. Tommaso takes her place in the bathroom, also smiling. He closes the door behind himself too, shutting the master and the canvas off from the rest of the world. He emerges a minute later.

“Let’s take you shopping,”” he says, his white teeth bared. I now know that I have no need to follow Tommaso and Annie down the supermarket’s aisles as he plucks items from shelves, dumps them into the shopping cart and carefully explains the merits of his choices. I know how the events will unfold hereafter: Annie will be healthier and fitter and happier in five months time. I know all of this and now I think I have found the metaphor I have been searching for: Tommaso is not the pig. No, he is the truffle and in some great instance of luck we (who are collectively the pig) have somehow found him during one of our lethargic travails through the forest.

Perhaps this metaphor isn’t perfect but it’s the best I have.