Last updated on February 9th, 2015
I don’t remember my grandmother ever using a cookbook, yet she kept a small shelf of them handy for new ideas. There was one in particular that had an appealing green and red striped spine and had been beaten-up and weathered for as long as I can remember. When she passed away, it was one of a few things I wanted to keep as a reminder of her.
The book, The Talisman Italian Cookbook, was the 1965 English translation of Il Talismano della Felicita (The Talisman of Happiness), by Ada Boni. I now keep it in my kitchen, but I admit that I haven’t cracked it open since taking it home.
Ada Boni wrote Il Talismano in 1929, after years of collecting diverse recipes from Italy’s various regions for Preziosa, a ladies’ magazine she founded in 1915. The book contained more than 2,000 recipes and was hugely influential, not to mention the first serious compendium of Italian cooking written for Italian housewives. The 1965 version I have was translated into English for American audiences, complete with advertisement pages for Ronzoni.
First, the intro:
Thirty years ago, Ada Boni set out to become Italy’s own Fannie Farmer. A top fashion editor, Mme. Boni wanted to write a cook book like Fanny’s, summing up the cookery of her native land. So she put aside her blue-pencil momentarily, donned a simple housewife’s apron and began collecting recipes. She wound up with an 866 page cook book called “Il Talismano.”
If your head hasn’t already exploded from the efficient way a book of 866 pages was just trivialized, note two interesting signs of the time. First, Boni is given the title Madame, since French cooking was in vogue in 1965. (Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961.) Second, instead of rightfully labeling Boni a food writer, they referred to her as a “top fashion editor” since Italy was best known to Americans as a fashion capital. Otherwise, the foreword discusses Italy’s “widespread poverty” and its “lack of success as a ‘great’ nation.”
The 1965 translation augmented, changed, and often eliminated Boni’s original recipes in order to tailor them to American tastes and the availability of ingredients. Today, it seems funny that mozzarella and ricottahad to be explained when one can buy a microwaveable paniniat gas stations across the country. (Hell, spellcheck doesn’t even highlight them!) The imprimatur, if you will, of French cooking is seen throughout the book. Ragù is ragout, prosciutto is mixed into a soufflé, and potatoes are done au gratin. There’s even a frog leg fricassée. It don’t get Frenchier than that.
The translator—Matilde Pei—wrote many of the recipe titles in an overly literal way. Swordfish Pudding sounds like she ran it through an online translator and Beef Tongue with Sweet-Sour Sauce reads like a disjointed title on a Chinese take-out menu. (And do you ever wonder why the printer or the sign guy never offers any friendly grammatical assistance? I do.) Boni’s preparation instructions are simple, but unfortunately her good work was very much lost in translation. Here’s an example from a recipe titled Fresh Sardines Tongue Style.
Cut heads off sardines, split open on one side and bone. Marinate in vinegar and salt 24 hours. Dry, flour, and fry in hot olive oil. Serves 4.
Wow, who’s hungry?
There are some virtues here. The Talisman helped move Italian cooking out of the pizzeria and into the home. If not for the Talisman, would Batali have had an audience for his lardo? Would Rachael Ray be so liberal with the EVOO? Once Italian food became more deeply embedded in the American consciousness, Italian cuisine, Italian-Americans, and Italy really started to get some respect. And you know how we Italians feel about respect!
Tonight, I will slide the Talisman back into its spot on the bookshelf and simply enjoy having this artifact from Nana’s kitchen in mine.