“Seriously, the way you Greeks carry on about inventing everything!” my Italian school friend observed. “But you haven’t invented anything that people actually like. Look at us Italians. No we didn’t invent geometry, or theatre, but we invented fashion and of course, pasta. Everyone over the entire world eats pasta. Not everyone eats souvlaki.”
This conversation took place when I was in year 9 and I had available to me no counter-arguments by way of riposte. My own inordinate love of pasta was the subject of family mirth and it was widely accepted that I must have been an Italian in a previous life, it being accepted without question that pasta was of Italian provenance, given that a rebetiko song observes: «Έλληνας φασολάς, Ιταλός μακαρονάς.» As a last resort, I reverted to the tried and tested schoolyard Parthian shot: “I don’t know why you are so proud of the Italians. You are from Sicily, therefore you are actually Greek.” This earned me what was in those days termed, a sconing.
Years later, while at university, I was invited by a pneumatic, in the Huxleian sense, Italian classmate, to her home where she demonstrated to me how home-made pasta was produced. Feeding the dough into a ruby red pasta machine, with slow, considered movements, she flicked back her flowing locks and glancing over her shoulder in what could only have been described as a Nigella-like flourish, save for the fact that Nigella had not yet been invented, she glided her long, sinuous fingers across the machine languidly, purring: “Don’t you just love its smooth lines?”
I didn’t. There seemed something perversely self-indulgent about a machine that reminded me of an ancient Greek water organ extruding lengths of self-indulgent dough from its multifarious orifices, yet I held my peace. For it was only much later that I discovered that according to Greek mythology, the great god of all artificers, Hephaestus invented a device that made strings of dough. His then, is the earliest reference to a pasta maker, suggesting that pasta, a foodstuff synonymous with Italy, is in fact Greek.
Or then again maybe not. Hephaestus’s forges were said to be located underneath Mount Aetna, in Sicily, so it is probably safer to speak of a Magna Grecian provenance for pasta, rather than a broader Greek one.
As Greeks, we generally don’t use the word pasta, except by those culturally suspect Heptanesians who have introduced us to pastitsio. Yet the Italian word, meaning dough or a pastry cake, is, according to scholars, a latinisation of the Greek παστά, being a form of barley porridge. Instead, as early as the works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen, we find mention of the word itrion, signifying homogeneous compounds made of flour and water. This word must have been in use in Sicily right up until the Arab conquest for it passed into Arabic as “Itriyya,” in turn giving rise to “trie” in Italian, signifying long strips such as tagliatelle and trenette.
By comparison, the Greek word referring to pasta in all its manifold forms, is μακαρόνια, appearing also in Italian as maccheroni. Yet this seemingly Latin word also attests to the usages and customs of the Greeks of Magna Graecia, that is, of Southern Italy, who settled there as colonists in ancient times. For academic consensus supports that the word is derived from the Greek μακαρία a kind of barley broth which was served to commemorate the dead, much as Orthodox Greeks make kollyva to commemorate their dead in memorial services today. Makaria, in turn, is held to derive from μάκαρες, meaning “blessed dead”, which is the word used to describe them in the Orthodox memorial service and ultimately from μακάριος, collateral of μάκαρ which means “blessed” or “happy,” which is exactly how I feel when I consume said μακαρόνια, especially alla puttanesca, which is always the source of saucy and imaginative conversation around the family dinner table.
Italian linguist Giorgio Alessio has looked further into the provenance of the world. He traces it to the Byzantine Greek μακαρώνεια, which was a funeral meal, comparable to the rice-based dish served at funerals in Eastern Thrace until modern times, which was known as μαχαρωνιά. Consequently, Alessio posits the term would be composed of the double root of μακάριος, meaning “blessed” and αἰωνίος meaning “eternal,” always in keeping with Orthodox funerary customs.
Enough evidence exists however, to suggest a much older provenance for pasta and in particular, believe it or not, lasagna, which is about as Greek a dish as it gets. We know that lasagne has been eaten in Italy since Roman times, as a dish similar to the traditional lasagne called lasana or lasanum ( which is Latin word for “container”, is described in the book De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the oldest ever cookbooks. It also appears in the first century writings of Horace, as lagana, described as fine sheets of fried dough and as being an everyday foodstuff. Nonetheless, scholars hold that the word has a more ancient origin and is derived from the Greek λάγανον a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips. Other theories hold the Latin to be derived from the Greek λάσανα or λάσανον meaning a “trivet or stand for a pot” and it is postulated that Romans used the Greek word to refer to the dish in which lasagne is made and gradually, the name of the food took on the name of the serving dish, in the same way as Middle Easterners refer to a dish roast vegetables as «ταψί».
Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his second century work “Deipnosophistae,” or “Dinner-table Philosophers, ” provides a mouth-watering recipe for lagana which he attributes to the first century Chrysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep-fried in oil. The word lagana, of course, is still used in Greek today to mean a flat thin type of unleavened bread baked for the Clean Monday holiday, at the beginning of Lent.
Somewhere within the mists that shroud our history, the Greek people lost their macaroni making propensities. This is a great shame, as we were nowhere to be seen when the Italian pasta eating craze took over the world by store and were thus, unable to profit from it, our cuisine losing the sexiness that it might otherwise have had. This, it should be emphasised, took place through no fault of our own, but rather, as a result of Roman commercial aggression. Athenaeus described the Greeks of Italy as having created the first patents . According to his “Deipnosophistae” in 500 BC, in the Greek city of Sybaris in southern Italy, there were annual culinary competitions. The victor was given the exclusive right to prepare and sell his Masterchef signature dish for one year. This is a practice that obviously was discontinued after the city was taken over by the Romans along with all intellectual property therein.
Nonetheless, there is something truly comforting in knowing that our kitchen ruled aeons before George Calombaris was assembled by the Australian television networks. Had we been able to cling to those patents and preserved them, chances are the Magna Graecian restaurants of today, would be purveying Spaghetti alla dolmadaque, fettucini γιαχνί, ravioli γεμιστά and making an absolute killing. After all, while watching two star crossed lovers commence sucking at opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti in order for their lips to meet in the middle, witnessing two erotically charged Greeks gulp down chunks of souvlaki, tzatziki dripping ominously onto their chins, in order to achieve the same effect, is downright ridiculous.
Patents aside, the enduring Hellenic affiliation to pasta is best expressed by the late lamented Thanasis Veggos, in the movie: «Ο παλαβός κόσμος του Θανάση». Hired το participate in an advertisement for spaghetti, he cannot contain himself and gorges himself on the entire plate, all the while signing the jingle: «Τρώτε μακαρόνια, τρώτε μακαρόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση υγιεινή! Τρώνε οι παππούδες, τρώνε και τα εγγόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση σωστή!» Move over then Elgin Marbles. It’s time we reclaimed our heritage. We are hungry for it.