Book Review: Practical Italian Recipes For American Kitchens

Practical Italian Recipes For American Kitchens, by James B. Herndon

This book is one of the volumes I occasionally read [1] as out-of-print but intriguing historical books that have a worthwhile pedigree. This particular volume was originally published in 1918, presented to the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, and sold to aid the families of Italian soldiers during World War I, when the United States was allied with Italy and where there had for some decades been a great deal of immigration into the United States from Calabria and other parts of Italy, which led to the existence of firm bonds between the two nations where such bonds had been more limited before [2]. As a result, this book has an intriguing pedigree, referring to the influence of Italian culinary culture in the United States at its beginning, since many of us (myself included) are extremely fond of tasty and wholesome Italian dishes in our contemporary society and may not be aware that this is a relatively new historical phenomenon.

The book itself is very short, extending only about thirty pages or so of actual material. Included are appeals to the wholesome and cost-efficient nature of Italian food, one of the main reasons I grew up eating so much pasta as a child, as well as substitutes for items that may be hard to find in 1918-era American kitchens, like tomato paste, parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms, anchovies, and garlic. The cookbook then starts with soups, like brown stock and vegetable chowder (known better nowadays by its name, Minestrone), before moving on to some tasty risotto dishes and vegetable dishes that are hearty and pretty simple, like boiled cauliflower and fried celery. Some classic Northern Italian dishes, like polenta, are included as well, along with more familiar dishes like spaghetti and ravioli. Because Italian sauces were still unfamiliar at this time, the cookbook includes recipes for Bolognese sauce and tomato sauce and white sauce made from eggs and flour. The author includes some fish dishes like stuffed cod and Florentine salmon, and omelets and soufflés made with meat. There is a tasty-looking piccioni con polenta (pigeons in cornmeal) dish that looks surprisingly tasty [3], as well as a smothered chicken dish that lamentably includes lard in the ingredients, and chicken cacciatore. The cookbook also includes some sweets, like chocolate pudding, nut cake, and bigne [4].

Although I am someone who reads few cookbooks and does not consider myself a master chef by any means [5], this book is interesting from both a culinary as well as a historical perspective. For one, it seems shocking to the reader that less than a century ago Italian food that we consider basic and ordinary aspects of our dining were at the cutting edge of culinary experimentation, and that people would need recipe books to make basic tomato sauce. We take these things for granted, and a century ago they were largely unknown by those who did not live in Italian immigrant communities or have Italian maids, as the author of this book helpfully notes in his foreword. Additionally, it is remarkable the sort of dishes that are not included—there is no lasagna, no chicken or eggplant parmesan, no tiramisu, no Italian salads with various types of vinegar-based salad dressings. Those items were likely considered to be too specialized, or too remote from ordinary tastes, to be considered fit for the mass consumption of Italian food that this book and others liked it helped inaugurate. For those of us who, like myself, regularly eat Italian food with relish, perhaps with some gelato for dessert if it doesn’t trouble our stomachs, this book is a reminder that not very long ago the sort of diet we enjoy regularly and with ease was extremely exotic, and such a reminder is necessary and useful, lest we forget how unusual we are in our tastes.

[1] See ,for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/book-review-what-has-sweden-done-for-the-united-states/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/11/15/book-review-letters-of-a-woman-homesteader/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/book-review-the-german-element-in-the-war-for-american-independence/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/although-your-dominion-is-small-the-curious-connection-between-abraham-lincoln-and-san-marino/

[3] The recipe is as follows:

Pigeons In Cornmeal
Piccioni con Polenta

Pigeons

Sage
Butter
Yellow cornmeal
Chopped onion
Salt, pepper
Stock, or boiling water and bouillon cubes

Make a stiff cornmeal mush, thoroughly cooked. Cut the pigeons in quarters or even smaller pieces. Brown them in butter with salt, pepper and a little chopped onion. Cover with stock, add a bit of sage and stew slowly for an hour and a half. If the birds are young less time will do.

Line a round dish with the mush, hollowed out. Lay the pigeons with their sauce inside of this and serve hot.

[4] The recipe for Bigne is as follows:

1 cup flour
½ cup butter
1 cup water
3 eggs
A little salt

Boil the water and melt the butter in it. Salt it, add the flour, and let it cook a little while. Cool and add the beaten eggs. Form this into 12 Bigne (little cakes or cookies) and bake them in the oven. When they are baked split them open and fill with a custard flavored with vanilla and sprinkle them with powdered sugar.

[5] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/book-review-the-food-and-feasts-of-jesus/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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