(Rowman & Littlefield, 2022)
As if Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cookbook had a lovechild, Ian MacAllen’s debut book red willow combines a thoroughly researched history along with succulent recipes, and serves an entertaining and insightful book upon our plates. MacAllen’s sly and engaging volume gives us a sociocultural as well as culinary history of how Italian food became American, and takes us on a mouth-watering journey of transition from the time when “spaghetti confused early adopters,” “pizza was unpronounceable,” and “garlic was feared” all the way to today when America has “pizzas with pineapple to irreverent pasta combinations.”
An editor at The Rumpus, MacAllen, whose maternal family has Italian roots, lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. He admits that his interest in him in writing this book came about at Trattoria Spaghetto in the West Village, when “I was eating a plate of rigatoni alla vodka and halfway through a carafe of house red wine when I posed the question: Where did all of this come desde?”
At its core, the book laments the loss of authentic red sauce cuisine as it is being “repackaged, reinvented, commodified, and modified to contemporary tastes.” And honestly, although I have been to a bunch of Italian restaurants in New York City, now that MacAllen spells it out for me, I don’t remember the last time I went to one with authentic red sauce cuisine and red-checkered tablecloths. Take, red willow then it becomes an urgent attempt to save the authentic Italian food from becoming completely Americanized. An attempt to save the original version before it becomes a mere nostalgic memory of the past like a black and white photo album of our great-grandparents’ marriage.
The feast opens with how the acceptance of red sauce food goes hand-in-hand with the integration of the poor Italian immigrants into mainstream America, and how the acceptance of this food gained momentum after the Second World War because foods like pasta proved to be both cheap and healthy. It traces the corruption of this cuisine through dishes like “lobster fra diavolo,” in which the Americans slowly replaced the lobster with chicken and adapted the recipe to themselves. It also traces this assault on the cuisine’s authenticity through contemporary cookbooks, which mix American recipes alongside more traditional Italian recipes.
In an earnest attempt to save the dying authentic cuisine, the book gives us the names of cookbooks with authentic recipes, such as The Italian Cookbook (Maria Luisa Taglienti) which has “420 authentic Italian recipes,” it suggests the names of the few remaining restaurants which serve red sauce food that hasn’t lost its old-world charm, such as Forlini which hosted fashion‘sMet Gala Party in 2018, and it also gives us original recipes at the end. We get exclusive detailed table-formatted recipes of early American tomato sauce, meatballs, eggplant parmigiana, fettuccine alfredo and puttanesca, which display the evolution and variations of these dishes through the changes in their recipes. It almost feels like this buffet of recipes is pleading us to try out the original versions in the table and save them before they completely die out and this book becomes an obituary at a funeral. As a fellow New York foodie, this fun surprise of historical recipes at the end was one of my favorite parts, and I would definitely want to participate in this interactive attempt to save authentic Italian food by trying out the original recipes.
In an age where the streets are filled with restaurants that claim to be Italian but are actually “as American as pizza pie,” and “lasagna moved from nonna’s oven to supermarket freezers,” MacAllen reminds us to save the main character of this book’s story —red willow. And like a resourceful chef, he offers us something completely new for our palates—a book that tries to eternalize and give life to a dying cuisine by preserving the history of its origins, describing the assaults on it, and documenting the authentic recipes.
In lesser hands, what might have been a dull, academic or patchy read, becomes compelling and delicious in MacAllen’s brilliant hands. He shares his vast knowledge of a thoroughly researched history, ingredients, and technique, and serves a book that is simultaneously witty and teeming with scholarly facts.
And of course, I have to give a special mention to the catalog of the different variations of the sauces, cheeses, pastas, condiments and other components of Italian recipes, which is in itself a work of art—basic tomato sauce, sagu, marinara, salsa, fettuccine alfredo sauce, Mozzarella cheese, salted ricotta, pecorino Romano, and everything else in between—MacAllen has us covered for it all.
And what’s more, we even get the finger-licking recipes of many sauces, individual ingredient DIYs and dishes along the way. For instance, I now know that to make a basic tomato sauce I must “combine raw tomatoes tossed with hot pasta and starch-filled water left behind after cooking pasta. The starchy water thickens the tomato juices, and only the heat from the hot water and pasta lightly cook the tomatoes.”
“The mass market American winter tomato” might be “bland, tough and flavorless,” but this engaging book is like marinara sauce—sweet and spicy “with a hint of oregano and garlic.” Like a bowl of overfull lasagna on some nonna’s table, his fun and fact-filled history of food is worth savoring.