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Pasta is Magic, the rest is life...

Giuseppe with pasta hung out to dry_edit

Consider this, that from an anonymous act of prestidigitation a pedestrian mound of flour and a trickle of water were transformed into pasta in all its iconoclastic shapes and literary nomenclature. This little act of invention makes the phenomenon that was the Renaissance seem a comparative failure of the imagination, based, as its very name asserts, on earlier cultural innovations. Whereas the delightful creation which holds the Italian body together and its soul eternally in thrall, has no primo genitor, it is, like god, its own sufficient cause, rising spontaneously it seems, from a magic mountain of flour.
What mystery lay within that golden coil, what secret alchemy woven in each supple strand? Well, Federico Fellini nearly got it right in his characteristically enigmatic declaration, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta”.  We expect a deeper sentiment from the son of a Barilla pasta salesman, "Pasta is magic, the rest is life”, seems more sensible. Doubters may ponder the magnificence that is ‘La Loren’, an Italian icon as famous as Michelangelo’s David and just as majestically statuesque, who freely admits her debt to the national dish, “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.” And possibly a little more besides.

One need only survey the three-hundred and ten kinds of pasta in Oretta Zanini De Vita's, Encyclopaedia of Pasta , to realize that its potent magic resides in its ability to inspire the imagination and motivate the nimble fingers of its anonymous, mostly female creators. Mora Talbott, executive chef of the American Academy in Rome, accounts for the impractical labour lavished on creating these fanciful shapes as a “way of self-expression for women to show their creativity and imagination with little or no resources”. Or vent their frustrations, exacting a small revenge; as Brunelleschi raised his famous dome over Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore, a glory to the patriarchal church,  an aggrieved Florentine housewife indulged in culinary alchemy, creating a new gnocchi of ricotta and spinach for a greedy prelate, baptizing her creation with no small vindication, Strozza Preti (choke the priest).

Perhaps, while a young Leonardo lay atop an Umbrian hill and dreamed of flying like Icarus to the sun, but with better results, in a dark, dank scullery prettily shaped farfalle, painstakingly formed as butterflies with carefully crimped edges, pleated and pinched in the centre, floated effortlessly atop the frothy clouds of a pot of boiling water. While the sinuous Gothic curves of Botticelli`s modest Venus entrance us even today, the heart-warming satisfaction one gets from Bologna’s famous tortellini in brodo, its seductive shape inspired by Venus’ navel, is more contenting and accessible.

Where the formal varieties of this very plastic substance is astounding, the arched stone loggias, marble columns and pediments of the High Renaissance are rigidly regular; the former is pliable and yields to the artists’ imagination, the latter is impassive and only grudgingly conforms. If  the architecture of Tuscany was fashioned from pasta it might look like the mad and delightful structures of Gaudi’s Catalonia.

However, the names and varieties of pasta are equally attributable to creative genius as they are to competitive regionalism, both renowned features of the Italian national character. An exasperated Garibaldi in the quest to unite his fractious countrymen, declared upon liberating Naples in 1860, “It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unify Italy.” A prescient insight indeed.

Ms. Zanini De Vita encountered this ages old problem in researching her encyclopaedia; within one town in Lazio, for example, there were several different names for the same pasta, some differences found as close as one neighbourhood block to another. Her conclusion? That the unification of Italy by Garibaldi was a big mistake, instead in her view, it should have been formed as Switzerland was, a confederation of connected states. Oh dear, bankers and cuckoo clocks; where, we ask, is the fun or magic in that?

The magic of pasta resides in its ‘anima’, the white core of the pasta which ever so gently, resists the eaters’ teeth; too hard, its spirit lies unawakened; too soft it is dead; aldente it is, as the golden-locked Lucrezia Borgia might’ve said, “Just right”. Italians like their food, as well as their conquests, to resist a little before yielding.

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, a gullible painter is regaled by a tale of the land of Bengodi, where on a golden mountain of Parmesan cheese, its denizens spend all the day making maccheroni and ravioli, to be boiled in a sea of capon broth, then ladled-out freely in as large a quantity as the swiftest and greediest can consume. Oh! to be by the capon-broth sea in Bengodi, sliding giddily through slippery tubes of maccheroni or dreamily floating supine upon a plump pillow of ravioli, what playful bliss.

I defy anyone to eat a bowl of pasta in anger; it can’t be done. One can certainly picture gnawing, stabbing and cutting one’s way, preoccupied by fury, through a porterhouse steak, chicken breast or pork chop, but fury is unimaginable in the gentle dexterity and concentration one needs to encourage slippery strands of tagliatelle around the fork, balancing it delicately to keep them in place on their journey to the patient, waiting mouth. These actions require concentration, and more to the point, do not require the use of any sharp weapon; pasta is a most calming, civilized and peaceful food.

Its soporific effect is part of its magic too, as anyone who has enjoyed making and consuming a bowl of ‘spaghetti a mezzanotte’ can attest. It was my unfailing ritual upon arriving home after a two week  pasta- less sojourn in the Caribbean to make my way to the larder, always  stocked with extra-virgin olive oil, black infornata olives, anchovies, peperoncini, spaghetti and a bottle of Chianti, the essentials for this feast.  Whoosh! goes a torrent of cold water into the capacious pot, Ping! A small handful of sale grossi in the bottom, then Click!-Click! on with the heat beneath the pasta pot and the shallow pan for the sauce.


Over my shoulder, from my position at the stove, I ask my husband, ensconced at the kitchen table, preoccupied with his own homecoming ritual of sorting through the mundane reality that is our weeks-old stack of mail, “Do you want some pasta?” to which he reliably mumbles, “No, thanks."


Ignoring his typical reply, I set a bowl at each of our places, pour the wine, and we begin to eat. We sigh and let the oily, golden strands of pasta wend their languorous way down to that final place that is Elysium. This warm, visceral feeling of contentment urges us upstairs to our own familiar bed, to peaceful dreams of Bengodi, where we are magically, finally, home.

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