The Marco Polo Pasta Myth


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor, Katie Lambert.

Katie Lambert: How are you today, Candace?

Candace Keener: I am doing well. And I have a surprising statistic for you. Did you know that today's Italians consume between 66 and 77 pounds of pasta every year?

Katie Lambert: I think I know where I need to move, then.

Candace Keener: I know. It sounds like a great idea. And this is easing us into today's podcast topic, which is a little bit different from what we usually do. We usually base the podcasts very firmly in history. And today's no real exception, except we're going to be dwelling a little bit more on food history. And the podcast title, as you all have seen is the Marco Polo Pasta Myth. So before we bust the myth, I just wanted to bring everyone back up to speed on Marco Polo if it's been awhile since you heard the Marco Polo podcast. So Marco Polo was born in Italy around 1254. And in 1271, when he was 17 years old, he went with his father and uncle on a very extensive trip to the Middle East, parts of central Asia, and China. And he became a huge favorite of Kublai Khan because he proved that he was a likeable guy. He was good with languages, he was good with people. And Khan gave him a position of court courier. And along with that came a golden passport, which meant he could go anywhere in China he wanted. And he did. He explored every inch. And there was eventually some tension that arose between the Mongols and the Chinese, and so Marco Polo thought it was a good time to get out of there. And he agreed to deliver a princess to Khan's great nephew in Persia as his ticket out. When he got back to Italy, he was embroiled in some military conflicts when Venice was fighting Genoa. And he wound up in prison for a year. And he had this really bawdy well-known writer of a fellow inmate named Rustichello. And I guess to pass time, Marco Polo must've told Rustichello about his adventures in China. And Rustichello agreed to write a book based on Marco Polo's life. And it was posited as a biography, I guess, but it was very exaggerated. And it's known as The Travels of Marco Polo, and alternately called The Description of the World. And in one of the parts of the book, he describes macaroni. And people immediately assumed that, like paper money and the compass and porcelain - things that Marco Polo brought back from China - he must've also brought macaroni to Italy. And then macaroni and pasta became Italy's hallmark. But that's actually not true.

Katie Lambert: But that is a myth. And Marco Polo did not bring pasta from China to Italy. The Chinese do have the oldest pasta recipe. In 2005, archeologists discovered an overturned bowl with a spaghetti-like tangle in it, which might remind you of a college dorm room with Ramen noodles. And that pasta is about 4,000 years old.

Candace Keener: That is by far a very old dish.

Katie Lambert: Yes. And usually, when we think of Asian cultures, we think of rice. But actually they made a kind of millet pasta. And millet's not like the wheat pasta you're thinking of when you make spaghetti. We usually only see millet in birdseed! And you wouldn't want to eat birdseed. Millet can actually be pulled and processed to make a very delicious fresh pasta. But if the Italians didn't get pasta from the Chinese and Marco Polo, where did they get it from?

Candace Keener: That is an excellent question. And scholars have long debated who came up with pasta first, the Chinese, the Arabs, or the Italians. And Katie, you have effectively answered that question. The Chinese thought of it first. But you may be interested to know that, even though Italian pasta was created independently of Chinese pasta, the Italians actually got the idea from the Arabs. And while this may sound a little bit unusual, the idea of Arabian past, bear with us for just a moment because Arab pasta was dry pasta unlike Chinese pasta, which was fresh pasta. And Katie, you're much better with the differences between the fresh and dry. You're more of a cook than I am. So maybe you can expand upon this one.

Katie Lambert: The dried pasta - basically the whole point of the Arabs bringin it is that it survives well over long distances. Because dried pasta's what most of us use when we cook. You just toss it in a pot of boiling water and you're ready to go. Whereas, fresh pasta doesn't keep! You cook it within a few days or within a week.

Candace Keener: And you were telling me earlier that your father actually makes fresh pasta. And it's an arduous process because you're molding, kneading, shaping, and using an extrusion device - like a die to actually push the dough through to create long thin strands of spaghetti or vermicelli. But Arab pasta was so handy because it could be reconstituted with water. And so it was an essential staple for traders and travelers and militiamen - anyone who'd be traveling from that part of the world over to Europe. And passing through Sicily, the Sicilians really grasped onto this concept of pasta. In fact, if you look at very old Sicilian pas ta recipes, some even call for ingredients like cinnamon and raisins, which we don't think of as traditional Italian ingredients today. But obviously they refer back to Arab pasta. And an essential difference, to clarify between Chinese pasta and Italian pasta, is that the Chinese made theirs with millet and the Italians made theirs with durum.

Katie Lambert: Durum wheat is much heavier and denser and has a much higher protein than some other kinds of wheat. But it's also tough to deal with because it is so full of protein and so dense.

Candace Keener: But the great thing is that it contains gluten, so it's more malleable. So even though it could be shaped and cared for and have a longer shelf life than Chinese pasta, it was pretty unwieldy. And if you still needed any convincing about the total unrelatedness of Chinese pasta and Italian pasta, there's a will from a Genevieve soldier dated 1279, when Marco Polo still would've been in China, in which this soldier bequeaths macaroni to someone. And it's fascinating to think that macaroni was considered so valuable. I mean, today I've got a box of whole wheat rotini in my pantry that, I'd be embarrassed if I died and left behind, it's so old. But back in the world of 13th century Italy, it was incredibly valuable to have pasta in you pantry.

Katie Lambert: And that's because of the durum wheat. It was so hard to deal with; it took a whole crew of people working really hard all day long to turn this pasta into something that you could actually eat.

Candace Keener: A good analogy, think of a really valuable bottle of wine that sits in your wine cellar and ages with time and becomes more valuable. That's the essence of dry pasta. Just reconstitute it later. But I digress, because we're talking about history and not just about noodles. So let's delve a little bit into the development of pasta. Because what's so interesting to me is what began as a rich man's food eventually became the peasants staple!

Katie Lambert: At the time in Italy, of course, everything was made by artisans. And that's the type of thing you find when you go to a gourmet shop now. You find artisanal bread or artisanal cheese. And as you know, it's very expensive whereas massed produced boxes of pasta at your local grocery store are pretty cheap. And mass manufacturing makes things cheaper for everybody. The same thing happened in the United States when the first factory came to being in 1824.

Candace Keener: And what's great about factory-produced pasta is that it is more readily available for the masses. And that's something that Italy continues to struggle with today, the demand for pasta far outweighs the production of pasta. So ironically enough, Italy even has to import some pasta - go figure. But production of pasta in the United States is a little bit inauthentic because when dough is pushed through dies and extruded into strands and different shapes, it's rendered a little bit smoother than artisanal pasta. So it doesn't have all those fun little grooves and abrasions that hold the sauce. But while it may not be as authentic as Italian pasta originally was, it served the American people when the Great Depression hit, for instance, and the world wars. And supplies were scarce and times were lean and people needed a good staple.

Katie Lambert: I think that's when recipes for tomato-based sauces and pasta first started appearing in women's magazines. And that's just like it is now, during a recession, when you keep seeing programs and articles on how to shop on a budget and feeding your family for $50.00 a week. Pasta is a food of the people.

Candace Keener: It really is. It's a great go-to item. And so the next time you crack open a box of noodles and unscrew the lid on a jar of red sauce, be sure to thank the Arabs, because that's where it came from in a long line of pasta history. And if you want to learn even more about Marco Polo - remember him - and the history of pasta, you can read the article Did Marco Polo Bring Pasta Back From China? on howstuffworks.com.

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