Dr. Hannibal Lecter, renowned forensic psychiatrist and casual cannibalistic serial killer, first appeared in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon in 1981. The sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, gained the series a larger readership in 1988. The Oscar-winning film adaptation that followed solidified Dr. Lecter as one of the biggest villain-cum-antiheroes of the 20th century.
In Dr. Lecter, Harris carefully constructed a character that is simultaneously charming and abhorrent, personable and terrifying, passionate and indifferent. Readers think of him as a psychopath, but in reality Dr. Lecter is a much more complex figure. In fact, he’s a bit of a psychological conundrum and a disturbingly likeable monster.
While Hannibal Lecter does fit many of the criteria for a psychopathic diagnosis, his relationship with FBI trainee Clarice Starling bucks the trend. To Starling, Dr. Lecter appears capable of showing genuine respect, empathy and at times even warmth, all inconsistent with psychopathy. He offers her assistance that is not always self-serving, which is inconsistent with the psychopathic need for immediate gratification.
Dr. Lecter is also extremely intelligent. This is a defining trait in Harris’s books, one that allows Lecter to help agent Starling just as much as it enables him to exploit her and his victims. However, Lecter’s intelligence does not only manifest through his criminal mind, but also in his interests, including music, art, literature and, most important for our purposes, gastronomy.
The novel’s most famous quote appears in an iconic scene during Dr. Lecter’s first meeting with Starling. Lecter tires of Starling’s request to complete answers to an FBI study and warns her, ‘A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling.’
Lecter’s quote in the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs was altered to swap Chianti for Amarone. While film producers thought Chianti was a more recognizable red wine than Amarone, they failed to capture the nuance behind the original pairing.
The name Amarone (or more fully Amarone della Valpolicella Classico) comes from the Italian word amaro, meaning bitter, with the suffix ‘-one’ meaning big or great. It’s a highly regulated, very alcoholic red wine that comes from a labor-intensive process and is only ready to drink after it has been laid down for 7 to 15 years. Chianti, on the other hand, is less alcoholic, younger and just generally not as complex. Because it’s such a robust tipple, Amarone is often paired with offal, and as such, would be an excellent accompaniment to liver or pâté. Lecter would know this. It’s also frequently paired with wild game, significantly meat that is hunted, not farmed. Cue goosebumps.