Uh-Oh , How did all of this begin??

It is mind boggling to decide which shape of pasta to introduce you to first because so many intriguing forms of this ancient food. First, I probably should dispel any myths and get your basic history lesson out of the way.

The word pasta is from the Latin word meaning “dough or pastry cake.”
Schoolchildren are taught that Venetian merchant Marco Polo brought back pasta from his journeys in China. Truth be told dry pasta was unknown to the Chinese. What Polo brought was actually rice flour pasta, the soft kind from which Chinese dumplings had been made, think Dim Sum. Actually, it was the Arabs who brought pasta as we know it to Italy via the Silk Road when they conquered Sicily, I think around the 8th century. The Arabs brought durum wheat, which Italian law still requires the use of in its pasta.

The word “maccharone” (thus, the term macaroni) derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully; early pasta-making was a labor-intensive process. The word originates from the latin meaning to “torture or macerate.” So I guess because they tortured that lovely dough, kneading and shaping and cutting and extruding it, the term maccheroni was used. It eventually was known as “pasta secca” or dried pasta.

I was fascinated when I learned it was eaten using the hands and sold as street food by vendors called maccharonaros who cooked it over a coal-stoked fire; it was eaten on the spot, plain or sprinkled with grated sheep or goat cheese, no sauce.   They would take the strips of pasta in their hands, tilt their heads back like baby birds and let the cooked dough slide into their mouths. (I think this might catch on these days as state fair food, something like Cone o’ Pasta, served with a wet wipe. What do ya think?) The people who ate it this way were known as the lazzaroni of Naples, a gang of ne’er do wells and idlers.  Growing up with an Italian speaking mother I remember that term being used often towards the teenage boys in the neighborhood.

 The wealthy, who probably refused to eat anything with their hands, fa fa fa, ate only fresh pasta stuffed with cheeses and meats—lasagna-like preparations and/or the newer dumpling styles from China. Then in 1700 one of King Ferdinand’s worker bees thought to use a fork with four short prongs to eat the long strings of cooked dried pasta. After that, eating pasta became a common practice. Pasta could be served at feasts all over Italy, and from there to all of Europe and the world. Pasta spread through southern Italy and other shapes appeared, including spaghetti, vermicelli and others. Pasta was still an artisan product, handmade locally by small family businesses. (I think these are still the best pasta’s, artisan and handmade.)

Thomas Jefferson actually is credited for bringing the lovely stuff to the States. He was the ambassador to France and decided to bring home one of those fancy contraptions known as a maccheroni machine. Then the wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the 19th century was ultimately responsible for pasta triumphing as an American staple. From 1880 to 1921, more than five million Italians immigrated to America, three quarters of them from south of Rome. Pasta factories sprouted up faster than you could say rigatoni and everything from World War II to the Great Depression increased its sales. It was cheap, nutritious, easy to prepare and supported the American wheat farmer all at the same time. It is no wonder, that even today with lo carb fads and diet queens, pasta is still on the hit parade list for Americans, especially in these grave economic times.

I grew up as a first generation Italian-American. My mother made (and still does at 92 years of age) homemade ravioli and tortellini. I remember begging her for a can of Franco American spaghetti-o’s when I was about 8 years old. As I recall the commercial on our black and white TV showed a little boy running through the streets of Italy, going home for lunch, a steaming bowl of the canned o’s waiting on his table. He looked so happy and I was and still am a sucker for dark, handsome males. So naturally I wanted what he had. My mother finally gave in and served me a bowl for lunch. I can probably count it as one of the all time worst culinary experiences of my life. “Uh-oh spaghetti o’s” pretty much described my feelings as well as the jingle.

And even though the article in my airplane magazine begs to differ, there are really only around 350 different types of pasta, but probably four times as many names for them. They are categorized into a few groups: long shape, flat pasta, short shaped and tubular pasta, small pasta for soup, stuffed and Asian type. Certain shapes of pasta and sizes are used for specific purposes, while others can be used in several different manners and new shapes are designed and named every day. Italians express their regional differences through the different shapes of their pasta. So I am going to explore as many of them as possible. Boldly embracing all forms.

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