The Cookbook that Shaped Italy’s Language

During years past, I’ve collected cookbooks from several countries visited. I try cooking at least a recipe from each.

Cookbook Cover - Cambodia



Cookbook Cover - Iceland



Cookbook Cover - Jim Thompson








Most books are well laid out, attractive, thoughtfully organized, and include excellent recipes. Yet years ago I learned about one cookbook powerful enough to help shape Italy’s language.

A chapter from my book River of Tuscany tells a fictional episode based on the true character who wrote this book.

Pelligrino Artusi was a silk merchant who lived from 1820 to 1911. He traveled throughout Italy for business, mostly to Tuscan cities such as Siena.

While traveling and staying as a guest in many homes, he realized that rural women needed a cookbook which consolidated their range of recipes. He began collecting recipes from all over Italy, and women mailed him their personal lists of ingredients and methods for concocting dishes.

Unable to find a publisher, Artusi published the book himself under the title La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene, or – Science in the Kitchen, and the Art of Eating Well.

After several years and near financial failure with the book, Artusi eventually hit success when a publisher took his title on. Within years, Artusi’s book became a hit throughout the land, the veritable Joy of Cooking for Italy. His blend of anecdotes, shards of history, and personal comments made the book approachable to women throughout Italy’s kitchens. It also spread a certain version of Italy’s written language around the country. This did for the Italian language much the same as what the book the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) did centuries earlier. Written by the poet Dante Alighieri in the local vernacular – the language of the people – Alighieri helped replace the use of Latin (the language of ancient Rome) with the more common tongue spoken throughout the land.

Pelligrino Book Cover

Artusi appealed to people’s respect that food is as important to life as sex, and his book ingratiated his name into Italy’s culinary consciousness. Pelligrino’s book is practical, humorous, and raw. He writes:

“Life has two principal functions: nourishment and the propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity. They may therefore be allowed to hope that, while humanity may not appreciate their efforts, it will at least show them generous and benevolent indulgence.”

For self-publishers, Artusi’s book is a reminder of the rewards of perseverance and patience.

In May of this year my nephew will marry his Italian fiance close to Venice. I also look forward to enjoying good food and wine and company, and will also practice speaking the basics of the vernacular, the language Artusi’s cookbook helped disseminate throughout Italy.

Buon appetito.

Other Snippets –

While reading Publishers Weekly today during a plane flight to Karachi, I was happily surprised to see that it listed a cover image and description of my latest fictional book – River of Dreams.

Kathleen Gamble, an author who attended the same high school as I did in Europe, recently published her cookbook Fifty-two Food Fridays, which includes recipes from throughout the world. Congrats, Kathleen!

Comments from Readers

  • Enjoyed this post. It’s so true how important good food is. I also like how you connect that to language. The cook book section seems like an unlikely place to find a language changing book.

  • Tom

    Thanks. Glad you enjoyed! My nephew’s Italian fiance informed me that there are still so many dialects in rural Italy that some of her relatives did not understand Italian until they studied it in school. I’ll try to learn more during a visit by enjoying the regional cooking…

  • That’s me! Looking forward to seeing you at the wedding! I’ll do my part in propagating the species, you help us enjoy the nourishment, and the universe will indulge us. Sounds good to me!

  • Tom

    Va bene. I think we may be indulging the universe, but as long as there is ample food and bounteous propagation in life, all will work out splendidly. Ci vediamo…

  • Hi Tom, Thanks for mentioning my book! If you are going to be Near VEnice, you should stop by Lugano for the reunion! 🙂

  • Tom

    Looks like we’ll be in the Dolomites, but just when is the reunion Kathy? Looking forward to trying your recipes…

  • Hi Tom,

    I just ordered Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well!
    When I was a teenager I visited my great auntie and cousins near Asti in italy for a summer. My auntie was a wonderful ItaLian cook. I look forward to Pellegrino Artusi’s recipes. I’m sure they will remind me of hers. Thank you for the nice article.


  • Tom

    Thanks Lisa! I did not know you had been to Asti, but that is in the Piemonte region, which includes amazing cooking and rich red wines. What a fabulous experience – glad you enjoyed. You’re fortunate to have had home cooking from that region. Let me know which recipes you try from Artusi’s book. You’ll enjoy.

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