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main index    © Jeff Matthews  entry Mar 2009

Everything is related to Naples
Number 23 in this series. Link to all items here.

We Hold these Noodles to be Self-Evident...

Besides that thing that starts “When in the course of human events…,” Thomas Jefferson’s other immortal line was “The best maccaroni [sic] in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called semola, in Naples.” (See image. below.) True, he misspelled maccheroni, but even the Oxford English Dictionary has 6 or 7 spellings for it, from macaroni (the most common English version) to mackerony. In Italian, the singular is maccherone; the plural (obviously the most common form, unless you are anorexic) is maccheroni. The only correct Italian spelling in English I have found is one from 1711 by Joseph Addison, who used maccherone to mean “a fool.”

Somewhat later, the term “macaroni” gained currency in English in the meaning of “fop” or “dandy”—a foolish individual given to affectation and excesses of foreign fashion, real or imagined. (There was even a Macaroni Club in London where they walked around in outlandishly high wigs with ridiculous caps on top, probably the origin of the Yankee Doodle line, "...stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.") That meaning might be related to an earlier English and even Italian meaning of the adjective “macaronic” (maccheronico in Italian) to mean an unintentionally clumsy or affected jumble of language as a result of trying to show off what little Latin you know in your everyday speech. Can I get an amen on that? Or at least an e pluribus gluteus?)

So everyone is confused, especially the publishers of La settimana enigmistica, a little Italian magazine of puzzles and miscellaneous information that my wife goes through faithfully every week. They tell us that “US president Thomas Jefferson loved spaghetti from the moment he tasted it in Naples, and took 4 crates of it back home with him. But not all of his countrymen felt the same way; there were even a few who used it to decorate their hats.” (I know. I have caved in and used “it” even though spaghetti is plural. In Italian, you would have to say "them.")  
 
The item from the magazine is macaronically confused. The editors may have read that Jefferson had visited Italy (true, but not Naples) and also have heard about the Yankee Doodle line cited above; indeed, they know also that Boston, Philadelphia and London (the Macaroni Club) are all in that same mysterious land known as "Somewhere Else" (where they speak Otherese) so they put two and two together and came up with seven.

 Thomas Jefferson's drawing of a macaroni machine
  and instructions for making pasta, ca. 1787.

Thomas Jefferson was the US minister to France from 1785 to 1789. During that time, he did a great many things: he helped negotiate a loan from Dutch bankers to consolidate U.S. debts; he drafted a proposal to form a concert of powers led by the United States to oppose the North African "Barbary Pirates"; he hosted Lafayette and other liberals in his home in secret when the French revolution broke out; he worked on getting the skeleton and hide of a moose to Paris to refute the argument that nature, animals, and, by implication, humans in the New World were less developed and smaller in stature than those on the European continent; and he traveled around a lot, intensely interested in local geography, agriculture, customs—and food. He even had his servant—his slave, really—James Hemings learn the art of French cuisine. (I don't know how the revolutionary Liberté, égalité, fraternité crowd hiding in Jefferson's home felt about eating fine food prepared by a slave.)

Jefferson indeed, traveled to Italy, but only to the north—primarily Turin, Milan and Genoa. He took notes in Rozzano (9 km from Milan) on how to make parmesan cheese, and somewhere picked up the very sound counsel that the best “maccaroni” in Italy is made in Naples. He decided to buy a machine to make the stuff, but apparently couldn’t find exactly what he wanted, so he shipped some pasta flour home and then, being Thomas Jefferson, designed his own machine (illustration, above) to keep himself in noodles forever. His instructions on how to make macaroni start with the line cited (above) about Naples. He may, thus, be responsible —ugh!— for “mac & cheese,” but there is no evidence that he ever stuck a feather in his cap and called it anything but a feather. I feel sure, however, that Tom knew how to ride a pony. In fact, I will stake my life, my fortune and my sacred honor on it.


[Also see The Wizard's Secret]

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