The Art of Eating

Excerpts from an 1890s cookbook.

When I quit my job and moved to Italy in 2001, the resistant tradition of the three- or four-course evening meal was—for the first few months at least—an excuse to dedicate lots of time to cooking. In the back of a dusty cupboard in the seldom-used upstairs kitchen, I found an old yellowed cookbook, in which I searched futilely for cooking temperatures, until I realized that by “flame” the book referred to that of an actual fire.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from L’Arte di Mangiare Bene, by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891.spine of old book

Principles

“The act of cooking is a rascal: it often brings us to the brink of despair, but it also gives us pleasure, because when we succeed or overcome an obstacle, we feel so satisfied, we sing victory. Don’t trust cookbooks, especially not Italian ones.”

 Fried Artichokes

“This is an easy dish; yet, although it is hard to believe, not everyone knows how to make it. In some countries, the artichokes are boiled before being fried. Non va bene! In others they are drenched in a batter, which is not only unnecessary but robs this fruit of its natural taste. Here is the best method, the Tuscan one. The Tuscans, making enormous use and abuse of vegetables and herbs, cook them better than anyone else.”

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak, Florentine style)

“The Florentine butchers claim these steaks come from two-year old cows. But if the butchers spoke at length, they would tell you not only that these cows are no young ladies, but that they’ve had husbands and children.

This excellent plate—healthy, tasty, constitutional—is not common throughout Italy, maybe because in many provinces the only beasts butchered are old work horses.

Put the steak on the grate above the coals as natural as it comes from the beast or maybe washed and dried, turn it when needed, and, when cooked, send it to the table sprinkled with salt and pepper. Don’t over cook it! Its beauty is that, when sliced, it jets juice onto the plate.  If you salt it before you cook it, the fire will dry it out, and if you douse it in oil, like many do, it will taste of suet and make you nauseous.”

Excerpt from old bookFried Pigs Liver

“Superior animals are equipped with a whitish gland (the pancreas) of an alkaline nature, viscous like egg white. Its actions are dedicated to rendering fat more digestible. Its secretions, along with saliva and gastric juices compute a perfect digestion. In Tuscany, the pancreas is called the ‘mini-stomach.’

In order to have the true taste of pig’s liver, you have to fry it ‘au naturel’ in thin slices, in virgin lard, mixed with the chopped mini-stomach.”

Paradise Soup

“This is a substantial yet delicate soup, but paradise, even that of Mohammed, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

Beat four egg whites until stiff; then incorporate the yolks, four not-so-full spoonfuls of breadcrumbs, the same amount of grated parmesan, and a dash of nutmeg. Toss it by teaspoonfuls into boiling broth. It’s ready after seven minutes.”

Pappardelle all’aretina (Ribbon pasta, Arezzo style)

“I don’t claim that this is an elegant dish, but it will do for the family.

Take a domestic duck, put it in a pan with a lump of butter, and let it take on color…”

Roast-beef

“This English voice has reverberated into Italy under the vulgar name of rosbiffe. A good rosbiffe is a valuable plate at a lunch dominated by the masculine element, who, not content like women to pay themselves off with crumbs, want to sink their teeth into something solid.”

Meatloaf

“Don’t think I’d be pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatloaf. It’s a plate everyone knows how to make, even a donkey, who may have given the model for meatloaf to mankind. I’m only trying to say you can make it with leftover meat. If you make it with fresh, you won’t have to insist as much with the spices.”

Fish

“Although not considered nutritious, I would use this hygienic dish more promiscuously than meat rather than save it only for Fridays, unless you feel the need to constantly fill your body with rich, succulent foods. By the way, fish, and even more so shellfish, due to their notable amounts of hydrogen and phosphorous, are too exciting for those seeking a quiet life.”

EggplantEggplants on plant

“Don’t denigrate the eggplant. It’s a highly digestible vegetable, and it doesn’t make you fart. It makes a good side dish, and it is anything but displeasing as a vegetarian meal. Choose the small or medium ones, because I fear larger ones will have matured into bitterness.

Thirty or so years ago, you could barely find eggplants and fennel at the Florence market: they were considered Jewish foods, which just shows you how, in this as in other things of more importance, the Jews have always had better taste than the Christians.”

Author: Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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