Released by Harper & Brothers on February 15, 1912, Simple Italian
Cookery by Antonia Isola is the first English language Italian cookbook
published in America. As you can see from the facsimile edition you hold in
your hand, Simple Italian Cookery is a collection of recipes. The book has
no preface, no introduction, no explanatory text, and no information about
the author. Unlike modern cookbooks which have introductory comments at
the start of each chapter and headnotes or sidebars as commentary for each
recipe, the recipes in Simple Italian Cookery stand unadorned and alone.
On the face of the first edition dust jacket, however, there is some
secondary information about the book, in the form of the publisher’s sales
pitch. It states:
This book of Italian recipes was compiled by an American who
has lived much in Rome. Italian cookery is almost unknown in
this country except to those who have traveled in Italy. A
popular misconception of Italian diet is that it is composed
chiefly of garlic and oil. Though the Italians are naturally a
frugal race – a Venetian’s form of invitation is, “Come, eat four
grains of rice with me” – they are excellent cooks. This
collection of recipes contains a few of the hundred ways for
preparing “Neapolitan paste” – the general term for the
numerous varieties of macaroni, vermicelli, and spaghetti – and
for delicious risotti (dishes of which the foundation is rice).
Soups, meats, vegetables, and sweets are not neglected. The
American housewife will discover how to vary the monotony of
the weekly bill of fare.
The incorporation of some simple Italian dishes into the American
diet was feasible because, at the turn of the century, Italian cooking had
obtained a limited foothold in American cuisine and the market for an all-
Italian cookbook was strong.
Italian Cookery in America Before 1912
Professional chefs had included Italian recipes in cookbooks
published in America before 1912, but these recipes were often lost in the
vast number of other recipes in the book. For example, Louis Eustache
Audot’s French Domestic Cookery 1/, translated and published by Harper &
Brothers in 1846, contained 1,200 recipes. Of these, 48 were for Italian
dishes. Audot included a detailed recipe for making ravioli which were then
boiled in broth and served with grated cheese. In Charles Elmé Francatelli’s
Modern Cook 2/, published in Philadelphia in 1880 (from the 1855 ninth
London edition), there were 1,462 recipes. The few Italian recipes in this
book included Francatelli’s version of ravioli served in broth and a layered
and baked macaroni dish. Alessandro Filippini, a chef/manager at
Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, provided 1,550 recipes in his 1889
cookbook, The Table. 3/ Filippini’s Italian dishes included four recipes with
spaghetti, five recipes for macaroni, a correct recipe for risotto à la
Milanaise, and an instruction for serving mortadella as an hors d’oeuvres.
Women authors of smaller foreign or international cookbooks
published in America before 1912 included some authentic regional Italian
dishes in their collections. Helen Campbell 4/ (1893), Lia Rand (1894) 5/, L.
L. McLaren (1904) 6/, and Louise Rice (1911) 7/ published traditional Italian
recipes for ravioli, risotto, and polenta. Lia Rand provided detailed
instructions for making a fresh pasta, tagliarini, which could be added to
soup or used to line a mold and make an Italian timbale. 8/
Classic, turn-of-the-century, domestic science cookbooks written by
cooking school teachers contained recipes which used dried pasta. In her
Boston Cook Book 9/ Mary Lincoln had a section entitled “Macaroni,
Spaghetti, and Vermicelli” and noted that “Risotti” was a dish demonstrated
at her lecture on “Economical Dishes.” In Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, 10/
there were more than 20 recipes for Italian pastes (dried pasta) and a
suggestion: “At dinner the Italian pastes take the place of potatoes or
There were magazine articles promoting the benefits of incorporating
Italian food into the American diet. For example, in a series of three articles
in Century Magazine starting with “Ungastronomic America,” Henry Finck
criticized American food products and proposed that Americans experiment
by incorporating “diverse [foreign] food flavors” into their diet. Regarding
Italian cuisine, like Mrs. Rorer, Henry Finck suggested: “In the average
American household macaroni is far too seldom served. It might
advantageously replace potatoes at one of the three meals.” 11/
Finally, the United States Department of Agriculture published
macaroni and Italian recipes in its bulletins as part of a decade long campaign
to promote American’s expanding durum wheat industry and to support the
more than 150 American manufacturers of macaroni products. 12/
The publication of Italian recipes reflected the fact that Italian cooking
was on the American radar screen. In addition to the availability of some
Italian recipes, by 1912 there were many successful Italian restaurants
promoting Italian cookery in America. In San Francisco, the Fior d’Italia,
which opened in 1886 and survived the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906,
was going strong. 13/ Other San Francisco Italian restaurants, Buon Gusto,
Campi’s, Gianduja, and Sanguinetti’s, also reopened after the 1906
earthquake and fire. 14/
Thus, by 1912, the time was ripe for a comprehensive, all-Italian
cookery book; compared to other ethnic cookery books, it was overdue.
The Respectable Foundation of Simple Italian Cookery
Simple Italian Cookery sold for 50 cents, net.15/ Harper & Brothers
promoted it with several newspaper advertisements. An ad in the February
24, 1912, New York Times stated:
This book of Italian recipes was compiled by an expert.
Though frugal, the Italians are excellent cooks and the
American housekeeper will find many interesting suggestions
for preparing all sorts of soups, meats, vegetables and sweets.
The book shows that Italian cookery is far from being all
“garlic and macaroni.”
Antonia Isola, the expert mentioned in the ad, collected 130 recipes
which she presented in ten different chapters: 1) Soups; 2) Macaroni and
Other Pastes; 3) Rice, etc.; 4) Sauces: 5) Eggs; 6) Fish; 7) Vegetables; 8)
Meats; 9) Salads; and 10) Desserts. Print reviews of Simple Italian Cookery
were generally very positive. One reviewer recognized the unprecedented
scope of the presentation.
Antonia Isola's little book on “Italian Cookery” would have
gained in interest had it been prefaced by a few pages summing
up the gastronomic peculiarities of the people of her extraction.
However, the professional cook or the mistress who does her
own cooking and wisely craves variety, will soon discover from
a perusal of the recipes given what are the national and local
flavors of the peninsula which gives us the best macaronis and
oils, and some of the best cheeses and wines. Not a few of the
dishes described in these pages are international. In the second
section, however, we plunge in medias res – the spaghetti,
vermicelli, and other varieties of maccaroni, among which,
strange to say, the best of them all, the tagliatelli, is not
mentioned. Equally Italian are the risotto and other rice dishes,
the ravioli, the polenta, the gnocchi of farina or potato. Eggs,
fishes, vegetables, meats, can be cooked in many tempting
Italian ways by following the directions of the author. She also
pays due attention to the national desserts, among which
chestnuts figure so prominently and appetizingly. 16/
As with any collection of recipes, the recipes in Simple Italian
Cookery come from several different sources. Although it is not within the
scope of this Introduction to source every recipe in Simple Italian Cookery,
it is useful to note an important part of its respectable foundation. One
source, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, is an 1899 English language
Italian cookbook printed in London. It is generally considered a culinary
Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen is itself a collection of recipes. The
recipes in this cookbook were compiled by Janet Ross, a famous Victorian
British travel, history, and biography writer living just outside Florence. By
1911, when Simple Italian Cookery was written, Leaves from Our Tuscan
Kitchen had been reprinted six times. 17/ Some of the recipes in Simple
Italian Cookery are identical to recipes in the 1908 edition of Leaves from
Our Tuscan Kitchen. 18/
Other recipes in Simple Italian Cookery are Antonia Isola’s
translations of recipes found in Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in cucina e
l’Arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.)
Artusi’s book was published in 1891. By 1910, it had been reprinted
fourteen times with numerous additions. In it, “[t]he culinary styles of the
different parts of Italy were codified in carefully formulated recipes, then
published and distributed all over the nation.” 19/ Many consider this
significant “unifying” culinary work to be the most influential Italian
Janet Ross also used Pellegrino Artusi’s book as a source for Leaves
from Our Tuscan Kitchen. Consequently, some of the recipes in Simple
Italian Cookery can be traced from Isola to Ross to Artusi. For example,
Isola’s “Spinach ‘in riccioli’” came from Ross’s “Spinach in Riccioli”
which, in turn, was a translation of Artusi’s “Frittata in riccioli per
Because many of the recipes in Isola’s 1912 cookbook are anchored in
Artusi’s 1891 cookbook, she uses an older culinary vocabulary. For
example, consistent with hearth or wood stove cookery, Isola repeatedly tells
the reader to keep a dish warm by putting it “onto the back of the stove.”
Cooking from a historic cookbook with 1890’s recipes can be a
challenge. Old recipes often lack essential details about ingredients and
procedures. These ambiguities force the cook to make unassisted decisions
about important parts of the recipe. For any cook wanting to try recipes in
Isola’s collection, her simple recipes for rice with peas (p. 18) and polenta
with chopped sausages (p. 24) are good starting points.
Rice with peas, the Venetian classic risi e bisi, is Isola’s translation of
Artusi’s recipe for risotto coi piselli. First, you make a standard risotto
bianco, a white risotto. When the risotto is cooked al dente, butter is added
(mantecatura) and the risotto is kept warm. Peas are cooked in a flavored
broth and then, with grated cheese, added to the risotto. By properly
adjusting the amount of broth, the final dish becomes all’onda, a “wavy”
texture midway between a thin soup and a thick risotto. 20/
Isola’s polenta with chopped sausages is a predecessor of today’s
traditional Italian-American polenta lasagne. The polenta is cooked very
stiff. It can be molded into a loaf using a buttered Pyrex bread pan, if you
wish. While the polenta cools, a simple chopped sausage sauce is prepared.
For the brand name “Deerfoot” sausages, try sweet or mild Italian pork
sausage. After layering the polenta slices with the sausage sauce and grated
cheese, briefly bake the dish in a warm oven.
Antonia Isola -- “an American who has lived much in Rome”
A certain amount of mystery surrounds Antonia Isola, the author of
Simple Italian Cookery. The first edition dust jacket identifies the author as
“an American who has lived much in Rome.” According to Kathryn Bitting,
America’s first cookbook bibliographer, Antonia Isola did not exist. 21/
“Antonia Isola” was a pseudonym, an Italian nom de plume created by
Harper and Brothers to sell an Italian cookbook.
The commercial use of an ethnic pseudonym to suggest authenticity is
not unusual. 22/ As a name, “Antonia Isola” suggests an ordinary Italian
woman unlike the name of the actual author of Simple Italian Cookery, Miss
Mabel Earl McGinnis.
Mabel Earl McGinnis was born on May 16, 1876, in New York, the
last in a family of six children. Mabel’s family was one of some
consequence and affluence. 23/
Two of Mabel’s sisters had significant and well-documented careers
in the Arts. Adele Lydia McGinnis, a portrait painter, met Albert Herter, a
muralist and a designer, in Paris where they were art students. They married
in New York City in 1893. Mr. Herter was wealthy due to a large
inheritance from his father’s estate. The Herter’s lived on an estate in East
Hampton, Long Island, and at El Mirasol, an estate/hotel in Santa Barbara.
One of their children, Christian Archibald Herter, born in Paris in 1895,
served two terms as Governor of Massachusetts and as Eisenhower’s
Secretary of State from 1959-1961.
Bessie Woodruff McGinnis was an acclaimed writer who also lived
for an extended time in Paris. She was a contributor to Harper’s Magazine,
Century Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal.
She married John Van Vorst in 1899 just before he died. With her sister-inlaw,
Marie Van Vorst, Bessie wrote The Woman Who Toils, a 1903 expose
of the conditions of the women who worked in American mills and factories.
Mabel and her sister Bessie were living with their mother in Paris
when Lydia McGinnis unexpectedly died in March 1898. One friend wrote:
“Tomorrow we are all going to the funeral and I dread it for all of them. I
can hardly conceive a person worst fitted to stand the wear and tear than
poor little supersensitive Mabel. I don’t know at all what is to become of
her now. … Fancy the horrible utter desolation of having your mother die in
Paris and be cremated at Pere LaChaise with Carême and confetti rampaging
round the streets. I am so sorry for her.” 24/ Shortly after the funeral, Mabel
returned to New York. She lived with the Herters in East Hampton and
worked as a designer and a painter.
After her father died in June 1901, Mabel traveled and lived in Italy.
At one point, she was engaged “to a Sicilian, a bandit or something.” Mabel
ultimately settled in Rome, living at 88 Via Capo le Case. Via Capo le Case
is a very short street in northeast Rome near the Piazza di Spagna, home of
the Spanish Steps. At that time, one of the Anglo-American communities in
Rome occupied that neighborhood: “There is nothing more endearing than
the sight of a roomful of English people at their afternoon tea in a strange
Mabel’s contract with Harper and Brothers to write Simple Italian
Cookery was signed on March 18, 1911, while she was living at 88 Via
Capo le Case. Her compensation was 5 cents per book after the sale of
1,000 copies. 26/ The circumstances of her obtaining this contract are
unknown. Since she knew several writers with Harper and Brothers,
including her sister Bessie, her sister-in-law Marie Van Vorst, and her friend
W. D. Howells, it is likely the job came by way of referral.
Mabel’s life dramatically changed when she met Norval Richardson,
the Second Secretary of the American Embassy in Rome. Born in
Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, Norval Richardson was a career diplomat.
After serving as Second Secretary in Havana from 1909 to 1911 and at
Copenhagen from 1911 to 1913, Norval arrived in Rome, December 1913.
He took over as Secretary of the Embassy in 1916.
Mabel and Norval were married on January 6, 1917. The wedding
took place in the Palazzo del Drago, the Ambassador of Rome’s residence.
The Ambassador and the Embassy staff attended as well as the Mayor of
Rome. Five years after the publication of Simple Italian Cookery, Mabel
Earl McGinnis became Mrs. Norval Richardson, a diplomat’s wife.
While in Rome, the Richardsons had one daughter, Anne.
After serving in Rome until 1920, Norval Richardson was assigned to
the American embassies in Chile, Portugal and Japan. Richardson retired
from the diplomatic service in 1924.
The Richardson family lived in France and Italy for several years
before building a home in Gstaad, Switzerland. For financial reasons, they
rented out their Gstaad home and moved to Dinard, France.
During his retirement, Norval Richardson wrote numerous books,
including one on his diplomatic service. He died in Bermuda on October 22,
The place and date of death of Mabel McGinnis is unknown.
© 2005 by Robert W. Brower
1. Audot, Louis Eustache. French Domestic Cookery, Combining Elegance
With Economy; Describing New Culinary Implements And Processes; The
Management of the Table; Instructions for Carving; French, German,
Polish, Spanish, and Italian Cookery; In Twelve Hundred Receipts. New
York: Harper & Brothers, 1846. 340 p.
2. Francatelli, Charles Elmé. The Modern Cook; A Practical Guide to the
Culinary Art in All its Branches, Comprising, in Addition to English
Cookery, the Most Approved and Recherché Systems of French, Italian, and
German Cookery; Adapted as Well for the Largest Establishments as for the
Use of Private Families. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson and Brothers, no date.
585 p. The twenty-sixth London edition of Francatelli’s book was reprinted
in Philadelphia in 1895 by David McKay, publisher. For this edition, the
text on the title page was expanded to read: “Adapted for the use of all
Families, large or small, as well as for Hotels, Restaurants, Cooks, Cake
Bakers, Clubs and Boarding Houses; in fact, for all places wherever Cooking
is required, while at the same time, all will save money by referring to its
3. Filippini, Alessandro. The Table: How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and
How to Serve It. New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1889.
Revised edition with supplements, 1890. 505 p. After a trip around the
world in 1902, Filippini prepared a massive international cookbook
containing 3,325 numbered recipes. This book contained spaghetti and
macaroni dishes, a recipe for risotto Piedmontaise, and a recipe for
“Gnocchis, Italienne.” The International Cook Book. Over 3,300 Recipes
gathered from all over the World, including many never before published in
English. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906. 1,059 pages.
4. Campbell, Helen (Stuart). In Foreign Kitchens: With Choice Recipes
from England, France, Germany, Italy, and the North. Boston: Roberts
Brothers, 1893. 114 p.
5. Rand, Lia. The Philosophy of Cooking: Comprising Forty-One
Explanatory Letters and Three Hundred and Ten Foreign Recipes, French,
German and Italian, Adapted for the American Home Table. Brooklyn:
Published for the Author (W. Headrich, Printer), 1894. 196 p.
6. McLaren, L. L. High Living; Recipes From Southern Climes. San
Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1904. 61 p.
7. Rice, Louise. Dainty Dishes from Foreign Lands. Chicago: A. C.
McClurg & Co., 1911. 58 p.
8. There were 22 Italian recipes in an anonymous collection of 365
international recipes, presumably selected from Mrs. Lemcke, Table Talk,
Boston Cooking School Magazine and others. 365 Foreign Dishes. A
Foreign Dish for every day of the year. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs &
Company, 1908. 154 p.
9. Lincoln, Mary Johnson. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. What to Do
and What Not to Do in Cooking. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884. 536
10. Rorer, Sarah Tyson. Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book. A Manual of
Housekeeping. Philadelphia: Arnold and Company, 1898. 731 p.
11. Finck, Henry T. “Ungastronomic America, With a Theory of
Wholesome Eating; Multiplying the Pleasures of the Table; The Future of
Cooking and Eating,” Century Magazine, November and December 1911,
January 1912, Vol. LXXXIII, Nos. 1, 2, and 3, pp. 28-36, 220-228, 439-448.
12. America’s durum wheat crop survived the black rust epidemic of 1904
when other wheat varieties died. As durum wheat production skyrocketed,
the quality of American manufactured dried pasta improved making it as
good as, or better than, imported Italian pasta. This, in turn, lead to a call for
American cooks to use more American-made macaroni. de Kruif, Paul.
Hunger Fighters. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1928, pp. 3-
13. Brevetti, Francis. The Fabulous Fior – Over 100 Years In An Italian
Kitchen. The History of San Francisco’s Fior d’Italia, America’s Oldest
Italian Restaurant, Established 1886. Nevada City, CA: San Francisco Bay
Books, 2004. 166 p.
14. Edwords, Clarence E. Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants And
Their Most Famous Recipes. The Elegant Art of Dining. San Francisco:
Paul Elder and Company, 1914. 138 p.
15. “Net” means net to the publisher. Retail price varied. In February
1924, for example, as part of “The World Cook” cookbook promotion, R. H.
Macy & Co. advertised Simple Italian Cookery for sale at 81 cents.
16. “Simple Italian Cookery” [Book review.] Nation, Vol. 94, June 20,
1912, p. 620. The tagliatelle recipe was not entirely omitted. Isola called
her “homemade” fresh pasta, i.e., pasta fatta in casa, “ribbon” macaroni.
17. Ross, Janet. Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen or How to Cook
Vegetables. London: J. M. Dent, 1899. 168 p. The first edition had 362
recipes nominally devoted exclusively to Tuscan vegetable cookery. It was
reprinted three times. For the fifth printing in 1908, Ross provided 43
additional recipes. The 1908 fifth edition was reprinted in 1911, 1914, 1919,
1927, 1931 and 1936.
18. The similarity between some of the recipes in Simple Italian Cookery
and those in Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen was first noted by Johan
Mathieson, a used cookbook dealer in Portland, Oregon. Copying these
recipes was not plagiarism; Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen was not
copyright. In addition, most of its recipes were just translations from French
or Italian sources. See, Bugialli, Giuliano. The Fine Art of Italian Cooking.
New York: Times Books, 1977, at Preface, xiv. But unlike Leaves from Our
Tuscan Kitchen, there are no overtly French recipes in Simple Italian
19. Camporesi, Piero. (translated by Joan Krakover Hall.) The Magic
Harvest. Food, Folklore and Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1993,
20. To learn more about risi e bisi, see, “Rice and Peas: A Preface with
Recipes” in Thorne, John, Simple Cooking, New York; Viking, 1987, pp. xixxix.
21. Bitting, Katherine Golden. Gastronomic Bibliography. San Francisco:
________, 1939, p. 242.
22. Griffin, Robert J. (ed.) The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and
Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
23. Mabel’s father, John McGinnis, Jr., was born in New Jersey in 1831 but
by 1850, he had moved to Joliet, Illinois, and was working in a bank.
Mabel’s mother, Lydia Olivia Matteson, was born in Joliet in 1837. Lydia’s
father was a prominent politician who was elected Governor of Illinois in
1852, whereupon the Matteson family moved from Joliet to Springfield.
John McGinnis married Lydia Matteson in Springfield in 1856. After
moving to Quincy, Illinois, John became the president of the Bank of
Quincy. The McGinnis family moved from Quincy to Chicago to New York
City in the late 1860’s where John continued to work as a banker and then as
a broker. At that time, the McGinnis family was affluent: the McGinnis
children had a governess from France and the family had three domestic
Sterling, Albert Mack. The Sterling Genealogy. New York: The
Grafton Press, 1909.
24. Emmet, Lydia Field. Personal letter to Jane Emmet, March 18, 1898.
Emmet Family papers, 1792-1989. Available on microfilm, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.
25. For a description of this neighborhood and its inhabitants, see Howells,
W. D. Roman Holidays and Others, New York; Harper and Brothers, 1908,
Chap. VI, sec. IV, “The Anglo-American Neighborhood of the Spanish
Steps,” pp. 98-110.
26. There was a separate royalty for copies sold in Europe. Antonia Isola’s
book was popular; sales passed 1,000 in May 1912. The book was also
reprinted several times.