Today is National Pasta Day, so of course one needs to celebrate it by eating...pasta!
Pasta has a history. Yes, really! There is evidence that the ancient Etruscans prepared a wheat and egg paste, but it was baked not boiled. There are artifacts from a period 3,000 years ago that look remarkably like pasta dies and extruders. But naturally the material they worked on is not preserved.
The ancient Greeks had some form of flattened dough that resembles lasagna. The knowledge to mix wheat and egg with water was known long before. But the result was roasted on hot stones. The Romans quickly followed suit in the 1st century AD with a layered dish comprised of 'lasagna' and meat or fish. In the 1st century BCE writings of Horace, lagana were fine sheets of dough which were fried and were an everyday food. Writing in the 2nd century Athenaeus of Naucratis provides a recipe for lagana which he attributes to the 1st century Chrysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavored with spices and deep-fried in oil.
An early 5th century cookbook describes a dish called lagana that consisted of layers of dough with meat stuffing, a possible ancestor of modern-day lasagna.
By the 5th century AD, cooking noodles was commonplace, as is known by references from the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud records that itrium, a kind of boiled dough, was common in Israel from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. This record of pasta-like preparation in Arab lands provides a basis for the claim that the practice spread to Italy from Arabia. With the incursion of Arabs into Sicily, they would undoubtedly have brought a food that could travel well. A flour-based product in the shape of strings was produced in Palermo at the time that might fit the bill. A dictionary compiled by the 9th century Arab physician and lexicographer Isho bar Ali defines itriyya, the Arabic cognate, as string-like shapes made of semolina and dried before cooking. The geographical text of Muhammad al-Idrisi, compiled for the Norman King of Sicily Roger II in 1154 mentions itriyya manufactured and exported from Norman Sicily.
While for a time it was thought that Marco Polo returned from China in 1295 with pasta, there are Italian recipe books from twenty years earlier containing references to pasta dishes. However, it is certain that he did encounter pasta on his travels. Since China is an ancient civilization, with a complex culture dating back 5,000 years, it's likely that pasta existed in China very early. Marco Polo describes a food similar to "lagana" in his Travels, but he uses a term with which he was already familiar. Some historians believe that in 1295 Marco Polo brought rice flour pasta, the type used to make Chinese dumplings.
Nevertheless, pasta did become more popular during the 14th century and spread to the 'New World' as Italian and Spanish explorers sailed the seas to new lands. In the 'Old World' it continued to spread, with tubes of pasta in use at 15th century Italian monasteries. By the 17th century, it was a common food throughout the region.
In the New World, pasta grew in popularity through the 18th century. By its end, it graced the table of Thomas Jefferson and commoner alike. When the American Ambassador returned from France in 1789 he brought with him a maccaroni maker that he used to delight friends.
Macaroni and cheese was enjoyed by many during the period of the Civil war in the mid-19th century (1859-1864), owing to its ease of storage and cooking, along with the satisfying taste.
But it was with the large Italian immigration around the turn of the century that pasta really took off in America. Spaghetti, lasagna and a great many other forms became widespread as a result. With the ubiquitous consumption of pre-made dried macaroni and cheese during WWII, the dish became a staple of the American diet for decades after.
Whatever its true origins, and subsequent history, one thing is sure. Pasta is here to stay.
Here are several recipes for you to try:
Garlicky Red Pepper Pasta
Quick Pasta Special
Taste of the Tropics Pasta Salad
Fettuccine Alfreda with Gomasio
Fettuccine with Cilantro Lime Pesto