Cover image for Pasta : the story of a universal food
Pasta : the story of a universal food
Serventi, Silvano.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Pasta. English
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxi, 439 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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Format :


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Material Type
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TX809.M17 S4713 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Ranging from the imperial palaces of ancient China and the bakeries of fourteenth-century Genoa and Naples all the way to the restaurant kitchens of today, Pasta tells a story that will forever change the way you look at your next plate of vermicelli. Pasta has become a ubiquitous food, present in regional diets around the world and available in a host of shapes, sizes, textures, and tastes. Yet, although it has become a mass-produced commodity, it remains uniquely adaptable to innumerable recipes and individual creativity. Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food shows that this enormously popular food has resulted from of a lengthy process of cultural construction and widely diverse knowledge, skills, and techniques.

Many myths are intertwined with the history of pasta, particularly the idea that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China and introduced it to Europe. That story, concocted in the early twentieth century by the trade magazine Macaroni Journal , is just one of many fictions umasked here. The true homelands of pasta have been China and Italy. Each gave rise to different but complementary culinary traditions that have spread throughout the world. From China has come pasta made with soft wheat flour, often served in broth with fresh vegetables, finely sliced meat, or chunks of fish or shellfish. Pastasciutta , the Italian style of pasta, is generally made with durum wheat semolina and presented in thick, tomato-based sauces. The history of these traditions, told here in fascinating detail, is interwoven with the legacies of expanding and contracting empires, the growth of mercantilist guilds and mass industrialization, and the rise of food as an art form.

Whether you are interested in the origins of lasagna, the strange genesis of the Chinese pasta bing or the mystique of the most magnificent pasta of all, the timballo , this is the book for you. So dig in!

Author Notes

Silvano Serventi is a historian of food and of French and Italian culinary practices. He is the author of many books, including The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy (with Odile Redon and Françoise Sabban).

Françoise Sabban is a sinologist and director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Antony Shugaar is coauthor of Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator and translator of The Judge and the Historian by Carlo Ginzburg, and Niccolo's Smile and Republicanism by Maurizio Viroli. He lives in Arlington, VA.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In the last 50 years, pasta has risen from ethnic oddity to ubiquity. A bowl of well-sauced spaghetti is both dinner and comfort food. Although pasta is virtually synonymous with Italy, modern historians suspect pasta originated in China and came very early to the Mediterranean basin, thanks in part to Arab merchants. Once it reached up the Italian peninsula, pasta developed in a wholly different culinary direction than in the East. By the fifth century, Italian cooks were already producing a forebear of baked lasagna. Pasta's march to universality probably began about the fifteenth century in Sicily, where the technique of drying hard wheat pasta for export came into being on an industrial scale. Naples' climate proved ideal for drying pasta doughs, and it dominated world trade until technological breakthroughs led to artificial simulation of favorable Neapolitan weather. Serventi and Sabban's remarkable tracing of pasta's history and development makes this a central addition to the history of food. An extensive bibliography testifies to the rigor of their scholarship. --Mark Knoblauch

Publisher's Weekly Review

The latest entry in Columbia's series, Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, is stuffed as tight as cannelloni with facts, numbers and quotes. If at times it is a little dry-through no fault of a very competent translation-it still stands as one of the most thorough histories to date of this beloved food. From the stuffed pastas of the Middle Ages (known as tortelli, because they were considered bite-sized cakes) to the artisan-produced pastas that made a comeback in Italy in the 1990s, Serventi and Sabban touch all the necessary bases and then some. A section on pasta in China begins with a lengthy "Ode to Bing" (noodles) by the scholar Shu Xi (264?-304?) and leads up through the Ming Dynasty, which the authors describe as the peak of pasta production in China, to modern-day ramen noodles, invented in Japan in 1958. The treatment of pasta development in Italy is even more complete and includes overviews of early pasta-making equipment and the role of women in its manufacture. The chapter "Pasta Without Borders," about the spread of pasta from Italy to the rest of the world (laying to rest Marco Polo myth), is an excellent study not only of pasta but of the way a single product can mutate and influence various economies over time. Perhaps too encyclopedic to be taken in at a single sitting, this is no doubt the exhaustive new authority on its subject (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This scholarly treatise on pasta delves into the origins and uses of pasta and its manufacture first by hand and then commercially. The detailed and critical analysis of primary texts debunks the commonly held myth that pasta was transported between continents by Marco Polo. Further, these careful explorations trace pasta's beginnings and transport. Word derivations, ships' logs, tax exemption decrees, early Chinese odes, records of emperor poisonings, and woodcuts and machine drawings are just some of the documents used to ascertain the use and trade of this foodstuff in China and the Mediterranean region, from Arabic countries to Andalusia. How and when various pastas are eaten, and why certain shapes and uses are preferred in different areas, are all considered. Food historians will appreciate the bibliography. There are many tidbits of information to add spice to one's knowledge of food, just as a good sauce spices a pleasant pasta. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. J. M. Jones College of St. Catherine

Table of Contents

Note Concerning a Definition of Pasta Products
Introduction: In the Beginning Was Wheat
The King of Cereals of the Mediterranean
Wheat in China, a Latter-Day Use
1 The Infancy of an Art
2 The Time of the Pioneers
3 From the Hand to the Extrusion Press
4 The Golden Age of the Pasta Manufactory
5 The Industrial Age
6 Pasta Without Borders
7 The Time of Plenty
8 The Taste for Pasta
9 China: Pasta's Other Homeland
10 The Words of Pasta