It should come as no surprise that Marco Polo, such a well-known figure in European and Italian history, was responsible for giving Italy what is now its national food: pasta. As the story goes, Polo discovered noodles during his travels in China, where they were widely eaten at the time. So impressed by the taste, popularity and nutritional value, he brought some dry noodles back to Venice. We all know what happened: Italians loved pasta, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, the rest may be history – but the story itself is rubbish.
Pasta had been eaten in Italy long before 17-year-old Marco set off in 1271. Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when ‘pasta,’ as we know it, took off on the Italian peninsula, there are plenty of records to suggest that pasta-like things (wheat flour and water mixed into a dough and cooked) had been feeding people for a long time – fried sheets of dough, called lagana, were apparently a common snack during the Roman Empire, and noodles were eaten in Sicily at least by the 10th century, probably introduced by Arab merchants.
But the belief that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy is still one of the most common food histories thrown about. It must have come from somewhere. So, where?
To be fair, it did not come from Polo himself (or whoever wrote down his stories). His famous Travels of Marco Polo does not mention it, and even the 150 or so edits, versions and drafts of it – which differ from one another in facts – are silent on pasta. So it is safe to say that Marco Polo himself did not claim to be the Godfather of Italian pasta. In fact, the story comes from something far more powerful, something far more influential than one of the largest figures in European history: Modern American advertising.
Marco Polo got back to Italy over 700 years ago, but the idea that he brought pasta with him did not exist one hundred years ago. The story seems to have appeared, more or less out of nowhere, for the first time in an American magazine in 1929.
Pasta was hugely popular among Italian immigrants in North America in the early 20th century, but pasta manufacturers wanted to expand their market from Italian communities into wider society. Apparently dreaming up romantic stories about pasta’s history was one way to do this. So, in 1929, the US National Macaroni Manufacturers’ Association featured a story in their industry magazine detailing how Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. The story caught on. As did the idea that pasta is delicious, and the United States is now the biggest pasta consumer in the world.
But let’s not just delete Marco Polo from the pasta story. He is just one of thousands of people dotted through the mysterious history of how pasta came to be such a ubiquitous yet varied food phenomenon, not just in Italy but around the world. Nobody quite knows how this magical thing came about, only that lots of people played their own little part
The made-up Marco Polo story probably played some part in pasta’s fame – a tasty food with an intriguing backstory, a piece of useless information with which hosts could impress their dinner guests, or recipe-writers could use to fill up the word count of an introduction to a recipe which is probably otherwise quite short.
But maybe Polo’s major part in pasta history is less direct. Pasta and tomatoes are one of the happiest food couples on the planet, and their home is in Italy. But tomatoes are native to North America. They only arrived in Europe after Christopher Colombus returned, they say. They also say that Christopher Colombus always kept a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels with him, because it had been such an influence and inspiration to him. Without such inspiration, maybe Colombus would never have ventured across the sea.
Would Italians be eating pasta were it not for Marco Polo? Almost certainly.
Would they be eating it with countless tomato-based sauces? Probably. But possibly not.pictures: worldnewsdailyreport, pastagentile, gessato, italia-eventi, wikimedia