This is the inaugural post for Mindful Eating 2 so I’m looking for a dish that is simple, classic, and familiar. Mindful Eathing2 need not be esoteric or out of the ordinary—it can be an integral part of everyday life and that is what I want to demonstrate with this first series of posts. Italian red sauce is simple, classic and familiar, and aesthetically interesting as well, so it’s a natural to jump start this project.
What is aesthetically interesting about tomato sauce? Well, in a word, simplicity. We are often attracted to complex things—a work of literature or a symphony that has a lot going on. But it is fascinating to discover how and why simple things produce satisfaction and hold our attention. Italian tomato sauce is among the simplest dishes sometimes containing only a few ingredients, requiring no special skill to make, and eaten in very ordinary situations as part of everyday meals. But sometimes everyday things have hidden dimensions that can be stunning; and this project is devoted to discovering what is extraordinary about ordinary pasta with tomato sauce.
One important component of Mindful Eating2 is awareness of the context in which we eat. Some understanding of where our food comes from is essential so some brief historical remarks will get us up to speed.
A Brief History of Tomato Sauce
Although tomato sauce has become identified with Italian cooking, tomatoes arrived rather late to the Italian peninsula. Italians probably got tomatoes from the Spanish who in turn acquired them from the New World, as tomatoes were common in pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru. They were introduced to Spain in the early 1500’s. The 17th Century (1692) Italian cookbook by Antonio Latini mentioned tomato sauce “in the Spanish style” to be served with boiled dishes. Tomato sauce with pasta first appears in L’Apicio moderno, by Roman chef Francesco Leonardi, edited in 1790. It became an important part of the culture of seafarers in Naples by the 1830’s and due to emigration was disseminated throughout those parts of the world where tomatoes could be grown. Tomatoes are a great example of an imported ingredient that Italian cooks made their own through creativity and refinement and then transformed cuisines throughout the world via emigration.
Of course the first issue to confront is the sheer number of different recipes for this sauce , especially when you add the variations by American cooks and other nationalities who have adapted this dish to their needs. To simplify matters I will exclude meat sauces, pizza sauces, all the variations such as arrabbiata and puttanesca and just stick to basics—a simple, quick-cooking marinara sauce, a longer-cooked tomato sauce using a soffritto (called mirepoix by the French), and an interesting contemporary variation used primarily by Italian/American cooks, a long, slow-cooked gravy. Each will deepen our understanding of the aesthetics of a red sauce.
What’s in a Name?
Just a word about terminology. What is the difference between marinara, pomodoro, tomato sauce, etc.? The answer is there is no answer or at least no consensus about the right answer. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato. Pasta al pomodoro usually refers to a simple, quick tomato sauce with basil, garlic, and olive oil served over pasta. But many would call that a marinara sauce. To complicate matters “marinara” seems to be derived from the Italian word “mare” which means sea. But marinara sauces may or may not contain seafood. Some food historians claim “marinara” refers to a quick, simple sauce made with just a few ingredients that were available to fishermen in the vicinity of Naples—tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and perhaps basil. In the U.S., “marinara” refers to any tomato sauce without meat.
After spending a day researching this, my advice is—don’t get into debates about what these terms refer to. There is no “right” answer that will be uncontroversial. For my purposes, I will call quick, simple sauces “marinara”, longer cooked sauces with soffritto “sugo di pomodoro”, and the long. slow-cooked tomato sauce a red sauce or gravy.
Additional Posts in the Tomato Sauce Project: