Program Title: Southern Italy and Genoa in the Early History of Pasta: Debunking the Myth of Arab Influence
Speaker: Anthony Buccini
Date: October 10, 2013
Location: Park Avenue Methodist Church Lecture Hall

As culinary historians, we are often accused of slaughtering the sacred cows of popular culinary culture: we’ve had to tell legions of folks that, no, Catherine de’Medici did not teach the French how to cook and that medieval folks were not covering up the taste of rotten (i.e., unrefrigerated) meat by their lavish use of spices. Sometimes it’s nice to know that what you naively learned as a child may, in fact, be correct: that pasta is, truly, an Italian dish, and that all this recent academic theory that certain popular forms of paste secco are an Arab invention may be the result of misguided linguistics.

So argued the jovial Dr. Anthony Buccini, a Fullbright Scholar who specializes in historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, with a particular interest in the foodways of the Mediterranean world. Speaking to a lay-linguistics audience, Dr. Buccini gave a brief overview of why he believes many scholars invent erroneous etymologies when they claim that certain consonantal shifts between Arabic and medieval Italian dialects are ‘evidence’ for the Arab origination of these pasta dishes; he pointed to Genoa and its commercial expansion in the 12th century as the source for the diffusion of paste through the Italian peninsula, a suggestion that dovetailed nicely with other aspects of Genoese and Italian history. What resonated even more with culinary historians, however, was his compelling observation that the Arab influence in Italy was limited to two centuries, while southern Spain remained an important locus of Arab power for nearly seven centuries. If the Arabs were the originators of so much pasta, why isn’t there an active pasta culture in Spain? It was one of those breathtakingly simple ideas that caused the scales to fall from our collective eyes.

Dr. Buccini, an avid cook, graciously shared some recipes that he believes might be representative of the medieval dishes, although they are not from historical manuscripts. We feasted on laganelle e ceci [link], mandelli sæa al pesto Genovese [link], and corzetti stampati con pinoli e maggiorana, among others lovely dishes.

This brief summary cannot do justice to the complexity and sophistication of Dr. Buccini’s argument, and, to be clear, he does give the Arabs credit for a few things relating to pasta. For those who are interested in parsing the linguistic subtleties, read a draft (not for citation or attribution) of Dr. Buccini’s paper.

One can hear a podcast interview from the Perugia Food Conference in June 2014 about this topic.