Behind the Dish: Spaghetti! Marco! Polo!!

OK! Marc and Ruth are a little busy today, as you might imagine, so for today their tenant’s taking over again! (You remember me from when I made Apple Turnovers? Or not? Well, anyway…) Today’s Julia Child dish is Spaghetti Marco Polo, and if you’ve never heard of it, no — it’s not spaghetti you eat in the pool, and you don’t have to eat it with your eyes closed while blindly feeling around for the plate. No, as my research reveals, it’s a dish that goes back to a long-held myth about the origins of spaghetti.

If you’re like me, you probably recall learning at some point that Marco Polo introduced Italy to pasta by bringing spaghetti home with him from his travels to China, where the people were already eating the long, stringy stuff. However, if you Google it, you’ll find a jumble of history, stories and evidence implying that he most likely didn’t, and that Italy may have acquired both durum wheat, the basis of dried pasta, and a method for making it into pasta from the Arabs, not the Chinese. Anyway, the Italian climate turned out to be perfect for growing durum wheat, and Italians were probably the first people to serve pasta with sauces. Ancient methods for kneading pasta dough had a lot in common with preparing grapes for wine — people did both with their feet!

So, the Chinese may not have invented spaghetti after all, and Marco Polo probably didn’t introduce it to Italy. (Wow. The next thing you know, they’ll tell us he didn’t invent the swimming-pool game either.) But somehow, that story that he did sticks with us. And that story inspired Julia Child to present a dish she called Spaghetti Marco Polo on her show The French Chef.

Julia’s dish included chopped walnuts, olives, pimiento and basil, and she encouraged her viewers to eat the completed dish Chinese-style: with chopsticks. (In fact, Ruth told me that she first taught her sons how to use chopsticks by introducing them to Spaghetti Marco Polo.) Some viewers didn’t think that it met the criteria of “French” cooking implied by the show’s title, and wrote letters telling her so, but Julia disagreed. To her, the essence of French cooking was “Taking ordinary everyday ingredients, and with a little bit of love and imagination, turning them into something appealing.” It wasn’t the ingredients or the origins of a dish that made it “French,” but the approach and the methods used to cook it. Once you learned French technique, in her eyes, you could apply it to any set of ingredients — even foods we don’t think of as “French.”

Julia’s experience living in China during her employment by the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, had left her with an appreciation for Chinese food, and in her heyday the story of Marco Polo introducing pasta to Italy from China was even more widespread and not well challenged. So it’s not surprising that she saw no problem with preparing a traditionally Italian dish on a show called The French Chef and advising her viewers to eat it Chinese style!

How’s the Bistro planning on doing it? Here’s the lowdown they gave me: the black olives in their recipe will be kalamata olives, and assorted colored peppers will substitute for the pimientos. Otherwise the dish is largely the same and fairly simple: spaghetti tossed with olive oil, the olives and peppers, walnuts, parsley, garlic, rooftop basil, salt and pepper, and garnished with Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese. Whether or not you want to eat it with chopsticks is up to you! (And if you do, you may have to bring your own!)

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