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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