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May 27, 2013 12:39 AM

What are we missing?

Sometimes I read old cookbooks for fun. Who doesn't? And this evening I've been reading Antonia Isola's [circa] 1876 goodie she calls "Simple Italian Cooking." Obviously Antonia lived in America because one of her favorite directions of how thin to slice something is "as thick as a ten cent piece." Some of the surprises (for me) are the number of recipes she offers for lettuce: lettuce soup, cooked lettuce, etc. Then there are recipes for cooking with cucumbers, including fried cucumbers. Several (more than a few) recipes for egg dishes that start with cooking hard boiled eggs, then cutting them according to directions and smothering them with a sauce, then baking until the dish is brown and crusty. I've had a LOT of egg dishes in my lifetime, but never anything close to these, and they do sound interesting. Her polenta recipes sound good (if you like corn meal mush), but they call for stirring without interruption for a full half hour! Not in my kitchen! I'll bet she could have arm wrestled a weight lifter and won!

If you want to check it out, you can download a Kindle app for your 'puter if you don't own a Kindle, then download the free "Simple Italian Cooking." It's an interesting read. And when was the last time you made lettuce soup? Think I'll fry up some croutons and maybe give it a try. Join me? '-)

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  1. sounds more like someone came back from Italy and asked for some approximation with no real idea of anything.

    but that's interesting too.

    1. I have found the Talisman Cookbook to have a similarly unusual collection of recipes today -- recipes that you don't find in 21st century Italian cookbooks. I think that the Talisman Cookbook was the only Italian cookbook my Italian-American mother owned, and it seems to be a promotional book from Pollo-O (the ricotta and mozzarella maker) since there are ads scattered through the book!

      1. Caroline, from Wiki:

        "Antonia Isola (born May 16, 1876 in New York), is the pseudonym of Mabel Earl McGinnis." "She wrote Simple Italian Cookery, published by Harper and Brothers, February, 1912." She was considered an expert on Italian cookery because she lived there "some years." She only used the pseudonym for that book and probably didn't write any other books. The publisher changed her name to have the book sound more authentic!

        I agree with 'hill food' in that the recipes you mentioned sound like she substituted ingredients here in the US that resembled the food she ate in Italy but couldn't find.

        13 Replies
        1. re: Gio

          That's hysterical. I mean, there was probably a million Italian immigrants in the US who knew a whole hell of a lot more about Italian cooking that Ms. McGinnis, who lived in Italy for a little while and was considered an "expert." I remember reading something somewhere about how Italian food was considered very unhealthful around this time. You know, all that pasta, lol.

          1. re: roxlet

            It is hilarious, isn't it... Some of the recipes Caroline described reminded me of Chinese food I've cooked, especially the lettuce and cucumbers. I wonder if that was supposed to be escarole and zucchini?

            1. re: Gio

              lettuce and cucumber for escarole and zucchini? I shudder, but I'll buy (uhh I mean believe) that.

            2. re: roxlet

              web tells me by 1920 there were about 4 million italian immigrants!

              but from reading histories of that period, like of the great molasses flood in boston, many of them were illiterate in their native languages, let alone english. they weren't frittering their days tinkering with recipes either, being at or near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

              i'd also be curious who was cooking from this lady's book? i'm guessing mostly the cooks of women who could afford to buy it and then had time time read it.

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                I'm inclined to think that Italians, or for that matter newly arrived immigrants from other countries, in the US had to search high and low for ingredients similar to that which they used back at home. I also think they really didn't need cookbooks since they knew their own family recipes that would have been passed down. Of course those old recipes and methods had to be adapted until they could have a home garden. But whatever the case all that has been evolving, to the good or bad, into what we see in Italian-American restaurants and homes.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  That's a big assumption that the Italian immigrants were illiterate. My paternal grandfather who left Italy because he was being nudged into the priesthood, could was very educated and could read Italian and Latin. Though they weren't tinkering with recipes, they were certainly cooking meals for themselves which, as Gio said were as close to what they had in Italy as possible.

                  1. re: roxlet



                    this is no assumption. my paternal grandparents immigrated from naples in the early part of the 20th century. neither had ever been to school, nor had my grandfather's parents or sisters, also on the boat. and NONE of them considered themselves "italian", regardless of what their papers said. most of those who came to the us from italy came from the south, which had an illiteracy rate of 70% - perhaps more.

                    i do agree that, like most other immigrants, they didn't need cookbooks and had to find approximations for many favorite ingredients.

                    the meat-laden sunday dinners that many americans imagine as typical italian spreads only became possible in the us where meat was so relatively cheap. for most back home, there was neither the space nor the purse for that sort of thing.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        as a side note, IIRC it's been posited that's why veal and lamb have never been as popular in the Americas as they are in Europe. there's room to grow them big.

                2. re: Gio

                  Thanks, Gio. The Kindle version does indicate that Antonia Isola is a pen name. Since you found the publication year, then 1876 was likely her birth year. Without time travel, I don't think there's any way to make a valid evaluation of how authentic her dishes were for that day. I think "simple" cooking was fairly universal in home kitchens around the globe.

                  I do think its a bit sad that Americans, as a whole, have no idea lettuce can be cooked. I was watching a Julia and Jacques show last weekend, and he made a cooked endive dish, and she said she'd never heard of it. My immediate thought was, "She's GOT to be lying!" '-)

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    I make a salad with chopped grilled escarole. Very nice.

                    1. re: pikawicca

                      Yes, I do as well. Then there's braised escarole with olive oil, anchovies, red pepper flakes, FGBpepper, But I don't think I've ever come across cooked cucumber in an Italian recipe..

                3. The boiled egg with sauce actually sounds plausible. I happened once to be in Paris, staying with my 18th cousins, during the start of Lent. Meals during that time, especially on Friday, used no meat. Instead, they made these dishes I have never had before or since, that used boiled eggs, shredded, chopped, sliced, and otherwise transformed baked and served with sauces. These cousins are very French, and apologized repeatedly about how they were sorry that they had to serve Lenten meals. Me? These were some of the most fascinating meals I have ever had!

                  The one I recall the best [and was not able to get a recipe] was served in a square casserole and had baked endive, sliced boiled eggs, and the most delicious sauce I have ever had. She sprinkled some fresh herbs over the top just before serving. She would not share the recipe "for this old thing" and instead gave me a recipe for a daube which of course I could have anywhere.

                  Thank you for sharing. I hadn't thought about that meal in a while. There were 12 cousins around the table ranging in age from about 25 to 86. Man do I need to make another trip to see all of them!

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: smtucker

                    That baked endive and eggs dish with sauce sounds wonderful, SMT. I'd be tempted to try to replicate it.

                    1. re: Gio

                      There was lots of cream, and it had a pinkish hue, but for the life of me, I couldn't discern the flavors enough to replicate. This dear cousin is no longer with us so I can't pester her but I sure wish she had understood how much I wanted that recipe.

                      1. re: smtucker

                        Sounds like Sauce Aurore, basically a veloute with tomato paste and added creme fraiche or cream. The Italians make a similar sauce, although it starts with a bechamel.

                        1. re: pikawicca

                          Isn't a veloute generally made with chicken stock? What kind of stock do you think she would have used on a firm meatless Friday? Definitely wasn't fish; that I would have tasted immediately.

                          The evening started with a simple potato soup. Second course was smoked salmon with asparagus with a bit of hollandaise and fresh lemon. Then the endive with egg dish. For dessert she made a chocolate mousse.

                          1. re: smtucker

                            Hi, sm:

                            You should pick up a copy of Escoffier--replete with Lenten recipes and sauce versions.


                            1. re: smtucker

                              I found some very diverse Aurore recipes just now – one made with a béchamel, another with a veloute, and even one made with a mayonnaise.

                            2. re: pikawicca

                              Oh boy, a new sauce to play with!

                          2. re: Gio

                            I grill endive quite often and rough chop it then flake orange roughy on top and serve it with candied kumquats and chopped eggs

                          3. re: smtucker

                            There are a couple of recipes like this in Jacques Pepin's books. Seems to be a common prep for hard boiled eggs there.

                          4. This is really funny as I am having a brunch today and am serving a baked dish with deviled eggs wrapped in ham and covered with a mushroom sauce. It's delish1

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: josephine

                              My aunt used to make something similar -- she put hers on a bed of sauteed spinach and covered it with a mornay sauce, topped with some kind of crumb or cornflake crust. It was really delicious.