How Futurism tried (and failed) to end the pasta culture.
There was once a group of pioneers that had an idea that would revolutionize Italy in the first half of the 20th century, and which would change the perception of Italy around the world. A perception that has endured until today. Perhaps at this point you think I am referring to something deeply political, and, in a way, perhaps I am, because this idea strikes at the very heart of Italian culture. The idea: to get rid of pasta and erase it from Italian culture. And whose idea was it? The Futurists, would you believe? The only problem with it was that nobody actually followed it; not even the Futurists themselves.
Perhaps it is a bit much to say that erasing pasta from Italy would strike at the core of Italian culture and global perception -, but, in any case, I love it, and I bet you do too. But let’s be thankful the Futurists failed. Futurism is one of the most famous Italian artistic movements, but it really was more than that; Futurism anticipated the concept of a total lifestyle.
Twenty years on, Marinetti, an energetic and extravagant personality, would go beyond art, literature and history to create the manifesto of futurist cooking, published in the Turin Gazzetta del Popolo in December 1930. This was indeed a manifesto, but also a guide to Marinetti’s thoughts and feelings about food and culinary culture.
The manifesto carried a number of rules about cuisine and cooking for all aspiring Futurists; the elimination of knives and forks, of weight and volume in food and the use of traditional spices. Marinetti gave advice all the way down to the kind of small talk that could be carried out at the table, with certain topics like poetry and politics completely forbidden, except on special occasions.
The manifesto also explained the way in which meals were to be served and consumed; some food was only to be smelled and observed and some dishes would be served at quick intervals and in very small portions. Overall the meal was supposed to become a culinary experience that went way beyond the simplistic idea of merely tasting the food. These ideas should certainly ring a bell to anyone going to restaurants today. In fact, it could be argued that Marinetti anticipated what would become the mantra of 21st century cooking, since nowadays chefs around the world are ever more eager to have guests come and enjoy a culinary extra sensorial experience, where food, (strictly served in tiny portions and timed with the precision of a Swiss watch) is only one of the many elements that create a theatrical atmosphere. I have lost count of the number of times in the last decade I have had desserts with popping candy in them, and then of course there is the famous dish served at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, called Sounds of the Sea which one eats while listening to an iPod filled with, you guessed it, sounds of the sea.
Of all the rigorous rules imposed by Marinetti, perhaps the most striking one remains the elimination of pasta. Yes, along with pizza, the most famous dish of Italian culinary tradition, and the one that everyone around the world tries to imitate, was considered flabby, and diminishing of a man’s virility.
His declaration was not just a culinary belief, but through abolishing pasta, and privileging rice instead, Italy would finally be free from grain imports. Marinetti was making a political, and in his mind, a truly patriotic choice in line with the political climate of the decade.
Everything sounded great on paper, but it practice, it was unenforceable. Marinetti’s j’accuse against pasta became a viral sensation at the time, with Italians being largely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, unsupportive of the initiative, even despite Marinetti finding a scientific committee that stated that pasta was not necessarily part of a healthy lifestyle. And then there was the photo. This part of the war on pasta has never been officially confirmed, but it seems that following the great pasta controversy, Marinetti himself was photographed at the legendary Biffi restaurant in Milan eating…yes, you’ve guessed it - a plate of spaghetti! The photograph made the papers and Marinetti accused his detractors of constructing a photomontage. The critic however could not eliminate pasta so easily. You can almost imagine this happening today, with Marinetti, mouth full of food, on the front page of some tabloid, with a pun-filled headline.
Such was the ignominious downfall that in 1931, the pasta factory Puritas launched a competition to create the best pasta sauce for their maccheroni. The winning sauce was dedicated, by its creator (Amedeo Pettini, head chef of Vittorio Emanuele III and food critic), to Marinetti, and was ever after called Marinetti Sauce (or Sugo Marinetti). Marinetti, for his part, was on the jury for the competition, but refused to try it on pasta and demanded cooked rice instead. As Giovanni De Riseis, Mayor of Naples at the time of the controversial manifesto said, “the angels in paradise eat nothing but vermicelli al pomodoro”, we can’t do anything but agree and be thankful that Marinetti’s revolutionary, yet slightly hypocritical, wish for Italy, and for all of us today, never succeeded.
If you would like to get a Futurist theme going for dinner one evening, why not have a go. This is the original recipe for the winning Marinetti Sauce.
For 4 people:
1 tablespoon of capers in vinegar
50 grams of anchovies
1 thick slice of ham
3 tablespoons of tomato sauce
1 celery stick
400 grams of spaghetti alla chitarra (more porous than normal spaghetti)
Prepare the artichoke hearts, which need to be quartered and then thinly sliced. Set aside.
Dice the ham, and mix together with the spices and herbs.
Add a lump of butter to the pan over a medium heat, and once it has melted, the ham and spices mixture.
Cook for a few minutes, and then add the parsley and tomato sauce.
If the sauce is running low on water, add some, preferably from the boiling pasta water, and stir in.
Add capers, chopped anchovies, and stir until everything comes together and the water is absorbed.
Remove the sauce from the saucepan, and place into a blender, blend together, and return to the saucepan.
While the pasta is cooking*, in a frying pan, add some butter and pan fry the artichoke for a few minutes.
Once the pasta is al dente (the only way), drain and add it to the sauce. Add in Parmesan and some more butter.
Finally, serve, adding a handful of the fried artichokes and some chopped pistachios on the top.
For the determined cook: in the original recipe, the pasta was to be cooked in water that had had potatoes boiled in it, to give the pasta some added starchy flavour and a better consistency.