Last night, for the first time in about three years, I went to a movie. With so many other things to do in Italy, we didn’t spend much time at the cinema. Truth be told, I’ve never been a big movie-goer anyway, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice, especially when there were concerts in the piazzas, plays in the opulent opera house teatro, and various festas to attend year round.
But, having just finished reading the book, Julie and Julia, and being interested to see how it was adapted to the screen, my sister and I walked down to the neighborhood cinema.
Let me just say that we loved it. The dual storyline was woven together nicely, and Meryl Streep inhabited Julia Child’s persona. It almost made me want to purchase a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is obviously a desire that has seized millions of others, because the book has skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller list for the first time since it was published nearly 50 years ago.
I’ve never owned a copy, nor has my mother (or, at least if she did, I’ve never seen it on her kitchen bookshelf), because quite frankly French cuisine has not held great appeal for either of us. That’s not to say I don’t acknowledge and laud the woman who brought it to the masses; Julia Child is an icon, and even I watched her on TV occasionally. Who couldn’t like her and her enthusiasm, and her ability to make a complicated cuisine accessible to casual Americans?
I do have my own cooking legend to revere, however. I’m devoted to Artusi, the Italian cookbook author who did for Italian cooking in Italy what Julia Child did sixty years later for French cooking in America.
If you're not familiar with Artusi, let me introduce you. He's so famous only one name is necessary. Every Italian regardless of age knows immediately who you're referring to, and will normally tell you about their favorite recipes or witticisms. In the butcher shop, it was enough for me to tell him that I was making Artusi’s Filetto colla Marsala for him to give me the right cut, and truss it for me, as well.
That is because Pellegrino Artusi wrote the book on Italian cooking, literally. His cookbook, La scienza nella cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) was the first to be made available to the masses, and the first to unite regional specialties of the peninsula into one tome. It was also the first one to be written in Italian. Up until Artusi, cookbooks tended to be written in French and distributed among the upper classes, or they were penned as booklets in regional dialects, focusing on the local dishes of a small, provincial area. Cooks from Lombardia couldn’t read a booklet from Sicilia, and vice versa. His book was considered to be an excellent example of the usage of modern Italian language.
Artusi’s book was first published in 1891, and has been in continual circulation ever since. He couldn’t find a publisher for it, so he financed the printing himself. After a couple of years, word spread and he was printing more and more runs. By the time he died in 1910, he had sold more than 200,000 copies.
Even today, there is hardly a household without one, but the most prized copies, with treasured hand-scrawled notes and splatters, are passed down as heirlooms from mother to daughter.
Artusi expanded the book through the years, adding recipes that were sent to him by readers. It grew to a hefty 790 recipes, though he seems to have included only those that he liked personally, leaving out popular regional dishes that apparently didn’t suit his palate.
Pellegrino Artusi was born in the central region of Emilia-Romagna, then moved to Florence at the age of 32. His tome is very heavy on recipes from Emilia and Toscana, which is understandable, but he did take care to include the dishes from other regions, such as ossobuco from Lombardia, riso from Veneto, maccheroni from Napoli, and sorbetto from Sicilia. This was completely unique, and in doing so, he cracked the kitchen window to the air and aromas of the diverse regions of the country.
Like Julia Child, who made French cooking accessible to “servantless American cooks,” Artusi made Italian cuisine doable by all: “With my book, if you can hold a wooden spoon in your hand, you’ll be able to make something,” he wrote.
But it's so much more than a mere collection of recipes. Artusi gives advice on hygiene, on proper digestion, and practical wisdom. “Excessive salt is the enemy of good cooking,” for example. And, “Those who don’t do physical labor should eat more sparingly than those who do.” He also implores readers to “stop eating the moment you feel full,” and says wisely that the day after a meal of heavy, filling food, you should eat lightly.
He spins stories, tells anecdotes, has rather humorous notes -such as saying that lentils are “less thundering” than normal legumes, and gives such basic instructions for the dishes that you can’t help but feel confident that anyone can prepare them successfully.
There are a few translations available in English. The one I prefer is edited and translated by Kyle Phillips, a great expert on food in his own right, who lives in Tuscany. It is, sadly, out of print, and like the treasured used copies in Italy, this translation can be hard to come by. Phillips’ editorial side notes are of immeasurable help; he explains some of the finer points and historical references we would not otherwise understand, and helps to refine the recipes to the American mentality of measurements, something Artusi –and many Italians - rarely use. (I’ve never once seen my chef friend Giorgio measure anything!) Cooking all'occhio, by the eye, is the norm around the peninsula, and Artusi assumes the cook knows how to do this, so Kyle Phillips provides some explanation.
Artusi also included a helpful section on the varieties and seasons for fish, an interesting thesis on coffee, and a chapter on meal-planning by the month, so that you eat what is fresh and appropriate for each season.
I have a collection of Italian cookbooks, but this one is the stalwart, the point of reference in many respects. It's not only full of fantastic recipes, but is a good read, to boot.
*Find my favorite Artusi recipe, and more scrumptious goodies, at La Cucina.*