Paging through the food section of The Wall Street Journal, I was enchanted by an illustrated article about American chefs who are now offering a world of pasta to discerning customers. The adventure takes people beyond spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni and other familiar pasta dishes and introduces readers to the rich variations that reflect amazing regional cultures.
Pasta is a poor man’s food made with the basic ingredients of flour and water. It is a tribute to the creativity of the Italian people that they were able to make so many different kinds of pasta.
Walking Through a World of Pastas
Indeed, a walk through the world of pasta is a refreshing contrast to the mass-produced foods of our days. There are hundreds of pasta shapes in Italy, each reflecting history, local landscapes or familiar objects in daily life.
There is radiatore, a finned pasta made to look like old-fashioned heating radiators. Mafalde is a pasta named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, a long pasta with a double row of ruffles. Zucca means pumpkin and the pasta resembles an open pumpkin that can hold creamy sauces. Creste di gallo is from Italy’s Marche region and looks like a rooster’s crest. Vesuvio is from south of Naples is made to look like the nearby explosive Mount Vesuvius.
The round corzetti dates back to a coin from the Middle Ages. Its faces are stamped with the images of the actual coin. Lumaconi translates into “big snails” and is made in Italy’s south to look like a local variety of smails. Foglie d’ulivo is shaped like the olive leaves that are so common throughout Italy. Cappellacci dei briganti is made to look to look like the cone-shaped hats worn by the outlaws that used to operate in southern Italy.
Each Pasta Is an Expression of a Local Culture
This is only the beginning of the over 500 varieties of pasta now offered by some American specialty stores. Each pasta has not only its history but also its food qualities. They all absorb sauces and spices differently. Several types of pasta have other local ingredients and spices that highlight regional tastes and enrich the eating experience.
The world of pasta is a lesson in culture. It is a fruit of an organic Christian society that creates an enormous variety of very simple things. Whether it be beers, wines, cheeses or other delicious foods, Christian culture naturally creates marvelous things which are seen as reflections of God’s goodness and glory. God in His Providence put a world of resources in the regions so that we might take these things and make them more beautiful and perfect as part of the path to sanctification.
That is why I am enchanted with the world of Italian pasta. It is a magnificent expression of the souls in Italy’s numerous regions. The pastas are full of picturesque charm. They speak to us of rich history and intriguing mystery. We are invited to a world that takes us out of the ordinary but keeps us rooted in reality. It is a way in which I might love God better by marveling at His Providence, so well expressed in this humble food.
When 500 Types of Pasta Are Not Enough
At the same time, I am thankful that American cooks are bringing this world to us. Indeed, they are even saving some of these pastas from extinction as Italian culture decays. We are fortunate that we have the opportunity to appreciate this great culture.
However, just having 500 different kinds of Italian pasta is not enough. We need to express and celebrate our culture.
So much of our cuisine involves enjoying other people’s culture. The restaurant scene is booming nationwide. Our globalized society allows us to experience an enormous and rich variety of truly delectable cuisines. However, so many have no connection with our heritage.
I acknowledge that some American places have excellent local cuisines. However, the cultures that sustain them are dying as in Italy. We are losing our connection with the roots of cuisine because our culture is shattered, fragmented, and undermined by globalization.
I long for an American cuisine that would express our regional cultures on the scale of Italian pasta. How wonderful it would be to have an amazing world of our own “pasta”—national and regional dishes with hundreds of variations—that would speak to us of ourselves and our lands. I would love to see very localized versions of these foods prepared in family homes and restaurants—to the extent that we might know where we are by tasting the different foods. We could then celebrate these great expressions of who we are.
To Develop a Local Cuisine
To develop local cuisine, we need three things: people, place and time. Our problem is that as American society decays, we are losing these elements that would create our “pastas.”
A cuisine requires unifying principles that bring us together as a people. When a people is divided and fragmented, it no longer has the means to express itself and celebrate its unity. On the other hand, when a people is unified, it gives rise to an amazing number of cuisine variations clustered around that unity.
Authentic cuisine is based on the principle that demand should influence production much more than production should determine demand. By constantly adjusting available materials to local tastes, producer and consumer become the “co-creators” of foods. Thus, a local cuisine develops when local cooks adjust local dishes and native ingredients to reflect what the locals like.
Moreover, true cuisine needs a virtuous people that seeks perfection in even the smallest things. People must be willing to make an effort to adjust and please others. They must see the art of cooking as a means of practicing virtue and even serving God.
We no longer have the unified culture that co-creates great “pastas.” Indeed, in our individualistic society where all do their own things, we lack that sense of community that serves as the forum from which great food emerges. In our self-centered world, people no longer have the concern for others that is needed for the adjustment and development of cuisine.
The Need for a Sense of Place
We lack a sense of place, which also plays a special role in the development of cuisine. God endowed each place with a great diversity of riches. He did this so that those who live there might make use of those riches to aid them in their quest for perfection.
Regions should discover and use their local treasures to produce an astonishing array of foods that reflect the tastes, resources, soil and climate of the place. Indeed, the place might even enter into the food as pasta takes on the characteristics of snails, pumpkins or … Mount Vesuvius. Local people and history also enter into the foods in the form of hats, coins and historic figures rooted in a place’s tradition.
Alas, modern society has lost the connection with the land in our globalized world. Few know their region and the great potential that lies hidden therein. When everything is shipped in from outside, everything tends to taste and look the same. People no longer connect with nature and heritage and would be hard-pressed to identify snails, rooster crests or olive leaves, much less name foods after them. Similarly, our highly mobile population struggles to acquire and easily loses the historic sense of the land.
Distilled Over Generations
Finally, cuisine needs time to cook. It requires a love for tradition. In the profoundly Christian souls of those who cook, we encounter a passion for perfection that leads to the search for the ideal foods through the constant interaction between the cooks and the local population over generations. Hence, local cuisine is a distilling process where the people experience the spiritual joy of seeing the product of their joint creativity with the materials at hand over time.
When local production is enriched by families that refine cuisine over generations, such traditional foods become a source of local pride. The area becomes known for its particular wines, fruits or pasta.
In the frenetic intemperance of modern life, we always seem to lack this time. There is always the push for the latest and greatest food fad. Few want to make the generational commitment to develop fine food traditions.
The problem is not a lack of skills or fine ingredients. Modern cuisine can often satisfy niche markets with exquisite foods. It can even provide admirable menus using only local or organic crops creating farm to plate experiences. However, we lack a unified and virtuous people, a sense of place and the continuity of generations that makes cuisine thrive. They need the deep Christian roots that supply that richness and strong character found in Italy’s 500-plus pastas.
Updated May 29, 2019.