Although first published over fifty years ago, Angelo Pellegrini’s The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life is one of those works which rings as true today, as when the author first put pen to paper.
The slender volume, which mostly contains Pellegrini’s injunctions and instructions on how to grow, cook and enjoy simple food, is more than it appears to be. It is a call to an authentic life, full of gustatory and sensual pleasures, tempered by the joy in physical labor well done.
Pellegrini was an interesting man; he was born in the early years of the twentieth century as a poor peasant in Tuscany, who at the age of eleven, immigrated with his family to the United States, where they settled in the Pacific Northwest. There, his father worked in the lumber camps, while he and his mother and siblings learned to adapt to the plentiful food and opportunity that their new home afforded.
This gave Pellegrini a unique perspective on food. Born into wrenching poverty where food was monotonous and scarce, he later came to a land of such plenty that at first, it was beyond his ability to believe and understand. Watching Americans waste food astonished him as a child; as an adult such flagrant over-consumption disgusted him.
He states early in his work, “Frugality, or the absence of waste, made a universal law, would mean abundance potentially available to everyone….I consider frugal habits as desireable as temperate habits in the achievement of the good life. The good things of the earth are intended for our use; when we waste them, we sink below the level of the dog who buries a bone for the morrow when is belly is full.”
All of Pellegrini’s opinions are stated at least that strongly, though sometimes, he is even more passionate. Particularly when he espouses his ideal of every household growing some of its own vegetables, fruits and herbs, his language blossoms with ardent description. Digging into the earth, he claims, roots a person and a family in their home, and it is labor that is honest, and which gives more dividends than can be counted. Hard work is never to be shirked from, particularly when perfectly ripe, fresh artichokes, tomatoes and basil are one of the results.
Many of the thoughts expressed in The Unprejudiced Palate predate the current trend of eating local and in season; but the ideals are the same. Written at around the time that the United States was moving away from family farms and toward huge factory farming conglomerates, the book contains the seeds of mistrust for this very efficient, yet perversely wasteful, method of agriculture. As a child, Pellegrini went on a field trip with his schoolmates to visit several of the new-style very large farms, where milk cows were confined in what he described as a “very clean barn” where they contentedly chewed hay and corn and were milked several times a day, and a hen-house that was similarly clean, but where the lights were kept on continually to fool the chickens into laying more eggs.
Clearly impressed with the cleanliness and size of the facilities, Pellegrini nonetheless mentioned the very soulless character of the farms and how it disturbed him that the chickens and cows were likely to be worn out at a younger age from producing so much milk and eggs.
However, one should not mistake the author for an animal-rights activist by any stretch of the imagination. A great lover of meat, Pellegrini mentions hunting songbirds as a child and selling them the wealthy so they may be served at their tables, and so that he himself might have money for shoes that he might go to school. He tells a funny tale of using a sling to kill blackbirds on the farm of a college girlfriend, and then cooking and serving them to her horrified parents. At that point, he realized that perhaps that the distance between their birth cultures was too great to consider marriage, and the pair soon drifted apart, likely to the relief of the young lady’s parents who had been astonished by the poetry-spouting, wine-imbibing young Italian man at their table.
There is a great deal of poetry in the book. Pellegrini has a way with words, even if he didn’t learn language until his second decade of life. Of course, as a professor of English Literature, it is not surprising that Pellegrini’s command of English is great; what is surprising is how much of the music, color and passion of his native Tuscan comes through in the work, particularly when he gives instructions on cooking this dish or that, or speaks of how drinking wine with meals from an early age begets a healthy temperence where alcohol is concerned.
Throughout the book, though he espouses the superiority of the immigrant’s cooking and philosophy of life, Pellegrini addresses the American housewife, encouraging her by saying that with the abundance of good food at her disposal, there is no reason she could not become one of the best cooks in the world. He presages America’s culinary awakening by noting that it takes time to grow a cuisine and since the US is not even two hundred years old, it is no wonder that many of her citizens are gastronimically backwards. In his opinion, at the time of writing, the national cuisines of the US had not really had time to be created, though he hopefully notes that he sees glimmers of growth occurring in every state he has visited.
All in all, it is a fascinating book, one that is well worth picking up and reading. Though it is a very small book, I suggest taking your time with it, and sipping it slowly, savoring the mellifluous language of Pellegrini’s thoughts and arguments, instead of gulping it down in one sitting.
A literary Big Mac this is not; it is more like a banquet of ideas meant to be enjoyed over a leisurely time, preferably in the company of a glass of wine and a loaf of simple, but exquisite bread.
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