“If ever a tomato sauce becomes too dry, it is not a sin to add hot water.”
I don’t have cookbooks beyond number, but quite a few, and all kinds.
Piled on the kitchen floor in a great heap, though, the Italian cookery would tower over the rest like a basilica. I have just always loved Italian food, falling for the whole culinary culture right at the very beginning of my cooking days.
Knowing this, when my aunt died, a very thoughtful relative saved and sent me a book from her kitchen. It is now one of my dearest possessions: Recipes from Italy by Malya Nappi.
Published in 1959, Recipes from Italy is Ladybird sized, in dimensions and very nearly page numbers. There are no photographs, but little line cartoons – mostly of foodstuffs in comic scenarios, like a fish in his gondola, or a lobster, playing an accordion.
To be mean spirited, these sketches could be described as a 1950s incarnation of clipart, that early “desktop publishing” solution we all used but sneer at now. You can’t imagine Nappi sitting with the illustrator and working them out, put it that way. But I can’t be mean about these little drawings, because they speak vibrantly of their era, so I love them. My favourite, to illustrate Trippa al Pomodor (Tripe in Tomato Sauce), is a pig, in silhouhette, riding a Vespa or Lambretta, presumably to his own doom. Some aren’t quite as effective, but the best are superb.
These drawings were done by Stanley Chapman, who I’m assuming was the same Stanley Chapman who was an architect, designer and translator. Amongst many things, Chapman created the covers for literary magazines, like Stand, and here he is drawing a fish, serving a pan of fish.
Recipes from Italy was part of a series, ‘Exciting Cooking’ from Kaye Books, which included Curries of India, Second Book of Curries and Tante Marie’s French Kitchen. From the back cover of my copy of Nappi’s book, it looks like Chapman drew for all of them. You imagine he was having fun, because meantime he was doing some serious stuff. Amongst other writers, he translated Rimbaud.
So, Recipes from Italy is slim, and it feels more like an old hardback poetry collection from Faber than a cookbook. It has no colours inside, and is illustrated with cartoons rather than pictures of real food. You’d think perhaps that this would make it less essential, and maybe it has – but it is a gem. I like it particularly for the talkative, slightly off the wall writing of Malya Nappi, and the way that the book serves up an absolutely wonderful snapshot in time – a busy, chatty window straight into the 1950s.
Cookbook creators sometimes seem to forget that books can be artefacts of their times, and indeed some even appear to go out of their way to make them culturally anaemic, time neutral. I like cookery writing that doesn’t do this, which is vibrant and vital and of its time, but will many years later speak across the years about people & the food they cooked – with a bit of attitude to boot. Current food writers like Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson do this, just as Elizabeth David or M.F.K. Fisher did before them. These are the writers that will sustain, long after fads and foolery are forgotten.
Good cookery writing becomes socially important, and the best will eventually forge part of our understanding of their time – because we eat, to live. Any social history will refer to the food we ate, how and where we cooked. In one hundred years time, historians of Twentieth Century Britain will quote Slater’s Eating for England till the pips squeak. I can read ten history books about 1980s Britain, for example, and they might all be action packed, but if I go back and read something like Floyd’s American Pie, well, I actually remember what it was like to live then. Cookbooks have long voices and are frequently off-guard.
Malya Nappi is no Elizabeth David, and this just has to be said. Nappi’s book comes across as perhaps a less sophisticated piece of work. I can imagine that it was not seen as entirely a serious book at the time, maybe even looked down on a bit. Maybe it still is. But it is vibrant in its own sense of ‘now’ and speaks from the 1950s as if they were, well, yesterday. If I had been a young student looking for an Italian Cookbook in 1959, I would have bought it and adored it. If I was able to manage the 6s 6d, of course.
When I actually was a student, I bought Italian Cooking by Mary Reynolds, from Octopus Books in their The Kitchen Library series. At £1.25 then, which must have been dangerously close to the price of a pint, it was just cheap enough to sacrifice a glass of Murphy’s. And the book was a revelation.
I remember with San Pellegrino clarity my first attempt at Mary Reynolds’ Pollo con Peperoni. It was probably the first proper thing I ever tried to cook. There is something deeply unforgettable about this process, a kind of exploration as exciting as finding new music, or going on holiday by yourself for the first ever time. It never occurred to me that I might need to know when the chicken was cooked through, of course, so it was stressful, but Reynolds’ little book had changed my life in the process.
This recollection of my day in the kitchen with Mary Reynolds in the late 80s, and the mad excitement of it all, is very probably why I respond so strongly to Malya Nappi’s book. I like to think that Recipes from Italy caught the imagination of one or two late 50s dreamers in much the same way. I still have my Kitchen Library Italian Cooking, and it now sits next to Malya Nappi as a pair. Reynold’s superb Athena poster-era book is also small-sized, and is more complex than the 1959 book, but it belongs in the same practical and aspirational space.
Recipes from Italy is cut into sections: Antipasto, Zuppo, Pasta and so on. It is not so different from many other Italian cookbooks I have in this regard – except, of course, it was written over twenty years before even the earliest of them, bar Elizabeth David. I love in particular the section on Vino, where the “far-famed vintage Chianti of Brolio” might be as much as £10 a case …
At the end of the book there is a section on ingredients (“Olive oil is also uncommonly good in salads”) and a list of London suppliers, some that are still going strong, and some disappeared in the city moonlight. It is just a basic note of suppliers’ addresses (“Italian Provisions”) but there is a definite romance about it, a hidden map of places on Berwick Street, Old Compton Street and Goldsmith Road that draws at your imagination.
It’s impossible not to feel your present-tense heart warm as Nappi describes our attitudes to Italy in 1959. “I have the impression,” she says, “that we in England are taking to Italian food as well as Italian clothes, films and scooters.” Elsewhere, she bemoans how “cartoonists and comedians sometimes present us with the mental picture of the average Italian consuming with great gusto vast quantities of greasy spaghetti to the strains of Torna a Surriento*.” Although it’s a vastly different world, and things have changed enormously, in some ways they haven’t completely – just watch adverts on TV for pasta sauce.
Unless there were two Malya Nappis, the writer of this delightful book has to be Anastasia Amelia Nappi. An actor, she took the stage name Malya Nappi (starring with Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, no less) and was married to Cecil Woolf, the nephew of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. This accounts for internet references to Malya Woolf as she was – appearing in The Sweeney, or The Bill and Crossroads, for example. She also wrote a novel, Sometimes, I have to Close My Eyes (of which more in another post) and started a PhD in her 80s. She was, I get the feeling, a ball of lightning. As the flyleaf says, her book was written in the downtime “when not making a name for herself in the English Theatre world.”
Recipes from Italy was written when Nappi was in her early forties. Unbelievably, you can pick up a first-and-only-edition copy of her wonderful little book for only £2.49 on Amazon right now, which somehow seems to be all wrong. In so many ways, it feels important to cherish now this wee book from Soho in the late 50s. Despite being initially quite unassuming it is actually a piece of cookery writing that goes, as the song says, “straight into your heart.”
My aunt would have been in her twenties when she bought this book, living on her own for the first time in her University flat. It makes me happy to think of her, young and independent, cooking up her pasta to the music on the wireless. The adventure of cookbooks is a uniquely emotional one.
*Speaking for myself, I’m still fond of cooking pasta to ‘Torna a Surriento’ sung by Pavarotti. I like to tear up basil, drink Chianti, and sing loudly along in made up Italian.