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The dish on pasta

Everybody loves trivia, so here's the dish on some interesting pasta facts.

Did you know ...
In 18th century England, macaroni was a synonym for perfection and excellence. That's why, for example, the feather in Yankee Doodle's cap was called "macaroni." In fact, the word "macaroni" means "dearest darlings" in Italian.

The Chinese are on record as having eaten pasta as early as 5,000 B.C.

In the 13th century, the Pope set quality standards for pasta.

Tripolini or "little bows" were named to honor the Italian conquest of Tripoli in Libya.

There are more than 600 pasta shapes produced worldwide.

Top-quality pasta is made from durum wheat. According to the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service, about 73 percent of the durum wheat grown in the US is actually grown in North Dakota. American-grown durum wheat is considered among the best in the world and the pick of the crop is earmarked for domestic use ensuring a finished pasta product second to none in the world.

According to Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin), a fork is the only utensil that may be used to eat spaghetti while anyone is looking.

In Italian, fettucine means ribbons; stelline means little stars; and capelli d'angelo means angel's hair.

Contrary to popular belief, Marco Polo did not discover pasta. The ancient Italians made pasta much like we do today. Although Marco Polo wrote about eating Chinese pasta at the court of Kubla Khan, he probably didn't introduce pasta to Italy. In fact, there's evidence suggesting the Etruscans made pasta as early as 400 B.C. The evidence lies in a bas-relief carving in a cave about 30 miles north of Rome. The carving depicts instruments for making pasta - a rolling-out table, pastry wheel and flour bin. And further proof that Marco Polo didn't "discover" pasta is found in the will of Ponzio Baestone, a Genoan soldier who requested "bariscella peina de macarone" - a small basket of macaroni. His will is dated 1279, 16 years before Marco Polo returned from China.

Legend has it that noodles were first made by 13th century German bakers who fashioned dough into symbolic shapes, such as swords, birds and stars, which were baked and served as bread.

All pasta is made by essentially the same equipment using the same technology. Also, in independent taste tests conducted by Consumer Reports, Cook's Illustrated and The Washington Post, US pasta either was found superior to Italian imports or the judges were unable to discern a difference between them.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing macaroni to the United States. It seems that he fell in love with a certain dish he sampled in Naples while serving as the US Ambassador to France. In fact, he promptly ordered crates of "maccaroni," along with a pasta-making machine, sent back to the States.

The first American pasta factory was opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848, by a Frenchman named Antoine Zerega. Zerega managed the entire operation with just one horse in his basement to power the machinery. To dry his spaghetti, he placed strands of the pasta on the roof to dry in the sunshine.

To cook one billion pounds of pasta, you would need 2,021,452,000 gallons of water -- enough to fill nearly 75,000 olympic-size swimming pools.

One billion pounds of pasta is about 212,595 miles of 16-ounce packages of spaghetti stacked end-to-end -- enough to circle the earth's equator nearly nine times.

Pasta is one of the foods kids most frequently eat at home, according to research conducted by Land O'Lakes. Seventeen percent eat spaghetti while 16 percent eat macaroni and cheese. Statistics from the NPD Group, a custom research group, show that kids eat 62 pounds of pasta each year, more than any other age group. Consumers enjoy pasta for dinner more than 40 times a year (approximately once a week), with dry pasta as their favorite form, according to Harry Balzer, NPD Group, Chicago, Ill.

Christopher Columbus, one of Italy's most famous pastaphiles, was born in October, National Pasta Month.

During the '80s, macaroni, which was traditionally considered a "blue-collar" down-home meal, was transformed into the more upscale "pasta." As more and more people began to have fun with it and romanticize it throughout the '60s and '70s, its image began to change along with its name.

The word "pasta" comes from the Italian for paste, meaning a combination of flour and water - including the many forms of spaghetti, macaroni, and egg noodles. The term pasta has always been used on Italian restaurant menus to encompass all the various pasta offerings.

Pasta existed for thousands of years before anyone ever thought to put tomato sauce on it. The Spanish explorer Cortez brought tomatoes back to Europe from Mexico in 1519. Even then, almost 200 years passed before spaghetti with tomato sauce made its way into Italian kitchens.

Egg noodles contain egg; almost all other dry pasta shapes do not. By federal law, a noodle must contain 5.5 percent egg solids to be called a noodle. So without egg, a noodle really isn't a noodle.

One cup cooked spaghetti provides about 200 calories, 40 grams of carbohydrates, less than one gram of total fat, no cholesterol and only one gram of sodium when cooked without salt.

Speaking of spaghetti ... and meatballs: the Italians only ate meat a few times a month. So, when they came to America, where meat was so plentiful, they incorporated meat into their cooking more often, making meatballs an American invention.

Cooked al dente (al-DEN-tay) literally means "to the tooth," which is how to test pasta to see if it is properly cooked. The pasta should be a bit firm, offering some resistance to the tooth, but tender.

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