Nancy Verde Barr

Finding Meaning In Macaroni

farfalle_3

When I was growing up, I loved macaroni and hated spaghetti. But it’s all pasta, right? Not to me – not back then. The word pasta wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. At our table, it was either macaroni or spaghetti.

Macaroni meant tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ‘ronis.”

Rhode Island-native Nancy Verde Barr’s first cookbook was titled We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. That made sense to me. My grandparents emigrated from southern Italy. They called it macaroni, too.

So did Thomas Jefferson. He was introduced to pasta in Paris in the 1780s and even had a “maccaroni machine” shipped to Monticello. But according to James and Kay Salter, in their book Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, pasta’s real introduction in America “came with the great Italian immigration wave in the late 1800s, when it was known as macaroni, still the word Italian-Americans use for pasta.”

With its many shapes and sizes, macaroni serves up a feast of melodic words and colorful etymologies:

> Farfalle, which means butterfly, though in our house, we call this shape bow ties

> Orecchiette, which means little ears; we call them pope’s hats because they resemble the pontiff’s zucchetto

> Penne means quill pen, as the pasta is cut on the diagonal at both ends

Mostaccioli translates as little mustaches; it is the staple macaroni in our house today

> Cavatappi means corkscrews; this pasta is a twirling tube

> Rigatoni means large lined ones; a favorite of mine growing up

With age, my aversion to spaghetti – little strings – has abated. I have even come to love spaghetti’s thinner (in the U.S.) cousin: vermicelli. It means little worms.

Buon appetito!

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