Noodles: From ancient China to Pagan island


I’d be the last guy to ask about history. OK, I’d be the last guy to ask about anything, but you already knew that. When it comes to modern food, however, anything that comes in a wrapper, in a can, or that you can put ketchup on, happens to be the spécialité du beach chair.

So we’ll contemplate a modern refinement of an ancient dish: noodles.

With that in mind, you can, in fact, join me for lunch right now. I happen to have a spare plastic spoon in my shirt pocket. Here you go. Oh, wait, that spoon is nasty. Wrong one. Try this one. Yeah, that’s the clean one, so never mind the fuzz, that’s just lint.

The Chinese are usually credited with inventing noodles. This was no recent thing. According to a 2005 article on the National Geographic website, a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles was unearthed in China.

Of course, if you’ve ever lived in a college dormitory, unearthing ancient bowls of half-eaten noodles is nothing new. From my experience, they tended to flock with empty bottles of Lucky Lager beer.

Anyway, noodles eventually became a famous fixture of Italian cuisine. How they got from China to Italy is an interesting question. As for the interesting answer, uh, I don’t have one. Maybe this was a legacy of the Silk Road. Maybe the legendary Marco Polo was involved. Maybe somebody who knows the answer will be kind enough to e-mail me. I’m out of my depth here.

But I can tell you that the Chinese certainly heed Italy’s role in the noodle realm. In Chinese, the word for “spaghetti” is said as “Italy noodle.” Incidentally, the Chinese word for “noodle” is the same word as for “face.” This makes sense to me, since that’s where I put noodles: in my face. We might as well keep this rolling: The Chinese term for Italy is comprised of the terms for “thought,” “big,” and “advantage.” So if you learn the word for “spaghetti” in Chinese, you’ve also learned the terms for noodle, face, Italy, thought, big, and advantage.

Wow, that’s six-to-one linguistic leverage there, which is why I avoid libraries and I stick to restaurants.

Anyway, let’s zoom to modern history, and the era of factory foods for mass consumption, food designed for easy storage, efficient shipping, and consumer convenience for slobs like me. Yeah: progress!

Born in Taiwan, and later setting up shop in Japan, Mr. Momofuku Ando is credited with inventing instant ramen in 1958. Ramen needs no introduction to Saipan, where “soba” enjoys most-favored-food status, possibly being a rival to canned luncheon meat. According to the World Instant Noodles Association, the industry provides 91.6 billion servings of instant noodles annually.

You will notice that America has been absent from our history of noodly evolution. But that’s because Yankee ingenuity was warming up for something big. In 1965, a now famous staple of American culture was unveiled: SpaghettiOs.

SpaghettiOs were the brainchild of Donald Goerke, a Wisconsin native who had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin.

Mr. Goerke was a marketing executive who was tasked with developing canned pasta for kids. It had to be something easy to eat without making a mess and something amenable to re-heating. I don’t know if Mr. Goerke’s math background played a role here, but he certainly had an analytical mind, since the ring-shaped profile of the food hit the sweet spot of the various constraints.

Mr. Goerke, in other words, optimized the noodle.

When I was a kid, I ate as many cans of SpaghettiOs as I could talk my mom into buying.

Later on, in Boy Scouts and beyond, SpaghettiOs proved to be great fare for camping, since they were self-contained in their own sauce and required no preparation outside of heating, and even that was optional because they’re pretty good even when cold. This is one very forgiving food.

And, for me, it’s even been a food with professional applications. When I used to fly airplanes and copters to remote places like Pagan island and Anatahan island, I’d take a couple of cans of SpaghettiOs for just-in-case duty. Yeah, yeah, I know, those islands are full of nature’s lush bounty of edible flora, but there’s no harm in hedging your bets with a can opener and, of course, a dirty plastic spoon.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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