The History of Pasta
History tells us that food travels. Pasta, however, has galloped across continents in bold explorations, bloody conquests, and the passionate intermingling of peoples. Wherever there was flour, people created pasta: German spaetzle, Polish pierogi, Japanese udon, Chinese mein, Indian sevika, and French nouilles name merely a few incarnations. But the country that is undeniably the spiritual home of pasta is Italy, birthplace of macaroni.
Legend credits Marco Polo for bringing pasta from China to Italy. They say that he dined on pasta in the court of Kubla Khan and returned to Italy from the Orient in 1292 with a stash of dried spaghetti. That may be true, but only proves that pasta was abroad in the world, not that the Italians had never seen a noodle. Indeed, by the third and fourth centuries
Basic pasta has not been a victim of progress. But it has been embellished by history. The Italian peninsula has always been at the matrix of cultural cross currents. For centuries, pasta accrued the permutations of conquering and developing civilizations. While building an empire, the Romans invented gnocchi and stacked flat noodles into the form of lasagna. The Arabs swept through Sicily and left behind the technique of making pasta in the form of hollow threads, which they called itriyah. Contemporary Sicilians call these “little strings” trii, an echo of their original name, and make dishes with eggplant and raisins and cinnamon, legacies of their Middle Eastern interlopers.
During the Renaissance, pasta took hold in Italy both as an aristocratic repast and a staple of the people. The country that emerged from the dark Middle Ages as Europe's most advanced society was, in the fifteenth century, a composite of city-states. This fractious situation, which caused no end of competitive strife, was a boon to the evolution of pasta, for each region developed its own characteristic cuisine, complete with pasta shapes, local produce, and idiosyncratic spices. These separate entities remained distinct until the mid-nineteenth century, when Italy became a united country and pasta became the nation's emblematic dish. Today the regional cuisines remain intact and are the basis for the marvelous diversity and range of flavors that make pasta dishes so infinitely various.
Dried, or pasta secca, was a phenomenon that came to Italy from the nomadic peoples of the East and eventually sailed the Atlantic to America. It was made commercially in Italy though on a small scale, as early as the sixteenth century, and blossomed in Naples in the 1700s where the seacoast breeze offered the perfect drying environment. Sheets of pasta hung everywhere in the city, like delicious laundry, and piqued the enthusiasm of America's well-traveled statesman Thomas Jefferson. Not only did he ship home quite a bit more than a single serving, he even investigated purchasing a pasta machine.
At the time of Jefferson's visit, the streets were dotted with maccheronaros, macaroni vendors, selling pasta, cooked and sauced. These stalls were so popular in the mid-eighteenth century among English tourists that the young men were called “macaronis,” which meant “fop” or “dandy.” The word also implied a certain elegant perfection and grew into the slang, “that's Macaroni!” for “terrific,” which explains why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his hat and called it “Macaroni!”
But, to begin with, why macaroni or maccheroni for a generic term for pasta? There is, not surprisingly, a legend with an Italian flourish. The story goes that the inventive cook of a thirteenth-century nobleman created little boiled tubes of flour and water and served them with sauce and cheese. The novelty of the dish entranced the nobleman. Tasting the diminutive morsels, he exclaimed, “Ma, che carini!. Ah, little darlings!”
Little darlings in Italy, bean threads in Vietnam, wontons in Hong Kong, rice noodles in Bangkok, dumplings in Budapest, spaghetti with tomato sauce in New York, and American as apple pie, some form of pasta is being served for every meal all over the world. Pasta is indigenous to and has been embraced by more cultures than any other food in the world. Pasta travels well.