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Marco Polo and Pasta May 21, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

***Dedicated to Zach Nowak and Beach’s good friends over at FoodinItaly***

The lunatic idea that Marco Polo brought back spaghetti from China to grateful Italians is a modern food myth. There is no proof for this in MP’s writing: though there is an interpolated passage that might have started the confusion. In fact, the idea of MP hauling kilos of Barilla can be disproved by external sources that show pasta was already around in Italy before MP’s birth. When did this myth begin? We don’t know, but it was certainly running up steam in 1926 when it became the subject of an American advertising campaign. Enjoy this.

Accordingly [Marco Polo] steered his ship as close to the shore as safety would permit, and sent several of his men off in a small boat in quest of fresh water. One of the sailors in the party was a Venetian named Spaghetti, and it is around this man that the legend centers. When the small boat reached the beach the 3 or 4 sailors comprising the party separated, each striking out in a different direction. They knew there would be fresh water close by, but of course did not know its exact location. Spaghetti in his search, soon came to a little patch of huts. He realised that water must be close but before advancing into the village his attention was drawn to a native man and woman working over a crude mixing bowl. The woman appeared to be mixing a dough of some kind, particles of which had overflowed the mixing bowl and extended to the ground. The warm, dry air characteristic of the country, had in a short time hardened these slender strings of dough, and had made them extremely brittle. Spaghetti observed the ingredients used, the simple method of mixing, and it immediately occurred to him that a dry food of this kind would be a welcome addition to their ship’s menu. His curiosity prompted him to approach the couple and make known his wants as best he could. Through signs and gestures he managed to obtain a quantity of the grains used in making this strange dough, also a batch of the ready mixed dough and several strings which had dried. After relating his experience, upon returning to the ship, Spaghetti ‘worked’ the entire quantity of dough into long slender ribbons. As they dried he broke them into shorter and more convenient lengths. The problem of preparing the food had not been given much thought and it was one which would have to be experimented upon. The sticks were not palatable if eaten dry, and when cooked in fresh water were not much better. Thereupon Spaghetti conceived the idea of boiling strips in sea water, which, as every one knows, is intensely salt [sic]. This method seemed to produce the best result, and to bring out the flavour of the food. Before returning to Venice Spaghetti learned much of this new and appetising food. He discovered its energy providing qualities, its ability to remain fresh [? copy not clear] and wholesome for long periods to time and noted the acclaim with which it was received by his shipmates and other Europeans to whom he introduced it. Upon Spaghetti’s arrival home the popularity of this new delicacy spread among the villagers and before long a similar food made of home grown wheat was to be found on every table.

John Dickie in his history of Italian food claims that this campaign marks the origin of Marco Polo pasta-myth: note, incidentally, the way that the advertisers don’t entirely give the credit to the Chinese. It was from there, then, that we surmise that the myth was picked up by the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, in which there is a memorable scene showing some Chinese Christians eating spaghetti with MP and his imbecile sidekick. Beach can’t find the videoclip on line, sorry… It is well worth seeing.

However, as an extract that we, long ago, passed on to FoodinItaly has shown the legend dates back to at least 1900 when this appeared in an English language cookbook.

And why, so far, no word of pasta, that ever present, ubiquitous Italian dish? For the reason that Pasta, whatever it may be to-day, is said not originally to have been a native of the country, but is alleged to be one of the many wonders brought home by the 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, from his travels in China. Nevertheless, although Pasta, in its many shapes and forms, may not have started off as a true native of Italy, to-day it seems as much a part of the country as an operatic tenor, and anyone wanting to present a truly Italian meal must perforce learn a few of the ways of preparing and cooking Pasta…

The myth seems to have already been around when this was written. So where does the myth come from and when does it begin? Can anyone help Beach and FoodinItaly track the myth down? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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23 May 2012 John G writes in with this link that contains the Marco Polo link at about twelve minutes. Beach does not have a media player on this computer so he has not been able to check the exact seconds. Thanks John!