A History of Pasta

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Podcast Transcript

There is a very good chance that many of you listening have had pasta, maybe within the last week. 

Pasta is a simple, affordable food that comes in a wide variety of forms. It can be served with almost anything and in a wide variety of styles. 

Despite its current global nature, pasta is a food that originated in Italy……or did it?

Learn more about pasta, how it originated, and how it spread around the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The food that we know as pasta came from Italy. There is a bit more to the story than that, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but for all practical purposes, we can call it an Italian food. Pretty much every type of pasta has a name of Italian origin, and the word pasta itself is Italian. 

The word ‘pasta’ comes from the Italian word for paste because, in its raw form, it has a paste-like consistency. However, there are some who think that it comes from a Greek word of the same name, via Latin, which describes a barley porridge. 

The definition of pasta is any unleavened dough made out of wheat with water and/or eggs. It is also usually, but not always, boiled. 

The history of pasta is actually difficult to determine. Pasta is an extremely simple dish, and it isn’t that far from bread. Take some bread dough, shape, and boil it, and you basically have pasta. 

Before we start talking about Italy, there is one country we have to bring up because I’m sure that many of you have thought about it before: China. 

Pasta-like noodles have been in China for thousands of years. I’m not going to dwell too much on it because Chinese cuisine and noodles are worthy of its own episode. 

The big question that people have wondered for a long time is if pasta originated in China.

In fact, there was a story floating around that pasta came to Italy from China via Marco Polo in the late 13th century. 

The origin of the story may have come from a passage in Marco Polo’s Travels. However, it appeared he was referencing a food from Italy known as “Lagana.”  

Also, the earliest evidence of the Marco Polo story came from the Macaroni Journal, which was published by the American National Pasta Association.

Likewise, there have been theories that pasta, or at least noodles, were bought in Italy via the Moors when they conquered Sicily. However, there isn’t much evidence of this either. 

The other reason why it is believed that pasta didn’t come from somewhere else is that there may be evidence of pasta dating back over 2000 years in Italy.

There is a 4th century BC tomb in Italy that had an image painted on it that seems to show people holding a bowl of something that looks like pasta, in particular spaghetti. However, this, too, is open to interpretation. 

In the first century, the Roman poet Horace made a reference to laganam, also known as lagana, which were thin sheets of fried dough. 

In the 2nd century, the Greek grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis gave a recipe for lagana, which consisted of sheets of dough made from wheat flour lettuce juice and deep-fried in oil. 

The Jerusalem Talmud, which was compiled in the fourth century, speaks of a food known as itrium, which was a boiled dough.

The point being, that there were very early references in Italy and around the Mediterranean that reference either pasta or pasta-like food.

Given how simple pasta is and how close it is to bread, it is highly probable that it was developed independently in China and other places. 

The first reference to something that we can definitively say is pasta in Italy dates back to the late 13th or early 14th century. 

The writer Boccaccio wrote in his book The Decameron about a fantasy of a mountain made of Parmesan cheese with macaroni and ravioli rolling down it.  There were also references to gnocchi and vermicelli in other works, indicating that there were multiple varieties at this time. 

One thing that we do know is that around the 14th and 15th centuries, there was a change in pasta. Pasta up until this point was made fresh, today known as pasta fresca.

The big development was dried pasta or pasta secca

This was a pretty simple development, but it was huge in that it allowed for the preservation of an easy-to-prepare meal. Dried pasta was something that could be cooked with little preparation. 

Italian pasta of this period also began to be made primarily with semolina, which is coarsely ground durum wheat. Durum wheat was imported to Italy from Arab traders and is considered a ‘hard’ wheat in that it is difficult to mill. 

However, as a dough, it is considered to be very soft, which is why it makes for better wheat for pasta and is not very good for bread. What makes durum ideal for pasta is its higher gluten content.

Today, most pasta is made with durum wheat, and in Italy, by law, anything labeled as pasta without any special qualifiers is made out of durum wheat.

The consumption of pasta in the Middle Ages was nothing like how you’ve probably had it. 

For starters, it was usually cooked much longer than it is today. The pasta would be softer and not cooked al dente. 

“Al dente” is an Italian term that literally translates to “to the tooth.” When applied to pasta, it refers to the consistency that is achieved when pasta is cooked to be firm to the bite. 

What pasta was served with was also very different. It would be served with things like raisins, cheese, meat, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and olive oil. Tomato sauce didn’t exist at the time. 

It also became something that was consumed by the wealthy simply because of the amount of time required to make it. While pasta is simple in terms of the ingredients, the cutting and shaping of pasta was very time-consuming, regardless of whether it was fresh or dried.

One of the big changes to pasta, and the thing that brought it to the masses, was the development of pasta machines. Cutting and shaping pasta was time-consuming, but it was also something that was ripe for automation. 

In the early 17th century, rudimentary pasta machines were being used in Naples. The first pasta factory was licensed in Venice in 1740.

It was the automation of pasta production that turned it into food for the lower classes. Neapolitans were once called leaf eaters, but by the early 18th century, were now called macaroni eaters. In fact, pasta became so prevalent that it went from being associated with the nobility to being associated with beggars, but the upper class did still eat it. 

Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing pasta to the United States. When he served in France, he purchased a macaroni mold from Italy that he brought back to Virginia. He also reportedly had macaroni shipped from Europe.

At the time, all pasta was commonly referred to as macaroni. The word macaroni comes from a Sicilian phrase for kneading dough vigorously.

1790 was also the first year that a written recipe for pasta with a tomato sauce was recorded.

The 19th century saw major changes in the consumption and preparation of pasta. 

Pasta manufacturing became industrialized. Flour milling became mechanized, which further reduced the cost of flour and made pasta even cheaper. Prepackaged, dried pasta was able to be sold and purchased by 

Pasta factories opened outside of Italy, but for the most part, pasta was still mostly an Italian dish. 

In 1844, the recipe for spaghetti and meatballs was published for the first time. 

What really spread the popularity of pasta was the migration of Italians, particularly to the United States and South America. 

The spread of pasta was very similar to that of pizza in the 20th century. It started out as a dish that was considered to be exclusively Italian. If you wanted a pasta dish, you probably had to go to an Italian restaurant that specialized in pasta.

However, over time, just as with pizza, pasta entered mainstream culture. It became popularized in movies such as Lady and the Tramp. After the Second World War, soldiers who had served in Italy came home and brought their love of pasta back with them, again, very similar to the story of pizza. 

From there, it escaped being a dish served mostly in Italian restaurants. Dried pasta was cheap and easy to prepare, which was one of the reasons it spread popularly.  A meal of spaghetti and meatballs could be prepared in just a few minutes. 

As pasta expanded geographically, the number of pasta varieties expanded as well. 

Today, there are over 300 known types of pasta, many of which are variations on similar themes. 

Despite being made out of the exact same ingredients, the different shapes of pasta are often designed differently for a reason. 

Some types of pasta, such as rigatoni, have ridges on the edge to make it easier for thicker, chunkier sauces to adhere to the pasta. Other smoother pasta is designed to be consumed with more liquid, runny sauces. 

Lasagna is considered a pasta dish, but there are several things about it that make it unique. First, it is probably the oldest known pasta as its origins date back to the food “lagna.” It is also one of the few pasta dishes where the pasta is baked, not boiled. 

The global pasta market today has become enormous. 

The global amount of pasta sold in the world in 2023 is estimated to be about $68 billion, with estimates showing the market reaching $90 billion by the year 2030.

In 2011, a global survey conducted by the British non-profit Oxfam found that pasta was the most popular dish around the world, beating out meat, rice, and pizza. It earned the top place on five continents, including countries such as the Philippines, Guatemala, Brazil, South Africa, and of course, Italy.

The number one country in terms of pasta consumption per capita is, not surprisingly, Italy, where each person eats, on average, 23 kilograms of pasta per year. The two other biggest countries in terms of consumption are Tunisia and Venezuela. 

Italians consume about three times more pasta each year than Americans do. 

Pasta has had a strange history. From its shadowy past, originating somewhere we aren’t totally sure, it has become a staple Italian dish. 

It used to be a food for the wealthy, now it is considered to be one of the cheapest meals you can make. 

It can be very difficult to make fresh, but it is incredibly easy to make dried. 

Its long history and unique properties of being easy to ship and preserve are just some of the reasons why pasta has become the world’s favorite dish in the 21st century.