Skip to main content

Science in the kitchen and beyond: Cooking with Pellegrino Artusi in post-unified Italy

As an historian interested in the public understanding of medicine and health in modern Italy, it was impossible for me to not write about food and its political, social and cultural importance. Italian food is famous all around the world. Almost everyone knows about pasta, pizza and the immense economic and cultural significance of Italian food. However, not many know that Italy’s distinct culinary tradition is a rather recent concept, formed only after the unification of the country (1861). The creation of an Italian diet was part of a political process aimed at improving the health of the new Italian population while also forging a sense of national identity.

In this story about food and national identity there is one individual, Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), who contributed more than anyone else to make regional Italian recipes and the language of food known all across the peninsula.
Artusi published in 1891 an extremely successful book about food, recipes and diet: La Scienza in Cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene. In the volume, Artusi embraces the revolution brought by nineteenth century science to make the art of cooking an example of modern science. The first edition included 419 recipes and was a discreet success in the book market of the country. By the final edition published by Artusi in 1910, the number of recipes had grown to over 700 and the volume also included advice on various dietary requirements.

By looking at Artusi’s book we can tell three stories at once.
  • First, there is a story about Italy and its unification. 
  • Second, there is a story about diet and how food knowledge was becoming more and more important for Italians. 
  • Third and finally, there is a story about science, medicine and public health where concepts like diet, food composition and health were beginning to be taken into account in the kitchen.

Food, disease and malnutrition in post-unified Italy

When Artusi’s book appeared, Italy had been in the grip of a nutritional crisis for at least two decades. After the unification, Italy was not an industrialised country like other European nations. Agriculture was the main source of employment of approximately three quarters of the population. Although attempts to modernise agriculture and food production were made by the scientist and minister of finance Quintino Sella in the first decade after the unification, these proved to be not too effective. The agricultural crisis of the second part of the nineteenth century created huge economic problems that the government struggled to solve. This had a clear impact on the production, distribution and access to food especially for the working classes. It follows that scarcity of food mixed with scientific/medical illiteracy and the general ignorance about the importance of a balanced diet made a large portion of the Italian population unhealthy.

In the 1870s Luigi Tanari, a politician and agronomist from Bologna, conducted a small survey on the culinary tradition of his region. Tanari observed that, in rural areas, the diet was predominately made of ‘poor’ food. A traditional daily meal was largely made of bread, produced by the baking of various unrefined grains, and some vegetables or, not often, low quality cheese. A general scarcity of any type of proteins on the table of the Italian working class was, as Tanari explained, the norm, excluding, of course, religious festivities like Christmas and Easter.

Statistics are clear about the impact that poor diet had on the population’s health. Various articles published in The Royal Journal of Italian hygiene explain how endemic diseases such as cholera; tuberculosis and cretinism were spreading across the peninsula, and often favoured by general malnutrition. In the year 1887 alone, a national report shows how the number of individuals dying of complications produced by malnutrition was around one third of the yearly national deaths. In all of this, a key problem was alcoholism. Especially among the working class, it was common to integrate the daily calories of a very poor diet with wine. It was believed that a high consumption of wine was beneficial to family finance as the average price of wine was lower compared to other more healthy ingredients.

Agricultural production, food distribution and the general lack of knowledge about the importance of a healthy and balanced diet were key concerns of the Italian government. In 1877, the government issued a commission to look at the state of agriculture in the country. A president of the commission was appointed, the senator Stefano Jacini. The result of this survey was a fifteen-volume report, which, in respect to food, explains clearly how the Italian diet was something very different from what we know now. In particular, Jacini highlighted the very unhealthy living conditions of rural areas and stressed the necessity of a radical change in the relationship between Italians and food. Jacini, described Italians living in rural areas by saying: ‘the general sanitary conditions are not satisfying: the air smells, the diet is not adequate and both their houses and clothes are dirty and generally unhealthy’ (Jacini, 1976: 56.). This is the context in which we should discuss the work of Pellegrino Artusi.

A recipe for national identity: science and politics in La Scienza in Cucina

The significance of Artusi’s book went far beyond teaching Italians how to cook. Artusi’s aim was to make cooking more scientific by embracing an experimental method. The Italian food expert crafted menus based on the equilibrium of various ingredients to satisfy both the palate and the needs of the body. In other words, La Scienza in Cucina made the practice of cooking a scientific experience for the Italian middle classes. Although originally aimed at a middle-classes audience, La Scienza in Cucina became a mainstream book in any Italian kitchen in the first half of the twentieth century. This is clear by simply looking at the number of sales: by 1912 Artusi’s book sold over 200,000 copies. This was an outstanding success considering the dimension of the Italian marketplace for popular science.
The use of science in the book, however, served a specific political purpose: the necessity to create a common culture for hygiene. Artusi wanted to show his fellow countrymen what a proper knowledge of food and recipes could do for their health. Indeed, Artusi saw Italians not as a political category but rather as a heterogeneous group of individuals with different languages, social statutes and culinary traditions that needed to be educated and guided in a common culinary culture. Only in this way, Artusi believed, Italians could be transformed into a healthy, well-nourished and more educated population. La Scienza in Cucina is, therefore, an example of culinary positivism and political activism. This is clear from the three adjectives that describe the volume: ‘hygiene, economy and good taste.’ (Figure 2)

Several examples among the recipes selected by Artusi hit these political, economic and medical aims. Artusi is very keen to explain the importance of selecting fresh national ingredients, to eat seasonal products and to vary the types of proteins in the diet. At the very beginning of the book, the food connoisseur guides readers through the nutritional power of different proteins sources from game to fish; how the use of different medicinal plants is fundamental for cooking different types of meat and the importance of preparing a varied and well-balanced meal. For example, Artusi, uses the ‘minestrone’ (vegetable soup), a traditional ‘poor’ dishes especially common among the working classes, to stress how and why it is important to follow the current medical opinion about diet and to consume enough calories. Indeed, he explains that just eating a ‘minestrone’ does not provide enough energy for the body. However, Artusi also explains that ‘minestrone’ is indicated for those with special dietary requirements or who simply would like to have a light dinner.

Beyond just food, Artusi also encouraged changes in housekeeping practices. He recommended, for instance, that the temperature of the house should always be kept above 12 degrees in the winter to help digestion; appropriate clothes should be worn, and the house regularly cleaned, especially the kitchen. Using cooking and nutrition as entry points, Artusi tried to present in a clear and accessible way the importance of hygiene in the household. The second significant change Artusi proposed concerns the type of food available to Italians and the importance of changing their diet. Artusi stressed the need to move away from a diet predominately based on the consumption of wheat, corn and other cereals grown locally, to a more balanced, and healthy one, including aliments from around the entire new national territory. Looking through the various recipes presented in La Scienza in Cucina clearly shows how the author builds a national diet, which combines hygiene, nationalism and culinary expertise.

For the culinary expert it is important to eat seasonally fresh products but also to learn and embrace the national dimension of diet. By consulting Artusi’s manual, Italians learned that cooking an Italian dish meant reading part of the history of their unified nation. In other words, the practice of preparing food was empowering nationalism by crossing and overcoming regional and class differences. Since the first edition Artusi included menus designed to explain the seasonality of specific products or the traditional festivities of the country.  For instance, the menus for the winter months (Figure 3), compared to the ones for the summer (Figure 4), do not include fresh fruit or vegetables and the proteins are often preserved (Artusi, 1895: 451 & 458). 

-------------  § -------------

These menus are cleverly designed to allow the cook to collect some of the main ingredients from his/her vegetable garden or to buy them in a local market. Here the importance of the locality and seasonality of the products; the need to balance the nutritional properties of various foods and the use of recipes exquisitely Italian made La Scienza in Cucina the most revolutionary, yet the traditional, culinary book of post-unified Italy.

In conclusion, we can fairly say that La Scienza in Cucina was, and is still, a cultural, medical and political book. An example of how the creation of a social understanding of the science and culture of food was fundamental to start a revolution, aimed at changing the habit of Italians’ diet and health. In this respect, we must see Artusi’s work as an example of how the communication of science often serves a political purpose. In the case of La Scienza in Cucina, this goal was to bring Italians together, to make them better and healthier members of a new body politic. Artusi’s work fulfills the idea brought by modernity that politics and science should cooperate and overlap. In his endeavour to create a distinctly Italian culinary tradition, Artusi was both a communicator of science and a politician. He was the quintessential positivist.
In sum, La Scienza in Cucina largely contributed to the culinary tradition that made the Italian diet famous all around the world but, and more importantly, contributed to the spread of medical literacy among all Italians despite their class, status or wealth.

By Cristiano Turbil
Read the related article on  Public Understanding of Science

Cristiano is a historian with an expertise in nineteenth and early twentieth-century British and European medicine and science. His current research is focused on the popular representation of scientific and medical ideas, with particular emphasis on the social and political reception of controversial public health campaigns in post-unified Italy. Cristiano is currently working as a teaching fellow in the history of medicine and science in the STS Department at University College London.