We are all used to buying imported and exotic foods in our local supermarket these days, and seeing Jamie Oliver on TV wagging spaghetti about and telling us to grow “some lavly fresh basil” on our windowsills. Jamie has become the global marketing manager for Italian food these days.
But how would you market a book of Italian cookery in a country where basic foods were on ration, you had to get pasta by mail order, and you could only buy olive oil in the pharmacy?
Global publisher Macmillan did it by asking Renato Guttuso, Italy’s most famous living artist in the 1950’s, to do the illustrations. And thus a ground-breaking cookery book, the first book of Italian cookery in the English language, revolutionised the English and American palate: Italian Food by Elizabeth David.
In the 1950’s, Renato Guttuso was living in Rome and expressing his sensuality in paintings of women, wine and food. One of his most famous works, of the Vucciria market in Palermo, is an extravagance of brightly-coloured foods and voluptuous women (three of whom were his mistress, painted from different angles wearing the colours of the Italian flag). A casual observer might think food was easy to come by and taken for granted, but in fact the opposite was the case.
The Italians had suffered severe food shortages during the Second World War, and a great many of them died of starvation or suffered lifelong illnesses and stunted growth as a result of malnutrition in childhood. In the fifties, Italians still had to spend a very considerable proportion of their income on paying for food, far more than the average English housewife. Yet they refused to compromise on quality or flavour. What little they ate had to taste fantastic.
Meanwhile, in 1950’s Britain, lots of foods were still on ration, too. Courageous women throughout the country were trying to feed their families on powdered egg which rehydrated into a slurry of mucus, and strawberry jam which was actually made of carrots.
The British approach to food shortages and privation was the typical protestant one: you don’t have to like this food, you just have to eat it.
In Britain at this time, tomatoes were an exotic vegetable – any imported vegetable was exotic – and olive oil could only be obtained from pharmacies, in a tiny 5ml bottle with “for external use only” printed on the label. People used to warm it and put a drop in their ears to treat earache; I remember my grandmother doing this to me when I was a child.
Pasta and even rice could only be found in specialist shops in the larger cities. Coffee was exotic, and only available in specialist coffee bars, most of which had opened only to keep the American GI’s happy. To prepare an Italian meal, British women would have to make a journey to London and stock up on the staples found in any Italian kitchen.
Despite the privations they suffered, the British were utterly certain that foreign food was far, far worse. Their perception of Italian food remained that of Mrs. Beeton, 19th century English guru of household management, who wrote:
“Italians…with the exception of macaroni, have no specially characteristic article of food.”
It was in this setting that Macmillan made the bold decision to publish the first book of Italian cookery in the English language. Italian Food by Elizabeth David came out in 1954. The publishers had the ingenious marketing idea of commissioning a series of illustrations and a cover design by Renato Guttuso, one of Italy’s most famous living artists at the time.
In the book, Elizabeth David describes her delight at seeing the pictures:
“Here were no sentimental decorations… Here was a well-worn cheap aluminium tegamino, the double-handled egg dish so beloved of Italian cooks, every dent and defect implied.
Here was a ravenous Italian workman, every nerve concentrated on the shovelling of pasta into his mouth;
…leaf artichokes on the stalk, tied in a bunch exactly as they are offered for sale in Roman markets, but by Guttuso invested with a quite dangerously blazing vitality;
for this artist even the straw round the neck of a wine flask is unravelling itself in a manner positively threatening in its purpose and vitality.”
I chose to buy this book because of its illustrations, and my edition is the Penguin edition reprint (the Macmillan first edition is very hard to come by) yet my own greatest surprise was to find the same potent reality in the recipes and the text. Elizabeth David has a way with words as evocative as George Orwell, and her recipes are not only faithful to the Italians in the detail, but in the selection. She includes, for example, instructions on how to cook song birds on a spit and how to stew cuttlefish and squid.
Never mind that no housewife in Britain would be able to cook these dishes. They could drool and dream.
The Renato Guttuso Museum in Bagheria has just been closed down.
I made a lot of fuss locally about the spectacular amounts of money it wastes. The town mayor went personally to investigate, and found the ledger of all the art works was written VERY lightly in pencil, and that sculptures and paintings were missing. Locals tell me that the museum director has a stunning art gallery inside her own home! The mayor closed the place down while the police investigate.
I hope the museum will re-open with a few more paintings and sculptures in it.