Food History

Meet the Italians Who Thought Pasta Wouldn't Last

March 28, 2017

“You think, you dream, and you act, according to what you drink and eat,” declared poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the avant-garde art and social movement we know as Italian Futurism. He and an artist that went by the pseudonym Fillìa penned a book in 1932 called La Cucina Futurista, or The Futurist Cookbook.

It's a fascinating historic cookbook, most well-known for its abhorrence of and crusade against pastasciutta, or dried pasta. Marinetti called it “that absurd Italian gastronomic religion.”

Illustration by Emiko Davies

Pastasciutta, however agreeable to the palate, is a passéist food because it makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them skeptical, slow, pessimistic,” the Futurists sustained, adding that the abolition of pasta would also free Italy from importing expensive foreign wheat. Doctors were consulted on these claims too, who noted things like, “Unlike bread and rice, pasta is a good that is gulped down, not chewed,” causing bloating and slow digestion. Futurist journalist Marco Ramperti wrote about the ill-effects of eating too much pasta, not only physically but mentally: “It is the swelling of the belly at the expense of the brain... Try starting a debate after bingeing on tagliatelle.”

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A reporter for the newspaper Gazzetto del Popolo, V. G. Pennino, agreed with Marinetti, and wrote to him saying that “sleep-inducing” pasta and “heavy and insipid” white bread should be replaced with “fragrant and substantial” whole-wheat bread, un-hulled rice, and green vegetables that “are not stupidly destroyed by absurd cooking methods.” He continued: “The diet of the Italian people must be based on the products of this hot, restless, volcanic land; three quarters of it must therefore consist of our marvelous vegetable products that are the envy of the whole world, and just one quarter should be animal products.”

Unsurprisingly, the Italian population was not convinced. The housewives of Aquila protested against the manifesto with a letter, a plea for pasta. The Duke of Bovino, mayor of Naples, responded to the anti-pasta manifesto by saying, “The angels in Heaven eat nothing but vermicelli al pomodoro,” to which Marinetti replied that his suspicion was confirmed: The life of the angels was unappealingly monotonous. Even as far away as San Francisco, a fight broke out in two neighboring Italian restaurants over the Futurist's stance on pasta.

So exactly what kind of food did the Futurists approve of? While they denounced pasta, Futurism looked towards a new, modern way of cooking and eating, of even viewing food. The futurists looked down on Pellegrino Artusi's tome, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891) as a symbol of traditional Italian cooking, and instead wanted not only to overhaul the tastebuds and eating habits of Italians, but also to encourage the invention of new foods and original dishes. The idea of nourishing pills and powders to replace meals was incredibly appealing for the Futurists, who believed that daily eating for pleasure should be done away with, so that when banquets did appear, they were more appreciated.

In an article published on Brain Pickings, Maria Popova writes, “What the media missed at first was that the cookbook was arguably the greatest artistic prank of the twentieth century—it wasn’t a populist effort to upgrade mass cuisine but, rather, a highbrow quest to raise the nation’s, perhaps the world’s, collective artistic consciousness.” And British journalist Lesley Chamberlain called the 1989 edition “a provocative work of art disguised as easy-to-read cookbook.”

Take his recipe for the 'Excited Pig,' salami immersed in espresso and eau de cologne... or the 'Raw Meat Slashed to the Sound of a Trumpet,' cubes of rum and vermouth-infused meat served on a bed of red pepper and snow.

Perhaps Marinetti was ahead of his time; he certainly foresaw molecular and nouvelle cuisine, and even meal replacements like Soylent and protein powder that are so popular today. He treated raw ingredients like art materials, and found pasta aesthetically unappealing. Take his recipe for the "Excited Pig," salami immersed in espresso and eau de cologne, or the "Dish with Sounds and Smells," a plate containing a quarter of a fennel bulb, an olive, a candied fruit, and a tactile device made of sandpaper and black velvet, to be rubbed by the eater's fingers while eating. Perfumes sprayed into the air by waiters would aid tasting, and some snippets of a Wagner opera become “ingredients” to heighten the flavors of the dish.

Not all the Futurist recipes are as bizarre as these, or the "Raw Meat Slashed to the Sound of a Trumpet," which is described as cubes of rum and vermouth-infused meat served on a bed of red pepper and snow, chewed in between “impetuous trumpet blasts blown by the eater.” Some seem entirely edible, even doable, like Fillìa's "Renewal Dish," which was meant to be an antidote to old customers requesting pasta. It consisted of boiled rice fried in butter and set upon spheres of lettuce that had been sprayed with grappa, served over a mixture of fresh tomatoes and boiled potatoes. Even British food writer Elizabeth David, who noted that the Futurist recipes were “founded on the shock principle of combining unsuitable and exotic ingredients,” included no less than eight of Marinetti's recipes in Italian Food.

Futurism and its cuisine fizzled out with Marinetti's death in 1944, and pasta obviously prevailed. In fact, 85 years after the Futurist Cookbook was published, it seems that pasta is more popular than ever; Italians have no problems consuming 53 pounds of it per person per year and recent (Italian) health studies show that pasta does not negatively affect body weight, an attempt to reverse the the anti-carbohydrate attitude of the nineties. “We’re talking about a fundamental component of Italian Mediterranean tradition, and there is no reason to do without it,” says Licia Lacoviello, head of molecular and nutritional epidemiology at the Neuromed Institute. It could almost be a direct response to the Futurist manifesto.

More than anything, pasta remains the proud symbol of the country's gastronomic identity, a beloved staple, a nationally unifying yet regionally diverse food, the favorite midweek lunch, the must-have special occasion starter, and heirloom recipe. What would Italy be without it? What would the world be without it? What comes to mind are those famous words of Italian screen goddess Sophia Loren: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”

Do you think the Italian Futurists were revolutionary, or just plain wrong? Let us know in the comments!

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1 Comment

Kate K. March 28, 2017
Thank you for writing this. It made me think of Mina Loy, an artist/poet/hat-designer who was deeply involved with Futurist art and politics in the early 20th century. Her perspective on cooking and eating provides an interesting counterpoint with Marinetti's later, bombastic exercises. In "An Effectual Marriage," she explores the coldness and disintegration of her relationship with Florentine Giovanni Papini, tracing the denial embodied by her attempt at domestic bliss:
. . . .
In the mornings she dropped
Cool crystals
Through devotional fingers
Saccharine for his cup
And marketed
With a Basket
Trimmed with a red flannel flower
When she was lazy
She wrote a poem on the milk bill
The first strophe Good morning
The second Good night
Something not too difficult
to learn by heart

The scrubbed smell of the white-wood table
Greasy cleanliness of the chopper board
The coloured vegetables
Intuited quality of flour
Crickly sparks of straw-fanned charcoal
Ranged themselves among her audacious happinesses
Pet simplicities of her Universe
Where circles were only round
Having no vices.
(This narrative halted when I learned that the
house which inspired it was the home of a mad
--Forte dei Marmi)

As part of a movement whose members frequently, explicitly endorsed fascism, violence, and misogyny, Loy characterizes herself as "a secret service buffoon to the Woman's Cause" and "not quite a lady" in "Lion's Jaws," a poem that satirizes F. T. Marinetti and Papini, both of whom she had intense relationships with. Heavens help her.

[Pardon for writing such a long comment!]