Our history books are mistaken. The first book Gutenberg printed with his moveable type was not, in fact, the Bible. Rather, it was a 28-page Latin primer on the art of writing and delivering speeches. The second book was a copy of his wife’s recipe collection, grouped according to the spices used in each dish. The third book he printed, and the one that found him fame and glory, was the Bible. It wasn’t his fault that it took three tries before he won himself recognition. The Bible had always been more popular than his wife’s cooking.
I, Bartolomeo Sacchi, author of the first mass-produced cookbook, was there. Well, not exactly there. I was in Italy at the time. It was 1450, a hot year by all accounts, and the vineyards suffered a bit. In Germany they had a dry summer followed by a severe winter, and Johann nearly lost his wife to a traveling minstrel.
Johann’s printing press made a splash in an international way, and I was quick to broadcast its significance in my own writing and at the pubs. I wanted to be published, to have something my offspring could remember me by, and I knew that Johann was my man. I dashed off a letter to him. We agreed that he would retain copyrights if I could earn future royalties. Taking his wife as my inspiration (she had forsaken the minstrel’s song for my humorous orations), I decided to write a cookbook. I visited the Gutenbergs in Germany, but Johann and I had a falling out over his wife and her cooking. I made off with the recipes and left him with his goose cooked and her steaming mad.
I published my cookbook in Rome and titled it De honesta voluptate. Having been named to the scholarly College of Abbreviators, I had long ago shortened my own appellation from Bartolomeo Sacchi to Platina. It was almost like “plat” in French or “plate” in English, neither of which meant much to my Italian compatriots. A prophet is never welcomed in his hometown. I meant more to the French than I did to the Romans or the Manchuans, with whom I spent much of my time. (Their women were always hankering for a tragic hero to fill their otherwise dry days.) My cookbook inspired the Gauls to produce their own cookbooks. The first French cooking guide was published in 1486 and called Le Viandier. I still regret not having learned French well, for I have never been able to read Le Viandier. In school, I studied only Gutenberg’s German dialect, which did, I admit, allow me to study a broad or two.
I should tell you something of myself before we go on about the cookbooks and oddities of early cuisine. I was born near Cremona, Italy in 1421, the son of my mother and father, and a fine son at that. I was a soldier until my side could no longer soldier on, and then I joined the opposite forces. My patron, who helped me to find work in Rome, was Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, called Gonzo for short. He had an unusually large nose and a fondness for pet chickens. I learned the fine art of origami during the papacy of Pius II and produced many paper bulls, briefs, and boxers. Briefly imprisoned during the papacy of Paul II, I was freed later and began writing Lives of the Popes, which eventually led to my appointment as the first librarian of the New Vatican Library in June of 1475. Those were heady times for me.
The plague took my life in 1481, which was unfortunate, but I remained on the alumni council of my local cooking school and kept abreast of the breaking news in the culinary world. After Le Viandier was published, Le Cuisinier Taillevant and La Platine appeared. Printed in a Gothic typeface that mimicked a handwritten text, Le Cuisinier Taillevant appealed to the mass market. La Platine, on the other hand, was for a more erudite, Martha Stewart crowd. It was printed in a straight-laced Roman type, which hardly appealed to my sensibilities.
What made these early cookbooks so enticing? Why did so many people want to have one in their grubby hands, salivating at the very idea of owning the complete set of Grand Cuisinier? First, there was the status associated with owning a cookbook. Second, the cookbooks offered health advice on which spices and herbs cured which illnesses, how to prepared meat-free food on Holy Days, and how to use raw ingredients in new and unexpected ways. In those days The South Beach Diet referred to the food of St. Tropez and Nice. Third, and finally, there was the comfort of knowing that you were part of a larger tradition, that you belonged to a nation of cooks. At least that’s how it was for the French. We Italians are resistant to unification. Our food may draw us together on some levels, but it divides us on others.
Cuisine has always been a way for us Italians to define one city-state against another. For example, the South is poorer than the North, with less agriculture and more arid lands, as well as minimal access to the northern trade routes. While we Northerners dine on slabs of beef, Southerners eat couscous and goat’s milk. Their pasta, their language, and their hands are too coarse for a Northerner such as myself, especially one with a weakness for refined Piedmont risotto, rich cow’s milk, and buxom milkmaids. Italy is a land of city-states, each man owing allegiance to his own despotic ruler, stapler, lined paper, and culinary style. If a ruler can’t unite us, then a cuisine won’t either.
Even so, we relate to our neighbors over the dinner table. We introduced the “artichaut” into the French countryside and language, and they passed it along to the English, who changed the name to the beastly “artichoke.” Although it was considered a controversial food in the mid 1500s, along with frogs, snails, turtles, Italian pumpkins and mushrooms, the artichoke was eventually accepted as fine cuisine when a Parisian cook concocted an artichoke soup flavored with black truffles. We northern Italians have since adopted the truffle as an essence in olive oil or a delicate topping to eggs and pasta. In some sense, a European union was achieved on the kitchen table long before it was realized at the political table. I’d like to think my honest approach helped, as did Johann and his voluptuous wife. I admit: I would have tabled my dreams of publishing a cookbook if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Gutenberg. Under her, I’d say that just about all of me reached new heights.