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The History of Pasta


 “It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy.”

Giuseppe Garibaldi, on liberating Naples in 1860
The Italian cuisine is rich and varied in all its aspects, but pasta has been its pride and glory through much of its history. When Italians emigrated, settling throughout the New World and Oceana, they brought their pasta with them and it found its way into everyone’s life style, a worldwide comfort food that today we take for granted. The origins of pasta are as tangled, however, as spaghetti tossed in a bowl. Let us trace the uncertain history of past, explode a few myths and ask a few questions.Pasta in Ancient Greece and RomeThe Internet abounds with assertions that Greek mythology proves that the ‘Greek God, Vulcan,’ invented a device that made “strings of dough.” Vulcan was a Roman god, not Greek, one who was associated with volcanoes and the fiery forge, and his Greek counterpart was Hephaestus. Nowhere in the works of the Greek writer, Homer, or the Roman, Ovid, is there mention of anything forged by Hephaestus or Vulcan other than armor, jewelry, and the fragile threads that trapped Venus and Mars in their lovemaking.(click to see the quote from ovid)There is validity, however, in the belief that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had discovered some form of flattened dough – this a broad noodle called in Greek ‘laganon.’ It is significant, however, that this was not boiled as we boil lasagna noodles, but roasted on hot stones or in ovens – more related to what we would think of as pizza.Apicius, a Roman writer of the first century AD describes a pasta made “to enclose timballi and pies…” These were called “lagana.’ The recipe for the dough is not given, however there are suggestions for layering and seasoning with meat and fish.The Arabs and PastaThe first certain record of noodles cooked by boiling is in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th century AD. The word used for the noodles was itriyah. In Arabic references this word stands for the dried noodles purchased from a vendor, rather than homemade noodles which would have been fresh.  Dried noodles are portable, while fresh must be eaten immediately. More than likely, pasta was introduced during the Arab conquests of Sicily, carried in as a dry staple. The Arab geographer, Al Idrisi wrote that a flour-based product in the shape of strings was produced in Palermo, then an Arab colony.Some historians think the Sicilian word “maccaruni” which translates as “made into a dough by force” is the origin of our word, macaroni. Anyone who has kneaded durum wheat knows that force is necessary.
In the ancient methods of making pasta, force meant kneading the dough with the feet, often a process that took a full day. Ancient Sicilian lasagna dishes, some still eaten in Sicily today, included raisins and spices brought by the Arab invaders, another indication that the Arabs introduced pasta. Whether the Arabs sauced pasta is questionable, and the array of sauces may be an Italian invention. What is certain is that the climate of Italy was perfect for growing durum wheat, a hard wheat from which we get semolina, and the availability of the wheat ensured its popularity. Soft wheat can be used for fresh pasta, but semolina is used for dried pasta.The Etruscans and PastaAnother probably incorrect theory of the origin of pasta is based on archeological findings in Etruscan tombs. Carvings on some of the stucco reliefs in the tombs depict a knife, a board, a flour sack, all of which may have had other uses. There is, however, an iron pin that enthusiasts of the Etruscan theory would convince us was used to shape tubular pasta. Some scholars scoff at this interpretation, as the pin could have been used for other purposes. There is no other hard evidence to support the claim that pasta history began with the Etruscans.  Further, the Etruscans did not have durum wheat, and these claims may be romantic at best, a valiant effort to maintain Italian ancestry for pasta.Marco Polo and PastaThe romantic myth that Marco Polo brought pasta on his return from China has long been debunked. Our friend, Marco, returned in 1295 after twenty-odd years of travel away from Italy. In 1279, however, a Genoese soldier listed in the inventory of his estate a basket of dried pasta (‘una bariscella plena de macaronis’). The Chinese are known to have been eating a “noodle-like food” as early as 3000 BC. Marco Polo describes a starchy product made from breadfruit – hardly durum wheat.The first mention of a recipe is in the book “De arte Coquinaria per vermicelli e maccaroni siciliani” (The Art of Cooking Sicilian macaroni and Vermicelli). This was recorded by the chef to the Patriarch of Acquileia. The first historical references to dried pasta made in proportions large enough to be offered for sale are found in the city of Palermo.Dried pasta became popular through the 14th and 15th Centuries, as it could be easily stored on ships, among them ones setting out to explore the New World. Various types of pasta, including long hollow tubes, are mentioned in the 15th Century records of Italian and Dominican monasteries. By the 17th Century, pasta had become part of the daily diet throughout Italy because it was economical, readily available and versatile.Old World Pasta Meets New World TomatoIn the 16th century, the Spanish brought their food discoveries back to the old world. Among the rich assortment of foodstuffs that were to become permanent fixtures in the old world was the tomato. The tomatoes may have been a pale variety as they were given the name ‘golden apple’ (pomo d’oro) by a Sienese botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli. The tomato was born to meet pasta as any Italian might have guessed, and tomato sauce altered the history of pasta forever. The first recipe for tomatoes with pasta wasn’t written until 1839, however, when Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, offered a recipe for ‘vermicelli co le pommodoro.’ A mere thirty years later, La Cuciniera Genovese offered recipes for purées, soups, distinctly different sauces for meats, chicken, veal and pasta. Tomatoes had arrived. Until the advent of tomato sauce, pasta was eaten dry with the fingers. Many believe that the liquid sauce demanded the use of a fork, and the manners of the common man were changed. A simple noodle shaped the history of manners as well as the history of food.Thomas Jefferson and PastaAt a White House dinner in 1962, President Kennedy told a group of Nobel prize winners that “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together in the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Among the wide ranging interests of this extraordinary mind, were agriculture and viticulture. During his years as American Ambassador to France, Jefferson developed the gourmet tastes that would lead him to plant vineyards, and to garden extensively at Monticello. On his return in 1789, he brought the first “maccaroni” maker to America. Since he fed mostly his friends and acquaintances, his import was not a defining moment in history, but he was fascinated enough with the tasty noodles to invent a pasta machine of his own. Though he had a personal taste for pasta, it was first produced commercially by a Frenchman in Brooklyn.Yankee Doodle -macaroni and American historyCould you be a macaroni? Have you traveled -as young Englishmen did before the revolutionary war- to Europe? Have you fallen in love with the fashions, manners and tastes of the Europeans? Have you brought them home with you to the shock of the more stolid tastes of those at home? If you can answer yes, then you are a macaroni. Considering themselves quite elegant, these snobbish young travelers wore the term ‘macaroni’ with pride.”Yankee” was a mispronunciation of the word “English” in the Dutch language, and “doodle” came from a German word meaning ‘simpleton.’ In the pre-Revolutionary era, the dandified British macaronis scoffed at the colonialists, and called them Yankee Doodles. In derision, they laughed at the unfashionable colonialists who might stick a feather in their hat and consider themselves in style. Not to be scoffed at, the colonialists picked up the song as a rallying cry for independence, and Yankee Doodle entered the history of the United States. After the success of the Battle of Bunker Hill, verses were added lauding George Washington and his valiant fighting men. The song became part of the the quest for freedom with choruses that changed as the war for independence went on.The ‘maccheroni revolution’ – the Joyful Spread of PastaIn Naples, pasta making as an industry preceded the machine. The pasta maker was seated on a support while he kneaded the dough with his feet. The King of Naples, Ferdinand II was not pleased with this method of producing pasta, and hired an engineer who devised a system where a machine too over the job of kneading and cutting. The climate of Naples is perfect for drying pasta, not so moist that the dough becomes mildew before drying, nor so dry that the dough cracks from drying too fast. Naples became Italy’s pasta center.Macaroni and cheese was a popular dish in America at the time of the Civil War, however, the huge Italian immigration that entered the US around the 1900’s brought the popular spaghetti dishes we eat today, mostly from the Campania area. Sicilians who followed the Campanians found it difficult to get the ingredients they used at home, and adapted the the Campanian methods of cooking. But history does not end, and today we are returning to authentic Sicilian cuisine as though we were discovering something new. Pasta goes on and on.By Italian statute, dried pastas can contain nothing but semolina and water. Though Italy is the world’s leading producer of durum wheat, it cannot keep up with the world’s demand. Until the early 20th century, Italy’s great sources of durum wheat were Ukraine and the Volga River Valley. Today some of Italy’s Durum wheat is supplied by Australia. The island continent of Australia is among the excellent places to grow clean, high quality wheat.Is it Pasta?  China’s History in Recent Archeological DiscoveriesThe Chinese did not use the word pasta which is Italian.  However the oldest form of this noodle has been unearthed in an overturned, sealed bowl at an archaeological site in Lajia (northwestern China). The bowl was buried under ten feet of sediment.Unlike our semolina pasta, these noodles were made from two varieties of millet which was highly cultivated throughout Chinese history, dating back 7000 years .”This shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication,” stated archaeochemist Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.While this gives evidence of the long Chinese history, the pasta we have eaten throughout western history  still must have been introduced into western diets through the Arabs and their travels.
The Story of Leucothoe and the Sun- from Ovid’s MetamorphosesThe Sun, the source of light, by beauty’s pow’r
Once am’rous grew; then hear the Sun’s amour.
Venus, and Mars, with his far-piercing eyes
This God first spy’d; this God first all things spies.
Stung at the sight, and swift on mischief bent,
To haughty Juno’s shapeless son he went:
The Goddess, and her God gallant betray’d,
And told the cuckold, where their pranks were play’d.
Poor Vulcan soon desir’d to hear no more,
He drop’d his hammer, and he shook all o’er:
Then courage takes, and full of vengeful ire
He heaves the bellows, and blows fierce the fire:
From liquid brass, tho’ sure, yet subtile snares
He forms, and next a wond’rous net prepares,
Drawn with such curious art, so nicely sly,
Unseen the mashes cheat the searching eye.
Not half so thin their webs the spiders weave,
Which the most wary, buzzing prey deceive.
These chains, obedient to the touch, he spread
In secret foldings o’er the conscious bed:
The conscious bed again was quickly prest
By the fond pair, in lawless raptures blest.
Mars wonder’d at his Cytherea’s charms,
More fast than ever lock’d within her arms.
While Vulcan th’ iv’ry doors unbarr’d with care,
Then call’d the Gods to view the sportive pair:
The Gods throng’d in, and saw in open day,
Where Mars, and beauty’s queen, all naked, lay.
O! shameful sight, if shameful that we name,
Which Gods with envy view’d, and could not blame;
But, for the pleasure, wish’d to bear the shame.
Each Deity, with laughter tir’d, departs,
Yet all still laugh’d at Vulcan in their hearts.

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