At some point along my ancestral chain, I must have been Italian. Or Chinese. How do I know? I have an unbelievable passion for pasta. That’s not a carbohydrate lust. While I have never met a carb I don’t like, I can take or leave rice or bread and the many other forms in which carbohydrates can be found. But my soul soars for pasta.
It was World Pasta Day Oct. 25, and that got me to thinking about my love affair with pasta. I suppose it started in my early childhood, as almost everything does. SpaghettiOs came in a can, and my mother occasionally served it to us as part of a meal. However, the story is not that straightforward. She felt the sauce was a bit sharp, and so she sprinkled the spaghetti with a little sugar. Now this is enough to make any self-respecting Italian restaurateur gag. Many did, as I would ask, “Can I have some sugar please?” of my waiter as I was served a bowl of steaming pasta. “Sugar? You mean Parmesan cheese?” he would ask. “No sugar, thank you, granulated sugar,” I would patiently explain. Then he would watch in fascination as I topped off my dish accordingly.
It wasn’t until I visited Italy for the first time that I understood the miracle of pasta. The secret is in the sauce, which decidedly is not improved with the addition of sugar. Somehow the pasta itself tastes different there too, the same way water does depending on where it comes from. I remember that first trip very well, as I fell in love with the beauty of the country, the kindness of the people, the richness of its art. But what I remember best is the pasta, which I will tell you that I came to eat there three times a day. And it never tasted the same way twice because all chefs proudly make their own secret sauces. The high point occurred in Amalfi, in a small restaurant on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. We were with a tour but unscheduled for lunch, and we wandered around the town looking for a likely eatery. They are all charming, you know, but one in particular attracted us and we went in to find that the luncheon special consisted of six different kinds of pasta.
Six! I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The chef, who spoke no English and needed none, came out to explain that we should start with the mildest pasta on the huge plate, then work our way around much as an artist does with his paint palette, to the one with the strongest flavored sauce. The six pastas were each different and the experience was, as you can tell, exquisitely memorable.
Although some think pasta was invented in Italy, others believe Marco Polo brought it back from his travels to China, where he supposedly tasted it at the court of Kublai Khan. There is record of the Chinese eating noodles as early as 5000 B.C. and, in fact, the Etruscans from western Italy seem to have made pasta in 400 B.C. There are bas-relief carvings in a cave 30 miles north of Rome depicting instruments for making pasta: a rolling-out table, pastry wheel and flour bin, according to the National Pasta Association. Anyway in the 13th century, the pope set quality standards for pasta. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a macaroni dish he tasted in Naples while serving as ambassador to France and promptly ordered crates of the pasta, along with the pasta-making machine, sent back to the United States. Indeed, he may have been the one to introduce macaroni to this country. Cortez brought tomatoes back from Mexico in 1519, but it took two centuries before the marriage with pasta was consummated.
There have been many imitation pastas, meaning not made from wheat, that have come along, but only one makes the grade with me, and I give it a shameless plug here for those who can’t or won’t eat the real thing. Manufactured by Tolerant, it is made of beans and called Organic Red Lentil Pasta.