Monday, March 22, 2010

The Art of Eating Well

The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi
Translated by Kyle M. Phillips III
Random House

In 1982 I bought a copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s La Sceinza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, “The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well,” from a used-book seller who also carried a few new books on the side. My copy was new. I didn’t want a new copy, but when I asked him if he had any used ones, he shook his head and replied that mothers passed their copies on to their daughters. He’d sold only three used copies of Artusi, as the book is called, in thirty years. I thought about that on the way home, and when I opened the book, began to see why.

La Scienza in Cucina is more than just a cookbook. Pellegrino Artusi read widely, corresponded with the intellectuals of his day, and had something to say about just about everything. Almost half the recipes contain anecdotes or snippets of advice on subjects as varied as regional dialects and public health, and while cooks may open the book to find out how to make minestrone or a German cake, they northern Italy in the 1840s were like. While today his comments are merely interesting, at the turn of the century they undoubtedly provided the first glimpses of the outside world to many of his readers who lived in small towns and had neither the means nor the opportunity to travel.

(from the introduction by Kyle M. Phillips III)
(Mid-January 1997) After many telephone calls I finally found an inn that had an opening the weekend after Valentine’s Day. Every place I called in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley were already booked, but then I found a room in an inn on the coast in a little town called Elk. The owner was another Alabama transplant and she recommended a nearby inn if I wanted a unique dinner. She told me that the couple that owned the inn, Luciano and Pauline, sometimes served special dinners for a small group of guests. I called and got their last available seats for the Sunday evening dinner.
29 – Minestrone

For me, minestrone brings to mind a year of great public suffering.

I spent the bathing season of the Year of our Lord 1855 in Livorno; cholera was slithering here and there in many provinces of Italy and had everyone dreading a general epidemic, which in fact burst out forthwith. One Saturday evening I entered an inn and asked, “What kind of soups do you have?” “Minestrone,” came the answer. “Bring me the minestrone,” I replied. I dined, took a walk, and went to bed. I had a room in a spanking-new building owned by a mannamed Dominici, in Piazza del Voltone. During the night my insides rebelled in a most frightful manner. “Damned minestrone, you’ll never catch me again!” I repeated countless times as I went to and from the privy until dawn. Exhausted, I took the first morning train to Florence, where I recovered immediately. Monday came the sorry news that cholera had broken out in Livorno, and Mr. Dominici had been the first fatality—minestrone indeed!

(February 16, 1997) We arrive at the inn at 7:30pm, where we are ushered into the parlor with the other evening dining guests. At 8pm, the doors to the dining room were thrown open and we found ourselves seated at the main table with two other couples. While they were each celebrating 10 and 20-something year anniversaries, we were a little embarrassed to admit we had been dating for six weeks. But everything went smoothly and we had an exceptional dinner. Luciano had been a doctor and chaired the pathology department at UCLA-Harbor General Hospital. His wife, Pauline, had been the manager of capital expenditures there. They had refurbished and added onto an 100 year old Victorian house, turning it into a four-bedroom inn. In addition to being a fertility specialist, Luciano was a wonderful chef. The joke between the couple was that they established the inn just so Luciano could host dinner parties.

We were served course after course of wonderful food and wines that perfectly matched each dish. I asked about one of the listings on the hand lettered menu—Artusi No. 125 (#257 in my copy of the book). Luciano came out from the kitchen and explained about Artusi’s book, the number corresponding to a particular recipe in his edition. Pauline mentioned that an English translation of Artusi’s book had recently been released. Dinner lasted until almost 11pm and I asked if we could see the kitchen. From the original Warhol prints on the wall to the butcher’s block from a Chicago slaughterhouse in the corner, the kitchen was a marvel. All of us congregated in the kitchen for another hour and Luciano brought me his (Italian) copy of Artusi’s book. It was well-worn with plenty of marginalia and inserts to help him remember variations or details for the recipes. The evening was one of our most memorable dining experiences and their inn became a favorite place to visit. We would return at least once a year to repeat the experience, each dinner just as wonderful as the first.
If I knew who invented the oven, I’d erect a monument to him at my own expense. He certainly deserves it far more than many others who’ve been honored in this monument-crazed century.

(August 1997) My girlfriend (and now wife) gave me Artusi’s book The Art of Eating Well for my birthday. It resided for years in the kitchen bookshelf but now occupies a special place in our regular bookcases. I’ve made Artusi recipe 257/125 a few times, but the dish has never quite captured the flair and exceptional qualities as our first visit to the inn. As the recap in the above link highlights, the book is fun. Recipes are rather loose on particulars and intermingled with anecdotes and asides from Artusi. I have included only a few quotes from the book, but hopefully they give an idea of what reading it can be like. I’ve never read the book from cover to cover, preferring to skip around to different sections.

A wonderful overview of Artusi can be found at Valerie’s blog 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. Valerie mentions the appeal of the translation by Kyle Phillips, which is unfortunately out of print. Artusi would probably be the only person not surprised that his recipes have generated several iPhone apps.

One corner of the kitchen at Victorian Gardens Inn
Photo by Edmund Barr
Food & Wine Magazine's 2001 Cookbook

The great rivalry between the Blacks and the Whites that followed on the heels of that between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, desolating Italy for so long, threatens to flare up anew over truffles. Be reassured, gentle readers, that no blood will be shed this time, because the supporters of the blacks and whites now under discussion are much kinder-natured than the fierce contestants of yesteryear. I support the whites and believe that the black truffle is the worst of all.

(Thanksgiving 2000 & July 2002) We dined at the inn several times over the next few years. A few weeks before we had a reservation I called Luciano and asked him if I could bring a special bottle of wine for the dinner. I knew he prided himself on choosing wines that paired with the courses. After reiterating that point to me on the phone, he asked what wine I wanted to bring and I told him a ’61 Barolo. There was silence for a few seconds, then Luciano said “Bring it.” Luciano created a menu that revolved around and focused on my bottle of wine. I headed into the kitchen a little bit before the dinner so I could decant the wine but Luciano shooed me out saying he would handle everything. When he brought the decanter to the table I told him to make sure to save some for himself. His eyes sparkled as he said “I tried it.” The sparkle was well-founded…the wine was ethereal as was the meal.

Even though we had dined there many times we had never stayed at the inn. I suggested the weekend after one Thanksgiving for our first stay there, planning to propose to my girlfriend while we were there. Before we checked out on Sunday, we looked at each other and said “Why don’t we get married here?” We knew that they hosted four to five weddings each year but we weren’t sure if they would agree to host our wedding. On one of our visits Pauline mentioned they had to turn down several wedding requests so I asked Luciano how they decided which weddings they would host. (Imagine thick Italian accent) “I look at the bride. If I like her, we have the wedding.”

Everything about the wedding was perfect. We wanted our friends and family to have a special time at one of our favorite places as well as enjoying the northern California coast. The entire weekend was magical, with Luciano’s reception dinner held in a tent behind the inn. At one point during the music and dancing, I looked outside the tent and saw Luciano leaning on the picket fence while he surveyed the festivities. I strolled outside and leaned against the fence with him, accepting his offer of a glass of bourbon as we watched everyone have fun.
I don’t want to give myself airs, but to amuse the reader and fulfill the desire of the unknown admirer who sent me this letter from Portoferraio on July 14, 1906, when I was correcting the galleys of the tenth edition:

My dearest Sir,
A poet gave me a copy of your fine book, La Scienza in Cucina, adding the verses I have included in the hope you will find a place them in your next printing, which I hope comes posthaste. Here are the verses:

This is the breviary of health,
The apotheosis of the bud:
With its guidance a man can live a century,
Sipping life drop by drop.
The only true human bliss (for the others are games)
God placed in the hands of cooks;
Let the unhappy man accuse himself
For being without Artusi’s book upon his shelf,
And let him call himself an ass ten times over
For not knowing its precepts by heart.

An admirer.

(May 2003) We learned that Luciano died the day our youngest son was born. His death moved us even though he couldn’t be called a close friend. He enjoyed life, especially in bringing people together to savor food and company. I’m reminded of the dinner in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay striving to bring people together while outside “things waved and vanished, waterily.” Every dinner we had at the inn provided such a stay against time, however brief, with memories that will live as long as we do. I get the feeling Artusi would approve.

Victorian Gardens Inn
Photograph by Mick Paul

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