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Bober – Art, Culture and Cuisine   Leave a comment

Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy (Phyllis Pray Bober). Bober’s overriding theory – that there is a link between cooking and more generalised cultural trends – can politely go stew. It is presumably right though it is difficult to demonstrate for many of the periods that the author is dealing with. However, this book, which brings together her musings on food from prehistory to the late Gothic style, makes for one of the best general introductions  to food history: and all written by a wise, opinionated and witty scholar whose love affair with food began in her mother’s kitchen in the entre-duex-guerres and continued in the 1960s at NYU with her food recreation workshops. Italian content includes a remarkable rant on the origins of pasta and the question of continuity from Roman to modern Italian cooking. Her final promise to write ‘in a subsequent volume…’ was not, unfortunately, kept. Death intervened in 2002. (University of Chicago 2002). SY

Posted December 1, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Phyllis Pray Bober on the Origins of Pasta   Leave a comment

Phyllis Pray Bober (obit 2002) wrote one of the most idiosnycratic and exciting food history books of recent years with her Art, Culture and Cuisine (Chicago 1999), which touches extensively on Italian cuisine, ancient and medieval. PPB attempted the impossible in her pages – the integration of artistic styles with cooking movements. Truly ambitious stuff!

The book has not had the success it richly deserved: we hope that this plug will sell a couple more copies.

This extract – concerning the origin of pasta – gives a flavour of her work. PPB favoured the Greek invention of pasta: but this depends on the priority of the Greek pasta words over the Arabic pasta words, something that has still not been fully established.

We give here the text without footnotes so as not to anger the gods of copyright.

‘The point has come to consider the vexed question of ancient pasta. Today at least there is enough responsible writing on food history to have laid to rest a persistent fable that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China, although his only surprise at ‘pasta’ (not at a loss for the word) he met on his trip was encountering noodles made not of flour but of breadfruit growing on trees.

There are two schools of scholarly thought concerning the beginnings of simple (i.e., flat varieties, not extruded hollow types) pasta-making. One follows an Arabist, Andrew Watson, who argues that it was the Arabs who invented pasta, introducing what has become the national dish to Sicily and South Italy in their conquests of the ninth century A.D. The Arabs certainly did bring reformed methods of farming to North Africa and Europe, as well as many new products, including sugar cane, eggplants, spinach, and a broad range of citrus fruits to supplement the citrons known in antiquity from Persia. But many scholars, myself among them, argue that noodles and lasagne, whoever invented their first (inevitable?) preparation of flour and water, sometimes with added egg or other ingredients, were already well known to Greeks and Romans. Our case has been enormously advanced by modern paleobotanical research which proves that durum wheat, the gluten-rich, ‘heavy’ wheat required for good pasta, was grown from an early date and is one of the reasons that much Greek and Roman bread was very dense. It was durum wheat that made Greek semidalis – semolina. For Watson, durum wheat was not an important crop before the medieval period.

Even so, the only widely read author on cookery outside the academic community who seems to have the right explanation is Patience Gray; in Honey from a Weed she announced the discovery of those who live in Apulia and other Italian provinces once the heartland of Magna Grecia (one I made for myself in May 1995) of the etymological proof needed to supplement botanical evidence. This involves two ancient Greek words: laganon, plural lagana; and itrion, itria. When one learns that the Arabic word itrijah, found in Aramic and Hebrew cognates, means ‘noodle’, it is difficult not to see a derivation from Greek, originally connoting ‘ribbon’. In the Salentine peninsula and the region around Taranto, the dialect preserves lagana for the rolled out square of dough used by housewives to be cut into pasta, and tria (itria) survives in the local dish, tagliatelle, cooked just as in ancient Greece with chickpeas and wild arugula (rocket). Part of the pasta is preserved in browned in oil in final assembly of the speciality as in a recipe preserved in Athenaeus (XVI, 647e) that incorporates lettuce juice to make green pasta.

The ‘waters’ of the pasta invention controversy were somewhat muddied by one Italian archaeologist who supplemented linguistic evidence with that of an artefact represented in an Etruscan tomb. The rock-cut supports of the Tomba dei rilievei at Cervetri are decorated with with reliefs of objects of all kinds, some for warfare, others of household equipment. One seemed to be an ancient spianatoia, a board for rolling out pasta, complete with a little bag of extra flour hanging from one handle. Alas, definitive study of the reliefs has now identified the object as a gaming board precisely like one shown on an Etruscan mirror being used by two competing Greek heroes. This does not negate Etruscan knowledge of pasta, however, and at least one museum devoted to history of the genre holds that they even rolled flat noodles about metal needles to fashion macaroni (much as medieval and Renaissance cooks would anticipate extruded manufacture of spaghetti at a later date).

A word on the uses of pasta by Greeks and Romans. The ‘ribbons’ as we met them earlier in the mattye were seemingly partially dried and broken up to add to stewed dishes as a form of thickening. And the chickpeas with tria and greens I so relished in Apulia as atavistic Western Greek fare are matched by Horace’s supper dish of chickpeas with leeks and lagani. (116-117)

Posted November 30, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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