THE TRUTH ABOUT PASTA


I think we can all agree that there is something comforting about pasta. I knew it as macaroni or noodles while growing up, but after my daughter and then a grandson married into Italian families, I found there are many other ways to use this versatile product.

My late son-in-law’s mother was convinced that I would be happier if I learned to speak Italian, so I could cook like a native speaker. But son-in-law and an Italian friend did not speak the language, and both were excellent purveyors of spaghetti and related products. In fact when I requested their translation of a recipe, they both reminded me that they did not speak Italian.

You might be surprised to learn that they were making lasagna in ancient Rome albeit not quite the same as it is made today. Dried pasta seems to have been invented in North Africa, and was useful on a camel trip through the desert. It was also a staple for sea-farers on long ocean voyages. It was probably brought to Sicily by its Muslim conquerors. In 1154 there was a thriving manufacturing industry near Palermo which exported its products to Muslim and Christian countries alike. By 1785 Naples had 280 pasta shops.

Tomato sauce was not added until comparatively recently. The tomato. which almost surely came from Spain, was viewed with suspicion by many, including my father-in-law who said “it just doesn’t look good to me.” Of course he put sugar on scrambled eggs. The first mention of tomatoes being used in a recipe came at the end of the seventeenth century.

How do I know all this? I confess I read it in a book. After collecting a shelf full of Italian recipe books, I became Italian. It was comparatively easy, starting with putting enough salt in the cooking water–sort of like sea water, to having enough water in the kettle to let the pasta roam around. My son-in-law’s mother said he never used enough water. I never told him, and his pasta was just fine.

Contrary to what I knew before I became Italian, pasta doesn’t always come in long strings; and the flat kind lends itself to all kinds of wonderful dishes besides lasagna. We make a lot of our own pasta, but some time ago I picked up what I thought was a long box of spaghetti and found buccarini, a fat spaghetti with a hole in the middle ready to grab the sauce. I keep learning as I go.

I am easily pleased, but Dr. A is convinced that it isn’t spaghetti unless it has red sauce.

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AMERICAN POMPEII


It’s wonderful how one idea can lead to another even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.

The young George Lucas, had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie. For inspiration he looked to an Italian movie about four teenagers from a small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do.

Tempting as this might be, the 29 year old was also dreaming about making a new Flash Gordon” movie. He thought about how great it would be to see Flash Gordon on the big screen in full living color. It had been filmed in black and white several times.

As a young child the Flash Gordon game was a favorite. Since I was the only girl in my neighborhood, I was relegated to being Dale Arden with the ice-cream cone chest, when I really wanted to be Flash Gordon.

One night Lucas and his friend producer Gary Kurtz were at a diner and talking randomly about how the science fiction movies hadn’t really been enjoyable since Forbidden Planet” in 1955. They all seemed to have gone to genre horror movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon” or alien invasions. They both decided that none of that was fun any more the way “Flash Gordon” and Buck Rogers” had been.

Lucas made a trip to New York in 1971 to visit King Features to inquire about the film right to “Flash Gordon”. The King executives were thinking about the film rights too and mentioned the Italian director Frederico Fellini who was also a known Flash Gordon fan. Lucas knew he could not compete with Fellini at this point in his career.

As in so many creative right turns, this set off a lightbulb in Lucas’s brain, and he began dwelling on the vague notion he had had for years of making something even better than Flash Gordon. If he couldn’t do Flash Gordon he would just invent his own.

American Graffiti
George Lucas on set of American Graffiti in 1973

In the meantime though, Lucas needed a way to make a more bankable movie in order to pay for a movie about space flight. If Fellini was to take Flash Gordon” maybe he could take something from Fellini—for instance, the idea behind the movie I Vitelloni, about the four teenagers in the small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do. What if you followed a bunch of guys on the cusp of leaving a small town, and follow them through one night of cruising—a ritual that had died out in the last decade?

Lucas would set his version in the summer of 1962, the moment everything changed for him at the ago of 18, and end it with a car crash. Set in a small town much like his own boyhood Modesto, California, it had flavors of autobiography.

He came up with a semi-Italian title: American Graffiti. It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.