Pellegrini, Angelo (1903-1991)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 5/11/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20559

Angelo Pellegrini, born into a sharecropper's family in rural Italy, went on to become one of America's favorite writers on the pleasures of food, wine, and community. After his family immigrated to Grays Harbor County in Southwest Washington in 1913, Pellegrini rose to excel in a variety of fields, from University of Washington professor to avid gardener, winemaker to memoirist, gifted cook to slow-food movement pioneer. In one way or another, his books deal with the immigrant experience and the rich possibilities of a life lived close to nature. Pellegrini retired from teaching in 1973 but continued to maintain an office on campus until shortly before his death in 1991.

An Immigrant's Journey

Angelo Pellegrini was born on April 20, 1903, in the small town of Casabianca in the Tuscan countryside, not far from Florence. His father Piacento worked the land as a sharecropper, a life filled with hard work and continuous struggle. Angelo was the third of five children and Piacento's first-born son.

Although poor, the family had enough food to eat, warm clothing to wear, and a roof over their heads. Piacento Pellegrini had a year or two of schooling but quit by the age of 8 or 9. By that point, a child born into a peasant family was strong enough to plow, dig, and harvest crops in the fields.

The Pellegrini family lived near a local resident who had traveled to America several years earlier and returned with enough money to buy his own home and a bit of land. He encouraged Piacento to do the same, and loaned him money to buy the steamship ticket. With his eye on a more prosperous future and expanded opportunities for his children, Piacento left his family behind and headed to America in 1912.

He arrived in New York without knowing a soul. Eventually he was hired by the Northern Pacific Railway and sent out west to Washington as part of an "extra gang" of workers who would fill in where needed. It was there he met a Scandinavian called Sistrom, a section foreman for the Henry McCleary Timber Company, located in the small company-owned town of McCleary in Grays Harbor County.

Sistrom and Piacento hit it off, despite vast language and cultural differences. Sistrom hired the Italian as a section hand and within a year Piacento had advanced to assistant foreman. In 1913, he sent for his wife Annunziata and their five children.

That fall the Pellegrinis set sail from Genoa on the Taormina, packed in like sardines with scores of other Italians, most from southern Italy. They endured the rough Atlantic crossing, reaching New York City about a month later. The first leg of their trip had ended but their journey to their new life was just beginning.

Part of the problem was that Annunziata Pellegrini had no idea how to pronounce the town in Western Washington where her husband lived. The word "McCleary" could not be more foreign-sounding to a native Italian speaker. Despite repeated attempts, no one could figure out where she and her children were headed.

Finally, a railway agent understood the word "Washington" and soon the family of six was on its way to Yakima. When the Pellegrinis arrived in Eastern Washington, tired, hungry, and still about 200 miles from their destination, a serendipitous event occurred: Annunziata heard Italian being spoken.

The voice belonged to Carlo Bianconi, an Italian immigrant who not only had worked in McCleary but also knew Piacento Pellegrini. Bianconi treated the family to a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, fried potatoes, and plenty of coffee. Before long, the Pellegrinis were safely on their way to McCleary and a memorable reunion with Piacento.

A World of Learning Opens Up

McCleary was a quiet, provincial place. Its main industry was a combined logging and milling operation. Most of the mill workers were Italians and Greeks; Scandinavians and Irish worked as loggers in the lushly forested hills.

Ten-year-old Angelo arrived in America without knowing a single word of English. Despite his age and size, he started school as a first-grader. Lucky for him, his teacher, Ivah Dobbs, saw he was eager to learn and she began tutoring him after school to improve his English. Once he had a decent grasp of the language, Pellegrini advanced several classes and was placed with students closer to his age.

As was customary in his native land, Piacento Pellegrini expected that his first-born son would attend school for a year or two and then begin work in the mill to help out the family. But he soon learned that in America children were required to go to school until they were 16 or had completed the eighth grade. A second surprise was that children could not legally work in an industrial setting until they had fulfilled the aforementioned age or schooling requirements. Piacento realized that his son would continue with his schooling, at least for the moment.

Angelo turned out to be an excellent student, particularly gifted in language and reading. He was soon taking top honors in the school's spelling competitions and improved his reading skills by translating newspaper articles for his parents in the evening. Within five years, he had completed eight years of elementary school.

Now he faced a dilemma: McCleary had no high school. The nearest one was in Elma, about 10 miles away. Even though a local bus made the rounds daily, the fare would have put a strain on the family finances.

But Pellegrini was determined to continue his education, attracted by the idea that in high school he could study science, history, and literature to his heart's content. In the summer after eighth grade he took a job with Northern Pacific Railway, where his father had worked a few years earlier. A strapping boy, Pellegrini worked with the other men patching up tracks and completing emergency repairs. He was paid $3.50 a day. By the end of the summer, he had saved more than $200, enough to pay for his bus fare throughout high school.

Back in school, Pellegrini excelled in debate, a talent he would continue to exhibit during his university years. He also enjoyed drama, participated in school politics, and worked on the school newspaper.

He was gifted athletically as well and longed to try out for football and baseball, but he had to give up that idea during his freshman and sophomore years because the bus back to McCleary left immediately after school, allowing no time for team sports. By his junior year, though, the football coach arranged for Pellegrini to move to Elma so he could play for the team. Angelo earned money for his room and board by washing dishes in a local restaurant.

He graduated from high school in three years and enrolled in the University of Washington in 1922 as a history major. The concept of higher education was not an easy sell to his parents, who had no tradition of formal education. His father, after all, had less than two years of schooling and his mother had none. But Angelo persevered, promising his father that he would pursue a law degree and bring honor and dignity to the family name.

From Law to Literature

Although Pellegrini characterized his college years as ordinary and his academic record as spotty (Immigrant's Return, 103), he saw his higher education as a triumph of the New World over the Old, where an immigrant from peasant stock could be welcomed into American society, attain an education, and succeed on his own merits. This struggle to bridge the two cultures is repeatedly referenced in Pellegrini's writings.

"It is a fact that if my parents had had their way I should never have gone to college. They did not doubt that I had the ability to absorb the higher learning. But they had to be persuaded that I, their son, a Pellegrini and a peasant, had the privilege and the right to enter that other world, the world of 'the citizens' and 'to overpass' the distance which had traditionally separated us from 'the wealthy and the cultured.'" (Immigrant's Return, 103)

Because of his Italian background, Pellegrini was encouraged either to follow a classics track or to specialize in romance languages and literature, but he was determined to study law. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, with honors, and finished two years of law school. At that point, he did some soul searching to decide if he really wanted a career as a lawyer. He had loved literature his entire life and finally his passion for language won out. He switched careers and accepted a position as an English teacher at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

Pellegrini later returned to the University of Washington as a professor of English and earned his doctoral degree with a specialty in Renaissance literature and Shakespeare. He was known more as a gifted lecturer than a researcher, and became one of the most popular and respected teachers on the University of Washington campus. "Always a teacher first and not much interested in scholarly research" he was fond of saying (Duncan et al.).

He met his wife Virginia (1910-2004), the daughter of a Salt Lake City shoe merchant, when she was a senior at the University of Washington and he was a young instructor. They married in 1934 and had two daughters, Angela Owens and Toni Lucey, and a son, Brent.

The Darkest Hour

In the 1930s Pellegrini joined the Communist Party, driven, as he put it, by personal, not ideological, reasons (American Dream, 155). His membership in the party was brief, but it had been noticed.

On July 19, 1948, Pellegrini and nearly two dozen of his colleagues from the University of Washington were ordered to appear before the Washington State Legislature's Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as the Canwell Committee. During the committee hearing, Pellegrini was asked to name others he knew who were members of the Communist Party, either past or present. He refused.

In American Dream: An Immigrant's Quest, Pellegrini talks at length about the decisions he made that day:

"I would not make a secret of my past. I certainly would stand up like a man and be counted as one who had joined the party for a short time and then left it some twelve years ago. If given the opportunity at the hearing, I would explain what had led me to explore what the communists had to offer toward the achievement of a more just and harmonious society. For I was proud of having made the investigation for worthy reasons and for having pursued the inquiry in a direction that entailed some danger and, therefore, some self-sacrifice. Wasn't that commendable? How else does one learn?" (American Dream, 178).

The committee released him from the witness stand, but told him that he could be recalled at a later date. That did not happen. Pellegrini initially feared this disclosure would hurt his chances for a Guggenheim fellowship, for which he had just applied, or derail the publication of his first book, The Unprejudiced Palate. Luckily, neither happened. In fact, his Guggenheim award allowed him to spend the academic year 1949-1950 overseas, his first journey to Italy in 36 years, which resulted in the book Immigrant's Return.

A Culinary Original

Despite his extraordinary academic career, Pellegrini was perhaps more renowned for his garden, his cooking, and his wine cellar. In his personal life, he embraced a threefold imperative: "Grow your own; cook your own; make your own wine" (Lean Years, Happy Years, 51).

Although it might have seemed progressive, that philosophy described how his Italian ancestors had lived for generations, a way of life that is practical, healthy, and in harmony with nature. Pellegrini espoused la cucina povera, or "peasant cooking," which entailed simple recipes using the freshest ingredients possible with minimal manipulation. He educated generations of readers to appreciate "real" Italian cooking and experiment beyond the American repertoire of tomato-based spaghetti sauce and thick-crust pizza.

In 1946, Sunset published Pellegrini's recipe for pesto, said to be the first pesto recipe ever published in the United States. At the time, fresh basil was still considered an exotic herb, not appearing in food markets until the 1970s. Sunset went on to establish a long-term relationship with the Italian, calling him a "Renaissance man whose writings on food, gardening, and living well ... made him one of the West's most beloved food authorities" (Traverso).

Pellegrini made dough from scratch and baked bread in a beehive brick oven that he built himself on his patio. He gathered his own mushrooms in the forests, and grew all kinds of vegetables and herbs in a home garden so lush that Sunset once assigned a photographer to capture it on film over the course of a year, season by season.

Writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, in a 1989 profile of Pellegrini for The New York Times, noted that "Dr. Pellegrini understands and articulates, as few others have been able to, the connection between what goes on the table and what grows in the soil" ("A Man of ...").

Pellegrini's influence on the Northwest can be felt in ways large and small. Single-handedly, he helped propagate an heirloom bean called, in Italian, monachine ("little nuns") because its dried beans are black and white. Pellegrini initially received the beans from his friend, California vintner Robert Mondavi (1913-2008), who got them from his uncle in Italy.

For four decades, Pellegrini grew, harvested, and enjoyed the distinctive texture and flavor of this delicious stringless bean. Today the monachine is popularly known as the Pellegrini bean. Excellent fresh or dried, it's become a part of the Northwest culinary landscape.

Interpreting the Immigrant Experience

Pellegrini's first book, The Unprejudiced Palate, published in 1948 and reprinted twice, is hailed as a classic. The book was "not a cookbook in any ordinary sense," wrote food author Ruth Reichl in the Seattle Weekly, "It was a manifesto for living the good life" (Reichl).

More books followed, including Americans by Choice; Immigrant's Return; Wine and the Good Life; The Food-Lover's Garden; Lean Years, Happy Years; and American Dream: An Immigrant's Quest. On the surface, Pellegrini's books are about food and culture, but in reality they delve much deeper into questions that were close to his heart: What does it mean to be Italian, how do we maintain connections with others, what is a life well-lived?

His goal in life, Pellegrini once said, was to be the "interpreter of the Italian immigrant experience in America" ("A Man of ..."). Known as Pelle to his friends, he had a huge circle of colleagues and acquaintances from all walks of life and he was a profound influence on many of them. The writer Henry Miller (1891-1980) was a fan, as were food writer Paula Wolfert (b. 1938), restaurateur Alice Waters (b. 1944), and chef Paul Bertolli. The Mondavi family sent him a ton of grapes each fall from their California harvest, which he turned into wine, giving most of it away.

The idea for The Unprejudiced Palate is attributed to a family friend who ate many delicious meals at Pellegrini's house and urged him to create a cookbook filled with his recipes. Around this time, the Pellegrinis had just welcomed their third child and both parents knew that a little extra cash would come in handy.

Pellegrini learned to cook as a child, and the sights and smells of food from his mother's kitchen were among his earliest memories. He believed that the sense of smell was the most important for cooking and eating, and unabashedly encouraged diners to sniff their meal as well as taste it. With the arrival of each child and then grandchild, he would immediately begin to educate both the youngster's nose and palate to the pleasures of food and wine.

Pellegrini set about writing The Unprejudiced Palate in his careful and thoughtful manner. First, he visited bookstores to see what cookbooks were already in print. That research helped him decide not to create a traditional cookbook of recipes, but rather to incorporate stories and anecdotes drawn from the varied chapters of his life. In this way, he could illustrate the importance of food and its connection to community.

As Jenkins points out in her New York Times profile, "What comes through most strongly in his writing, above and beyond the intelligence and warmth of recollection, is a very Italian sense of the connection between the garden and the table, and of the way quality in food as well as in wine begins with attention to how the plant is grown" ("A Man of ...").

A Slow-food Voice in a Fast-food World

As America embraced fast food, Pellegrini moved in the opposite direction, promoting local healthy ingredients, picked and eaten at the peak of ripeness, simple and uncomplicated. When a reader asked him for his wine recipe, his answer was to the point: There is no recipe. Simply crush a ton of grapes into an appropriate container and wait for nature to do the rest (Lean Years, Happy Years, 111).

Pellegrini might have been an outspoken critic of American eating habits, but he was also a staunch believer that cooking fine meals, growing fresh vegetables, baking delicious bread, making wine, and living in harmony with nature are simple activities within the reach of all individuals.

In her essay for the Seattle Weekly, Reichl called Pellegrini "a slow-food voice in a fast-food nation," and wrote:

"Pellegrini believed that Americans would be the best cooks in the world if they only paid attention to the abundance all around them. He not only predicted the changes that would come, he helped make them happen" (Reichl).

In his later years, he was named an outstanding citizen of Washington by the state House of Representatives, recognized by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and honored by the Freedom Foundation for "bringing about better understanding of the American way of life" (Duncan et al.). In 2001, he was posthumously named one of the 150 most influential men and women in the 150-year history of Seattle and King County.

Angelo Pellegrini retired from teaching in 1973 but maintained an office at the school and continued to write there until shortly before his death. He died of cancer on November 1, 1991, at the age of 88. His wife Virginia died in 2004 at the age of 94.


Sources:

Angelo Pellegrini, The Unprejudiced Palate (New York: Modern Library, [1948, 1976] 2005); Angelo Pellegrini, Immigrant's Return (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951); Angelo Pellegrini, Lean Years, Happy Years (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1983); Angelo Pellegrini, American Dream: An Immigrant's Quest (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986); Angelo Pellegrini, Vintage Pellegrini: The Collected Wisdom of an American Buongiusto (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1991); Don Duncan, Thomas Guillen, and Bob Lane, "Angelo Pellegrini Dies," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1991 (www.seattletimes.com); Charles E. Brown and Peyton Whitely, "Virginia Pellegrini Radiated Warmth, Wit," Ibid., July 18, 2004; Nancy Leson, "The Monachine Bean Is Truly a Pellegrini Family Heirloom," Ibid., April 19, 2013; Nancy Harmon Jenkins, "A Man of the Earth Reaps the Good Life," The New York Times, August 9, 1989 (www.nytimes.com); Ruth Reichl, "Ruth Reichl on Angelo Pellegrini, a Slow-Food Voice in a Fast-Food Nation," Seattle Weekly, April 13, 2010 (http://www.seattleweekly.com); Amy Traverso, "Celebrate Pesto's Premiere," Sunset.com website accessed May 5, 2018 (https://www.sunset.com/food-wine/fast-fresh/celebrate-pestos-premiere).


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