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AN ITALY WITHOUT TOMATO SAUCE

November 3, 2013

Tags: Italian food, Renaissance

Although Machiavelli was an indisputable Italian, a card-carrying, board-certified Florentine, never in his life did he eat a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Food allergies? A gluten-free diet? We need not resort to such fantastical (and 21st century) explanations. Personal taste or distaste? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Neither did our Machiavelli ever touch potatoes, corn, zucchini, nor peanuts, nor pecans, nor pumpkins. It was a supply-side problem. All of these fruits and vegetables (and many others) came from the Americas and did not begin arriving in Europe in any significant quantity until mid-way through the 16th century. (Our man died in 1527, a few years too early to enjoy the imported treats.)

So, what did they eat in Renaissance Italy? Did they subsist entirely on a diet of frozen pizzas? Well no, although various types of flatbread had existed and were consumed in the Mediterranean since the days of antiquity. (Incidentally, the word pizza derives from the same Latin and Greek roots as “pita,” flatbreads all.) The 16th century Italian would have adorned his flatbread with oil, herbs and cheese.

What about pasta? Didn’t Marco Polo (1254-1324) bring that back from China? Again, not really. Pasta had existed in Italy since time immemorial. The Roman poet Horace makes reference to lasagna in his writings from the 1st Century BC. The story of this famous, fabled and utterly fictitious overland importation was first promulgated in the a 1929 article in Macaroni Journal, a publication of a consortium of food industry players whose goal was to promote the consumption of pasta in the United States. Maybe it was rice noodles that Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China? In which case, they never really did catch on.

Even in sober Florence, however, by the 15th century the preparation and consumption of copious amounts of pasta caught the attention of more than one disapproving and gluttony-denouncing cleric. Even thought the source of the following sermon is unclear, many think it was Savonarola himself who issued the following thunderous indictment from his pulpit: “It is not enough for you to eat your pasta fried. No! You think you have to add garlic to it, and when you eat ravioli, it is not enough to boil it in a pot and eat it in it’s juices, you have to fry it in another pan and cover it with cheese!”

Fried pasta? Hmmmmm. Keep in mind that pasta was made fresh at this time. The manufacture of dried durum wheat semolina spaghetti would have to wait another 100 years for the perfection of the extrusion process and big manufacturers like Buitoni wouldn’t appear on the scene until the 19th century. So fried pasta: think of frying soft cuts or sheets of pasta. The result, stuffed, might resemble a Chinese fried dumpling.

Otherwise the Italians (and everybody else) ate anything that moved: all sorts of animals, both domesticated and wild, fish and shellfish, poultry, game birds. They even ate with relish, the parts that today we consider beyond the pale: the inner organs of beasts and fowls, brains, heads, tails, legs, feet.

Before all the exotic importations from the New World, much was taken from the Middle East and North Africa. Since the time of the Crusades, onward Christian soldiers were marching back to Europe with rice, sugar, spinach, artichokes, cauliflower, and eggplant.

Because sobriety was an integral part of the Florentine and Tuscan character, generally speaking, two meals a day were eaten by most people. One at nine or ten in the morning, the other just before dark. The meal might begin with fruit--melon was popular--or a salad. The main dish might be pasta or meat or both. There was also a rich variety of salad greens, as well as peas, broccoli, cabbage and asparagus. Early varieties of risotto were widely eaten. The meal was concluded with something light and sweet.

Of course, the wealthy, as is their wont, ate more and better—trout, thrushes, pheasant, stews. How about a peacock stuffed with prunes? Peacock was an important luxury dish—until it was replaced, again by a new arrival from America—the turkey.

So Italy would have to wait another couple of hundred years for the tomato to establish itself. Indeed, the first arrivals were not all that promising. Around 1554 a description was published of the pomo d’oro, the golden apple. It was in fact yellow and not much larger than a cherry. It would take Italians another 200 years as their gardeners busied themselves with breeding, selecting and assiduously cultivating the fruit before the tomato came into its own.

If the Italians were slow to adopt and adapt to the produce of the New World, once they began to do so in earnest, miracles resulted. Consider, as a counter-example, the English, sober eaters if ever there was such a thing, When Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato back from the Americas, it was introduced at the court of Queen Elizabeth—where it was eaten raw! And in the intervening centuries, our English cousins have concocted nothing more sublime with it than “and chips,” as in, fish and chips.

Comments

  1. November 3, 2013 4:53 PM EST
    Potato, potatoe, tomato, tomatoe, glad they didn't call the whole thing off!
    - Pinky
  2. November 3, 2013 7:48 PM EST
    I always thought spaghetti and tomato sauce, let alone pizza, tasted supernatural. A truly Yummy miracle! Thank you Italians for your earnest efforts.
    - Mary Ann
  3. August 22, 2017 9:57 AM EDT
    Fascinating. I want to read more!
    - Susie
  4. April 25, 2018 4:00 PM EDT
    thank you indigenous people
    - Anonymous
  5. August 7, 2018 3:26 PM EDT
    Indeed a joy, thank God for the labors of the New World. At least those labors that did not prove wholesale-cultural fatality...
    - MysteryGo

Selected Works

Historical Fiction
Machiavelli is a big, obstreperous historical novel set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance. This epic piece of storytelling brings the world of fifteenth-century Italy to life as it traces Machiavelli’s rise from young boy to controversial political thinker.

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