An unusual cookbook

In 1936, Pelle and a colleague wrote a textbook on “public discussion and argumentation.” But Pelle found his niche as a writer elsewhere. In 1948, he published The Unprejudiced Palate (Macmillan) to critical acclaim. Palate was a cookbook. But it was an unusual cookbook for that time or any time because it contained few recipes and those it did were set down discursively rather than formulaically. What Pelle did, in instructing his readers about cooking, was to set forth—gracefully, humorously. earthily, persuasively—his own attitude toward life, including the cooking and eating of food. As a guide to the good life as well as to cooking, Palate is as valuable now as it was then. Pelle’s convictions about “grow your own, cook your own, brew your own,” his abhorrence of excess and waste, his devotion to natural simplicity. anticipated by 20 years the popular rise of these themes in American life, 

Here, for example, is what he wrote about eating:

“The hearty, discriminating eater is seldom a sour puss. He does not live to eat; rather, he eats well and drinks judiciously, that he may pursue his interests in life with greater enthusiasm. His sense of proportion is admirable. He considers a restful bed as important as a good dinner, and a comfortable chair and adequate lamp to read by as necessary as after-dinner coffee and brandy. He knows. too, that simplicity and variety, both in ingredients and in their preparation, are the abiding principles on which the distinguished diet is based. A cup of broth, fine, crisp bread. good cheese, celery and chicory hearts, a bottle of wine—never mind the French names and ancient vintages—topped with coffee and brandy, make a pleasant and satisfying dinner.”

And about drinking:

“The way to temperance is unambiguous and sanctioned incontrovertibly by the experience of old and continuous civilizations. First of all, drinking must be accepted as part of, and more or less rigidly limited to, the dinner hour, primarily in the home, with the unrestricted participation of the entire family. No beverage should be consumed if it must be disguised with sugary corruptions to make it palatable.”

And about the garden, the wine cellar. and the table:

“If I were asked which I enjoy most, drinking wine or making it, growing and cooking food or eating it, I must confess that I would be on the horns of a dilemma. Such a disjunctive proposition would leave me speechless.”

And about waste:

“[Waste] is a sin; or. if one prefers . . . frugality is a virtue. . . . The good things of the earth are intended for our use; when we waste them we sink below the level of the dog who buries a bone for the morrow when his belly is full.”


Photo © Bob Peterson

Photo © Bob Peterson

Pelle’s attitude toward waste was formed in Casabianca, where he knew only scarcity. In America, he found abundance that was staggering. When Mother Pellegrini and her brood arrived in New York, their first meal was what Pelle calls The Great American Breakfast. He still remembers it with awe, as he wrote in Immigrant’s Return

“And this is what we were served: sliced oranges, ham, eggs. fried potatoes. buttered toast, coffee, cream, sugar. And then more buttered toast, more coffee, more cream, more sugar. And would we have more toast? Just ask for it. Would we have more coffee, more cream? Just ask for them. As much as we could eat of anything, all for one price. Just ask for it! So that was America! Just ask for it! Or, just reach for it! For there were the cream and sugar on the table. We had hoped for much from the New World. But we had not hoped for all that.”

In America, where they had come for bread, the Pellegrinis found it in abundance. And they found much, much more. But they retained their peasant values. Near their house in McCleary was a continuous fire, fed by a conveyor carrying discarded lumber and wood from the timber mill. The Pellegrinis, though they were surrounded by forests containing all the wood they could ever imagine that was theirs for the taking, kept watch near the fire and pulled the wood and lumber they needed from the pile before it was consumed. Remembering how scarce wood was in Tuscany, how, when a peasant got rid of an old apple tree he would carefully dig up its roots so as not to waste a single fiber, they could not abide the notion that wood could be burned uselessly.

Pelle returns to his basic themes again and again in his writing and speeches. He is now writing a book, to be published by Seattle’s Madrona Publishers, in which, frugality will be hailed not only as a moral virtue but as an esthetic and practical one, too. Pelle describes the book as “a guide to the good life in the lean years ahead.” He will begin with an extended essay on scarcity and waste as a global problem and then devote chapters to the garden, kitchen, and wine cellar—grow your own. cook your own, brew your own. [Editor’s note: the book was published in 1983, under the title Lean Years, Happy Years.]

Read on . . .