Culinary Mythology: Marco Polo’s Supposed Introduction of Pasta from China to the Western World

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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This durable myth, which requires that nothing should have been known of pasta in Italy until 1295, when Marco Polo returned from the Far East, can easily be shown to be wrong by citing references in Italy to pasta of an earlier date. How did this firmly held myth arise? The famous Italian authority Massimo Alberini cited an article that appeared in the American magazine Macaroni Journal in 1929. This, according to the American scholar Charles Perry is itself a myth. Although originating in Macaroni Journal, it was not in an article. It appeared as an advertisement; in the 1920s, advertisements often had lengthy texts (the idea seemed to be, ‘you’ve bought a magazine, you must like reading’) which could be jests or fairy tales. This one was clearly intended as both. Marco Polo is sailing in the China Sea with an Italian crew (evidently having discovered the way around Africa centuries before Magellan). One of the crew members goes ashore to fill a cask of water and reports seeing women making threads of dough, so Polo and the captain ask for a demonstration. And the crew member’s name is Macaroni! It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this and not seeing it as a pleasantry, but something about the tale touched a nerve in the public psyche.