Dear Cecil: Recently some friends and I were puzzling over various questions of great ontological import, such as the Meaning of Life and What Is Time?, and reached satisfying conclusions on all except the following, which proved to be a real stumper: If spaghetti is a dish of Italian descent, so to speak, then to what or to whom does the “Franco-" in “Franco-American” brand refer? Emily Litella, Washington, D.C.
When I was younger and had not yet achieved Buddha nature, Emily, this question used to haunt me, along with whether your Louisville Slugger would really splinter if you swung it with the trademark toward the front. My theory at the time (honest) was that Franco-American spaghetti was the last vestige of a native Gallic pasta that had been brutally suppressed by the Italian macaroni barons. Alas, the truth is disappointingly mundane. It seems that Franco-American was the invention of one Alphonse Biardot, who emigrated from France around 1880 or so.
Evidently of a musical nature (he named one of his sons Octave), Biardot’s real forte proved to be in the prepared foods biz. In 1886 he established Biardot’s Franco-American Food Co. in Jersey City, New Jersey, and promptly began churning out a line of soups of such quality that he soon became the dominant force in U.S. soupmaking. Eventually he branched out into consommes and bouillons and something called “spaghetti a la milanaise,” all of which were doing a pretty brisk business when the company was bought out by Campbell Soup in 1921. Franco-American soups were sold as late as the 1950s, but eventually they bit the dust, leaving F-A (which is no longer a separate company but merely a brand name used by Campbell’s “grocery business unit”) with a line of pasta products and a somewhat incongruous name.
In my day the F-A mainstay was straightforward spaghetti, albeit spaghetti that had been doused with sugar and dyed an improbable day-glo orange, but in later years Franco-American introduced the unforgettable SpaghettiOs, which did for the eating experience what Grant did for Vicksburg. Recently even greater heights were reached with the appearance of Spaghetti UFOs, which are shaped like little space vehicles, demonstrating yet again the vast cultural chasm that separates me from the coming generation.
Tradition has it (has it incorrectly, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) that pasta first reached Europe when Marco Polo brought noodles from China early in the 14th century — which implies that America’s favorite lunchtime dish should really be called Sino-American spaghetti. In fact, however, this seems to be a baseless slander against the inventiveness of the Italian people. Pasta was well known during the time of the Roman empire; Cicero loved the stuff. Whether he would approve of what Franco-American has done with it we can only guess. But I suspect that as a loyal son of Italy (and a big-hearted guy to boot), he’d be only too happy to give the credit to the French.
One reason why “you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to” could not have been a hit in first-century Rome
While you did a neat job of debunking the myth that Marco Polo dragged noodles to Genoa in the 14th century, you might also have mentioned that the red goop (or, in the case of F-A, orange goop) one traditionally associates with Italian spaghetti is made from tomatoes, a native of the New World that wasn’t introduced to Europe until after the conquest of Mexico in 1522. So what did the Italians do with their noodles before tomatoes? I suspect they messed with those whitish clam sauces, creams, butter, etc. I am quite sure they at no time entertained the use of cornstarch, probably the grossest culinary sin committed upon spaghetti sauce in Los Angeles today. Regardless, it is interesting to think that all the red things we associate with Italian food today, including pizza, couldn’t have existed had it not been for that contact between Spain and the Aztec empire more than 400 years ago.
Now it’s my turn to ask a question. I’ll readily admit you may be the F. Bacon of our age, but you must, in fact, resort to regular research from time to time. What are your most frequently used sources?
—Sean M., Los Angeles
The Lord and I chat frequently. She’s a font of information, but the phone bills are murder.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.