Five Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About...
EMG Pasta Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares “five things you didn’t know you didn’t know” about one of the world’s most popular foods -- pasta -- including its origins, the “myth of Marco Polo,” how it reached America, and who consumes the most (you may be surprised).
Find out more about pasta's fascinating history and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
Five Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About . . . PASTA
So April, did you hear about the Italian chef who died?
He pasta way.
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
Now, on Eat My Globe, we always love to get feedback from our dear listeners, by e-mail or through our social media links on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. All of which can be found on our website -- www dot Eat My Globe dot com.
Now, one of the things we’ve heard most clearly in recent months is that while you really enjoy the longer form podcasts -- where we take an ingredient, a dish or a person and look at its history in real depth over the course of an episode -- sometimes, what you would really like is just a short little bite of food history to whet your appetite. A light bite, if you will.
As a podcast that always likes to listen to our followers, we’re delighted to introduce a brand-new series that we’re going to do under the Eat My Globe umbrella, which we’re calling “Five Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About . . .” Catchy, huh?
So, we hope that these little snippets of history will tempt you not only to go and try these ingredients, but also to read more deeply using the links and resources that we post with the annotated transcripts.
So, on today’s inaugural episode, let’s start with an ingredient that is one of the most popular ingredients in the world, an ingredient that is to be found in almost every store cupboard in the United States, and that, according to the latest records I could find, over 14 million tons were produced worldwide.
Yes, today on “Five Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About” we are going to talk about. . . Pasta.
And I apologize for my mix between British and American pronunciation of “pasta” as we go through the episode. But I’m in transition as a new American. So bear with me.
Anyway, so here we go.
What is pasta?
The word “pasta” has its origins in the Latin word “paste,” and is defined as,
And I quote,
“A dish originally from Italy consisting of dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water.”
The word “pasta” actually originates only from the 19th Century.
The Latin word, “paste,” in turn, was derived from the Greek word, “pastē,” which originally referred to a style of barley porridge. This Latin word is the same root that also gives us the words, “Pastel,” “Pastiche” and “Pastry.”
Did Marco Polo really bring pasta to Italy?
The much repeated notion that famed explorer Marco Polo “discovered” noodles in China and brought them back to Italy is one of the culinary world’s greatest bits of bunkum. Love that word, “bunkum.”
Polo did indeed travel to China between the years 1271 and 1295. And, on his return, he was captured during a battle between his home state of Venice and the state of Genoa. While imprisoned, he wrote a book about his travels – with the help of a romance writer named Rustichello – entitled “Divisament dou Monde” or “Description of the World,” which later became popularly known as “Il Milione,” which translates to “The Million” but is better known in the English speaking world as, “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
While Polo does talk about seeing noodles being eaten in his travels he does so in a way that indicates he was already very familiar with pasta when he said that – depending on the edition and translation of his book -- he ate “paste,” which as you recall from earlier, is the original word for “pasta,” or, in some cases, he ate a noodle called “lasagne.”
Now, the type of “paste” or “lasagne” he would have been familiar with originated from a kind of flat cake cut into strips that had been made by ancient Greeks and Romans. There were already references to pasta in 1279, before Marco Polo returned to Venice, and to people in Sicily eating pasta in 1154, over one hundred years before his adventures.
While noodles were definitely being eaten in China at the time of Polo’s visits, many historians believe that there were actually two or more concomitant origins of noodles in both Asia and Arabic culture. Now, while there is no way of knowing for certain how these noodles reached what is now Italy, the general consensus is that when Arabs invaded Sicily, they brought Durum wheat and their noodle making skills with them.
The first mention of pasta in what is now Italy comes from the Moroccan poet, writer and traveler, Muhammad Al Idrisi, in 1154 who wrote about it in the “Tabula Rogeriana,” referring to the town of Trabia in Sicily, where they made long strands of dried noodle from the local wheat.
The widely held belief that Marco Polo was responsible for the introduction of pasta to Italy is quite a recent one. It can actually be dated back to 1929 and the publication of a story called, “The Saga of Cathay” in a magazine called “The Macaroni Journal” published by the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, an American trade journal. Isn’t that a wonderful organization -- the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association – fantastic stuff.
We will post a link to the pdf of the magazine in the transcript to this episode and I genuinely recommend you going to have a look at it if you are interested in food history, which, I hope you are, listening to this podcast. It is filled with fascinating snapshots of the food industry in the United States from nearly a century ago.
Anyway, in the feature, the author argues that one of Polo’s sailors on his expedition, who happened to be called Spaghetti -- really? hmmmm… -- discovered a native man and woman making dough from flour and water and brought it back onto the ship as a complement to the crew’s menu. He discovered that boiling it in salty sea water was the perfect way to cook it. On his return to Italy, he shared it with the people who lived in his village where it became an immediate success. Now, much as one might like to believe such a flight of fancy, the name of the sailor, Spaghetti, a word that is derived from the Italian word “Spago” for “string” makes it seem rather unlikely, don’t you think?
Still, the story caught on and that is why likely so many people will immediately tell you that Marco Polo is responsible for bringing pasta to Italy. So there.
Did Thomas Jefferson really introduce pasta to the United States of America?
Like Marco Polo, Thomas Jefferson is often credited with introducing pasta to a nation. In this case, to the British colonies in what was to become the United States of America. Although, again, this might be stretching things, as it is likely that the British may already have begun to bring pasta over to America after encountering it on their own trips to Italy.
What is certain is that Thomas Jefferson was impressed enough with pasta, that he requested one William Short procure
a “mould for making maccaroni.”
to be sent to him in Paris. He had left the city by the time it was sent, but it’s amongst the goods listed when he returned to America.
Note, that “maccaroni” was a term he used for all types of pasta in general, not just the macaroni we might know today.
Jefferson was also known to import pasta from Europe on a regular basis, and in the papers left after his death, there is also a recipe for Macaroni in his own handwriting.
“6 eggs. yolks & whites.
2 wine glasses of milk
2 lb of flour
a little salt
Work them together without water, and very well.
Roll it then with a roller to a paper thickness
Cut it into small peices which roll again with the hand into long slips, & then cut them to a proper length.
Put them into warm water a quarter of an hour.
Dress them as maccaroni.
But if they are intended for soups they are to be put in the soup & not into warm water”
So there you have it. A recipe for macaroni as written by the one and only Thomas Jefferson. Give it a try at home. Tell me what you think.
[SIMON ADVERTISING: Hi everybody, if you’re enjoying this podcast, you may want to check out a fun series of videos I did with my friends at Pureflix dot com. In “Simon Says,” I cook dishes from around the world and give a little bit of history about how they were made. It’s a lot of fun. So do go and check them out. Streaming exclusively on Pureflix dot com.]
What’s all the fuss about Mac N Cheese?
Macaroni and Cheese, or “Mac N Cheese” is arguably one of the most well-known pasta dishes in the United States and certainly a dish that has not only created very fond childhood memories but has also had a recent resurgence appearing in “gourmet” forms on many modern menus.
The dish had its origins in Italy and in a 14th Century Italian Cookbook called, “Liber de Coquina,” written for Charles II of Anjou, that contains a recipe for a dish known as “De Lasansis” where it suggests taking macaroni -- this time in sheets of pasta -- and layering it with grated cheese and spices.
Once again, it was Thomas Jefferson who popularized the dish in the United States and he even served it at an official Presidential dinner in 1802. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been particularly well received and at one dinner, a Rev. Manasseh Cutler, reported back
“a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable."
The “strillions of onions” – great word, isn’t it? “strillions” – the “strillions of onions” were in fact macaroni.
Now, despite that inauspicious start, Macaroni and Cheese became hugely popular, particularly in the Southern states where it began to appear on many celebration tables. According to writer Adrian Miller, after emancipation, “Mac and Cheese” developed to become part of the “soul food” menu of the former slaves who had run the kitchens in slave owning households. One such example of a former slave who learned how to cook the dish was Thomas Jefferson’s chef, James Hemmings.
The first boxed Macaroni & Cheese was produced by Kraft Foods in 1937, and the fact that it could feed four people for around 19 cents meant it was an instant smash, selling over 8 million boxes in its first year. Its popularity grew during WWII when meat and other rations were in short supply.
It’s still hugely popular in the United States. However, if you want to know who really loves Macaroni & Cheese, head north of the border to Canada. The Canadians eat 3.2 boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese every year and, in 1997, it officially rated as their number one selling grocery item.
So Simon, I… I have to interrupt for a moment.
As your producer… and… your producer from Canada. We don’t call it Kraft Mac N Cheese. Kraft (Ed. Note: April is referring to founder, James Kraft, who was born in Canada, and not the Kraft company, which started in Illinois) being from Canada, it’s just called Kraft Dinner.
[Canadian anthem sound]
And in fact, they rebranded all the boxes to just be called “KD.”
But it is a Macaroni N Cheese?
Well, that’s just Canadians. Crazy. I love ‘em but they’re bonkers.
Number five. Now we’ve insulted everyone north of the border, let’s carry on.
Which country consumes the most pasta in the world?
According to the International Pasta Associations figures for 2013 – love that as well, International Pasta Association – around 14.3 million tons of pasta are produced every year. Now, it should not surprise anyone to see that, when it comes to consumption, Italy is way ahead in terms of consumption per capita. Indeed, the average Italian eats 25.3 kilograms a year -- that’s nearly 56 pounds for the record. However, it might surprise you to know that the United States trails in a relatively lowly 6th place with us consuming around 8.8 kilograms or 19.5 pounds a year. It might also surprise you who is ranked ahead of us. That would include countries such as Greece, Tunisia and Venezuela. These might sound like unlikely pasta lovers however, Venezuela, for example, experienced an influx of Italian immigrants in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, that had a definite impact on its culture. So too did Tunisia beginning in the early 19th Century.
So, that’s it. That’s your five things you didn’t know you didn’t know about pasta.
So, I hope that this new episode of Eat My Globe has inspired you all to go home and cook some more pasta, because, honestly folks, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do if we’re going to eat as much as the Venezuelans and the Tunisians. So get to it.
I hope you enjoyed this shorter episode. Do let us know and, if you did, we promise to add more of them into our regular programming, as it were.
In the meantime, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us that all-important good rating on your favorite podcast provider.
Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: October 7, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.