Days of Mateus and Macaroni

A little old lady asks where pasta came from, opening a window into a whole world of food diversification in the last 20 years.

Where did pasta come from?

I’m puzzled. The speaker, a little old white-haired lady I’ve known all my life, is no dummy, notwithstanding her charmingly inaccurate self-image as a tall redhead. She must know that pasta hails from Italy.

We’re sitting in the west-facing living room of her soon-to-be-condominiumized apartment; said condominiumization eliciting the considerable, and vocal, annoyance of her own old-lady friends in the building. An annoyance, I’m amused to note, attributable more to what they see as the outrageousness of the word ‘condominiumized’ than to the change itself and the decisions it will require, the upheaval it may drive. These are my kind of people.

On this day in the early 1990s the condominiumizing outrage is still in the future, but today’s conversation, it turns out, is also about changes to one’s world and changes to the language. Seeing my puzzlement, she elaborates.

We used to cook macaroni and spaghetti. Where did ‘pasta’ come from?

Thinking back to my even-then long-departed youth, I realize that she’s right. Macaroni and cheese? Check. Spaghetti and meat sauce? Check. Both of these were regular meals in my family home as I grew up; staples in the cooking repertoire of university friends living in rundown, rented houses near campus. But penne? Stuffed canelloni? Four-cheese tortellini? Not so much.

But her question is not about the addition of new foods to our diet: that’s sort of unremarkable. In the last 20 years or so, increased disposable income has driven changes in our eating-out patterns and in our exposure to, and acceptance of, international cuisine and exotic foods.

No, her question is about the arrival of a new class noun, a new food concept as it were.  I can see how ‘pasta’ could strike former macaroni and spaghetti cooks as a bit precious. What I can’t see, sitting in that afternoon-sun-warmed living room, is the food changes that are coming in the next twenty years. Changes driven by technological factors (in transportation and food-preservation), social factors (in immigration patterns and globalization), and business factors (in product diversification and flat-out over-the-top marketing).

The next twenty years will see chocolate transmogrify from ‘milk or dark’ to fine gradations of cacao percentages.

Coffee will morph from, well, coffee, into double doubles, cappuccinos, skinny lattes, triple espressos, as well as endlessly confusing grocery store options around country of origin and darkness of roast. Coffee additives will try to keep pace, expanding from ‘milk or cream’ to variously flavoured, non-dairy lighteners.

Block cream cheese will splinter into flavoured, whipped, and low-fat/no-fat varieties too many to count. Well, OK, not literally too many to count, just more than I have counted.

Eggs, formerly defined solely by their colour and weight — brown or white, and small, medium, or large — will develop new types based on the hens’ diet (Omega3 in, colouring additives out), and living conditions (better left unsaid, cage free, free range, living large). OK, I made up that last one, but stay tuned.

And the wine question, which by the early 1990s had already gone from ‘Baby Duck or Mateus?’ (Forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did) to ‘red or white?’, will become ‘cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, tempranillo, or malbec?’ and ‘chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio?’

Where did ‘pasta’ come from?

For all the food changes I’ve seen since my old-lady friend asked that question, I realize that I have no comparable one that I can ask today. We may have added durian, Dubliner, Kashi, and fresh scallops to our grocery carts, but we haven’t added ‘fruit’, ‘cheese’, ‘cereal’, or ‘seafood’ to our language.  Indeed, neither I nor my subconscious can think of any food categories added in the last twenty years.

Where did ‘pasta’ come from?

She was onto something, that little old white-haired lady: something pretty rare, I think. I knew she was no dummy.

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4 Responses to Days of Mateus and Macaroni

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    Excellent. And she was remarkably perceptive, always.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Gee whiz, I remember sitting around a campfire, light flickering on our paper cups as we sipped away on “Baby Duck or Mateus? (Forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did)”…. Aside from that, though, have you noticed that food tastes flow from the poor to the rich? You might expect that the poor would want to emulate the rich and have Chateaubriand or lobster for dinner. But no, once we can afford it, we who have money indulge in curry, pizza, lasagna, bouillabaisse, borscht — the foods that the poor developed to stretch their meagre supplies out a little farther.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – We’ve worked with Newfoundlanders who talked about the school lunchroom trades of lobster rolls (lobster caught by their fishermen fathers and, therefore, ‘free’ and ubiquitous) for baloney sandwiches (baloney being store-bought and, therefore, available only to the rich-ish kids). Relative availability and degree of exposure may also account for borscht (cabbage rolls and perogies, anyone?) moving into the in-crowd, ‘unfamiliar’ seeming ‘exotic’ and, in an environment of wealth, desirable. Of course, once you taste borscht, how can you give it up?

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