The Unprejudiced Palate

One cannot survive on Joyce alone. While reading Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, I was also reading “lighter works,” though frankly almost any reading would qualify as lighter reading than Ulysses. After reading a reference to a favorite college professor, Angelo Pellegrini, in a local paper, I bought the Kindle version of The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life and have been reading it off and on for nearly a month.

I don’t remember the exact courses I took from Professor Pellegrini, so they were probably very forgettable survey courses required for my undergraduate major. I do remember he would enliven some particularly dull readings by referring to old cookbooks or recipes from the same period. I’ve long forgotten the readings, but I still remember the recipes.

I loved Pellegrini’s zest for life. No dull pedant, he. I have a vague memory of being outraged upon learning he had not been granted a full professorship because the books he had published, highly popular cookbooks, were not academic works in his field. If I’d learned that in my senior year, I would probably have been more outraged for the most embarrassing moment of my undergraduate years came when I drifted off (fell asleep, as it were) in a class taught by the department chairman, a man noted for his critical essays, while he was reading from a yellowing notepad. The only thing I remember about that class is that it inspired me to see the movie Tom Jones, one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seemed vastly superior to the novel it was based on.

Pellegrini’s zest for life and his philosophical views are the main reasons to read his cookbook, though the recipes he offers are “classics.” Personally witnessing that zest directly in class day after day adds to my enjoyment of the book, but even those who never saw him in person will sense it. He tries to share and promote that joy throughout the book.

There is a simple, enduring joy—and it needs to be discovered—implicit in the preparation of such excellent dinners that Father and the children would deem it a grave misfortune to miss one of them. It is the solid, thoroughly human satisfaction derived from doing something which inspires admiration while it promotes the happiness of others.

My mother was an excellent cook, and dinner was always a highlight of the day. No one had to be called twice to our table, and it was a rare, but not entirely unknown occasion, kids being kids, when one of us would refuse to eat something put on the table. I, on the other hand, started cooking rather late in life, but I still love cooking a special meal when family members visit. Even when single, I seldom resorted to fast-food restaurants. My favorite meals came in late summer and early fall when I would supplement fresh corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers from my garden with a simple cut of meat.

Angelo belongs to my parents’ generation or an even earlier one, but I was amazed how attuned I was to the philosophy he expresses throughout the book.

And I have come to believe, finally, as a result of my early experiences, that waste is a sin; or, if one prefers, that frugality is a virtue. One may take it as he will; it all depends on whether one prefers to be reminded that he is a bad man, to being told that his goodness is a trifle scant. Again, let me parry the likely thrust that I am a stuffy old moralist by immediately explaining that I am thinking of frugality partly as an end in itself, and not merely as a means for providing for the proverbial Armenians, whose starving ranks have recently been joined by so many others. Not that I am unconcerned for my starving brothers. Frugality, or the absence of waste, made a universal law, would mean abundance potentially available to everyone. And that includes the Armenians. I consider frugal habits as desirable as temperate habits in the achievement of the good life.

Thankfully, my childhood wasn’t as tough as the one Angelo describes in his book, but we were never very far from the bottom when I was growing up in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the Seattle area. Nothing was ever wasted in our family, and the main reason for having a yard was to grow a big garden to grow fresh food and to store food for the rest of the year. The part of the freezer that wasn’t crammed with salmon we caught contained frozen vegetables from our garden.

And like Angelo, I’m always disturbed when I see a neighbor’s fruit go unpicked.

Speaking for myself—and I do not hope to be completely understood, since such values are so intimate that their realization must await personal discovery—I conclude with the simple statement that the avoidance of waste is necessary to my happiness and that I am disturbed by the wasteful behavior of my fellows.

“Waste not, want not” seems as true to me today as it did when my parents preached it at the dinner table.

If Pellegrini was concerned with America’s emphasis on “bigger” and the accumulation of wealth when this book was published, one can only wonder what he would think about modern-day Republican claims that the top 1% offer the best hope for America.

In a land that idolizes the Rockefellers and the Fords, the growing of a carrot and a cabbage seems a trifling preoccupation—unless, perhaps, they can be exhibited as the biggest carrot and the biggest cabbage ever grown anywhere. There is yet no evidence that the experience of the war years has had the salutary effect for which some of us had hoped. The American still wastes and continues to trample underfoot whatever does not measure up to his gigantic illusions. He does not yet perceive the consequences of having used with reckless imprudence the precious yield of the good earth; he does not realize that the quantitative analysis of value is fundamentally deceptive; nor does he yet see with any clarity that, in his uncritical devotion to big things, he has neglected the trifles which, in their totality, constitute a principal ingredient in human happiness.

There’s a reason why cliches like “It’s the little things in life that matter most” become cliches. The real prize in this lifetime is happiness, and I’d agree with Pellegrini that small things in our daily lives like everyday delicious meals are more much more important in bringing happiness than big things like a new car or a fabulous week-long vacation in the Caribbean.

2 thoughts on “The Unprejudiced Palate

  1. Oh, I really enjoyed and appreciated this post so much, Loren. I was thinking of “waste not, want not” way before you actually mentioned it! A really lovely, characterful and revealing piece of writing you put before us here. I’m in sympathy with your sentiments.

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