Lasagna: Then and Now
Lasagna must be one of the most delectable dishes in the Italian repertoire. Lasagna, however, unlike most Italian dishes is not a simple preparation. Lasagna is a carefully planned assembly. While the individual ingredients of lasagna are rather straightforward, the assembly of those ingredients is very complex; and, depending it what you chose to include can be somewhat costly. In my childhood, lasagna was not something you saw at just any time. In my childhood, lasagna was a dish reserved for holidays. From some acquaintances of Italian extraction, lasagna was not known at any time of the year. In my family lasagna was always the first main course for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It was a dense casserole of alternating layers of the lasagna noodles, ricotta cheese and what we called “gravy.”
Of course, since lasagna was served only on holidays, it was only a part of a many course holiday dinner. Such dinners usually began around 1pm and continued into the night. On holidays there was a complex arrangement of dishes. First came the fruit salad. This was a mixture of canned Dole fruit salad with the addition of select fresh fruits served in high glass cups chilled with ice. I don’t know the origin of this course. It was certainly not Italian. It may have been influenced by what restaurants were serving in the 1950’s.
But what is the history of lasagna? In the world on internet access to information from all over the world I’ve done an extensive review of lasagna’s history on line. Working from Google Italy and our own American Google, I found a wealth of variations on lasagna recipes and history. According to several site, lasagna is a most ancient food. It seems that lasagna may have its origins in an ancient Greek dish “laganon,” or “lasonon.” The Romans adopted this dish and called it “lansanum.” There are also several sites that claim lasagna as a dish of British origin called “loseyns” as found in a medieval cookbook of the late 14th century. While these sources may be something possible, I would also have to note that a good bit of water has gone under the bridge since ancient times. I am somewhat doubtful that the “lasanum” of the Romans or the “loysens” of the British is the lasagna that we know today. Then too, there is the tomato question. While all lasagna recipes do not require tomatoes, (there are a good number of “white lasagna” dishes,) tomatoes in most recipes are now significant. But, the use of tomatoes in the dish would not have happened until well after Columbus. The use of tomatoes also took some time. When first introduced to Europe from the New World they were believed to be poisonous. In 1544 the Italian herbalist, Pietro Matthioli classified tomatoes has highly venomous. Only later, after going through a stage when tomatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac did tomatoes find their way to the table, especially in Naples and Southern Italy. From what I have found, the first printed recipe with tomatoes appears in 1692. If lasagna as we know it today includes tomatoes, then, it would have not been known in its present form until somewhere around 1700. It would be my guess that lasagna as we know it today may have no ancient roots but may very well be a dish that was re-invented at a much later date.
So, what about lasagna as we know it today? Some of the earliest references seem to date from the 17th century. One of the most interesting sites I found contends that traditional lasagna is peasant dish based on the most elemental pork products For many, the main meat source was pork. The pig would be slaughtered in the winter. The best parts would go to the “patrone,” the landlord. The peasants would be left with the offal, the innards and other fragment portions. From the left overs that had some measurable meat, the peasants would makes sausages. From the boney portions they created the foundation of the tomato sauce (what we called gravy).
My research on lasagna took me in many directions. I even went back to my cook book library to reinvestigate my 1988, pre-celebrity chef, Giulio Bugialli “On Pasta.” It seems that lasagna takes a different form not only in the various provinces of Italy but in the diversity of every home. Some lasagna are meat based, others a founded on greens such as artichokes or endive. Some folks, like my relatives, add hardboiled eggs and peas; others do not. In the end, what goes between the layers of pasta is as variable as the things you can find to put between them. Yes, what we know in America has cousins in Italy. There is nothing like strips of pasta interlaced with delectable ricotta and meat sauce. But there are also lasagnas that are vegetarian based, like a wonderful lasagna with artichokes.
The recipe I eventually settled on is a compromise of my family’s traditions, Bugialli’s wisdom, and countless googled sites. In recognition of what seems to be one of the fundamental elements of lasagna, I have used ground pork and pork sausage as the meat base. For the cheeses, I have selected those found in Campania: ricotta, percorino romano and scarmorzza. Scamorzza is solid cheese found in the South of Italy. Lasagna is not a simple recipe. You can’t do it as a 30 minute meal. It takes time, time, and time. Carrying out a recipe like this tells why lasagna was only a holiday dish.