Spaghetti and meatballs, perhaps the staple of Italian food in America, actually has a more interesting history than you might expect. The next time you serve this easy meal, share this story with the family.
According to legend, Marco Polo discovered the noodle on his travels through China and brought it back for Italians to enjoy. Needless to say, Italians are not very content with this legend and would prefer not to give Asia the credit for their signature food choice.
According to a National Geographic article published in 2005, the oldest noodle does have its origin in Asia. Scientists unearthed an over 4,000 year old bowl of long, yellow noodles in the Lajia archeological site in northwestern China. But, according to numerous sources, when Marco Polo wrote about discovering pasta, he was really just talking about a different kind of pasta than that of Italians. Marco Polo traveled in China between 1271 and 1291 (give or take), but according to John Dickie and his Epic History of Italians and Their Food, there was hard grain durum wheat pasta in Italy at least a century before. Clearly, Marco Polo didn’t “discover” pasta any more than we discovered tomato sauce.
But there are so many kinds of pasta out there…how did spaghetti become the staple? Italians can’t take credit for this one – well, not exactly. It was Italian-Americans who made spaghetti famous in America. Before over 4 million Italians immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pasta was rarely served as a main dish. But in America, pasta turned into the center piece for dishes because of its low cost and high carb content. Spaghetti was most likely the pasta that was most readily available. Red sauce has a similar story. While the legend of its origin is very Italian, its prevalence in America has to do with the easy availability of crushed tomatoes.
What about meatballs? Those too take their origin in Italy but were reshaped (literally) in America. "Polpettes" were a popular, simple food in Italy in the late 19th century. They were small meatballs with an equal ratio of meat to bread crumbs. When Italians came to America and began earning more money than they did in Italy, meat became a staple rather than a delicacy. Ground beef, of course, was the cheapest option. Once shaped into large, flavorful balls they added the perfect finishing touch to a bowl of pasta.
The long story behind spaghetti and meatballs is just one example of how Italian food has been shaped and changed through culture and circumstance. One thing has remained the same – it’s sometimes the simplest foods that taste the best.
John Dickie: Delzia: the Epic HIstory of the Italians and Their Food. pp 45-47
National Geographic: 4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China
Culinary Lore: Marco Polo and His Chinese Noodles Pasta: Legend or Fact?
National Pasta Association: Fun Facts