All photos courtesy of interviewee
In search of forgotten dishes and recipes across Italy.
“Out of thirty-eight, only two are of male hands: the first from a cook and the second from an uncle who had never married and who had his deepest passion for cooking”
At home I have two copies of La Scienza In Cucina and The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. One is a graduation present in excellent condition, the other a series of disturbed sheets held together by a ribbon that belonged to my great-grandmother. It’s the closest thing to a family cookbook: over the years, she, my great-aunt and my grandmother have slipped sheets into it and scribbled recipes, Chocolate liquor to milk cream. I wish I had a well-bound cookbook to refer to, and instead I end up with a piece of paper that mentions a mysterious Elixir whose only ingredients are garlic cloves and alcohol.
From a recipe in a notebook for example, you can also geo-locate the origin of the person who wrote it. And all of this is truly extraordinary.
For this, I was extremely fascinated by RAGU. Mila Fumini, a historian from Rimini who could not find a more appropriate acronym, told me about it for the first time – Taste networks and archives – for a project that aims to collect, catalog and make available to all what can be defined as an intangible heritage of the Italian culinary tradition: family recipe books.
And be careful, I am not saying this because I am convinced of the absolute superiority of Italian cuisine over others, like many of my compatriots. I say this because, whatever their language and whatever country they may be, cookbooks seem to me to be precious testimonies for taking a look at the daily habits of families, discovering forgotten dishes, dismantling stereotypes and reconstruct snippets of history.
“The first thing that caught my eye was the almost total lack of ingredient quantification. Many times he says ‘qb'”
STRAWBERRIES: How did the RAGU project start?
Thousand flashes: One day I was emptying a friend’s cellar and at one point we found a box full of notebooks, envelopes containing receipts, medical prescriptions, all the papers of the person who had owned this cellar before her. There were a few notebooks containing family recipes. I have always dealt with the religious writings of women and, in particular, the so-called ego-documents (diaries, letters, notebooks of spiritual discernment) and even these notebooks, according to my sensibility, had something sacred and were important traces of writings of women of past ages.
How did you manage to systematize the research and cataloging work?
I did not succeed [ride, NdR]. In the sense that I presented my project to the public in September 2019 and I started giving talks, courses and some gathering meetings but then the pandemic started, so that as we were all closed to the home, I took the opportunity to study the tools that would allow me to create digital library that I had in mind. Thus the systematization of the digitized materials is for the moment only – and only – that inside the HD, whereas a complete study of the sources can be done only with a consequent number of these notebooks and after some collections of oral testimonies related to them.
How many cookbooks have you collected so far, where are they from, how old are they? Is there something that unites them all?
So far I have collected thirty-eight and the majority are from Emilia-Romagna because the public calls I have made have all been made between Castelfranco Emilia and Bologna. Three of them arrived, let’s put it this way, spontaneously from three girls from Rimini. Out of thirty-eight, only two are by male hands: the first by a cook and the second by a “young gentleman” – as described by the person who brought it to me one morning at the Earth Market – namely his uncle, who had never married and had his deepest passion for cooking.
Then, precisely during the pandemic, a magical thing happened: my neighbor, one of the two wonderful girls who invented the FB community via Orfeo / Rialto here in Bologna, wrote to me to tell me that she had something to show me. He handed me a plastic bag that contained four very small notebooks, written in beautiful handwriting: signed “Jesusitas” with a totally different and shaky handwriting. The neighbor told me that for a while her original family emigrated from Liguria to Argentina. There, her mother and her sisters had as nanny / cook / factotum, a local lady, who had not been able to study, who nevertheless – on the idea of their mother – dictated all the recipes she used to prepare the food for their family. So they started writing all this in these little notebooks and Jesusitas signed his work on the last page.
“In one of the cookbooks that I collected, there is the war cake a flourless cake, made with dry bread. Think about what”
I tell you this because it describes very well what is, for my sensitivity, what all these notebooks have in common, namely, the care, the desire to transmit knowledge, gestures, tricks, rituals, simple but fundamental for each of the people who wrote them.
What are the main differences with today’s cookbooks?
The first thing that caught my eye was the almost complete lack of ingredient quantification. Several times it says “qb” and even when I was chatting with the ladies who brought me their notebooks they often said to me “come on, you see that at the eye!” and, if you think about it, it is true in the sense that, for example, when you knead, you see it when the dough mass has absorbed the right amount of oil, water, milk or other.
The other thing, of course, is the ingredients. I really enjoy cooking and I realize that a significant part of cooking, half of my pleasure, goes to the grocery store. And I do the shopping “the old way”, that is to say on Saturday morning I go to the Mercato di Campi Aperti al Pratello then to the Mercato Ritrovato del and there I look for what I find. Or, if I want to make pizza on Sunday, at the beginning of the week, I will ask the boys at Forno Brisa for mother yeast.
In what ways can a cookbook tell us something about the historical period in which it was created?
Partly in what I told you earlier, which is the ingredients he uses. And then there’s one thing, just as exciting for my sensibility, that stands out, namely the constant eye on home economics. In one of the cookbooks that I collected, there is war cake a flourless cake, made with dry bread. Think about what. Yet it’s true and I remember it: I was born in a very popular village adjacent to the historic center of Rimini, the Borgo di San Giovanni, which intersects with Piazza dell’Arco di Augusto. Until 1985 there was a grocery store on the main street next to a grocery store: I learned to do my shopping there, when my mother sent me to them – and she reckoned she had to have 5/6 years old – with a small bag which contained the shopping list and the money. Everything was structured so that the economy principally family and domestic e in seconds commercial activities were self-sufficient. No one would ever give you a bad thing. Or if a food was bruised, at the end of the day, they might even pay homage to you. And, once again, the shopkeeper often warned you that the following week he would have cod.
All this tells of the life of a neighborhood that, always between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, could give rise to its recipes, precisely “to buy Cesare’s stockfish in Borgo di San Giovanni, not that of the covered market “(Name by which the central market is commonly called by the inhabitants of Rimini, where the majority of the stalls selling fish in the city are located). Thus from a recipe in a notebook, if we can say, we can also geo-locate the origin of the person who wrote it, and all that is really extraordinary.
What is RAGU’s ultimate goal?
For me it’s about setting up the portal and doing it in the simplest and most functional way possible. This is research that could potentially continue ad libitum. So far, I have achieved this in the little time I have managed to free up from my main research activities at university. And for this reason, a few weeks ago I signed an agreement with theParri Institute from Bologna. There, with the interest of a person who has been fundamental for the development of the project, Agnese Portincasa. an important scholar of food, as I always like to say “RAGU has found a home”.
“My goal is to make the silent speak. Because the most beautiful and exciting story is the one that has been built by those who have never had a voice, mainly women”
The project is no longer carried out with my only and simple means, always supported and helped in every possible and imaginable way by this genius of Luca Cesari, my tutelary divinity in the history of Italian gastronomy, but by Agnese and his great team. In this way, I hope to be able to set up both a good fundraising activity to support the planning, programming and use of the portal, but also – it would be my dream – to be able to find enough funds to grant scholarships. .
This research project is what I collect and give back to the community because the most terrible thing that can happen is losing the memory of what was. And often the most beautiful and significant things have been done historically, not by famous people, but by your grandmother, my aunt, very simple women who will never, ever be mentioned in a history book. Here is. My objective is to make the silent speak. Because the most beautiful and exciting story is the one that has been built by those who have never had a voice, most of them women.
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