The Invasion of the Pasta People

May 06

When Did Everything Change?

Some say it was the Vietnam War, when we stopped believing a single word our government said,* including “and” and “the.” Maybe it was when we started calling love affairs “relationships,” thereby sanitizing the romance right out of our sex lives. Or was it the rise of political correctness, when suddenly abolutely anything you said about anyone became incredibly insulting to someone.

Lady_5I agree with all of the above. But I have another explanation:

It was the day we started calling spaghetti “pasta.”

Growing up as an Italian-American, the only time I remember hearing the word “pasta” was in conjunction with “fagioli,” although we were more inclined to call that bean and macaroni dish “pasta fazool,” a Brooklyn-American version of Neapolitan dialect made famous by Dean Martin in the song “That’s Amore.”

It was love all right. We loved our macaroni, which was different from spaghetti, both of which Pasta_Typescame in many varieties: from angel hair to bucatini,  tubitini to ziti, ravioli to lasagna. In truth, we very fussy about which pasta (although we didn’t call it that) went with which sauce, and everyone and his uncle (and, especially, his aunt) had their own, fiercely held opinions about this. But we called them by their names, so that it was linguini with clam sauce, or spaghetti and meatballs.

These days, it’s all different. And mostly for the better. You rarely encounter soggy, overcooked lasagna or baked ziti anymore, and you can get all kinds of stuffing for ravioli, not just the classic and one-time ubiquitous cheese. Now spinach is a given. Not to mention mushroom. Or duck. How about lobster! Crab!! Veal and truffle!! Almost anything you can think of. And so far, I haven’t met a ravioli I didn’t like.

It’s just that somehow I feel robbed . . .

The general American public, against which I have nothing, or very little, has co-opted my heritage. They talk about pasta as if they invented it! They no longer marvel at my family’s Sunday spaghetti dinners. Although, to be fair, we really don’t have those any more except on the rare occasions that my husband, the much put-upon Lou, AKA Luigi, spends a whole day making His Sainted Mother’s Sauce, which involves rolling about 60 meatballs (I help) and frying sausage, making braciole (pronounced bra-johl, like the old days), sometimes even adding chicken and pork chops.

After all this, he gets to choose the—all right, I’ll say it— pasta, and he usually picks rotini or fusilli, the difference being very subtle. I, on the other hand, lust for plain old medium thick spaghetti. We used Ronzoni in my house because it had an Italian name, and #8 or #9 was the preferred size for meat sauce, although, of course, you had to use capellini for anchovy sauce, which you had to have on Christmas Eve.

We now use imported brands like DeCecco or Barilla, and have serious discussions, coming perilously close to arguments, with friends and family about which is best. I’m not sure, but they’re all better than Ronzoni so some of this change, as I’ve said, is for the better.

And yet.

A small part of me (and many, although not all,  parts of me are small) still feels cheated . . .

I’m Italian. They’re not.

How dare they take my people’s favorite food and make it their own.

Sometimes I yearn for the days when non-Italians (AKA “Medicans”) spoke of making a spaghetti dinner and “We” felt superior to “Them,” because “They” had no idea how to make sauce, which we called “gravy.” Good god, some of “Them” actually used ketchup! And rinsed the spaghetti after cooking (don’t do it), or served it without mixing the sauce all through it, or ate it with bread and butter — and milk! Grotesqueries, all.

But not any more.

pasta_dishNow people know about all kinds of fancy pasta. Vodka sauce has become pedestrian. Rachel Ray makes saffron with lentils and tagilatelle. Personally, I never heard of saffron until I travelled to Spain, although lentil soup was a staple, especially when there was a ham bone left over from last night’s meal.

Spaghetti carbonara, about which not that long ago my uncle said: “If I want bacon, I’ll go to the diner,” is now commonplace. And as for the diner, don’t be surprised to see fettucine primavera on the menu. Fancy restaurants? Fugeddaboutit. Malfatti (roast suckling pig and fresh arugula), anyone? Burrate ravioli with truffle oil? Tagliolini with mussels and peas?

You name it, some ristorante has it. Everyone has it. Harrumph.

My only consolation is that not everyone, practically no one, in fact, has experienced the joy of  home-made ravioli. Made. At. Home. My job was to cut out each piece using a kitchen glass, then prick the edges with a fork. I bet I could still do it if I had to. And I used to make a mean sauce, and still might, if the mighty Lou didn’t.

Yankee_Doodle_BookBut the thing is, I don’t have to. I can get perfectly good tomato sauce in a jar these days, plus any kind of pasta I can think of — and some I’ve never heard of — and not just in Italian stores (not many of those left) but in almost any supermarket. Things change. It’s called progress (as opposed to Progresso, another trip down meatball lane). And sometimes it’s even a good thing.

But I ask you this:  If Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony and stuck a feather in his hat . . . would he call it “Pasta?”

I think not.


*For literary lovers: My very first footnote in a blog:   
Mary McCarthy, speaking in a decidedly politcially incorrect manner about another female author,  Lillian Hellman.

One comment

  1. This article was absolutely wonderful to this fellow Italian-American. Oh how I miss the macaroni in the homemade sauce made with meatballs and sausage which, in our household, were called “gravy meat”. When my mother was not looking, I would tear off a chunk of Italian bread, push over the lid to the pot in which the sauce was cooking, dunk the bread and try to sneak away unnoticed – that never did work so I got the flat end of the wooden spoon on my behind (and a knowing smile). But I still got to enjoy that “gravy” soaked piece of Italian bread.

    Of course, nowadays, unless I wanted to spend eight hours a day, every day for one year, I could not even think of eating that food anymore :-(.

    Thanks for the memories and the comments and the sense of humor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *