Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pasta Through Time

Although pasta was generally associated with Italy, and indeed many of the varied shapes originated from that country, the first pasta was actually Chinese. The development of an agricultural civilization led to pasta, possibly around 3000 B.C. ancient Greeks considered pasta "marcus"—meaning "divine food." An Etruscan tomb created around 400 B.C. depicted the making of the grain product. Horace, a poet who lived in the first century B.C., described lasagna as one course of a Roman banquet.

Pasta was also a part of the cuisine of the Middle East. The Jewish and Arabic cultures, as well as that of Persia, discussed pasta as well as noodles. Germans consumed it, and the Genoese ate it in the thirteenth century. All of this took place before Marco Polo's legendary expedition to China, which led to the widespread consumption by Italians, who added red tomatoes to the recipe.

Noodles were consumed in the New World, prepared in the manner popular among the British—accompanied with a cream sauce and cheese.

Thomas Jefferson's drawings of a Macaroni machine and instructions on how to make pasta

Thomas Jefferson was the first prominent American to embrace pasta, when he purchased a "macaroni" machine in Italy and shipped it to the United States. An Italian restaurateur in Richmond, Virginia, served pasta to his influential clientele, which included Jefferson.

By 1848, French miller Antoine Zerega opened the first macaroni factory. He followed both Chinese and Italian traditions, drying strands of spaghetti on the rooftop of his Brooklyn factory. The subsequent immigration of large numbers of Italians to New York helped bring pasta into the mainstream of American cuisine.

A subtle wheat flavor was considered the ideal taste for pasta, since blandness prevented the pasta noodle from competing with the flavor of the sauce. The ideal texture of pasta was obtained when it was cooked "al dente." This translated from Italian literally as "to the tooth," but it described a noodle that was firm when chewed.

In the two decades from 1975 to 1995, Americans increased their pasta consumption by 90 percent. Pasta was manufactured almost exclusively in the United States from durum semolina wheat. A growing consumer preference for nutritious, low-fat foods boosted the health of the industry, nearly doubling mean annual per capita consumption in the last 20 years to 24 pounds. In 1995, the typical consumer ate pasta an average of 2.7 times a week. The increased consumption was also due to a shift in consumer perceptions: it gained popularity among middle class and affluent adults and seniors, rather than beingviewed as a meal for children or the working poor, as was the case during the 1960s. However, a shift toward low-carbohydrate diets in the late 1990s began to under-mine dry pasta sales.

The value of industry shipments declined steadily in the late 1990s, falling from nearly $1.8 billion in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2000. During this time period the number of employees in this industry declined from slightly more than 6,000 to roughly 4,300.

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