Pasta is more than a cultural legacy... or an Italian dish...
Pasta isn’t just an Italian dish—as if that was ever a question. The origin of “pasta,” as we Italians know it, has been assumed to be a result of Marco Polo’s travels to China in the 13th century. Whether or not we officially have Marco (Polo!) to thank for this additional contribution to Italy, pasta is a game changer. Pasta—and its derivatives—has become one of the most widely used staples in cuisines around the world. Enjoy Spanish paella but don’t want to eat rice? Then have a nice plate of fideua. Looking for a satisfying side with your schnitzel in Germany? Then grab some spätzle. Need something to fill that craving for a sweet snack? Have a noodle kugel at a Jewish deli, or have a bowl of kheer from India. No matter what you’re looking for, pasta and noodles have become entwined with culture, history, and more importantly in my life, family.
I come from a family that happens to know pasta, and I don’t mean that we have a dish of spaghetti and meatballs once in a while. We consider pasta as a meal that brings us together as a family from start to finish. We make fresh pasta (as our hectic schedules allow), and we often try different styles. We’ve learned from our older generations and teach our younger generations. You could say that pasta has become a legacy in my family. My great grandparents hailed from the old country. You know, the one shaped like a boot. More specifically, they came from that rock that the boot seems to be kicking. The classic Italian story of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” followed them from Palermo, Sicily to Brooklyn, New York, and with them, memorized techniques and recipes for the food that they left behind. After a quick shift in location, these Sicilian transplants ended up in southern California—where else would you want to end up in the USA? And the legacy began. . . .
My dad, while in his formative years, learned these techniques and recipes from his grandmother Josephine, who, while not speaking English, prepped the family’s pastas and doughs for the week each Saturday morning. Daily, before my great- grandfather went to work, “Pina,” as everyone called her, would ask what he wanted for a meal that day. These meals varied from trays of pizza (a slightly deeper, pan version of a traditional Napolitano style), pork chops braised in tomato and of course, pasta. Thinner, extruded style pastas were still purchased, in the familiar brands we know today, but the rolled pasta was always made by hand. Mixed, rolled, pressed, formed and filled to maximize the use of ingredients and variety for the week. My dad learned the techniques, not from a written recipe (there were none), but from watching and interacting. Pasta was eaten at almost every meal, as a side or as the main course. It permeated his family life. It was always there. It was traditional and it was comfort food. The thoughts of pasta and its place in life became a subconscious part of his mind. So much that to this day the process of making pasta isn’t by recipe, it is by feel. When does the dough look right? Has it rested? Are those ingredients fresh? Is it AL DENTE? NO ONE likes over-cooked pasta (I’m looking at you, Olive Garden).
When I was growing up, we had pasta often. Not as frequently as we probably would have had I grown up with my great-grandmother, but hectic life gets in the way. We didn’t make the dough as often but there were readily available classic “blue box” brands that were suitable for a fettuccine, spaghetti or penne in a pinch. The dish I remember fondly was simply sautéed chicken with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes served with fettuccini. The tang of the sun-dried tomatoes and the overall heartiness of the dish always made me happy.
Eventually, I was out on my own, and college kids don’t make pasta in a dorm room. I don’t think even Italian college students do this (they just have their grandmother make it and go home for meals). But at a certain point, I started making it myself. Starting with the boxes I remembered. Combining ingredients without the aid of a recipe. I struggled. I practiced. I got better. Then, I had a child.
Not only does a child change the story, but he or she also adds to the legacy. What else is a legacy if not family? MY child will cook pasta. In fact, by three, she was already rolling her own pasta dough. Building up those arm muscles. Tasting the dough (“Eww, spinach!” she would say). All the while, learning, observing and developing an understanding of something that is so simple but rich with history—our family history.
Charlie eats pasta at least twice a week. When we do find time to make the dough, she stands on her stool next to the expansive wood board, cracks the eggs in the bowl and mixes the dough. When it’s just right and ready for rest, she wraps it up. And when it’s time to roll and cut, there is Charlie—watching, learning, absorbing all of the things she’ll one day teach her children so that the legacy continues. It will be natural. It will be easy. And it will be delicious.
Pasta is a global legacy, it is a cultural legacy, but more importantly to me, it is a family legacy. The ways I cook and the techniques I teach my daughter are things that are passed down from years of experience and love. With each dish, history extends even further. We pay homage to our culture and our families through the shared history of food, and what better way than through a homecooked plate of pasta.
This is all making me hungry. I wonder if I have any sun-dried tomatoes…