It was intended as a manifesto, as proof one could live luxuriously as a vegetarian. But the 1930 recipe book by Sicilian Enrico Alliata, the Duke of Salaparuta, seemed destined to remain a used-bookstore curiosity.
Available only as the mouthful Cucina vegetariana e naturismo crudo: Manuale di gastrosofianaturista, it was not translated. That is, until an American publishing house decided to revive what is possibly one of the strangest vegetarian cookbooks of all time.
Republished as The Duke's Table, it's a far cry from the gorgeous vegetable porn of Yotam Ottolenghi or the impeccably tested recipes of Thomas Keller. With more than 1,000 recipes and illustrations on fewer than 300 pages, the book is a breathless, run-on list of vegetables, dairy products, eggs and starches that holds a strange charm.
As the cookbook sector continues to boom, publishers are increasingly hunting for culinary titles like Alliata's that can be easily updated and re-released. Elizabeth David's acclaimed French Provincial Cooking, from 1960, was republished in 1999 by Penguin, but obscure cookbooks are also making a comeback. That includes A New System of Domestic Cookery, which was written by "Mrs. Rundell" in 1806 and recently resuscitated by the small British publishing house Persephone Books.
The simplicity of some recipes in The Duke's Table can run toward the comical. For example, Alliata's one-paragraph recipe for sautéed mushrooms simply reads, "Finely chop and sauté in butter with little salt. Serve with croutons." To make coconuts, it says, "remove the bark-like skin and cut into even-sized pieces. If you wish, cover with fresh cream."
"This is an inspiration cookbook, not a detailed guide," says Kelly Burdick, the editor at Melville House who oversaw its publication. He says the recipes were generally left as they were originally written. "There's no expectation that someone is going to go through this and cook every single recipe. What [Alliata] was trying to do was overwhelm people with force. Just as there is this rich Italian tradition, he was saying, 'We can do a vegetarian version.'"
While some basic biography of Alliata is known – from an eye he lost in a hunting accident (ironic, for a vegetarian) to his radical support for a raw-food diet – Burdick says the duke largely remains a mystery. That said, his heirs still avoid meat, and his daughter, who is a vegetarian, recently turned 100.
The book sports an extensive repertoire of mock-meat dishes, including woodcock balls made with mushrooms and walnuts, foie gras that is mostly lentils, ricotta and red wine, and even a Scottish haggis composed of flour, bread crumbs, oats, eggs and butter. In the book, he extols the virtues of raw milk ("boiled milk loses its energizing powers and is thus an incomplete food"), recommends avoiding spices ("they act as irritants, provoking inflammation and serious damage to the urinary and gastric tracts") and subscribes to what would have been the relatively new concept of vitamins, which he refers to as prana.
The downside of such an old cookbook is that some of its recipes are at best untenable and at worst potentially unsafe. A recipe for stuffed truffles, in which the insides of whole, full-sized truffles are scooped out, cooked with flour and stuffed back into the empty truffle shells, is probably out of reach for ordinary plebs. One for hollandaise calls for butter, egg yolks, salt and vinegar to sit at room temperature for a potentially pathogen-forming four hours before cooking.
Securing the rights to the book was tricky, Burdick says, as the duke's heirs sold them to a publisher called Hoepli Editore decades ago, and no one at the company speaks English. "They were a very difficult group of people to get in touch with," he says. When he did, Giovanni Hoepli, the 85-year-old owner, brought an ornate set of 1930s documents confirming his ownership and the two communicated through a translator.
While Melville House has republished other historical cookbooks, including a French culinary guide called The Basics, Burdick says he was particularly drawn to the duke's ahead-of-his-time views on food. The first known Italian cookbook, The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, was published in 1891, while the country's first popular recipe guide, The Talisman Italian Cook Book by Ada Boni, was published two years before Alliata's. For Burdick, this shows just how progressive the duke was. "It seems to me that there's something very calculated there. He was trying to have a national conversation about diet when it's not clear to me that such a thing would have been possible," he says. "One can only imagine what he would have been like in the food blogging world."
The duke's recipes
10 oz semolina
3 oz grated parmesan cheese
4 oz butter
Make a batter with the semolina, a little tomato sauce, a pinch of salt, 2 oz butter and water. Place over a low flame stirring continually and when it has thickened and is of a uniform consistency, remove from the flame. When it has cooled, beat in the eggs with salt and stir well. Drop small nuggets of the batter into boiling water with the tip of a tablespoon and cook for 4 to 6 minutes. Remove with a strainer and season in the serving dish with tomato sauce and butter.
'Let me be' artichokes
After carefully cleaning and removing the tops of the artichokes, thinly slice. Pour a little oil in a sauté pan over medium and place a layer of the artichoke slices in it, dust with bread crumbs mixed with: Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, parsley, grated onion. Make 4 or 5 layers, sprinkling each layer with a little oil. Cook for 45 minutes, without even looking at them.
Palermitan vegetarian meatballs
12 oz bread crumbs
4 oz walnuts
4 oz caciocavallo cheese
Gently fry the onion in butter and dissolve into a puree with half a glass of wine. Make a mound of bread crumbs on a pastry board and fill the centre with the sautéed onion, grated cheese, ground walnuts, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and 2 eggs. Knead and add extra bread crumbs or egg if needed. Make into meatball shapes and fry. Serve with a good tomato sauce.