Father, guru, evangelist?
Ask any Italian chef, food writer, or home cook, who the most influential figure in Italian cuisine is, and one name comes up again and again: Pellegrino Artusi. Regularly hailed as the father or ‘inventor of Italian cuisine’ his book, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well) is one of the best-selling Italian cookbooks of all time. It is still in print with multiple publishers and the ‘bible of Italian cuisine’ occupies shelf space many an Italian household (I myself have three copies!)
Right place at the right time?
Artusi’s status as ‘the inventor of Italian cuisine’ is partly—but by no means only—due to his work being published in the right place at the right time. La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, one of the the first Italian cookbooks to gather together dishes from different regions of Italy, was researched and published during the heady days of Italian unification—the conscious fabrication of a single Italy of regions rather than a collection of multiple diverse states.
Artusi as a writer
The book’s initial and continuing popularity is also based on Artusi’s skill as a writer, his obvious passion for cooking (or rather eating), and the fact that all the recipes included were rigorously tested and assumed no prior skill in the kitchen. Artusi was not a professional cook, but a passionate amateur, writing for other passionate amateur home cooks. As he states in the introduction to the last edition of the book published in his lifetime, ‘with this book, all you need to know is how to pick up a ladle.’
Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli, a small market town near Forlì in modern-day Emilia-Romagna. Following a petty bourgeois education, Artusi worked, until the age of thirty-one, in his family shop located in the town centre. In 1851, a traumatic event saw the family move lock stock and barrel to Florence where they established a successful trade in silk. It wasn’t until 1865, however, that the forty-five-year-old Artusi found himself in a financial and personal position to devote his time to his two great passions: literature and food.
His studies bore fruit in three works: firstly a biography of the poet Ugo Foscolo, a sort of Venetian Lord Byron; secondly a commentary of the letters of poet and satirist Giuseppe Giusti; and finally the book which was to dominate the last twenty years of his life, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene.
Science in the kitchen
La scienza in cucina, is a collection of 790 recipes (in its final edition) together with an introductory essay on healthy eating. His opinions on the latter are well worth reading if you take into account that he lived to the ripe old age of 91. Peppered through the recipes are personal anecdotes, opinions, and wry comments that make Artusi’s voice and personality still come alive more than a hundred years after his death and give the book a modern feel.
Although it has been translated into English, Artusi’s book has somewhat escaped the notice of the Anglo-saxon reading public, whose knowledge and love for Italian cuisine have been fostered and shaped by writers such as Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, and Anna del Conte. Hopefully, two-hundred years after his birth, we can do something to redress the balance. After all, 100 years-worth of Italian home cooks can’t be wrong, can they?