Originally published in Italy in 1928 as Talismano della Felicita, Ada Boni’s Talisman Italian Cook Book was, as far as I can tell, the cook book that launched Italian cuisine into the forefront of the American mainstream. There really doesn’t seem to be a cook book published in America before this one that had as large a foothold and impact as this one. Following the translation and publication of Ada Boni’s book however, the flood gates were essentially opened up with several dozen Italian cook books following in its wake over the proceeding two decades. Because of this, although I recognize that Ada Boni’s book was not the first Italian cook book in America, I am inclined to view it as the first Italian cook book of note and certainly the first and most prominent Italian cook book of America’s burgeoning midcentury love affair with hosting, eating, and cooking post WW2.
Ada Boni’s book is also one of the first entries in Crown Publishers spectacular cook book series International Cook Book Series which really led the charge in introducing global and ethnic cuisines to the American audience. Unsurprising, really. Considering that Crown was based in New York City and so an Italian cook book would play directly to a large demographic within the city as well as, I’m sure, the curiosity of their neighbours. It is no coincidence, I can’t imagine, that Crown launch its cook book series with Jewish, Italian, and Chinese cook books as those were the visual demographics of New York City.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Crown Publishers essentially launched Italo-American experience into the mainstream but I think we can safely say that this cook book was part of a large pop-cultural wave that naturalized, celebrated and yes, fetishized, the Italian American experience in the 1950s America.
In classic Crown Publisher fashion they impeccably sourced their team for this project by hiring two Italian intellectuals for the job: Mathilde Pei for the translation with an introduction by her husband, the distinguished professor, linguist and author Mario Pei who contributes an ample and stimulating introduction which contextualizes both the regional qualities of Italian cooking and the cosmopolitan fusion of modern Italy.
Strangely, my 1974 edition was partially sponsored by the Ronzoni Macaroni Company and includes a coloured advertisement insert along with additional recipes provided by Ronzoni that spans several pages long. I say strangely because it is a feature I have yet to come across in any other of the Crown books or any other of my vintage cook books for that matter. Perhaps, it was an attempt to introduced WASPy Americans to the more peculiar varieties of the pasta. What is strange about that is that Ada Boni’s book generally uses only a few fairly straightforward pre-bought pastas like spaghetti or macaroni. I’m sure there’s a story here about this partnership and I’d love to dig up some dirt on it.
All of this is merely academic, the real question is, of course, how was the food? Good. Really good. Great, actually. In terms of success rate, this is an incredibly successful book. Almost every recipe I have tried has been delicious, well seasoned, and well proportioned. Even the recipes that seem, at first, glance to be bordering on overly simple in their flavour palette often delight in some novel execution. In the beginning, I was a little underwhelmed flipping through the recipes but the more time I invested in recipe testing, the more infatuated I became with Boni’s book. Originally, I was only planning on featuring 10 recipes as an initial volley into the book, but I just had so much fun recipe testing, and the recipes were so rewarding and fairly easy to execute that I decided to expand it to twenty recipes. Truthfully, if I didn’t have so many cook books waiting for me on my shelf, I could easily see myself working through the majority of the book.
Cons? The only con that I can really comment on is that a lot of the recipes rely on a handful ingredients which are incredibly flavour forward: anchovies, olives, prosciutto, etc. Which is a good thing, unless you happen to not be a fan of those ingredients. This isn’t so much of a problem for myself but navigating other peoples tastes only using this book could be difficult if they have a problem eating those three pungent ingredients or don’t like eating too much mozzarella.
Another con is in the ratio of recipes. A significant portion of the book focuses on main dishes with only a small chapter on my favourite section: pasta. That could be one reason to expand my Italian section in the future. The dough for the pizza is fairly lack lustre. However, this could be for a variety of reasons that are part of my own ineptitude or choice of flours etc. My general experience with midcentury doughs, batters, breads, etc, is that we’ve come a long way since the 1950s.
However, none of these minor hiccups displaces this book from my Hall of Fame shelf of vintage cook books that are timeless and historically important. So, without further ado, let me share with you my favourite recipes from Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cook Book. I hope they soon become yours as well.
Eggs, Hunter Style
Eggs au Gratin
Buridda (Genoa Style)
Steak Cacciatora (Hunter Style)
Falso Magro alla Siciliana
Stuffed Pork Chops
Pasta and Rice
Agnolotti with Pork and Spinach
Spaghettini Alla Vongole (aka Clams)
Spaghetti with Meatballs
Spaghetti alla Novelli
Spaghetti Syracuse Style
Sicilian Style Arancini
Spaghetti with Sausage and Tomatoes
Pizza di Scammero
Red Bean Salad
Chocolate Pasticciera Cream
Sweet Omelette in Flame
Cassata Alla Siciliana