No Thanks to Marco Polo: An Encyclopedia of Italy’s Pasta Shapes

Pasta encyclopedia cover

Photo credit: Annie Schlechter

Marco Polo returned to Italy from his Chinese travels in 1296. The myth, legend, what have you, credits him with introducing pasta into Italy’s culinary repertoire. But Marco Polo did NOT bring pasta to Italy. And 73-year-old Italian author Oretta Zanini de Vita wants you to know that, immediately, upfront and center.

Zanini de Vita says,

Dried pasta, the kind made with durum wheat, is found in Italy from about A.D. 800. It was in fact the Muslim occupiers of Sicily who spread the manufacturing and drying technique.

But the Chinese beg to differ, and that’s another story …*

In the ongoing search for the roots of cuisine comes another branch: Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (California Studies in Food and Culture series, 2009). Translated from the original Italian by Maureen B. Fant, this particular offering far surpasses previous efforts like The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Pasta and so forth.

Pasta shapes 2

Photo credit: Alexander von Halem

Ostensibly a catalog of pasta shapes, because — as Zanini de Vita says “Pasta may be the unchallenged symbol of Italian food, yet no in-depth research as ever been done on its many shapes [she found over 1300 names for pastas].” — Encyclopedia of Pasta comes in part from oral history, adding a dimension to food studies research that is usually missing. After all, unless time travel turns out to be part of the new technology, no one can go back and talk to the peasants standing outside the manor house, watching the sides of beef and haunches of venison being carried in for great feasts.

Pasta prehistoric

4000-Year-old Chinese Pasta (Photo credit: K.B.K. Teo, E. Minoux et al.)

Most scholars rely on early printed texts, but knowing that an important historical source would soon disappear, Zanini de Vita chose another route. In her own journey, not unlike the wanderlust-infected Marco Polo, she traveled across Italy for ten years, talking

with samplings of very old people, trying to jog their memories about the pasta-making traditions and rituals of the past. … Their stories vividly confirmed … until just after World War II, the country had eaten ‘green,’ that is, only vegetable soup, with pasta a s a rule reserved for the tables of the middle and upper classes in towns and cities and only occasionally for the feast-day tables of the poor.

In addition to the bibliography, bilingual indices, and glossary, the result is 290 pages of alphabetically arranged entries, giving the name of the pasta shape and its type, ingredients, alternative names, how served, where found, and remarks about the pasta made by the informants. No pretty colorful pictures gloss the text, but lovely hand-drawn illustrations by Luciana Marini grace many entries. An ample bibliography of Italian-language works, as well as notes and a glossary, provide the necessary scholarly touch to a work that a reader will actually want to read while burning the midnight oil. Like all good literature, Encyclopedia of Pasta tells a good story, or rather, many great stories about a food that symbolizes, frankly, a collective nostalgic myth surrounding Italian cuisine.

Pasta shapesRegarding a stuffed pasta called Ofelle, Zanini de Vita writes:

The word offa used to mean the Roman spelt cake that was offered to the gods. Aeneas himself, when he came face to face with Cerberus at the gates to the underworld, managed to put the terrible dog to sleep by giving him an ‘offa made sleepy with honey and drugged meal.’

And in the many names and shapes of pasta lie a lot of history. Just one example serves to illustrate this aspect of pasta shapes: Cappellacci dei Briganti:

The name, literally ‘brigands’ hats, refers to the conical hat with upturned brim that was part of the everyday uniform of the briganti, from brigantaggio, a bloody and disorderly social and political movement active in the Mezzogiorno during the unification of Italy and the first decade of the Kingdom of Italy.

Among the complaints a reader might have about Encyclopedia of Pasta is that there are no numerically detailed recipes, much like many old cookbooks. However, the enterprising cook could take the list of ingredients and the notes in the “How Made” section and attempt to reproduce the tastes of the past. Another question concerns the reliability of her informants, but the copious bibliography indicates that much textual research went into Encyclopedia of Pasta as well as oral history. Yet more needs to be done, as Oretta Zanini de Vita suggests:

[T]his is a first, hesitant attempt to catalog an unalienable heritage that belongs to all Italians. Perhaps there are some courageous and willing souls to carry it on.

Food of the gods. Maybe.

*The Marco Polo legend, according to Zanini de Vita, began in 1938 in Minneapolis, a “marketing gimmick,” thanks to L. B. Maxwell, for a trade publication, Macaroni Journal. For more about the Chinese/pasta connection, see Houyuan Lu et al.Culinary archaeology: Millet noodles in Late Neolithic China“. Nature 437: 967–968, October 13, 2005.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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