We The Italians | Italian lifestyle and fashion: Pellegrino Artusi’s Secret Sauce

Italian lifestyle and fashion: Pellegrino Artusi’s Secret Sauce

Italian lifestyle and fashion: Pellegrino Artusi’s Secret Sauce

  • WTI Magazine #112 Feb 16, 2019
  • 2095

In a world of customer profile analyses, response rate statistics, and tracking tools, Pellegrino Artusi’s innate ability to understand what was needed to get his audience to read, engage with, and advance his seminal 19th century cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) is refreshing. 

The wealthy businessman/author/student of literature/gourmand/bon vivant was also a prescient marketeer. He had figured out the secret sauce of customer response without the benefit of technology. He also happened to be a patriot and supporter of the republican ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, believing in the merits of a unified Italy. The book managed to pack that message into its pages in the form of Artusi’s language choice: he wrote in the standard Italian of Tuscany rather than a regional language, translating the scores of recipes he gathered from housekeepers, housewives, friends, relatives and other supporters from up and down the Italian peninsula into the Tuscan tongue. Unified under one common language, the recipes would serve to codify Italy’s culinary heritage and be understandable and usable by Sicilians, Lombards, Tuscans, and Neapolitans alike, an amazing feat in a country where a relatively small percentage of Italians actually used the national language with regularity. 

Artusi corresponded with his recipe contributors by mail or traveled to meet them, developing strong public and personal relationships that would endure edition after edition of Artusi’s book. People wrote to him for advice, and Artusi responded. The 475 recipes in his first edition, organized from zuppe, to antipasti, to primi and secondi, to dolci, ultimately grew to 790 recipes.  For 20 years after the book’s initial publication, Artusi had kept the publishing flame burning. 

L’Artusi takes flight 

L’Artusi, as his book came to be called by generations of Italians, was in fact an unlikely success.  Artusi paid for the printing of the first 1,000 copies in 1891 because the book had been rejected by numerous publishers. It wasn’t until its merits were recognized by a well-known professor of anthropology and physician to whom Artusi had sent the book in what amounts to a “promo,” that Artusi’s luck changed course. By 1911, the year Artusi died, the 14th edition and final edition of the book had been published. There were more than 200,000 copies in circulation, an astounding success in a country with low literacy rates. The circulation was on par with two other bestsellers of the day: Pinocchio by Collodi and Cuore by De Amicis, two moralistic tales that had won over Italy’s recently unified public, hungry for primers on how to form a national identity having spent most of their lives pledging allegiance to kingdoms and duchies. According to some accounts, there are an estimated 3 million copies of L’Artusi in circulation today around the world.

Artusi understood the enormity of the effort ahead of the Italians if they were to take their place in international political and commercial arenas on equal footing with other European nations that had legacies of firmly established centers versus Italy’s highly fragmented structure. Artusi’s lasting contribution to the unity of Italy and the formation of a national identity through the commonality of food, cooking, and eating. He knew that language was a great equalizer, and used it for that purpose in his book, but he didn’t take himself or even his cookbook too seriously. You have to think that what endeared him to his readers most, beyond the recipes, was Artusi’s tone: wry, funny, irreverent at times, light-heated. The cookbooks of the thime were anything but: they were either serious tomes written for professional chefs, almost exclusively males, or presented in regional languages and dialects that made the content understandable by a small part of the overall population.

Artusi wrote as though he were talking with you over a cup of coffee in your kitchen. There’s engaging narrative to keep you interested. Take the introduction to his recipe for polpettone, the lowly meatloaf – an example of Artusi being his playful self, a master of double entendres:

  1. – Polpettone (Meatloaf)
    Dear Mr. Meat Loaf, please come forward, do not be shy. I want to introduce you to my readers. I know that you are modest and humble, because, given your background, you feel inferior to many others. But take heart and do not doubt that with a few words in your favor you shall find someone who wants to taste you and who might even reward you with a smile.

To establish a national Italian identity, Artusi understood that it was necessary to break away from the French culinary terms that dominated cookbooks that had made their way even into rural kitchens. Here’s one example of the Artusian take on the use of the French language in Italian cooking:

  1. Zuppa sul sugo di carne (Soup with Meat Sauce)

Certain cooks, to give themselves airs, mangle the phrases of our less than benevolent neighbors, using names that resound mightily and say nothing. According to them, the soup I am describing should be called soup mitonnée. And if I had stuffed my book with these exotic and disagreeable names, to please the many who grovel before foreign customs, who knows how much prestige I would have enjoyed! But, for the sake of our national dignity, I have made every effort to use our own beautiful and harmonious language, and so it pleases me to call the soup by its simple and natural name. 

Artusi, celebrity cookbook author  

Artusi had risen to the status of celebrity cookbook author from unlikely beginnings. He certainly had the financial means to support his passions for literature and food. Born in 1820 in the small town of Forlimpopoli in Emilia Romagna, he came from a well-to-do family of textile merchants, a profession he continued to practice with success when the family moved to Florence in 1851 after a band of 16 brigands burglarized their home in the middle of night, also raping one of Artusi’s sisters. Once the move was made to Florence, he made the city his home for the rest of his life. He was successful enough to put his business interests aside when he was 50 years old and begin the process of researching and writing his cookbook. He wrote two other books – on the poets Ugo Foscolo and Giuseppe Giusti – but neither ever reached any critical acclaim. L’Artusi was his claim to fame and his passion.

To be sure, the book is far from perfect. Artusi gives few instructions about ingredient quantities or preparation, much in the same way a grandmother might tell you that the best way to prepare pasta dough is by touch, not ounces. Recipes from Italy’s north dominate the book, with southern dishes few and far between. He also wrote primarily for the rising middle class, Italy’s manner-crazed, literate majority who had the money to indulge in the often expensive ingredients in Artusi’s recipes. Housewives, assisted by domestic servants, cooked and entertained at home; L’Artusi was their cooking companion. 

Artusi didn’t devote himself to the tedious process of recipe testing. He employed a loyal staff of a housekeeper and cook in his Florence residence – Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffilli – who prepared the recipes though Artusi no doubt tasted and re-tasted the outcomes.

Artusi had a wide social circle but he never married and had no children. He willed the literary rights of L’Artusi to Sabatini and Ruffilli, both of whom cared for him until his death at age 91.  Today, the Casa Artusi in Forlimpopoli houses L’associazione delle Mariette della Scuola di Cucina di Casa Artusi, named in Marietta’s honor, where Emilian women teach courses on their regional cuisine. The relationship with Marietta was platonic but affectionate. He dedicated recipe number 604 for panettone to her, describing her as “such a good-hearted, honest woman that she deserves to have this cake named after her, especially since she taught me how to make it.” He adds praises at the end, characteristically ending by saying that it is “much better than Milan-style panettone and very easy to bake.”