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
The Etruscans and
Another 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
The 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 The first historical references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
In 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 Pasta
At 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 history
Could 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 Pasta
In 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
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 Discoveries
The 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.