PASTA by Silvano Serventi


The Story of a Universal Food
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Scholarly investigation of the quintessentially Italian carbohydrate.

Quintessentially, but not originally. Food historian Serventi and French social scientist Sabban cannot precisely pinpoint the inventor(s) of pasta and take perhaps overmuch time at the outset laying out reasons why. Shards of linguistic evidence point to an Arabic origin, as does the fact that Sicily was a center of Islamic culture and commerce in antiquity. The idea of Marco Polo returning from China with a bowl of spaghetti is once again debunked with finality, but the roots of bing (ancient Chinese for wheat flour dough) in that part of the world are also plumbed. The authors aim to reveal pasta as a cultural hallmark that spawned a major industry, not to deliver new recipes; however, an extensive section on gastronomy over the ages reveals much. For instance, Italians spent nearly a millennium eating pasta, whether in the form of capelli di pagliacci (clowns’ hats) or strozzaprieti (priest stranglers), cooked until it nearly fell apart and served without any tomato sauce. Available since the 16th century, the tomato was largely ignored in favor of sugar, cinnamon, and things like rendered lard until Neapolitans perfected salsa di pomodoro 300 years later; the term al dente was unheard of until after WWI. Emigration to America brought new phenomena: there were over 300 industrial-sized pasta factories in the States by the ’20s, and after WWII, bureaucrats knew the Marshall Plan was working when pasta exports to war-torn Europe, boosted almost a hundredfold from prewar levels, suddenly plummeted. In the 1960s, inhabitants of the immigrant-founded town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, were found strangely hale and hearty while vascular diseases ravaged the surrounding countryside, causing doctors en masse to endorse the “Mediterranean Diet” of olive oil, wine, and, of course, pasta.

Sometimes endlessly informative (for instance, on pasta-making machinery) as it offers more in the way of pasta history than most readers have even begun to imagine.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-231-12442-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2002


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