Thursday, March 03, 2005

Culinary Mythology: Marco Polo and Pasta

I didn't know this story was still circulating but, believe it or not, I came across it in a cookbook just last year. I guess a really good myth never dies. It just resurfaces every so often. Setting the record straight:

This durable myth, which requires that nothing should have been known of pasta in Italy until 1295, when Marco Polo returned from the Far East, can easily be shown to be wrong by citing references in Italy to pasta of an earlier date. What is interesting about the myth is the question of how it arose. An explanation was offered to a distinguished audience at Oxford University by the famous Italian authority Massimo Alberini:
As far as I can make out, the "Chinese" story originates from an article entitled "A Saga of Catai" that appeared in the American magazine Macaroni Journal in 1929. There it was written that a sailor in Marco Polo's expedition had seen a Chinese girl preparing long strands of pasta, and that the sailor's name was Spaghetti. Obviously an unlikely tale.
It is tempting to add that the Macaroni Journal explanation may itself be a myth; but no better explanation has been offered. The question of interaction between oriental and occidental forms of pasta and the extent to which particular forms may have traveled either eastwards or westwards, through C. Asia, is a different one, of a subtlety and complexity sufficient to deter myth-makers from trying to intervene in it. (To be effective, a myth must be comprehensible at the lowest level of intelligence.)

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