One day, while having a conversation with a pastry chef from Chelsea I hear her tell me, «We English aren’t lucky like you Italians. We don’t have a cook who wrote a book that’s been helping entire generations in the kitchen since the beginning of the 1900s!» The declaration struck me. Pellegrino Artusi wasn’t a cook, however, but a rich (and very parsimonious) merchant from Romagna who spent a considerable amount of his spare time gathering together hundreds of regional Italian recipes and experimenting with them.
One hundred years after his death, both his birthplace of Forlimpopoli, as well as other Italian cities are celebrating this figure with various publications and events.
With its over 700 printings, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891) is one of Italy’s most-read books, together with Pinocchio andThe Betrothed. Artusi’s life was rather mysterious and full of climactic moments – beginning with the kidnapping of his sister by bandits from Passatore who broke into the Artusi homestead during the night. This resulted in Gertrude having to spend time in an asylum and caused the family to then later move to Florence, where Artusi began his career as a merchant. He was so successful that at just 45 years old, he decided to retire and live on his earnings while dedicating time to his hobbies – literature (he also wrote a biography of Ugo Foscolo that went largely unnoticed) and cooking.
Printed in a thousand copies at his own expense with the publishing house Landi, Science in the Kitchen has been translated in hundreds of languages and hundreds of thousands of copies were printed. But if he wasn’t a cook, where did the material for his book come from? Housekeepers, friends, relatives and supporters with whom he carried on a prolific correspondence via mail, and with each new printing he included new recipes that they suggested (the twelfth edition has double the number of recipes). But even after the first printing, many people still wrote to him asking for advice and providing new recipes.
We know about his life mainly thanks to a mysterious Florentine woman by the name Adele. After Artusi wrote his own autobiography, he delivered it to two experts, Andrea Poccarini, a Romagnolo who was in love with Artusi and Alberto Capatti, an intellectual and the author of two books on the history of food, a teacher of the History of Cooking and Gastronomy at the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche in Pollenzo.
Resulting from this collaboration was the volume Autobiography of Pellegrino Artusi (published by Saggiatore in 1993), which they both helped to edit and which has helped to demythologise the larger-than-life figure of Artusi. He was a bit of a misogynist (he adored his two cats and dedicated the first edition of Science in the Kitchen to them), he was not a talented cook but an able man of letters. Prudent in matters of money, he was coddled by good cooking and by his own two cooks and servants Marietta and Francesco until the age of 91.
His autobiography speaks very little of food, but from it emerges a man with shrewd business sense and «an evident predecessor to shrewd marketing. In 1891 he published his cookbook at his own expense and for the next 20 years he managed to profit from its incredible success, installing a series of intense relationships with hundreds of his followers,» said Poccarini.
He may not have been a cook, but he’s a man worth celebrating. His merit was in codifying, re-ordering and classifying Italy’s great tradition of domestic cuisine, which is in itself, the result of extraordinary regional varieties and traditions. His is a cookbook embellished with detailed prose about daily life and historical trivia. It’s been a fundamental part of Italy’s national identity that has been read around the world. Like few other texts, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, should be considered a unifying tool for this country and its gastronomic, linguistic and cultural patrimony.
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