An Old Column On Pasta

      24 Comments on An Old Column On Pasta

Still rounding the bend on finishing the book, but I wanted to post this brief bit anyway.

I’ve mentioned the late, great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko before. Back in the day, he was by far and away the most-read journalist in the Windy City. He was also amazingly prolific. For most of his career, he pounded out five columns per week. He commented on everything from Chicago politics to national fashion trends, usually with a biting sense of humor. I envied his way with words.

Anyway, I stumbled across a column he wrote back in 1987, which was when the whole low-fat craze was really taking off. A friend of his had invited him to a pasta party, and the column recounts their conversation. Here’s an excerpt:

I could tell he was serious. “You bought a pasta machine?”

“Sure. It’s the latest thing. Electric. That’s why I’m having the party.” ”

But you’re not Italian,” I said.

“Of course not. If I was Italian, my mother would make pasta for me.”

“You really have a pasta machine?”

“Sure. It’s right next to my Cuisinart.”

“But you don’t even live in Lincoln Park. You’re from the Southwest Side.”

“What has that to do with it?”

Obviously, he was another victim of pasta chic, a craze that has gripped the city and the nation.

When Slats Grobnik was a kid, he always knew when the old man was having a losing streak at the racetrack.

“We ate spaghetti every day,” he said. “Or macaroni. Or some of those other damned noodles.”

If the streak was prolonged – and old man Grobnik had a fondness for horses that ran backward – Slats would start moaning: “The only fresh meat in the house is our dog. And I’m too weak to chase ‘im.”

It was that way all over the neighborhood. You knew when the paycheck was running out: the noodle appeared. There was no cheaper way to feed a family.

Poverty meant starch. Prosperity meant meat. That’s why so many poor people are fat.

But now that has been reversed. Pasta is in. Meat is out. (At least red meat. You are still fashionable if you eat the flesh of a dead fish or chicken.)

I remember chuckling at that column, but also thinking, What the heck is he talking about? Fat makes people fat. The problem isn’t the noodle, it’s the fatty sauce on top.  Everybody knows that now.

Yup, and everybody was wrong.

Back to that final rewrite of the book.


24 thoughts on “An Old Column On Pasta

  1. bill

    Yup. Rich people don’t add more noodles
    to their hamburger helper, they add more
    scallops to their bouillabaisse. (had to look
    up the spelling on that, not that I know
    what it is…)

    1. gallier2

      Scallops in bouillabaisse, no, no, no, says my french side.
      This said, Bouillabaisse, while sounding very ‘chic’ to Americans, is in reality a poor peoples food from Marseille, where leftovers from fish market were “recycled”. There a real horror stories about what makes the essence of a real bouillabaisse.
      The currently very in thing in France restaurants is hamburger, yes, gastronomical made hamburger is all the rage. Ridiculous.

  2. Firebird

    My mom is Lithuanian but she could out cook her Italian Mother-in-Law when it came to the Italian dishes. We were considered upper-lower class. But my mom didn’t skimp on the meats. She skimped on the milk…buying powdered milk. We did eat a lot of Hamburger Helper but it least there was hamburger. Boxed potatoes…Betty Crocker potatoes au Gratin, etc.

    Friday nights we had pizza sandwiches which was white bread, a slice of government cheese and a tablespoon of jarred spaghetti sauce (store brand). We didn’t know any better and we loved those.

    When she did cook her pasta and made it homemade, she’d make ravioli or a lasagna or our favorite, which I still make with shiritaki noodles…butter (she used margarine), ricotta and parmesan mixed in with ziti, usually accompanied by veal or chicken parm. Whatever she did with the pasta, there was always fat with it, both good and bad.

    1. BobM

      One would think the fat would slow the sugar/blood glucose hit by the pasta. When I was eating pasta, I did not have the fat to do any tests (fat was, after all, evil to me at the time). And since becoming insulin resistant and needing to eat low carb (and perform intermittent fasting) to improve my insulin resistance, I’m afraid to eat pasta even with fat. I do have “fake” pastas, with spaghetti squash and other vegetables, which actually do an admirable job for me of quenching my desire for pasta (and of course now I add fatty meat sauces to everything).

  3. The Older Brother

    Wow. Mike Royko and his fictional incarnation Slats.

    Reading Mike Royko was like if Mark Twain had been reborn into the 20th century. Tough upbringing, worked grunt jobs on the way up, started out as a beat reporter, and became a writer almost without peer who never lost touch with this roots.

    It kind of hurts thinking about Royko when you look at today’s media.


    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Two things I didn’t know about Royko until I read the official biography:

      1. If you put a piece of classical music on the stereo, he could not only name the piece, he could tell you which orchestra was playing it. He loved classical music and his ear for the smallest differences in performance was that good.

      2. When he was drafted and took the military entrance exam, he got a perfect score. Extremely rare.

      Pretty frikkin’ great for a guy with a well-deserved reputation as a bar brawler.

      One of his countless pithy and witty comments, this one on the late Mayor Daley’s style of speaking: “He rarely exited the same sentence he’d entered.”

      1. Nowhereman10

        All kidding aside, the sad thing is that there was a fair amount of causation, not just correlation, in the science literature of the time. :-/

      2. Lori Miller

        They may have been cut baggy, but they didn’t have a baggy fit on a lot of men. Since pasta, bagels, and a generally high-carb diet were in vogue, the diet likely had something to do with the need for full-cut jeans and pleated pants.

  4. Michele

    I miss Mike Royko! I lived in the Chicago suburbs for 20 years, and often his column was the only thing I read in the Tribune!

    1. Mike (another one)

      I loved Royko, and his attempts to capture the nuance of whatever language Richard M. Daley allegedly spoke.

  5. Stephen

    In the old days, it was the poor who were skinny, and the rich that were the fat cats. I’m old enough to remember some of that (I’m born in 1964; I remember the term “skinny old man”). My mother (b. 1930) said people in her village in China only ate meat on holidays. The everyday diet was rice and vegetables. Growing up, Chinese restaurants automatically served fresh steamed rice with the meal. They’d keep the insulated bowl full. Nowadays, you have to explicitly order rice, by the small bowl full. It’s weird, and I can’t get used to it. Not too many Chinese think that “rice makes you fat”.

      1. Mike (another one)

        That may depend on just how starvation the rations are. I’m thinking of Taubes and the Pima Indians.

  6. Mike (another one)

    Carbs to put you in fat storage mode and keep you hungry, fatty sauce to provide plenty of fat to store. Sounds pretty effective.

  7. Kay

    I know I’m late to comment (been catching up on your blog) but this reminds me of an episode of “Maude” that I saw last year. Maude and Walter (her husband) are in the kitchen and she says to him “Walter, eat your breakfast”, which was some cereal, and her husband says “Why do I have to eat this, my grandpa had bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning and he lived to be 93?” she yells “Because we know better now!” and the audience laughed. They knew.


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