Ever since I got serious about researching Italian food, I’ve found that there’s a book that, well, refuses to be left to collect dust on my kitchen shelf – Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Since its publication in 1891, this book has become one of, if not THE go-to-source for Italian home and professional cooks. I’ve always found the story behind the book, not to mention its eccentric author, just far too interesting. I’d therefore like to start my new series of My Kitchen Shelf posts about the Italian recipe compendium that has become one of my favourite stovetop companions.
Pellegrino Artusi was born into a wealthy merchant family in the Romagnol town of Forlimpopoli in 1820. Educated in a seminary school in the neighbouring town of Bertinoro, he spent his twenties living in Bologna where he frequented many student circles (it’s not clear if he actually attended the university there). In 1850, he returned to his hometown to take over his father’s business. His family’s lives, however, were changed forever the following year after a group of bandits lead by the notorious outlaw, il Passatore (“the Ferryman”), took all of the town’s wealthy families hostage in the town theatre. The bandits pistol-whipped Artusi, stole as much as they could and raped several women, including Artusi’s sister, Gertrude. She never recovered and was later sent to an asylum in Pesaro. Haunted by the attack, the family moved to Florence where, Artusi, now considered the head of the family, worked as a textiles merchant. He travelled widely, with his commercial interests taking him to cities such as Naples, Rome, Padua, Milan and Turin. Unlike most of his compatriots, he got to know the territory of the Italian peninsula well.
In 1870, Artusi was able to retire comfortably and live off his family’s inheritance. This left him time to dedicate to hobbies such as literature. He spent a lot of time pottering around libraries and wrote two largely unnoticed books about the poets Ugo Foscolo and Giuseppe Giusti. In 1891, after completing his compendium of 475 ‘scientifically-tested’ recipes, he was told it had no future by a literary scholar acquaintance and several Florentine publishing houses. Undeterred, he printed a thousand copies of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well at his own expense. The book failed to make any impact until Artusi sent a copy to the celebrity anthropology professor, Paolo Mantegazza. The professor immediately recognised the merits of Artusi’s opus and endorsed it in his lectures. By 1910, the initial 475 recipes had been expanded to 790 in its 14th edition. After his death in 1911, it continued to be a bestseller and a kitchen companion in literate households across the country. It truly was ‘a Cinderella story’, as Artusi calls it in the preface to his book.
So, why did a cookbook dedicated to the mutton-chop sideburned author’s white cats become the most influential in Italian history? Basically, Artusi’s cookbook was the first since Italian unification in 1861 to provide his audience with a template for a national gastronomic identity. Up until then, French-influenced cookery dominated recipe books, reflecting the Italian nobility’s preference for the cuisine of its transalpine neighbour. Recipe books were often written in French by professional French-trained chefs. Artusi’s recipe sources, on the other hand, were generally literate housewives from various parts of the country who corresponded with him. His sober yet genteel approach to cookery appealed to the small but emerging Italian urban middle class at the turn of the twentieth century.
His book also became popular because it was written in an Italian that his middle class readers were beginning to understand, read and write in. In 1861, a mere 2.5% of the population spoke what we now know as being standard Italian. In fact, several historians argue that Artusi did more to contribute to the unification of Italy, at least in linguistic terms, than anyone else. He rejected the previously in vogue French cookery terms in favour of Tuscan ones such as cotoletta (cutlet), tritacarne (meatmincer) and mestolo (ladle), terms Italians continue to use to this day.
The book is not without its faults. Artusi’s instructions about quantities, temperatures, preparation methods and cooking times are often vague. As a result, readers may find his recipes difficult to follow. Like other upper-middle class gentlemen at the time, Artusi himself was highly unlikely to have gotten his hands dirty in the kitchen. That task fell to his faithful servants, Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffili , who painstakingly worked on all the recipes that eventually made it into his seminal publication. The imprecision in his recipes may well reflect his lack of hands-on cooking knowledge.
Artusi’s map of Italy’s foods has also been described as distorted, with Tuscany, Romagna and Bologna (the regions and city Artusi knew best) being overrepresented. A cursory glance at his recipe compendium confirms that Sicily only gets token treatment and there is virtually nothing to represent Sardinia and the Mezzogiorno south of Naples. When he does document dishes outside Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna he is not shy either about disguising his biases against certain local culinary specialties. For instance, he dismisses Neapolitan maccheroni as being appealing only to people who like ‘swimming in tomato sauce’.
Moreover, Artusi made it quite clear that his book was addressed to the ‘comfortably-off classes’ and this shows in the many meat-laden dishes he writes about. In the late 19th century, Italy had a very low rate of meat consumption at barely 16 kilos per capita per year. Compare this figure with 40 in Germany, 55 in the United States and 58 in the United Kingdom. Much of the population subsisted on a poorly balanced diet. His narrow class outlook and apparent indifference to the undernourished rural poor have therefore been criticised too.
Few, however, would dispute the personal charm of the man. A true eccentric, Artusi had no qualms about wearing his huge mutton-chop whiskers, frock coat and top hat long after they had gone out of fashion. His book is peppered with witty, self-deprecating jokes and a refusal to take himself and the cookbook genre too seriously. ‘Beware of books that treat this subject,’ he jokingly warns his readers in the book’s preface. An engaging narrative, amusing anecdotes and historical tidbits more than make up for the apparent lack in precision in his recipes.
Artusi was generous too. A life-long bachelor, he left the bulk of his estate to fund a home for Forlimpopoli’s poorest inhabitants after his death in 1911. Future book royalties went to Marietta and Francesco, his servants. It’s easy, in short, to forgive him for the slants and oversights in his work.
Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well isn’t necessarily a record of what the majority of the Italian population was eating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be best, therefore, to describe it as a reflection of what people aspired to eat during that period. There’s no denying though, that Artusi – in his own conservative way – revolutionised the cookbook genre in Italy. His book provided the young nation with a template for a national cuisine and a language of food and cookery terms to communicate in. He was also instrumental in giving a voice to the previously hidden culinary knowledge of women and home cooks. Female writers such as Ada Boni would eventually come to dominate the cookbook genre in Italy in the 1920s and 30s largely thanks to his transmission of his female readers’ culinary know-how. Italians have a lot to thank him for. Stay tuned in the next month as I share a couple of recipes from this monumental Italian cookbook.
Sources and suggestions for further reading:
Pellegrino Artusi, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well
John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food
Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation
Karima Moyer-Nocchi, Chewing the Fat: an Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita
Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food
I also came across this youtube clip entitled Pellegrino Artusi. L’unità d’Italia in cucina. It features interviews with historians Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari and chef patron of Modena’s Osteria Francescana Massimo Bottura on the significance of Artusi. There are subtitles in English!