A little while ago in the comments to this post a discussion ensued about what we do and don’t know about the past. The lacunae in our knowledge are not limited to the very distant past or even the merely distant past. There’s a lot we don’t know about things that happened relatively recently. I’ve always found the history of food preparation a fascinating subject so I thought I’d use the history of spaghetti with marinara sauce as an example.
Spaghetti with tomato sauce, also known as marinara, is a staple of southern Italian cookery or almost anywhere that southern Italians live, e.g. the United States, Brazil, Chile, etc. I don’t know what things are like now but when I lived in Germany what was served in restaurants as spaghetti and tomato sauce wouldn’t even have been disgorged from any self-respecting can. By comparison Beefaroni is haute cuisine. Perhaps things are better now.
However, spaghetti with marinara hasn’t always been a pillar of southern Italian cuisine. It’s actually a relative newcomer. Let’s start with the pasta.
Once upon a time every school child both in Italy and the United States learned that Marco Polo brought noodles back with him from China and that’s how the Italians got spaghetti. That’s almost certainly wrong. Oh, he might have brought them back but pasta very much along the lines of today’s pasta was being made and used in Sicily before Marco Polo was born. Besides, Chinese noodles are made very differently.
In the Book of Roger, the Tabula Rogeriana, written in 1154 in Arabic by Muhammad al-Idrisi, the court geographer to Roger II of Sicily, there’s a brief off-hand remark that the people of the Sicilian town of Trabia were making a form of pasta in long strands from hard, African-style wheat and exporting it all over the country. This actually sort of stands to reason. The Arabs had invaded and occupied Sicily for about a century beginning in the 10th century and the Arabs, too, make several different forms of pasta. That both the Italian pasta and the Arab are made from a style of wheat originating in Africa rather than European wheat renders that origin story even more likely.
Does long strand Italian-style pasta go back even farther in time? And who invented it? Nobody really knows.
There are a number of stories about the origins of tomato sauce or marinara, e.g. invented by sailors, made by sailors’ wives when they returned home, etc. but I suspect these are largely fanciful.
Since tomatoes are a product of the New World clearly they can’t have arrived in Italy (or Sicily) prior to the 15th century. The earliest recipe for tomato sauce that I’ve been able to find referenced is in Antonio Latini’s 1692 cookbook, Lo scalco alla moderna. The earliest recipe for tomato sauce with pasta was apparently in Roman chef Francesco Leonardi’s 1790 cookbook, L’Apicio moderno.
I haven’t been able to uncover the details of these early tomato sauce recipes. They don’t seem to be online either in the original or in translation. All of the early recipes I’ve been able to discover closely resemble Escoffier’s sauce tomate: a sauce employing a roux and containing salt pork and tomato puree and seasoned with bay leaf and thyme. This sounds more like the sauce called “tomato gravy” by Italian Americans than like marinara.
None of this really reveals where the idea for marinara actually came from. I’ve found a number of medieval recipes that closely resemble Escoffier’s sauce tomate, made with figs, prunes, or apricots instead of tomatoes. Could these be the antecedent of marinara?
I have read accounts that claimed that, prior to the invention of marinara sauce, Italians ate their pasta dry, i.e. without sauce. I’m skeptical. I think that aglio e olio (pasta prepared with a sauce of olive oil and garlic) goes back as far as pasta itself. We know that the ancient Greeks were dipping their bread in olive oil more than two millenia ago. Why would eating pasta with olive oil from a trencher be so far-fetched? Among the oldest recipes in the Western world is a Roman recipe for pesto—herbs pounded in a mortar with garlic and olive oil—which they apparently used to flavor their porridge. I’m betting that pasta al pesto is pretty old, too.
The earliest recipe for spaghetti and tomato sauce I’ve been able to discover is from 1839. That’s a mere flick of the eye ago—just a couple of generations (if you’re a grandson of John Tyler, that is).
The oldest cookbook actually in my possession, a 1924 American cookbook, contains a recipe for tomato sauce that’s very much like marinara (it’s the fourth tomato sauce recipe listed). In the commentary it characterizes the sauce as “good with Italian Paste”, i.e. pasta. It wasn’t until the 1920s that spaghetti and tomato sauce became commonplace in the United States.
So, in summary:
- We don’t know when Italian-style pasta was invented or by whom. Sometime before 1100 and with Arab influence is a good guess.
- We don’t know when marinara was invented or by whom. Certainly no earlier than the 16th century. Southern Italy in the 17th century is a good guess but it might be as late as the 18th century.
- We don’t know what inspired the inventor of marinara. It’s possible that he or she was adapting a sauce that used some other kind of fruit. Or just had a lot of tomatoes sitting around.
Spaghetti and meatballs is Italian American and almost undoubtedly 20th century in origin.