Perhaps we should file this under the ‘I-find-Robert-Hollander-hysterical’ type of blog post. Those kind that reveal how few thoughts outside of my studies I’ve had for the past few months. Whether it’s commenting on the eating behaviors of the Italians, providing ridiculous recipes or giving dubious diet advice, Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina is interesting not only as a piece of culinary history, but as a piece of cultural history. And as a modern amusement, of course.
I’ve encountered lots of laughter-inducing passages, but my favorite is ‘Gnocchi di farina gialla.’ Farina gialla is polenta and gnocchi made from it is called semolina gnocchi or gnocchi alla romana. In america, semolina gnocchi is most frequently seen alla sorrentina,* a gratin-style dish with tomato sauce and cheese. It is, in a single word, heavy.
That’s why reading Artusi’s description of ‘gnocchi di farina gialla’ is so hysterical. He opens the recipe — recipe 90, if you’re wondering — saying ‘After a bout of exuberant eating, turn to a soup with gnocchi. Thanks to their lightness, they counteract a heavy meal. Follow the gnocchi with an easy-to-digest fish plate.’ The idea of making gnocchi after eating a lot — say, after a Christmas meal — seems hysterical. Our modern mind says turn to steamed vegetables or a simple soup. Gnocchi — imbued with the exotic so much that Olive Garden can’t serve them — are not that simple digestion-correcting meal.
If the gnocchi don’t clear up your stomach, then the workout you get turning from pan to Artusi’s recipes should do the trick. As always with Italian cookbooks, the directions are left vague, relying on the oral traditions from which the recipes came. Although Artusi tells us to use our left hand to gently pour the polenta into the boiling water, he doesn’t tell us how much to use. Don’t think about getting advice on how much to butter, pepper or tomato sauce to use on top. Of course, if you want something snazzier on top, Artusi will give you a suggestion: sausage or ragù alla bolognese. He does not specify how this will affect the digestion.
To be fair, Artusi’s ‘gnocchi di farina gialla’ are lighter than modern gnocchi alla romana. There’s no mention of egg, butter or cheese in the dough. He doesn’t have you cook them after using a glass to cut the dough into circles. Yet, even circles of well-cooked polenta aren’t going to grace the cover of Eating Well as the next health food. The next food to try out at your dinner party? Sure thing. Monday’s dinner? Nope.
Reading La scienza in cucina is amusing because it illuminates these different attitudes towards food in surprising ways. Although the reader encounters some stalwarts of Italian food and attitude — the emphasis on digestion, for example — Artusi for the most part presents Italian cuisine in flux. The dishes appear to be the ones we know but aren’t. ‘Gnocchi di farina gialla’ seem familiar, but don’t resemble modern dishes. Giallo Zafferano — an online epicenter of Italian cooking — doesn’t have a recipe for gnocchi made with polenta.
It’s your choice. If you feel like turning to Artusi’s advice after your next indulgent meal and making some gnocchi, go for it. I’ll be leafing through the pages of my cookbook, looking for laughs.
*Are they really eating this in Sorrento? Debatable.
–Here is the best ‘modern’ recipe for gnocchi alla farina gialla that I could find.