Although I grew up in New York with many Italian-American friends and have eaten my way around Italy a couple of times, it wasn't until I opened Julia della Croce's book, "Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Cooking," that I realized how much I didn't know about the history of this food.
My knowledge was limited to knowing that somehow, the different shapes for pasta were supposed to go with different sauces, and that Marco Polo had brought pasta to Italy from his voyage to China — only it turns out both of these "facts" are incorrect! I didn't know how much I had to learn.
Making pasta: This is an illustration from the 15th century edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of the Arabic work Taqwīm al-sihha by Ibn Butlan. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
I made a list of some of real facts I discovered, and if you want to learn more, you can read an excerpt from the history chapter of della Croce's book, which contains much more than the details listed here, and from which the longer quotes here are taken.
1. Pasta was being eaten throughout the world long before Marco Polo was born. Polo made his trip to China in 1269, returning to Venice 24 years later. But pasta was being eaten in Sicily in 1154, and some version of pasta may have been eaten by the Greeks as early as 1 AD. There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) historical accounts of pasta being eaten throughout the Middle East (in the Jerusalem Talmud in 5 A.D.), the Mediterranean and various parts of Asia — all prior to Polo's trip and going back hundreds and even thousands of years.
2. The first pasta dish people ate was probably lasagne. In a third century recipe book compiled by Roman noble and noted gourmet Marcus Apicius, he described a dish made with layers of laganon, which is a broad noodle similar to what we think of as lasagne noodles today — the laganon were used to make a filled and layered pie in Apicus' description. And as Corby Kummer describes in an Atlantic article that also delves into the history of pasta, "Marco Polo spoke of lasagne, which then meant 'noodles,' to describe what he saw, which indicates that he was already familiar with the food."
3. Pasta secca (dried pasta) helped our ancestors explore the world. Whether it was a long caravan ride through desert terrain or a long voyage by ship, dried pasta was a good source of calories and nutrients that could be transported over long distances without spoilage. Pasta could be cooked with some kind of fat and salt and whatever vegetables, meat or fish could be found for a satisfying meal. (Think you'd get sick of pasta? It holds up surprisingly well: I ate it most nights on a two-week camping trip in the Rockies (paired with dried cheese and tomato sauce), and I still remember how delicious and satisfying it was after a long day of physical exertion.)
4. Pasta's healthfulness has been in question for most of its history. About 400 years ago, Dr. Giovanni da Vigo Florentine called out pasta as a health threat. The monk Girolamo Savonarola thought consuming pasta and other "luxurious" foods would come between people and their spiritual purity. He shouted from his pulpit: "It's not enough for you to eat your pasta fried. No! You think you have to add garlic to it, and when you eat ravioli, it's not enough to boil it in a pot and eat it in its juice, you have to fry it in another pan and cover it with cheese!" I'm not sure of the good doctor's end, but it's worth nothing that Savonarola was burned at the stake.
5. Some even thought pasta could cause mental illness. Everyone from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to the Italian Fascist party thought pasta made people too relaxed and lazy — Mussolini even considered banning it at one point. Della Croce writes, "In the 1930s, Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, the Italian futurist poet and social reformer, embarked on a well-publicized crusade to change the Italian diet, specifically the centuries-old "addiction" to pasta. "It is necessary, once and for all, to annihilate pasta. . . . Pastasciutta, however grateful to the palate, is an obsolete food; it is heavy, brutalizing, and gross; its nutritive qualities are deceptive; it induces sloth, skepticism, and pessimism.' In a country on the threshold of war, Marinetti's charge, 'Spaghetti is no food for fighters!' did not fall on deaf ears."
'Boy with Spaghetti' by Julius Moser, c. 1808 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
6. Pasta was a street food and spaghetti was eaten by hand. According to della Croce's book, in Naples "A street culture developed around the cooking, selling and eating of dried pasta. Charcoal fires surrounded by makeshift wooden stalls were to be seen everywhere, offering a pot of boiling, salted water full of macaroni. A mound of grated cheese waited to be piled on top of it, and the pasta was eaten just that way, with fingers."
7. Pasta was kneaded by foot in Italy. In people's homes, most made pasta by mixing and kneading it by hand. But pasta was also made in factories dating back to at least the 1700s and while they were turning out quantities of pasta, they didn't have much in the way of machines to do it. So, workers would mix and knead the pasta with their feet while sitting on benches, and then it was hung out to dry on long racks. Writes della Croce: "As late as the 19th Century, commercial pasta operations were outfitted with huge troughs filled with dough, which was kneaded by barefoot workers trodding to the rhythm of mandolin music. The king of Naples, Ferdinand II (1830-1859), tried to modernize by hiring a famous engineer to design a new, more hygienic system. (The result was a mechanical man with bronze feet.)"
8. The first pasta factory in the U.S. was in Brooklyn. In this case, it was horses that did the work; they were harnessed to a giant kneading device. Zerega Pasta was founded in 1848, and is still sold today, though the headquarters for the company moved to New Jersey in 1952.
9. The 'Yankee Doodle' song was written by the English to make fun of Americans, but it backfired. Writes Kummer in The Atlantic: "In the mid-eighteenth century macaroni referred to an overblown hairstyle as well as to the dandy wearing it, which may be why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called the effect macaroni. Doodle comes from a German word meaning "simpleton" — the same definition that noodle had at the time (honest, starchy foods like dumplings have long had bad reputations). The song "Yankee Doodle" was used by the British to ridicule the American colonists, who adopted it in self-defense."
10. In early dishes, pasta was often a sweet dish, not a savory one. "According to Al Idrisi, the Arab geographer commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily in the early 12th Century to write a book about his explorations of the island, Sicilians made a type of pasta called itriyah (the Persian word for "string"). It was fashioned around a knitting needle to make it hollow. It evolved into tria and then trii , a kind of spaghetti still used in Sicily and some other parts of southern Italy. The antique tria (meaning "little strings") were served with sweet sauces often based on honey and cinnamon, ingredients that remain prominent in Sicilian cooking," writes della Croce.