In Babbo's Garden

Before Julia, before Alice, there was Seattle's Angelo Pellegrini.

The Unprejudiced Palate may be the most misleadingly titled book of our or any other time. Far from being fair and balanced, Angelo Pellegrini's slim volume, just republished by Random House's Modern Library ($13.95 paperback), is as much jeremiad as it is tribute to the place of good food and wine in the civilized life. Published as Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip, and Blue Bonnet margarine were becoming the culinary norm rather than the exception, Pellegrini's 1948 book, only a modest success when new, slowly became a touchstone for a new generation of American eaters unsatisfied with fluff and pap and empty calories. Frequently out of print, it was passed in dog-eared copies from hand to hand of true believers, some of whom grew up to be far better known avatars of good food than Pellegrini ever was. American cooks from Alice Waters to Mario Batali (who contributes a new introduction to the Modern Library edition) have extolled him and his mantra of militant simplicity: fresh, seasonal, homegrown, and homemade. It's not really surprising that Pellegrini remained relatively obscure despite his half-dozen books. The Unprejudiced Palate got good reviews and earned him a Guggenheim travel grant, which allowed him to return to Italy for the first time since his emigration at age 10. But even most of the people who praised the book interpreted it more as a nostalgic cri de coeur than as practical counsel for life in the real world. Unlike today's media-driven food mavens, he refused to exploit his love of good food and drink for commercial gain. A hugely popular University of Washington English professor, Pellegrini used to say he only wrote Palate to stop people badgering him to write a cookbook. Cookbooks were unnecessary, he believed. All you needed, he maintained, was a set of taste buds, a source of fresh ingredients, and common sense. When the era of the TV chef was just beginning, he spurned the opportunity to push "his" cuisine on the tube. He continued to live in the home across the street from Sand Point Country Club that he had moved into as a freshly minted Ph.D., cultivating his garden (soil hauled in barrow by barrow load to ameliorate the heavy clay), making wine on his backyard terrace, and celebrating the seasons with friends and neighbors. A month before he died in November 1991, too ill to sit up and watch, the man his family called "Babbo" lay bedridden, listening to the last wine crush taking place outside without him. Pellegrini's garden was his masterwork—concrete proof for all who saw it and tasted its produce that fresh was best, as the backyard brick oven showed what a little olive oil and garlic could do for a roast chicken. The garden has run sadly to seed since his death and that of his wife of 50 years; the gnarled fig trees bear fruit only for flocks of starlings now. The house, which in another time or place might have been preserved as a precious cultural monument, will soon be sold and almost certainly demolished to make room for a more sophisticated modern structure taking advantage of its sunny exposure and eastward view. Fortunately, Pellegrini's garden survives between the covers of a book. The Food Lover's Garden, first published in 1970 (and, like Palate, in and out of print ever since), is a completely practical, down-to-earth guide to creating your own personal culinary Eden on any spare patch of soil (or, failing that, in any random collection of pots). It was my introduction to the Pellegrini magic and has remained one of my most consulted culinary resources ever since. Though The Unprejudiced Palate isn't quite so hands-on inspiring as Garden, it remains the seminal Pellegrini text, and startlingly up to date despite its venerable pedigree. Some of the culinary suggestions the author makes in passing are still outside the envelope for all but the most advanced eaters (most notably his recommendation of an appetizing way to dish up chicken entrails). The same calm but lively approach that made Pellegrini a popular teacher informs the writing. He makes it sound not just feasible but perfectly plausible that one can arrange one's life to have it all: good food, good wine, good friends, a good life. rdowney@seattleweekly.com On Tues., Aug. 30, Serafina Country Italian Restaurant and Bar (2043 Eastlake Ave. E.) presents a tribute dinner to celebrate republication of Pellegrini's The Unprejudiced Palate. All proceeds will benefit the establishment of a Pellegrini memorial in Seattle. $125 per person. To make reservations for the dinner, call Serafina, 206-323-0807. For further information, contact the Kim Ricketts/Book Events office, 206-632-2419 or info@kimricketts.com.

 
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