Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
As the world becomes more and more interconnected, we increasingly look to our foods to define traditions, culture, and heritage. In few places is this as true as Italy, where the rule of food is law. Of course, few foods define Italian life as greatly as pasta. In fact, the average Italian eats roughly 51 pounds of pasta every single year.
But what exactly is pasta? The word itself is Italian for ''paste'', referring to the paste-like consistency of the dough. Obviously, Italians aren't the only people in the world to make noodles (the Chinese hold the record for world's oldest noodle culture), but what makes Italian pasta unique is the set of ingredients. That doughy paste is created from durum wheat, notable for an extra-high gluten content that gives Italian pasta the ability to be so successfully dried and later boiled into soft, but sturdy, pieces. So, durum wheat is the defining trait of Italian pasta, but where did it come from? That answer requires a little more explanation.
The exact origins of Italian pasta are hotly contested. We know that the Chinese were making noodles as early as 5,000 BCE and some people believe that Chinese techniques were passed through ancient trade routes into the Mediterranean. Others believe that Italian pasta techniques are more native. The earliest possible evidence of Italian pasta dates to the Etruscan civilization. A 400 BCE Etruscan tomb in Tuscany contains reliefs of objects that some historians believe to be ancient pasta-making tools.
Not everyone agrees, but it does seem that some form of pasta was being eaten in Italy by the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans produced millions of tons of grains per year, and drying it as pasta would have been a good way to store it. In fact, it is in this era that we find the first recorded use of the term macaroni, which in historic Italian culture was a term that described dried pasta of any shape.
Still, there are issues. The Romans were fastidious record-keepers but left behind only a few written descriptions of pasta. Considering that we have many other Roman recipes, this is odd and may suggest that pasta was not extremely popular yet.
A More Modern Pasta
The nature of ancient pasta is debated, but what we would recognize as pasta was unquestionably in existence by the late medieval era. Around the 13th century, records of pasta start popping up all over Italy. Why? Italy was just entering into an extended period of growth, sustained by the wealth coming in from the newly opened Silk Roads. Italian merchants were amongst the first people to really profit from this new era of international trade, and many historians believe that it was their frequent mobility and new wealth that led to a sharing and interest in local pasta recipes across the peninsula.
It should be noted that the Silk Roads also contributed to one of the enduring myths of pasta: that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo, the famed Venetian explorer. Marco Polo's stories describe his encounters with Chinese noodles, leading some to assume that this was the origin of modern Italian pasta. It seems pretty clear that pasta already existed by this point, and many historians actually question whether or not Marco Polo himself was even real, but there is an element of truth here. Many new technologies and ideas were introduced into Italy from China at this time. Noodle and pasta production may have been amongst the industries impacted by the international exchange of ideas.
From there, Italy exploded into an unprecedented era of prosperity known as the Renaissance, and pasta was right there in the heart of it. In fact, the Pope himself issued pasta quality standards in the 13th century, and Renaissance cities had artisanal pasta-making guilds, alongside the guilds of other artists and craftsmen. Pasta became a ubiquitous feature of Italian life during the Renaissance, the canvas upon which a million different meals could be designed.
Pasta in the United States
As pasta became the de facto food item of Italy, foreign ambassadors and emissaries were invited to try it and took the recipes back to their own countries. In the 18th century, one such ambassador was none other than Thomas Jefferson. According to tradition, he became fascinated with a Naples-based variety and set to work introducing the dish to the brand new nation of the United States. Of course, the concept of macaroni (as it was still called) wasn't entirely new to Americans. For years, British youth who toured Italy and became obsessed with Italian culture earned the nickname of 'macaroni'. Over time, the term came to refer to any person of wealth and high fashion style. Poor American Yankee Doodle, trying to imitate these refined British youth, sticks a feather in his cap to participate in their Italian fashions. While the song was meant as an insult, Americans loved it and adopted it as their own. They were more than happy to adopt macaroni pasta into their lives as well.
Pasta is an Italian noodle, defined by the use of durum wheat to create a doughy paste that can be dried and later boiled. While the exact origins of pasta are unclear, evidence suggests that it was being consumed in the Roman Empire, and even by the Etruscans as early as 400 BCE. Pasta as we know it really appeared in the late medieval era, just before the start of the Renaissance. Wealth, mobility, and trade during the age of the Silk Roads led to an explosion of pasta, possibly with influences from Chinese noodles. Pasta quickly became the de facto food item of Italy, fashioned in hundreds of varieties and consumed across the peninsula. While it spread across Europe from there, pasta will always be an Italian staple and the paste that holds Italian culture together.
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