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A Brief History of Pasta

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Today, I’d like to share with you about something which has kept me going the past few months. When all else fails, I can rely on this to get me through the tough, poverty-stricken times. I am of course referring to that wonder-food of undergrads: Pasta. Whether it’s spaghetti, macaroni, or that flat stuff they put in lasagna, pasta has had a long and glorious history of being slurped down the gullet of humanity. Now it is time for the tale of the noodle to be told, to give credit where credit is due, and to give us a new appreciation for this starchy yellow floppy stuff.

Our story begins where most movies made in the 80’s begin: a mystic-looking forest with the caption “somewhere in Asia.”

Just like "Gymkata!"

If this wasn’t what you were expecting than it’s probably because Italy has brainwashed the world into thinking they invented pasta, rather than just being the place that is most associated with it. Sort of like how Americans like to pretend they invented hot dogs, guns, and God. In actuality, the first references to pasta found in history are actually references to a Chinese rice-pasta. This is actually a great foreshadowing of the way the primary consumers of pasta in America (undergrads) think about food. Imagine: it’s late and there’s nothing going on tonight. There is, in fact nothing to do but eat, think about food, and think about how to obtain more food. You’ve had rice for the past six weeks straight and you’re sick of it. So, in a fit of inspired boredom, you mash up the rice into a powder, mix it with water, and pour it onto a hot thing until it cooks. Then, because you’re not interested in being that inspired twice in 24 hours, you just throw some of the leftover rice-scrapings into some water and boil them until they’re soft enough to eat. Voila! Instant pasta! I’m not even going to tell you whether that story was from the perspective of the college students or the Chinese. It could be either one!

The next reference to pasta was in fact from Italy. Just kidding! It actually comes from the Talmud. Yeah, the Jewish religious text. Stick that in your driedel and spin it, Italy!

Those yellow rings are actually noodles.

Yeah, actually the Talmud refers to a dried noodle called itryah, which was pretty normal food at the time of the Talmud’s composition. By the time of the 10th century the Arabs were making pasta called lakasha to sell in the markets. Think of the guys who sell peanuts in baseball stadiums, who walk up and down the stands yelling “peanuts, get your hot, roasted peanuts here!” and replace “peanuts” with “lakasha.” and you’ll get a sense of how Arabic markets work. Very noisy, lots of food, and apparently covered in pasta.

Italy comes late to the party with pasta. While pasta like foods were eaten even before the Roman empire came to power, since they were not actually pasta I don’t count them. Italy does, but they’re biased, and probably grouchy if they haven’t eaten since lunch. According to pasta historians, and such things exist, apparently (I like to imagine that they all look like Mario Batali) modern pasta was probably brought to Sicily by traders from the Arab world. They base this belief on the evidence that the oldest pasta dishes in Sicily contain things like dried fruits and cinnamon, both of which are featured heavily in Arab cuisine and pasta dishes.

Now that pasta had finally reached the Italian world, you’d probably assume that things like lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs were pretty quick in being invented. Actually, there’s one major reason those dishes wouldn’t come onto the scene for quite a long time. Probably after the American revolution, in fact. That reason? Tomatoes.

Heaven help us.

Tomatoes were basically assumed by everyone to be poisonous until Thomas Jefferson rubbed them in the faces of the Colonial scientific world by eating them as frequently as he could and living to a ripe old age. You see, back in the day, people used to eat off of plates made of a poisonous metal called pewter. Since they weren’t eating the plates, this was mostly ok. However, the high acidity of tomatoes caused the plates to dissolve slightly into the tomato juice, resulting in illness or death for the person who ate them. Presumably, the family of the first person ever to die this way blamed the tomatoes for his death because “killed by his dinnerware” wouldn’t look very good on a headstone. Thus, most people assumed the plants were deadly, and wouldn’t have slathered a sauce made of them all over their food.

Popular pasta dishes in their most current forms were brought over/invented in America by Italian and Sicilian immigrants fleeing tough conditions in the 20s and Mussolini in the 30s and 40s. This is also how American pizza was invented, coincidentally.

So there you have it. Invented by the Chinese, refined by the Arabs, adopted and loved by the Italians, and finally mass produced and used to feed poor college students by Americans.

Does anyone else think “Driedel-Spun Chanukah Pasta” would sell really well?


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