My thanks to Europa Editions and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
A Short History of Spaghetti and Tomato Sauce is a short, readable, interesting and well-researched account of how Italy’s most iconic dish, described by some as the ‘premier Italian dish’, came to be.
The author, Massimo Montanari, a professor of mediaeval history, sets out the background for his exploration by pointing out that origins, while important, are something that we end up attaching too much importance to (‘the idol of origin’). It is not origin alone that makes something, but also the social, economic, cultural and other circumstances that influenced it, and it is with these also that the historian must concern himself, not simply statements of fact.
And so it is for spaghetti and tomato sauce, for it is not a dish that came about in some accidental or deliberate moment of creation but one that was built up gradually with various influences and impacted by social, economic and cultural factors. In fact, none of the ingredients that make up this dish—whether the pasta itself (at least in its dried form), or the tomato or chilli, onion or garlic, came from Italy and none were immediately accepted or eaten by the people instantly—pasta and cheese for instance not being initially considered the food of the nobility, and tomatoes seen as noxious by physicians. It is only gradually and over time that the elements began to come together and form the dish we know (and love) today.
In each of the chapters, the author considers the different elements that make up this dish—pasta (which was initially not even seen as a genus), the dried form of which came from Arab influence; cheese; tomato (and from it tomato sauce, something initially thought of as Spanish); chilli, onions and garlic, basil and even the olive oil that we today see as the essence of Italian cuisine, but which was a rather recent entrant into the dish of spaghetti and tomato sauce. And it is not just the ingredients and the way they and the recipes they are part of came together, but also the way the dish was eaten (forks were not in common use otherwise) which brought about changes to the way things were done.
For these developments we look at not only chefs and recipe books (I didn’t realise that there were recipe books on tablets—the stone ones I mean—as well), but also travellers and explorers, conquerors/rulers and physicians, all of whom played a role in the making up of the dish in one way or other.
From issues of etymology and the origin of ingredients, to physicians’ pronouncements and actual recipes, this discussion covers plenty of ground and reveals many interesting facts. Montanari also looks into how the dish or pasta more generally became a symbol of identity, both in a positive sense as a symbol of unity of the people, as well as to tease and in a pejorative sense.
I found this to be a really enjoyable and informative account, and one which also left me wanting to eat a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce (any pasta, really) without much delay! (And on a more serious note, with the thought that ‘roots’ are perhaps not quite as limited as we think they are.)