How food preferences of the Chinese eating bat soup made people in the U.K. or U.S. stock up on pasta is a phenomenon that can best be explained by the butterfly effect. Of course, it is already known that this entire bat soup story was fake news, but the panic buying of pasta is real.
Dried pasta, pasta asciutta or pastasciutta as the Italians call it, is a staple food in Italy, a popular commodity in most countries. A soul nourishing comfort food, it is the cheapest and most practical food one can get their hands on. Moreover, with the global rise of the Italian kitchen, it is no longer only the food of the poor, pasta is to be found in the finest tables around the world.
In Turkey, dried pasta is called makarna, after macaroni, or machheroni, the original generic Italian names for pasta. Later these words became used for only hollow tube varieties known as elbow pasta in English. Though Turkish cuisine is rich in boiled wheaten dishes such as mantı or erişte, the arrival of makaronya, as it was first named, was a true novelty in Ottoman culinary scene in the late 1700’s. Though imported from Italy, it quickly became accessible by the masses. The first ever pasta production in the Ottoman times must be in 1830 at the Selimiye Barracks in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul, where a macaroni manufacture was started for the consumption of the army and the palace, the rest making it into Istanbul markets. In the 1913 industry reports of İzmir, there were two makarna factories in city center. Needless to say, it was one of the staple provisions of the Ottoman army in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
When we go back to the history of makarna as we know it, the word macaroni is recorded in Genoa city archives as early as 1279. By solid evidence, the myth that Marco Polo brought the art of pasta from China is totally a culinary legend, as he did not make it back home till 1295 from his journey from the Far East. Of course, the Chinese have been boiling innumerous varieties of noodles way before any other culture, at least from 1100 B.C, but in Italy it has its own history. This culinary myth originates from American macaroni producers as a way to popularize their products.
One of the first encounters of Americans with pasta happened at the highest level when the third president, Thomas Jefferson, ordered a pasta-making device from Napoli in 1789. Though the voyage of pasta from the Old World to the New World started at the presidential level, the image of macaroni was later associated with lower levels, especially with the influx of an almost five million Italians coming to America between 1880 and 1921. The social strata of Italian immigrants in the early nineteenth century were in pretty dim condition, so the National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America (today NPA-National Pasta Association) sought for other ways to romanticize the history of pasta. It was in an ad in the Macaroni Journal that appeared in 1929, when the first Marco Polo twist appeared. The ads of the period used to be in the form of long narrative stories, so it was like a believable make-up, perhaps one of the biggest promotion success stories ever.
The story is hilariously unbelievable, it goes as such: Marco Polo was cruising his way in China Sea to exotic lands on an Italian sailing boat (the Italians must have found the way around Africa way before Vasco da Gama), one crew member going ashore spots locals made long threads of dough, reports it back to the ship, and guess what? That crew member was named Macaroni. At that point, I’d say that it should be Macarono, or whatever, if not referring to a group of Mafioso brothers in defense of elbow pasta. Nevertheless, a culinary legend was born, embarrassingly repeated by so many so-called food authorities, a fakelore still not extinguished totally.
While the popularization of pasta was happening outside Italy, there was a wave of un-popularizing pasta in its home country. Interestingly there is a belief that Mussolini tried to ban pasta. A New York Times news dated Aug. 8, 1926 writes exactly this: “The climax of Fascism has been reached. Nothing since the black shirts were first donned can compare in its way with the importance of Premier Mussolini’s announcement that spaghetti must go — its place to be taken by potatoes — to help conserve wheat.”
Actually, Mussolini did not ban pasta, but scorned it, but also, in a way, paradoxically encouraged the growth of durum wheat for its production. Today, in Italy pasta is a way of life. It is an identity card of Italians even beyond the national anthem or flag. As we see, all nations beyond borders, people are stocking their pantry with dried pasta. It is a proven fact that pasta unites everybody in a strange way. In Italy, it united the nation, equating rich and poor, north and south alike.
Now it is the time of equinox, when day and night is equated. Let it be the day for the world uniting over a box of pasta as their sole choice of sustenance food. This pasta mania spreading as fast as Covid-19 gives me hope, a hope that will hopefully make the world’s people reach consensus on saving the planet, and I want to say just as the Italians say nowadays: “Andrá tutto bene.”