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Everybody has their favorite memory of a perfect pasta dish. My own came during a visit to a small restaurant in Rome where I was presented with a plate of Bucatini All’Amatricana, made with the tubular pasta and a spicy sauce containing guanciale (cured pig jowls). As I travel the globe eating the weird and the wonderful, it is often this comforting bowl of pasta that I recall and crave the most.
Pasta is such a familiar ingredient in the United States that it is often all too easy to take it for granted. There are few people who don’t have at least one type of pasta in their store cupboard and if you were to walk down the aisles of any supermarket, you would have to take off your shoes and socks to help you count the fresh and dried varieties now offered.
Despite its ubiquity, however, there is something about a beautifully prepared pasta dish that is very hard to beat and I hope you were as excited as I was by the way that the Iron Chef and their challenger brought a new spin to such a classic ingredient last night.
Given that pasta is, I suspect, so familiar to everyone who will read this, I thought I would stray from the normal format for these features and instead give you 10 interesting things you may not know about pasta.
1. The Italian word pasta comes from the same Latin word, which means “dough.” It also has the same root as the word pastry and in fact, it was Italian pastry makers who first spread the art of edible pastry making to the rest of Europe, where previously it had been a protective casing for the contents to be discarded after cooking.
2. The story of Marco Polo discovering rice noodles in China and bringing them back to Italy is only a little more than a popular myth, as there are records of pasta being made dating back to 400 BC and there are carvings on the wall of Etruscan tombs of that time showing all the tools for making pasta were already available. Marco Polo did indeed mention noodles from China, but described them as being similar to “Lagana,” a baked noodle that was already known in Italy.
3. The first mention of pasta in what is now Italy comes from the Arabian geographer, 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 noodles from the local hard wheat.
4. Pasta was originally made by hand and it wasn’t until the 18th century that the first pasta making machine was designed by Cesare Spadacinni, at the request of Ferdinando II, The King of Naples. It was made of bronze and attempted to replicate the kneading movements of the human pasta makers.
5. When one thinks of pasta and Italian cuisine, one almost immediately thinks of tomatoes. Tomatoes, however, did not become part of the Italian cook’s larder until the late 1600s. Before that they were actually considered a poisonous ornamental plant. The first mention of tomatoes in Italian cooking comes from Antonio Lantini who gave a recipe for cooking them with oil and spices in his book, Lo Scallo All A Moderna. The first recipes using tomato sauce with pasta came nearly a century later in 1790 in L’Apicio Moderno, a recipe book written by Francesco Leonardi.
6. It is Thomas Jefferson who is credited with bringing the first macaroni making machine to the United States following his return from an ambassadorship in France. He actually made designs for a pasta machine based on the incredibly fashionable machines he saw during his time in Paris.
7. The first pasta making company in the United States was created in 1848 by a Frenchman named Antoine Zerega, in Brooklyn, New York. The company still exists today.
8. Perhaps the most popular pasta recipe in the United States today is macaroni and cheese and, once again much of the credit for its introduction goes to Thomas Jefferson who is said to have served it at a presidential dinner in 1802. The stove-top versions, which are still popular, originated during the great depression when Kraft began selling boxes that could feed four people for under a nickel in 1937.
9. There are over 600 types of pasta available and they come in two forms: either fresh (e.g. ravioli and cannelloni) or dried (e.g. spaghetti, penne). Dried pasta is usually made with just flour, water and salt and was created to allow for storage and for transportation. Fresh pasta contains eggs and has a higher water content and therefore cannot be stored, other than by freezing. Southern Italy is well known for its dried pasta, while the finest fresh pasta in Italy is said to come from the Emilia-Romagna region.
10. According to the International Pasta Organization (yes, there is an International Pasta Organization) the average American eats nearly 20 pounds of pasta a year. A significant amount, but it trails behind the Italians who eat a whopping 60 pounds of the stuff every twelve months. The Italians also make the most pasta in the world producing nearly 3.5 million tons a year, while the United States is in second place producing a not inconsiderable 2 million tons.