Pasta, and especially spaghetti, has infiltrated modern cuisine culture and even pop culture. Spaghetti gave cooks freedom to experiment and invent with a variety of fresh ingredients, spices and toppings, and it has become one of the world’s most popular foods.
Spaghetti used to be very long (think Lady and the Tramp), but a shorter length gained in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. Now, most spaghetti is about 10–12 inches in length. Spaghetti made from the flour of hard durum wheat semolina, with water and salt added and cooked by boiling, has existed since the Roman Empire, but the history of its invention is not entirely clear.
Italy or China — The Marco Polo Myth
You may have heard Marco Polo brought the Chinese recipe of pasta to the Italy, or that pasta was first documented in Italy in 1295, after Marco Polo returned from China. And this kind of makes sense: at that time, there were only two areas of the world eating noodles as a staple food: Italy and China (plus other Far East neighbors). And the only obvious connection is Marco Polo.
However, some historians say pasta may have been invented all the way back to 1st century BC, and the direct origin of Italian pasta likely came from an Arab meal called “itriyya” during 7th century AD when Arabs occupied Sicily. By 12th century, Sicilian records of spaghetti proved pasta was commonplace.
There are also written reports of “a food made from flour in the form of strings” in Sicily, described by an Arab traveler named Abdullah Mohammed al Edrisi (or Idrisi) in 1154, a court chronicler and geographer for Sicily’s monarch, King Roger II. Edrisi completed a detailed geographical survey of Sicily called “The Book of Roger,” which is considered one of the most important scientific works of the Middle Ages. He made revolutionary statements like “the earth is round like a sphere” and mentioned inhabitants of the Sicilian town of Trabia eating pasta made from hard wheat and shaped into long strands. He said the pasta was manufactured in large quantity and widely exported to other regions.
Spaghetti and Meatballs are an American Thing
You can now find spaghetti just about anywhere in the world. The popularity of pasta products in the U.S. started between early and mid-20th century, with the mass influx in arrivals of Italian and Sicilian immigrants cooking favorite meals from their homeland, as well as U.S. soldiers returning home with tales of interesting European meals.
Spaghetti and meatballs also began with Italian immigrants coming to the U.S. Most were extremely impoverished and used to spending 75 percent of their income on food in Italy, compared to only 25 percent in America. Meat quickly became a staple, and meatballs were added to spaghetti. You’re unlikely to find spaghetti and meatballs on any menu in Italy, unless the restaurant is looking to satisfy the cravings of an American tourist.