1. Pasta was brought back from China by Marco Polo
There are many extraordinary stories about how particular foods and dishes came about. Some are true – and others are nonsense. So how do food myths arise?
It is an odd fact, but the most enduring myths about food are often the ones that are easiest to disprove. Among the most famous is the tale of how pasta came to be the national dish of Italy: it was brought back from China by the pioneering Venetian explorer Marco Polo. The Chinese, after all, are known to have enjoyed noodles for three thousand years – and what is pasta, if not the ancient Chinese noodle under another name?
The noodle story seems plausible because the Western world adopted so many ideas and innovations from China during the Middle Ages. But the tale of the Chinese origin of pasta is a complete fabrication. To prove it, we need only to show that pasta existed in Italy before 1295, the year Marco Polo returned from his 20-year voyage of discovery in the east. Sure enough, there is a legal document dating from 1279 that lists the possessions of a Genovese soldier named Ponzio Bastone. Among them are una bariscella plena de macaronis – 'a basketful of macaroni'. It seems that footsoldiers routinely carried pasta in their rations.
The Marco Polo anecdote seems to be a fairly recent invention. In 1929 an article entitled 'A Saga of Catai' was published in the Macaroni Journal, then the official trade magazine of the US National Pasta Association. It describes how an Italian sailor with Polo's expedition went ashore in China and met a beautiful girl who was making fine strings of noodles. He persuaded her to let him try this dish and to take some noodles back to his ship to show Marco Polo. The name of this intrepid sailor: Spaghetti.
Why did such a fanciful tale catch on? It might have been the authoritative nature of the source – one would think the National Pasta Association would know where its product originated – but the appeal of the story is due mostly to its fairy-tale quality. The encounter between the humble sailor and the beautiful girl are straight out of Sinbad; the gift of noodles that turns out to be immensely valuable is like the seed from which Jack's beanstalk grew.
2. The Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich
There is another kind of food myth that might be subtitled: 'How the Hasty Solution to a Pressing Culinary Problem Turned Out To Be a Great Dish'. The archetype in this category is the sandwich, which is named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who supposedly wanted to eat supper without having to abandon his card game. It is true that the sandwich bears the earl's title, but he certainly did not invent the dish – he merely provided a new name for what was previously known as 'bread and meat'. And it is likely that Sandwich, a hard-working First Lord of the Admiralty as well as a keen card-player, ate his at his office desk rather than at the gaming table. The detail about his love of gambling adds a spicy hint of scandal to the mix and makes it a better story.
3. Pizza is an American dish
In Italy pizza was traditionally the food of the poor. In 19th-century Naples, a pizza was often no more than a flat disc of bread with salt and oil. Tomatoes were an occasional luxury and cheese did not feature until 1889, when a Neapolitan chef created a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag (with red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil) and named it in honor of the reigning queen, Margherita. This was the dish that Italian emigrants took to the USA at the turn of the century. The first American pizzeria opened in New York in 1905, but the dish did not catch on outside the Italian community.
Pizza only came to the attention of the broader American public after the Second World War. The late 1940s saw a countrywide pizza boom. Entrepreneurs in Chicago reinvented the Neapolitan dish for American appetites by giving it a thicker base and creating all manner of varied toppings. The infinite adaptability of pizza made it almost impossible not to like: today, 93 per cent of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. However, back in Italy food is still an intensely parochial affair. At the start of the 20th century, before the wave of Italian emigration to America, pizza was almost unknown in the northern cities of Milan or Florence. That is no longer the case, but real pizza is still considered the culinary property of Naples and so is easier to find in the region where it belongs.
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4. Chop suey is also an American dish
The story of the popular Chinese dish chop suey is another tale of improvised cuisine and it shows how, once the basic ingredients are in place, the mythmakers can vary the recipe to suit their taste. The story goes something like this: during the California gold rush (or the building of the Grand Pacific railway) a Cantonese cook was importuned by some miners (or drunken railway workers, or a visiting Chinese delegation or a local political bigwig) who demanded to be fed right away. Put in a position where he could not refuse, the cook fried up all the kitchen leftovers with some bean sprouts and called it 'chop suey' – from the Cantonese tsap sui, meaning 'odds and ends'. The only true thing about this story is the etymology of the dish's name: tsap sui does translate as 'miscellaneous scraps'. But it is not an American invention; it is genuinely Chinese and hails from Taishan, near Guangzhou, the district to which many Chinese Americans trace their ancestry.
5. Tikka masala is British
A legend similar to the chop suey tale is told in Britain about chicken tikka masala, a dish unknown in India. Apparently, a late-night customer at an Indian restaurant – which may have been in Glasgow – wanted sauce with his chicken tikka, which is always served dry. The chef improvised a kind of gravy using a can of tomato soup and some spices and Britain's favorite food was born.
This chicken tikka tale is the chop suey myth transposed to another country, a different cuisine and a later century. The Indian chef of the story has never been identified because, like the Chinese cook who invented chop suey, he doesn't exist. In this case, the reworked myth serves to fill in a baffling gap in our knowledge: Britons eat 23 million portions of chicken tikka masala every year, which makes it hard to credit the truth that no one knows where the dish actually sprang from. The archetypal tale of the harassed Indian cook provides a ready-made answer: it is a just-so story for people who love their food.
6. The croissant was not invented in France
Other food fables persist for similar reasons. Well into the 1960s the revered culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique stated as historical fact that the croissant dates back to the siege of Budapest – then in Turkish hands – of 1686. The story goes that the besieging Imperial forces were digging a tunnel beneath the city walls. Budapest's bakers, who were always at work in the small hours, heard these nocturnal excavations. They raised the alarm and the attack was defeated. As a reward the bakers were granted the right to make a special pastry in the shape of the Ottoman emblem, a crescent moon.
Other respectable sources place the same incident at the siege of Vienna in 1683. Some versions ascribe the heroic deed and its reward to a single person. In dramatic terms, this 'lone baker' scenario is more satisfying because it taps into another archetypal legend: the Small Man Who Becomes a Hero. The Viennese (or Hungarian) baker is like the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a dyke and prevented a flood. The point of both stories is not historical, but moral: the ingenuity and vigilance of a single individual can have far-reaching benefits; one person who does the right thing can save us all.
None of the stories about the origin of the croissant ever explains how it came to be associated with French patisserie. Surely, if the Vienna story were true, we would all know the croissant as a halbmond, the German word for a crescent. And if Budapest were its birthplace, then some link with Hungary would have remained. The truth is that there is no mention of the croissant in any dictionary before 1853. The first recipe that resembles the flaky pastry we know today was published in 1905 – not entirely unexpectedly – in Paris