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Hilde Lee: Pasta went from ancient street food to international hit

Hilde Lee: Pasta went from ancient street food to international hit

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Given the choice and the appropriate combination, would you choose pasta, rice or potatoes to accompany the main course of your meal? With rice or potatoes, it is an easy choice, but pasta gives you at least 50 different ones as to shape, thickness and type of flour content. At one time, the American Italian Pasta Company of Excelsior Springs, Missouri produced 50 different sizes and shapes of pasta.

The old myth that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China is just that — a myth. Some food historians say that he brought back a thinner noodle made from rice flour. Records show that Italians in Rome, Genoa and Padua were eating ravioli and fettuccine in the 1270s. Marco Polo did not return from China until 1295. Sometimes, you just can’t believe the historians.

There are two clues as to the origin of pasta, one going back to the ancient Greeks, and the other to the Etruscans. They both lead to Rome.

Even today, there is still a controversy about the origin of pasta. Some believe it started in Mesopotamia. Others say that pasta was first made in what is today Ethiopia in about the 11th century. A third version relates its origin to Greece on the theory that the word “macaroni” came from the Greek word “makar,” meaning “blessed,” as used when referring to sacramental food.

However, the consensus seems to be that pasta came from somewhere in the Middle East. Since it is light in weight and can be stored for long periods of time in dry climates, historians believe that the desert nomads carried pasta with them as a major source of protein.

By the fourth and third centuries B.C., many cultures were eating some form of pasta. An Italian bas-relief of the fourth century B.C. shows people making pasta with a rolling pin and cutting the dough into strips with a small wheel.

The most common name for pasta in Europe during the Middle Ages was “maccari” or “maccaroni.” The word “maccari” relates to the Italian, which means “to pound,” as in making a paste of flour and water. However, if you are a romanticist, you probably prefer the story of the wealthy Italian nobleman who was served a plate of tubular pasta in a very rich sauce and exclaimed ecstatically: “Cari! Marcari! Macaroni! “ This supposedly translates to: “The dears! But the dears! The precious darlings!” Few of us get that carried away about pasta.

The Middle Ages also were a time of great experimentation in making pasta. At first, the pasta dough was kneaded in a large wooden trough by men. They trampled the dough with their bare feet. Eventually, a rotating wheel was invented that replaced this foot power. (More sanitary, too.)

A perforated mold also was constructed that forced the flour-and-water dough mixture through the holes by means of a screw mechanism. This permitted long strings of pasta to become available.

Tubular pasta, now called macaroni, was made from a thin dough and rolled around knitting needles to create the hole in the middle. Other forms of pasta were put through a hand press to shape them into the “pasta of the day.” Today, there are more than 500 different shapes of pasta being produced in Italy.

For centuries, maccheroni con la ricotta (macaroni with ricotta, sugar and cinnamon) was the traditional dish of Rome. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this dish was served as a first course.

Though pasta, then generally called vermicelli, was widely known at the time of the Renaissance, it remained a luxury food enjoyed only by the wealthy or by others on special occasions.

Naples became famous for its pasta. The population’s appetite for macaroni, as pasta was called, was enormous from the start. Street vendors fished macaroni from boiling cauldrons and sold it sprinkled with a little grated cheese and black pepper for a small amount of money. Neapolitans ate the pasta with their fingers, throwing back their heads, raising their eyes to heaven and lowering the strands of pasta into their mouths. Foreign visitors marveled at the sight and assumed that the poor were thanking God for their daily food. Last time Allan and I were in Naples, this street eating was alive and well.

Italians at all levels of society preferred to eat pasta with their hands. For this reason, it was not served at court. Finally, Ferdinand II protested at this deprivation, and his advisors invented the short four-pronged fork (like our dessert forks) to allow their sovereign to eat his pasta with dignity. French chefs, who were imported by the richest families, had to learn how to embellish pasta and invented many of the sauces we regard as Italian today.

In Italy, durum wheat (the basis of pasta) was grown around Naples in the early 16th century, and Naples consequently became the center for pasta making. The ancient streets and courtyards of old Naples were habitually strung with pasta hung out to dry, along with the day’s wash. The southwestern area of the city became the center for pasta manufacturing, because the combination of the hot winds from Mount Vesuvius and the cool breezes from the sea provided ideal temperatures for drying pasta.

Pasta was introduced to France in 1533, when Catherine de Medici married the Duke of Orleans, who later became King Henry II of France. However, pasta did not gain the popularity in France that it enjoyed in Italy.

Between 1700 and 1785, pasta became the rage in Italy, and the number of pasta shops in Naples alone increased from 60 to 280. Pasta of every shape were dried on the roof-tops and hung over fences in that city. Gioacchino Rossini, the well-known 19th-century Italian composer, spent much of his earnings trying to invent a commercial macaroni machine.

Macaroni, spaghetti and all the other pasta shapes were considered food for the poor in the 18th century. However, as travel became more universal, pasta gained a great following.

Many Italians who came to the United States in the late 1840s and did not strike gold in California became cooks and restaurant owners serving Italian food — mainly pasta. Spaghetti with tomato sauce became the food of the day.

Regardless of the section of the country, pasta was here to stay.

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