Certain things in this world seem to have been around forever. The pyramids, whether made by man or aliens, are immemorial. The Buddha seems totally timeless as well. The Clintons appear to have been in US politics forever and ever. And then we have the classic spaghetti with tomato sauce, so classic that it must have been around since the beginning of time, right?
Pasta has been around since at least the Roman Empire but tomato is a New World produce that would not be available in Europe until the 16th century. We can see from the menus of proper Italian restaurants that many sauces in the pasta section aren’t even tomato-based.
The earliest spaghetti sauce is believed to be olive oil based. And then there are the various cheese, cream, meat and herb sauces. Tomato-based spaghetti sauce is relatively new in comparison. The earliest pasta with tomato sauce recipe can be found in the 1790 cookbook L’Apicio Moderno by Francesco Leonardi.
Leonardi was a Roman chef. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that tomato-based spaghetti sauce would become most popular in Southern Italy. It is believed that making spaghetti sauce from tomato puree is for the sake of simplicity compared to more complicated sauce recipes. However, simple things in life have a way of becoming wildly popular. It’s like McDonald’s and rap music, only tomato-based spaghetti sauce is universally cherished. In fact, the preparation can be more involved than it appears. Just watch the pasta sauce scene in The Godfather.
The simplest tomato-based spaghetti sauce is the marinara sauce. It is made of just olive oil, garlic, and tomato, with optional herbs and onion. The marinara sauce’s simplicity and the fact that it resembles the Italian word “marinaio” for sailor inspired the legend of its origin. According to the legend, in the 19th century when the wives of Italian sailors spotted their husband’s ship coming to port, they would rush home to make the marinara sauce which was delicious yet so simple that it would be ready in time.
The story made no mention of the wives expecting gifts from faraway lands from their husbands. Don’t you love such simpler times?