The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Debunking the Marco Polo Myth

Raining on the Venetian Explorer's Pasta Parade

You know, it's nigh on to impossible to unlearn something. Especially when that thing has been ingrained in popular culture as something “everybody knows.” For example: everybody knows Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy.

Except he didn't. Well, to be fair, he may have brought some Chinese pasta home with him – sort of a medieval version of Chinese take-out – but he did not “introduce” pasta to Italy.

“But that's what they taught me in school!” Yeah, me too. Another example of a flawed public education system. That story was fed to me in the '60s. My sister got it in the '50s. My mother heard it in the early '30s. And from there the trail disappears. Why? I'll tell you why; before that time it didn't exist. Or if it did it was only as a vague rumor.

Americans have known about pasta for a long time, although they didn't call it that at first. The term “pasta” didn't come into general usage in non-Italian speaking areas until the late 19th century. Before that, the substance made from durum wheat and water was commonly referred to as “macaroni.”

Thomas Jefferson fell in love with macaroni when touring the Italian regions in 1787. He even had a pasta machine imported to the United States and designed and built one of his own as early as 1793. He is widely credited with serving macaroni and cheese at the White House during his term as president from 1801 to 1809. (It wasn't called “the White House” when Jefferson lived there. Another old grade school lesson busted.) In fact, he is often erroneously said to have “invented” the dish.

Macaroni was so popular in colonial times that it became a fashion statement. Like Jefferson, many young English aristocrats of the era toured Italy and became enamored of macaroni, to the extent that in short order the appellation “macaroni” came to be associated with a fop or a dandy. Someone with a high-flown sartorial sense. You didn't really think that when Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he was talking about pasta, now did you? I know, I know. That's the way you learned it in school.

Anyway, back to Marco Polo and how we all came to believe that he revolutionized the world by introducing pasta to Italy.

To say that a lot of Italians emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th century would be an understatement. And as they came in their millions, they brought their native food culture with them; a culture that included pasta. But at first the stuff was really only popular in Italian neighborhoods. Despite Jefferson's appetites, the majority of Americans hadn't quite caught on to it yet. Enter the Macaroni Journal, a trade publication of the National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America. This outfit existed, as one might expect, to promote the manufacture and sale of macaroni and noodles in America, and the Macaroni Journal was its publicity organ. Again, as one might expect, a lot of the information published in its pages was directed at an uninformed audience in order to familiarize them with the product so they would buy more of it. And it was in the October 1929 edition of the Macaroni Journal that the old Marco Polo myth was foisted off on an unenlightened American public in an article entitled “A Saga of Cathay.”

Marco Polo made quite a name for himself in the 13th century. A true merchant of Venice, he traveled to the little-known reaches of Asia, met the great Kublai Khan, earned an important place in the Chinese court, and returned to Venice twenty-four years later a fabulously wealthy man. While a political prisoner of rival Genoa, he dictated his memoirs of his journey to far Cathay. The book engendered great interest in the vast and mysterious Far East. Even the Genoese explorer known to American schoolchildren as Christopher Columbus is thought to have been influenced by Marco Polo's work.

In a brief mention of the kinds of food he encountered, Marco Polo says something about a dish similar to macaroni. And somehow that statement became the basis for the belief of future generations that he was responsible for bringing pasta to Italy. If anybody would actually take the time to read Marco Polo's writings it would be obvious that he was already familiar with pasta when he visited China. In fact, there are confirmed examples of other people in Italy writing about “maccheroni” years before Marco Polo ventured out of Venice.

The Macaroni Journal article is so patently ridiculous, it's hard to believe it was ever taken seriously. I mean, a Polo expedition sailor named Spaghetti saw a Chinese girl making noodles and the rest is history? Come on! Here's a link to the original article. See for yourself.

Even though the story was identified in the article as a legend, American readers sort of blocked out that word, and it was off to the races for Marco and his “discovery.”

A few years later, Gary Cooper, playing the inveterate Venetian traveler in the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, asks one of his Chinese hosts about the dish he is being served. “What are they, snakes?” asks the Great Explorer. “We call it spa get,” is the unlikely reply. Please!

Nobody knows for certain where Italian pasta originated. Some scholars credit the Etruscans. Some note that the Romans ate a form of pasta. Others cite the Greeks. Most think that pasta was carried to Italy via Muslim invaders who conquered Sicily in the 9th century. All that aside, nobody – I repeat – nobody believes that Marco Polo introduced it from China. Nobody except a couple of generations of American elementary school teachers influenced by self-promoting trade magazines and hokey movies.

If you don't want to think for yourself and do your own research – concepts that are not commonly taught in American public schools – just do what everybody else does and Google the subject. If after hours of reading hundreds of authors writing thousands of words debunking the Marco Polo myth, you still choose to adhere to what Miss Jones taught you in the first grade, well, there's really no hope for you. Just sit back and slurp your spaghetti with the unthinking hordes who believe everything they read in the National Enquirer – or the Macaroni Journal.

Or you can take up my crusade to stop this silly story before it pollutes the thinking of still another generation. My kids got the word about Marco Polo at about the same time they learned the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. With the modern preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I don't think schools actually teach that unmitigated merda anymore, but then I see it in print or hear it related on television and I go off screaming into the night.

No less a personage than Giuseppe Garibaldi once said, “It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy.” So I call upon Italians, Italian-Americans, wannabe Italians, and generally intelligent people the world over; stop the Marco Polo myth! Let the Chinese take credit for chow mein but stand up for your spaghetti! March for your macaroni! Protest for your pasta!

I think I'll go take my medication now.

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