“This is the first evidence we have of the dinner party," explains Luigi Ballerini, UCLA professor of Italian and editor of The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book. Maestro Martino of Como, the 15th-century author of the cookbook, was the private cook of a prominent cardinal. The prevailing custom was showy banquets, but Martino is remembered for his mastery of sumptuous, convivial dinners for small groups of people.
“Food has been a show of social and political power through the ages, so if you follow that trail, you’re fleshing out history, particularly the history of social classes,” Ballerini says.
New York-based food historian Jeremy Parzen says Ballerini, a native of Milan, is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the world's foremost authorities on the long and colorful culinary history of his homeland.
"He is without a doubt, the most important Italian food historian in America," Parzen says.
Cover, The Art of CookingBallerini, who returned to UCLA 14 years ago after a stint at New York University, maintains he would much rather be known for his eight books of poetry than his cookbook titles. But he credits his success in culinary history to the fact that he approaches the field with the same care as an art historian or literary scholar.
His first venture was the series Cum Grano Salis (With a Grain of Salt), which has explored the culinary exploits of Nostradamus (better known for forecasting the future) and Richard II, among others. Then Ballerini edited an English translation of Scienza in Cucina, a classic 1891 cookbook by Pellegrino Artusi.
Still known to Italian homemakers simply as "Artusi," Scienza in Cucina is credited with helping Italy forge a national identity in the first two decades following unification. "Along with the classic children's story 'Pinocchio,' Artusi conveyed melting pot messages at a time when the country was struggling with embracing people of different regions and different dialects," Ballerini says.
To return to eel torte and The Art of Cooking . . . the cookbook's publisher, the University of California Press, is appealing to the history-conscious and the foodie alike. Ballerini's essay provides the background of Italian and papal politics, while 50 modernized recipes allow the reader to re-create Maestro Martino's specialties.
Ballerini himself insists he can't cook anything but eggs - a skill developed working at a London breakfast house while in college. Perhaps the frittata . . .