The 19th-Century Cookbook That Taught Me About Italian Cooking

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My go-to cookbook for traditional Italian cuisine was written 125 years ago.

Except for a few diagrams, there are no pictures. Many of the directions are not written out explicitly (the assumption is that you are already familiar with an Italian kitchen and basic preparations—you know what “enough” means when the instruction is to add “enough” rice to the minestrone); measurements are not always given; heat temperatures and times are a rarity (ovens and stovetops in the late nineteenth century were likely wood-fired and vastly different from ours anyway); and some instructions for beating mixtures for cakes may tell you to whip for 30 minutes—by hand, naturally (no mixers here).

But while many of the ingredients and techniques described are so different from those today, Pelligrino Artusi’s Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene or Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (which most Italians refer to simply, and affectionately, as “Artusi”) is still so wonderfully current—it’s as if the recipes have been unaffected by time.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Italian cuisine in general is that it is so unchanged—and Artusi is perfect proof. His recipes, all 790 and of them, are still the sort of recipes you find being cooked in homes and traditional trattorias, and for a good reason. And along with his witty anecdotes that often verge on the hilarious, and his chatty but practical tips, the cookbook makes for a very good read, too.

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I was introduced to Artusi before I started my blog; he was, you could say, a reason I began writing about food. It was a tattered copy belonging to my husband’s nonna Lina, and then passed on to his mother. The splattered cover was falling off, notes were stuck in randomly here and there, and the book opened instantly to the most well-used pages. The three shortcrust pastry recipes were the first to jump out at me, along with the notes in nonna Lina’s writing pointing to pastry “recipe B.”

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But my relationship with Artusi really began when my blog was only a month old, in January 2011, when I began a series where I wrote about one of his recipes each month. I got to know Artusi very well in that first year, choosing recipes from his seasonal menus or letting fate pick a page for me. I kept the book by my bedside table and carried in my handbag; it went everywhere with me. Having lived in Florence since 2005, I loved that so many of his recipes were familiar to me—he himself moved to Florence from his native Emilia-Romagna in the early 1850s and lived there until his death in 1910.

The cookbook has a charming introduction entitled, “The story of a book that is a bit like the story of Cinderella.” And, indeed, the story behind his cookbook, a labor of love, is inspiring. The seventy-one-year-old Artusi, a businessman with an enormous passion for cooking, could not find anyone to publish his book. He decided to self-publish it, initially printing only 1000 copies. But before long, it was one of the books that every Italian household had a copy of, up there with Italian classics like I Promessi Sposi and Pinocchio.

Today, Artusi is considered one of the most important icons of Italian culture and he is a household name. His book is on the shelves of everyone’s kitchen—it’s the Joy of Cooking for Italians—but even more.

See, at the time of the book’s publication, Italy had been unified as a nation for only a couple of decades—many Italians didn’t even consider themselves Italians yet. Yet Artusi’s book was the first to include recipes from all over the country—carefully named so as not to use descriptions rather than dialect (Tuscany’s famous ribollita, for example, is simply called “a lean Tuscan peasant soup”)—and this is why he’s often called the great-grandfather of Italian cuisine. Some even credit Artusi’s book for bringing the newly unified country together in one of the most important ways possible—through language. And in this case, it was the language of food.

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One of the reasons for the undying popularity of Artusi’s book is because it’s such a good read. He opens his recipe for minestrone, which he says “recalls memories of a year of public anguish and my own singular case,” with possibly my favorite anecdote in the entire book: It’s 1885. Artusi is staying in Livorno, a Tuscan port city not too far from Pisa, at a time when a deadly cholera outbreak was snaking its way through the peninsula. Poking his head into a trattoria, he asks, “What’s the soup?” “Minestrone” is the reply. “Ben venga il minestrone,” says Artusi: “Welcome the minestrone.”

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That night, sleeping in his hotel in Piazza del Voltone in a white palazzo kept by a certain Signor Domenici, he begins to feel what he amusingly describes as a “revolution” in his body, and spends the night going back and forth to the bathroom, cursing the maledetto minestrone. He cuts his trip short, escaping to Florence the next day only to discover the news that the epidemic had reached Livorno and that Domenici, his host, had been the city’s first cholera victim. Not every cookbook recipe begins with a story like that!

I’m constantly fascinated at how these 125-year-old recipes are still perfectly useful in today’s kitchen. A good, trustworthy classic doesn’t need any alterations, variations, or remakes—when a good thing works well, there’s integrity in passing it down as is and upholding traditions. As Italians say in true Italian fashion, La squadra che vince non si cambia“: Don’t change a winning team.

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In many cases, I also find that the older recipes are simpler, more essential. I am all for simplifying anything in my life, and a recipe with a short list of ingredients—like torta margheria, a simple, three-ingredient sponge cake—is always appealing to me.

Some of Artusi’s recipes have become constants in my repertoire. Like jam. Almost any jam I make is inspired by one of Artusi’s. His rose petal jam is exquisite, and his tomato jam is unique and surprising, treating tomatoes like the fruit they truly are.

But it’s his apricot jam that I will continue to make for the rest of my life. He himself says that it’s the best one of them all. I like it so much that there’s nothing I would do to change it. Some like to add lemon juice to their apricot jam, some add vanilla. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall even throws in some butter. But if you have delicious, sweet, ripe apricots to begin with (Artusi points out in this recipe that jam should be made with good fruit and that it is erroneous to think you can get the same results with second-rate fruit), then these are unnecessary.

It’s the perfect jam to turn into a dessert, even a humble one like crostata di marmellata, that jam tart that you can find in bakeries and cafés all around Florence, a recipe that I reproduced in my cookbook Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence. Just glide it onto a quickly made pasta frolla, a sweet, short crust pastry—Artusi’s “recipe B” and my go-to whenever I need a pie crust or basic cut out cookies—and you have the perfect Florentine treat.

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