I know I’ve written several essays inspired by books I was reading recently. I can’t help it. I keep finding my reading inspirational, and that’s why I’m doing another one like it. This time the book is Pasta And Noodle Technology, edited by James E Kruger, Robert B Matsuo, and Joel W Dick, and published in 1996 by the American Association of Cereal Chemists. Yes, I read a book about the noodle technology of nineteen years ago. Maybe more than nineteen years ago. The book collects scholarly articles that probably weren’t written after the book’s publication.
“But wait,” you may ask, “Joseph, why would you pick up such a book?” I give my permission. You may also note, “While you’re most interested in eating food, you almost never have any interest in where it comes from.” Go right ahead. If you like, point out the time some people in Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district set up a trailer-home exhibition dedicated to some athlete, and passed out waffles, and I took and ate one without considering how odd every piece of that scene was. But I had good reason to pick up the book: I have absolutely no self-control while in a library. Put any book at about shoulder height on a shelf near the space history books and I’ll take it.
But the book rewards its reading. Just on page two we get this:
The legend [ of Marco Polo bringing spaghetti to Italy ] published in the year 1929 in The Macaroni Journal, the magazine of the American Association of Pasta Makers, still survives today.
I don’t know how rough your week has been. But I say that it’s better now that you know there is an American Association of Pasta Makers. And you probably grinned at learning there’s a trade publication called The Macaroni Journal. And it’s surely delightful to know that magazine still exists today, in 1996, even though that isn’t quite what the text says. The week is better still because of what came before. The text had just described the legend that the muse Thalia “kept secret for years” how to make macaroni but finally shared it with the mermaid Parthenope. Parthenope shared it with Naples, who shared it with everyone else. It adds a whole new dimension to the muse Thalia, who I thought was just the muse of comedy. Apparently she was the muse of comedy and macaroni, and now “muse of comedy and macaroni” is my new dream job.
Another discovery is that the Minolta corporation even today in 1996 makes chromatographs which pasta-makers use to make sure noodles are colored correctly. I’m not clear whether Minolta was hired for pasta-color-validation technology. It could be the pasta-makers kept their intentions secret. I’m entertained by imagining someone rushing in to Minolta Master Command and crying out, “I just found out what those maniacs at San Giorgio are using our chromatographs for!” Gasps all around, and then she tells them what the use is. They shake their heads and say, “There is no recovering. Close up the business.” I guess it’s closed up. I never hear about Minolta anymore.
Another valuable discovery from the book: pasta-making requires a lot of uses of the word “extrude”. I like “extrude”, as a word. It’s faintly funny-ish without being worn out the way “nostril” or “moist” are. If you want to use the word “extrude” a lot without people thinking you’re deliberately being a clown, then get into pasta scholarship.
The articles include many close-up photographs of noodles that have long since rotted away. For example, in Figure 11 (Figure 1, scanned best I can) a close-up picture shows what spaghetti produced in a vacuum looks like compared to spaghetti not and … I don’t know. I think the point is that vacuum spaghetti is better, but I have no idea what I should be looking at. I can’t even swear there’s a difference.
But this shows how untrained my eye is. The many charts of variables plotted against one another also show how untrained my pasta brain is. The lesson I draw from this is that pasta is too complicated for me to understand. If I were thrust into a non-technological world there are many things I might be able to rebuild by myself. I don’t want to brag but I’m very good with inclining planes. But I would never manage even a primitive kind of ravioli. It’s humbling, and isn’t being humbled the best reason to read about pasta technology?