Christian Living

chinaconnection 02/12/08

The Marco Polo Myth

Sitting in the heart of Rome, eating the most delectable noodles I will probabably ever taste this side of heaven, my mind was drinking in the wealth of history and culture. 

Of course, in a city like Rome, I was hardly alone.  I felt surrounded not only by the nearby tourists from all over the world, but also the great thinkers and artists throughout the centuries who had made their mark on a city that was once the center of the world. 

Beyond the swarms of jet setters and pilgrims making their way to Italy, my mind meandered to the many Italians who had traveled the world on their own quests for adventure.  I thought of the way that Marco Polo, a young Venetian merchant, may have forever altered the course of history after eating scrumptious Chinese noodles and bringing them back to Italy.

The only problem with my initial thought process, however, is that Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy.  In fact, Italians had been eating some manifestation of noodles years before Marco Polo's diaries were ever published.

This information might be common sense to most people, but even as early as grade school, I remember my history books explaining that pasta wasn't really an original Italian product, but Chinese.  The legend was further enforced by Chinese friends over some pizzas and ravioli who were explaining that without Marco Polo's initial fondness for Chinese noodles, Italian food would have a completely different flavor.

On one level, it made so much sense, and was almost a way to validate my own country's efforts to McDonaldsize or Coca-Colaize the globe.  If the Italians can make culinary masterpieces with Chinese noodles, then perhaps Indians or Chinese could make the Big Mac a unique delicacy. 

Granted, many countries have put their own twists on American fast food.  McDonalds restaurants in India favor mutton to beef, and KFCs in China feature fried chicken with traditional Chinese Peking duck sauce and scallions.  While the dishes in fast food restaurants worldwide probably won't inspire the same type of adoration as a 5-course gourmet restaurant, that's not the point.  They do, however, repackage a sense of America in a meal that can be interpreted in countless ways, with various sauces and spices.

Though I thought Marco Polo applied that interpretive license with Chinese noodles, it turns out that his meal was more accurately a way for him to find common ground with different people he encountered during his travels.   By eating the common food of noodles, he was able to understand Chinese culture, within the context of something familiar to him.

Food culture might not join the ranks with great art, literature, or music, but it provides an even more accessible avenue for people to consume something beautiful in a literal, physical way.   

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