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Primary Historical Documentation


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The discussion of the origin of the names of some pasta dishes in the guanciale thread has me thinking once again about the difference between anecdotal information and primary source material. While folk history is a vital part of culture, and offers much useful information, the egghead in me is always wondering about primary sources. For example, much opinion and secondary source material is offered concerning earlier development of many important techniques in Italy before the same techniques were adopted in France. My question is this: where would a serious researcher look for primary material on the subject of Italian cuisine? Has any compelling academic work been done on the history of Italian cuisine that is footnoted with references to primary sources? This question is asked not to give short shrift to observation and tradition, but to ask whether sources exist to support these, and, if so, to what degree have they been studied and published with footnotes?

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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The choices are somewhat limited in English. Here are some good reference works:

A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs by Clifford Wright

The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, Kyle M., III Phillips (Translator)

The Food of Italy by Waverly Root - old but interesting

The Cambridge World History of Food

For a look at how recipes looked in the early 1900's visit: Pellegrino Artusi, "La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene Sorry this is only in Italian.

Click here for Italian Food Museums

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I manage to puzzle out a little Italian, Craig. Many thanks for your list, but these are all secondary sources, including Artusi for anything that came before his time. I'm curious about libraries and private collections of historical culinary material.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Most, if not all primary source material is to be found in some or other archive somewhere. Given that your interest lies in Italy this would seem to be the place to start. You might wish to start by contacting the University of Bologna (the original university). They may have such things 'commonplace' books, a kind of middle class houskeeping/scrapbook kept by many families from the middle ages onwards, and which might contain something of which you seek. If you do decide to contact them, try writing to Professor Massimo Montanari, a medieval food specialist and co-author of 'Food, a Culinary History'. Alternatively use the bibiliographies in the secondary sources to guide you to primary sources of interest. I do warn you though, dealing with primary sources of this kind is a thankless and tortuous undertaking.

Edited by Lord Michael Lewis (log)
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Most, if not all primary source material is to be found in some or other archive somewhere. Given that your interest lies in Italy this would seem to be the place to start. You might wish to start by contacting the University of Bologna (the original university). They may have such things 'commonplace' books, a kind of middle class houskeeping/scrapbook kept by many families from the middle ages onwards, and which might contain something of which you seek. If you do decide to contact them, try writing to Professor Massimo Montanari, a medieval food specialist and co-author of 'Food, a Culinary History'. Alternatively use the bibiliographies in the secondary sources to guide you to primary sources of interest. I do warn you though, dealing with primary sources of this kind is a thankless and tortuous undertaking.

Many thanks for the good suggestions, lml. A hobby for retirement, perhaps. Meantime, I'll look into Prof. Montanari's book.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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As LML said. My sister in-law translates such documents and it can be very frustrating. She was excited to fine an un-translated letter from Lorenzo Medici to a tenant farmer. After much effort, the final translation was basically "Thank you for the cow and how are the X (some type of vegetable) coming along?". :smile:

There are facsimile editions of various 'primary sources' availible (Latino, Platina etc), but many of these are out of print or hard to get. Actually, 'goggle' will direct you to many sites selling such books:

Platina translation

It can be best to look at transaltions because some of the earlier books use all types of short hand and bastardized Latin in some cases.

The Vatican also owns many cookbooks and recipe collections, no idea who to contact though.

Edited by Adam Balic (log)
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  • 1 month later...

i'm coming to this conversation way late. but i happen to have just had cross my desk an uncorrected proof of "italian cuisine, a cultural history" by montanari and alberto capatti. it is not only secondary, but translated, but it appears to be very serious in that italian fashion (a chapter on"the formation of taste").

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Italian historiography is, as you might imagine, extremely regional. Montanari is definitely the place to start, if you read italian, and his notes will direct you to more specific regional sources (he is bolognese). Piero Camporesi (also emilian, I believe) has written some interesting stuff based on primary matrials (cookbooks, household accounts, folklore, agrarian surveys, etc.) These are probably not widely available outside of Italy.

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i'm coming to this conversation way late. but i happen to have just had cross my desk an uncorrected proof of "italian cuisine, a cultural history" by montanari and alberto capatti. it is not only secondary, but translated, but it appears to be very serious in that italian fashion (a chapter on"the formation of taste").

Russ, first I'd like to thank you for all your interesting articles in the Times. I look forward each week to the section.

Second, could you provide us with any more specific info about the publication plans (house, date) for the proof you refer to? I'd be interested in checking it out....

Robert, although I haven't seen the Camporesi listed below, it might be of interest. I *think* the notes come from library catalogs--a good place to get leads just by browsing and poking around. Try the New York public library's research catalog, the Schlesinger at Radcliffe, and the CIA-Hyde Park catalogs, for example, using a subject search such as "cookery italy history".....And I would definitely check the bibliographies of the scholars whose secondary work you admire. Of course, many of those works will not be available in the U.S. As well as references in Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC) and the proceedings of the Oxford Symposia.... (BTW, have you seen Barbara Wheaton's "Savoring the Past.…A culinary history of the French kitchen & table from 1300 to 1789"? Excellent, and well documented, perhaps with references to Italian antecedents, although I can't say because I don't own a copy.)

***Camporesi, Piero. Exotic Brew: The Art of Living in the Age of Enlightenment. Oxford, <England>; Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 1994. Translation of: Il Brodo Indiano. >> Summary: Exotic Brew is a concise and elegant account of the eating and drinking habits of the upper classes in the 18th Century, written by one of the foremost historians of food and social manners in Europe. Camporesi examines the shift from a rich, heavy diet to a much lighter one which emphasized ‘exotic’ foods like tea, coffee and chocolate. This shift was, he argues, a sign of the profound transformations in fashion, taste and manners that took place in Italy and the rest of Europe in the Enlightenment. [TEXT CONTINUES]

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Robert, let me offer you a belated apology for having been totally useless to you in this quest! I think that, if one had the essential language skills, this would be a fascinating pursuit. Certainly, much more has been done on this front in France, and if it is true (as I, of course, choose to believe) that Caterina de' Medici taught the French how to cook (and eat with something other than their fingers), there must be significant undiscovered (at least by English-speakers) history.

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Robert, let me offer you a belated apology for having been totally useless to you in this quest!  I think that, if one had the essential language skills, this would be a fascinating pursuit.  Certainly, much more has been done on this front in France, and if it is true (as I, of course, choose to believe) that Caterina de' Medici taught the French how to cook (and eat with something other than their fingers), there must be significant undiscovered (at least by English-speakers) history.

No need for regrets, Bill. This is, to say the least, a slow-moving pursuit on my part, something for me to get into gradually during periods of boredom with my everyday livelihood. I do, however, share your sense of opportunity for discovery, and this is my motivation, along with the insufferable arrogance of the French apologists.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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