Guess what? If you ask for spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, people roll their eyes at you in Italian. (It’s like judging you in Spanish.)
That’s because spaghetti Bolognese—meaning a meaty tomato-y sauce tossed with spaghetti—is not a thing in Bologna. Bolognese chefs put their meat sauce on tagliatelle (flat, wide noodles made with egg). And Bolognese chefs sneer in Italian at basil, garlic, and oregano when they show up unbidden—like a Larisauro slithering from the depths of Lake Como—in a meat sauce. Monstrous.
However, “spag bol,” as Brits and Aussies jauntily call the dish, is beloved around the world. Here in the USA, we unimaginatively call it “spaghetti with meat sauce,” which is why our students lag in measures of global academic achievement. Since spag bol is not a real Italian dish, there’s no definitive way to make it. Cooks riff and argue about the merits of using ground beef, veal, chicken, pork, or a combination thereof; some folks prefer it heavy on the tomato flavor, others on the meat. It’s easily made kosher by skipping the pork and Parmesan. Tablet’s art director, Esther Werdiger, a big spag bol fan who made the dish for her entire Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne, told me that her classmates jokingly called it “Spaghetti Ba’al Ha’Ness—literally “Spaghetti of the Lord of the Miracle,” and a reference to the Jewish sage Rabbe Meir Ba’al Ha’Ness.
Since the actual origins of the dish are shrouded in mystery, we can put together elements of what we actually know to make a delicious mélange. According to the archaeologist and historian Susan Weingarten, the first written mention of pasta at all was in the Jerusalem Talmud. The text, compiled in the fourth century CE, mentions a food called triqta. In a paper for the journal Food & History, Weingarten (author of last year’s definitive scholarly history of charoset), posits that triqta was quite likely tracta, an early form of pasta. She notes that triqta was a synonym for the Aramaic sufganin (yes, like sufganiyot), a tubular dough product dried in the sun or in a low oven. Sufganin is also the word used to translate the biblical Hebrew word reqiqim, a boiled or soaked product of unleavened dough. The earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translates reqiqim as lagana. Weingarten points out that both the Greek writer Athenaeus and an ancient commentary on the poet Horace say that lagana and tracta were identical. “So we have a circle of identity,” Weingarten writes. “Triqta = sufganin = reqiqim = lagana = tracta. Thus the talmudic sources support those classical scholars who see tracta as an early form of pasta.” Q.E.D.
There’s more. Back in 1986, food writer Corby Kummer noted that by the 10th century, Arabic sources called fresh noodles lakhsha, a Persian word that clearly was the progenitor to lokshn, as in lokshn kugel. (“By comparison with these words, noodle, which dates from 16th-century German, originated yesterday,” Kummer wrote.) A 12th-century Arab writer called a certain Sicilian food itriyah, a word Kummer says is the progenitor to trii, which is the word for spaghetti in some parts of Sicily and is familiar throughout Italy as a component of ciceri e trii, chickpea and pasta soup. Itriyah is also—surprise, surprise—the Hebrew word for noodle. Kummer cites Edda Servi Machlin’s essential and tragically out of print Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, as a repository of pasta dishes indicating the influences of the Middle East on Italian food.)
Jews have been in Italy since at least 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (that event is depicted in the Arch of Titus, still viewable in Rome today). In the years that followed, Jews were exiled from Judea; almost all fled, were murdered, or were sold into slavery or brought to Rome as prisoners of war. During waves of expulsions from different countries over the next few centuries, Jews roamed into Italy from places they’d previously escaped to. (Welcome to Jewish history.) When Jews fled Libya, Iran, and Tunisia, they brought foods, recipes, and cooking techniques from the places they’d left: apricots, artichokes, lemons. They adapted nonkosher recipes to serve their needs and created workarounds for disallowed techniques like cooking on Shabbat. Since they couldn’t use prosciutto, Jews and Italy came up with goose prosciutto. And Joan Nathan wrote in Tablet of a recipe called Pharaoh’s wheel, or tagliolini colla crosta: “Because an al dente pasta dish is impossible to make on the Sabbath, in this delicious case Italian Jews boiled their pasta ahead and baked it.” It was made with a sauce made of ground meat and tomatoes. What does that sound like? The dish is traditionally eaten on Purim. Many years ago, Nathan wrote, Edda Servi Machlin served her the dish: Edda called it ruota di faraone, “Pharaoh’s wheel,” and served it flipped over at the table from a ceramic bowl. Drama!
The Italian Jewish community kept growing; two more waves of immigrants arrived: from Central Europe in the 14th century and from Spain and Portugal after the expulsion in 1492. As Joyce Goldstein pointed out in Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, Jewish immigrants brought tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes with them.
The first written meat sauce (ragù) recipe in Italy came from Ibola, a town south of Bologna. It appeared in 1891 in a book by a cookbook writer named Pellegrino Artusi, who called the dish Maccheroni alla Bolognese. Maccheroni was then a generic term for pasta. (Fun fact: When spoiled rich British bros did the Grand Tour of Italy, they came home with foppish affectations and were disparagingly called “macaronis.” Kummer points out that in the mid-1700s, “macaroni” was the name of an annoying fabulous male hairstyle, which “may be why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called the effect macaroni.” Further fun fact: “Doodle comes from a German word meaning ‘simpleton,’” Kummer writes, “the same definition that noodle had at the time.” American revolutionaries didn’t come up with the song “Yankee Doodle”; the British did, mocking them. In classic American tradition, the colonists embraced the stereotype and adopted the song as their own.)
While it’s unclear why Bologna got immortalized as the epicenter of rich tomato sauce, it’s very clear that Bologna was long an epicenter of rich Jewish history. Jews were allowed to live peacefully there for hundreds of years. From the early Middle Ages onward, the city was an intellectual center that fostered Talmudic academies, important thinkers, a robust secular university. The great rabbis Obadia Sforno, Azarià de Rossi, and Samuele Archivolti lived there. Bologna is the home to what may be the oldest complete Torah, found in the University of Bologna library, dated from somewhere between 1155 and 1225.
Bologna was known for the printing of Jewish religious books. “The first edition in the world of the Book of Psalms was printed there,” Jewish spaghetti Bolognese obsessive Sarah Pinch, creator of a blog called (duh) Spaghetti Blogenese, told me. (Her Twitter handle is @BologneseLover.) It was the first book ever printed in Hebrew, with commentary by the medieval Rabbi David Kimhi, published in 1477; it sold in 2015 for $670,000. The book was censored by Church authorities in Italy, who crossed out Psalms 7, 15, 72, 119, and 129, because of filth. We know Jews were active in Bologna in the fourth century, Pinch pointed out, because the Bishop of Milan wrote about his trip to Bologna to exhume two Christian proto-martyrs from the Bolognese Jewish cemetery to be interred at the Basilica of St. Stephen. And all this activity was, she points out, happening at the same time as the codification of the Jerusalem Talmud, with its pasta references. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Pinch is not kidding around about her obsessiveness. Her blog chronicles her journey of eating spaghetti Bolognese every week for a year. She ate in 52 restaurants, sampled frozen and packaged Bologneses, and invited randos to drop their own spag bols off at her house in Melbourne for her. (She received 30 dishes. No one tried to poison her.) All in all, she ate 97 varieties of spaghetti Bolognese in one year. She calculated that this added up to 16 kg (35.2 pounds) of pasta worth $722.18.
Why? “I loved the idea of a challenge, and spaghetti Bolognese is my favorite dish,” she said in an interview. “When I was younger, I was a really fussy eater; I only ate plain noodles, cucumbers, chips, Vegemite sandwiches, and ice cream. My family could only go to Italian restaurants because I’d only eat spaghetti Bolognese. My mom is an amazing cook, but I hated her Bolognese; maybe it was the kosher meat being dry.” Pinch knew that spaghetti Bolognese would make for a great blog topic. “It’s so divisive, and everyone has an opinion,” she said. “Some people refuse to have carrots or chunky vegetables or mushrooms in it; some people like it more acidic and other people like it more sweet. You can get it everywhere. It’s in Thailand and Japan, and I had amazing spaghetti Bolognese in Tel Aviv.”
As for why folks love it so, she said, “You can’t get it wrong! Well, sometimes the meat clumps are too big or its too watery or too acidic, and too bright red feels a bit wrong there, but it’s just brilliant. Just put stuff in a pot and cook it low and slow. It’s easy for busy parents. I don’t feel it suffers from a lack of Parmesan if you keep kosher; if you’re a vegetarian, there are vegetarian versions.”
Even after eating the dish every week for a year, Pinch still wasn’t sick of spag bol. After finishing her blogging project, she went to Bologna to take a five-day pasta intensive at the Culinary Institute. “I learned the history and cooked with nonnas and went to the fromagerie to get fresh Parmesan every day,” she said blissfully. “It was my dream holiday.”
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.