Pasta is, for all intents and purposes, a comfort food…Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is a culinary connection to our past.
Tori Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta,” npr.com
Three times in the past week…on a blog, on a cooking site, and on Facebook…someone has written something very like this:
I was stuck at home because of COVID, and I was anxious. So there was nothing else to do but to cook pasta.
And, oh, I get that. Since we’ve been becalmed by COVID, we have discovered new pasta favorites. Pancetta now has a permanent place on our every-third-week pick-up order from Kroger. A serious question we deeply ponder is, “Red sauce or Alfredo?”
Somehow our gluten concerns have morphed and shifted; we still don’t do a lot of bread…but no one best be messing with the availability of our pasta.
Pasta: the anti-COVID complications meal.
The idea of pasta as comfort is nothing new; just look at the wonderful success of Giulia Melucci’s memoir with recipes, I Loved, I Lost, I Ate Spaghetti.
Pasta has made us feel better for a long, long time.
Did Marco Polo really bring us pasta? I go digging and unearth an article by NPR’s Tory Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta.” And there I find that pasta was already piquing palates on the shores of the Mediterranean BEFORE Polo ever left for his monumental travels: another childhood cultural belief busted.
But pasta is descended from Asian noodles; in Asia, they’ve been making noodles, says Avey, for thousands of years. Probably, she says, Middle Eastern nomads first brought noodles to Europe. By necessity, Europeans (not having such things as breadfruit trees or rice paddies, so much) changed the ingredients, using the flours they had on hand.
Italians christened the food; the word pasta, sensibly, comes from the Italian word for paste.
And nearly every culture has its own pasta, Avey writes. Think spaetzle and orzo; think kreplach dumplings.
It was Spanish settlers who brought pasta to the United States and the Americas; then Thomas Jefferson insured its US reception after spending time in Paris, where he indulged in lots, it is written, of macaroni. He brought two cases of the stuff back with him, and rapidly sent forth an order for more.
In the late 1800’s, many Neapolitan immigrants came to the United States, bringing their love of pasta and their tasty recipes. And with that elemental boost, pasta became a staple of American life.
That’s the global history. Each of us, every family, every person, has their own personal pasta history, too.
Penne a la vodka, sausage and peppers, baked ziti, eggplant rollitini, homemade calzones….
Not all pasta but those are the Italian dishes Adolph cooks when he has the time. And of course homemade meatballs and sauce. The kids always say Grandma Rose’s are still the best.
Meg Lanza, South Carolina
I may have mentioned that my mother, good Depression kid that she was, tended to cut some ingredients and beef up the cheaper bits in dishes to stretch them, to fill the gaping maws of her always hungry family. We were hard-pressed to find more than two chocolate chips in a cookie, for instance. (“You don’t need all that chocolate!”)
Her spaghetti sauce was pretty thin; I called it Scottish red sauce. And there was a lot of floury white sauce in her macaroni and cheese.
I remember one family dinner a long, long time ago, when I was very little. It was a Friday night in the Catholic days of “no meat” rules. The hungry horde gathered at the table. My mother put down a thick dish towel and then went back to the kitchen for a huge Pyrex casserole of mac and cheese, crushed crackers burnt on the top. She plunked that down on the folded towel.
There was a steaming bowl of canned peas, too.
We said grace, of course (Blessusohlordandthesethygifts…) My mother stood up and scooped big dollops of macaroni casserole onto our plates. The peas got passed around.
Then there was quiet for a moment. Mom had her head bent, surveying her plate.
“Annie,” she murmured—referring to her sister—, “makes the best macaroni and cheese. People beg her to make it. I ask and ask, but she won’t tell me her secret.”
A pause. Then, “Maybe,” a small, anonymous voice said into the stillness, “she uses CHEESE.”
Every head snapped upward, my mother’s first of all. In the shocked silence, she swiveled her eagle eye, looking for the culprit.
Every face was washed clean of guile; innocence shone at that table.
There was one of those impossible, long moments, and then, my father couldn’t stand it. He laughed.
Then my mother did, too, and then the whole table exploded into that kind of relieved, released laughter that follows a moment of grave danger.
No one was ever stupid enough to claim the cheese remark as their own, though. And it seems to me that, after that, Mom started experimenting with exotic cheeses, like cheddar, in her baked macaroni.
So I did not grow up a huge fan of red sauce or mac and cheese (that would come later), but I did love my mother’s tuna pasta salad. It was tendered as a side dish, but for me, a big cold bowl of tuna pasta salad was summer’s perfect meal.
I like macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I just get it frozen, but I add some truffle oil to zing it up! I also have spaghetti sauce which I make with turkey burger instead of meat.
Kimberly Allen, Central New York
Pasta needn’t be complicated. I remember my friend Liza fixing a simple lunch when we were in eighth grade: canned tomato soup with elbow macaroni. It was AWESOME. How simple is that? I thought, and I made the dish for myself at home for a long time after.
This year, family meals loom large during a stay-at-home time, and we’ve gone delving into cookbooks for different methods. A long-simmered sauce is a delight on a cold or rainy day, but, temps grazing ninety, it’s nice to have a simple top-of-the-stove sauce that’s ready in half an hour or so.
We love Alfredo sauce: so easy, and so tasty! And there’s a red sauce in the Joy of Cooking—just called ‘Meat Sauce,’ I think—that’s a ‘sauté the pancetta and onion, open cans of tomatoes, throw your herbs in and wait a minute,’ kind of concoction, and it is GOOD.
The just-right-simmered pasta, the perfect tangy sauces: they don’t have to take forever. It doesn’t have to hurt to make them. Simplicity can be just the ticket.
Mark, though, has a wonderfully rich pasta-history. His old friends will still reminisce: Remember when we went to your house for dinner in college? And your dad made sauce? I can still taste those meatballs; they were the best…
Mark’s father, Angelo, and mother, Pat, simmered many, many pots of Sunday red sauce, and they were complex and wonderful concoctions. There were meatballs, always, but there could be fresh Italian sausage, too. (If there wasn’t, Pat usually sprinkled in dried fennel, to suggest that sausage flavor.) There might be tender pieces of chicken or pork, meat pulling away from the bones, bones imbuing the sauce. There could be pork hocks simmering in that sauce. There could (dear God!) be tripe.
There would be a giant pot of bubbling, salted water; that would produce mounds and mounds of perfectly-cooked pasta.
No matter how many people gathered around that table, enlarged by two or three leaves, no one was in danger of leaving hungry.
In Lenten times, and on Fridays before Vatican II, Angelo would make an array of meatless sauces. Clam sauce just never called me close; instead, it yelled at me to run the other way. And many of Mark’s family loved spaghetti and sardines, which also boasted chunks of hard-boiled egg in the sauce.
A few years before he died, Angelo painstakingly copied down the method for spaghetti and sardines and sent it off to Mark. That letter is a treasured family document.
But I confess I have never followed the recipe.
Acquired tastes, some pasta presentations are, but for those who grew up eating those rich, unique creations, a forkful brings back warm and gentle days.
And another good thing about pasta: it’s relatively cheap. I remember being invited for meals during college, at apartments that sported bean bag chairs and cotton Indian-print throws on the walls; I remember sitting cross-legged on pillows and eating plates of spaghetti noodles and red sauce at someone’s coffee table. (How…trendy! How…Asian fused with Italian! How…I hobbled when I finally stood up!)
I remember, too, going out to fancy restaurants with friends in much, much younger days. Half an hour before we were to meet, I would be digging down the back of the seats of my car for enough change to pad the feeble contents of my wallet, to insure that I’d have ready cash to eat a modest dinner, have a glass of wine, and give the server a reasonable tip. Usually I would spend every penny, and always I would order the pasta, the cheapest thing on the menu.
Never once was I jealous of the steaks or cordon bleus that my more prosperous (or frugal) table neighbors might be eating; in that little city, with its heavy Italian cultural influence, the pasta dishes were uniformly GOOD.
Well…sometimes you just need spaghetti and meatballs…
Jodi McKinney, Pennsylvania (https://lifeinbetween.me/2020/06/21/find-joy-in-the-journey/)
I remember another restaurant, this one in Detroit, Michigan, where Mark and I traveled soon after we were married. The friends we visited there took us to a wonderful, hole-in-the-wall, red-checked tablecloth, candle-in-a-wine-bottle, kind of Italian restaurant. There it was that I had my first taste of homemade pasta.
Whoa! I put down my fork and waited until the angels finished singing.
Where had THAT been all my life?
I swear the eating of perfect pasta can be a spiritual experience.
In fact, it must be, because a lot of Catholic school expenses are offset by spaghetti suppers. Mark and I worked at many of those, when our boys attended parochial schools. Mark did not always agree with the cooking methods, his particular definition of red sauce clashing with the definition of whomever headed the cooking team.
Often, I’d finding him working in the serving line, or bussing tables at those events.
“I had to get out of the kitchen,” he’d say. “I couldn’t watch.
But the eaters ate up all that spaghetti; the dinners racked up dollars for the kids.
We learned a different kind of spiritual sharing when we worked at Hot Meals at our Mount Vernon church; once a year or so, Mark would orchestrate a red sauce dinner, with meatballs and Italian sausage: the kind of dinners his parents proudly served. The guests at those dinners were kind and gentle people with fascinating pasts and incredible adventures who were, for a time, down on their luck.
They loved Mark’s spaghetti.
“This is like getting pasta in a New York City restaurant,” one woman said to him, coming back for seconds. And Mark beamed.
Eating good pasta is wonderful. Cooking and sharing it is divine.
Maddie loves spaghetti and meatballs. Nothing homemade or fancy, usually no time for that, we just doctor up jarred sauce and frozen milk/egg free meatballs. Noel is not a fan, so I either make a lighter sauce or we make it when he’s traveling. I make extra and send it to school for Maddie’s lunch.
My brother-in-law makes this incredible chicken spaghetti; it’s seriously so good. Not sure exactly what he does, and it’s a little different each time cuz he uses stuff we have on hand. Spaghetti, chicken, a little green and red peppers just for flavor, chicken flavoring; he’ll put chopped up ham in it also if we have some to use up. He threw a little tomato sauce in it last time (but doesn’t usually) and it still wasn’t tomato-y at all.
Chicken penne pasta has always been on our routine dinner menu, but I recently tried this new recipe. It was really good and will replace our original chicken penne. Based on the review comments I used one cup less chicken broth and added extra chicken flavoring for taste. Used dairy free whipping cream and then after everything was mixed together separated Maddie’s out. Baked hers with her cheese and baked ours with mozzarella instead of Gruyere cheese.
The last few years Gabby started doing the southern thing and wanting to have mac & cheese at Thanksgiving. This year we used a recipe that incorporated jalapeno peppers, and it was really, really good. Not something I would make on a regular basis because of Maddie, but definitely something I’ll do for Thanksgiving from now on and anytime it’s appropriate.
And here’s another thing about pasta: you can bring your whole self to it, and you can adapt it to whomever is eating. As I mentioned, Mark’s parents were adventurous about what they’d throw in broth to simmer; we may not do tripe or sardines, or, God forbid, a single clam, but we often simmer pork and chicken in the pot. We’ve cut sliced pepperoni into fine bits and thrown them in when sautéing the veggies, and that’s perked in a bright flavor. Zucchini and yellow squash are lovely in red sauce, too, we’ve found, and I have a friend who sweetens the pot by throwing in a carrot or two.
Different friends use different spices; I have had nutmeg and cinnamon in sauces served by special people, and those sauces have intriguing flavors.
My niece Shayne has a sweet daughter, Maddie, who has food allergies, so Shayne makes pasta with ingredients she’s hunted down: egg-free noodles, dairy-free cheese, and other inventive ingredients. Maddie loves the results.
And I bet if we got twelve of us together in a room, and said, “Okay; what HAS to go in tuna pasta salad?” we’d get a dozen different answers.
When cooking with pasta, personal spins are not just welcome; they’re almost mandatory.
Aaron’s mother’s Italian family spaghetti sauce is my kids’ fave. We will argue over whether we will have thin spaghetti or rigatoni noodles when we make it. Sometimes we end up making both. Homemade noodles are a must for Thanksgiving. Jordee had aprons made for her and me that say “Team Turkey.”
Everyone likes my lasagna even though there is nothing homemade about it. I make some wicked mac n cheese when I have time to stir the sauce. We are a very big pasta family. 😊
Dr. Larisa Harper, Central Ohio
That creativity, that experimentation, comes, I think, in large part from pasta’s diverse background. Every culture, almost, has its pasta dishes, from ramen noodles to spaghetti and meatballs to real, Southern, soul food mac and cheese.
Such a wide swath of influences gives us a whole lot of freedom in what to mix in and what to omit.
We’ve been watching a new (to us) cooking show on PBS lately: Somewhere South with chef Vivian Howard. She’s a North Carolina chef; on the show, she takes an aspect of southern cooking and traces it back in unexpected and charming ways. So, on her show, we might meet Southern cooks of color, chefs from Indian roots, those who are descended from Chinese settlers, or those whose cuisine owes its flair to Jewish culture. We meet chefs from European backgrounds and those whose Hispanic cooking tradition came their way via Central and South America. What I have thought of as ‘traditional’ southern cuisine has far-reaching, fascinating, evolving influences.
The other night, we watched an episode about dumplings, which Howard was hard-pressed to define. She went to visit her chicken picker, a young, spunky southern woman, who got interested in Howard’s dumpling quest.
“Well,” she asked Howard, “did you eat chicken and dumplings or chicken and pasta where you were grown?”
They cut to a clip of women assembling chicken and pasta…putting the cooked chicken in a pot, covering it with small squares of translucent pasta, layering more chicken and broth and pasta squares until the pot was full, putting it on the range top to simmer.
It looked delicious. It looked like comfort. That comfort tradition shoots its roots long and deep into our collective pasts.
We had tuna pasta salad today! I sometimes make it with shell macaroni but today I used elbow macaroni because it’s what I had. We love lasagna and Paul decided a couple of years ago that thin spaghetti wasn’t working for him, so we use rotini now. Either way, though…pasta is at the center of many of our favorite meals!
Dr. Terry Herman, Central Ohio
None of this would make one tiny bit of difference if pasta didn’t taste so darned good. And, during confused and anxious days, we need to nurture and fortify ourselves.
We need comfort right now. COVID-19 case numbers are spiking in the United States; this disease could be with us for quite some time.
“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” says the Center for Disease Control website.
We shouldn’t use food as a crutch, but a meal, savored thoughtfully, can lift us up. It can connect us with absent people, with different times; it can remind us that one day, we’ll gather around a groaning board again with people we care about. “Comfort food is all about flavors that we associate with some of our most important life experiences – moments that warm our hearts,” say the authors of ilgustononmente (https://www.oliocarli.us/magazine/inspiration-of-gourmet/cooking-at-home).
So it’s no surprise we turn to pasta. It gives us a creative surge; it doesn’t break the bank. It reminds us of special times and special people. At its absolute best, well, yes: it makes my soul sing.
And mostly, mainly, magnificently: it tastes good.
These are weird and unsettling days; they are days when we need to be gentle with our anxious selves.
No wonder so many of us are in the kitchen, planning how to fix our pasta.