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Spaghetti <i>Before</i> It Was a Pasta

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Of course spaghetti is a pasta but it now feels kind of ordinary compared with other showier formats like rigatoni, risotto, fettuccini, fusilli, gnocchi, penne, ravioli, rotini, or farfaline which is fun to say but is usually called 'bow-tie.'

There was a time in non-Italian-American homes when spaghetti was a stand-alone concept, not another pasta option but an embedded comfort food in its own category. When you asked, "Mom, what's for dinner?" It was never pasta marinara. 'Spaghetti' - meatballs or sausage optional.

In those easier times, thin, thick or plump were body types - not noodles. And we often called it 'spaghetti red' because that's what it looks like and 'red' meant some tomato-based sauce was involved.

Simple.

Not really. For the recipe-deprived among us, there's more to spaghetti red than meets, or meats the palate. Ever hear of American spaghetti or Cincinnati spaghetti or Polish spaghetti, spaghetti 'Americiano,' or even spaghetti 'Pie.' If your salivary glands are twitching, a closer look might be calming. Caveat: recipes are like finger prints. No two are alike.

"American spaghetti comes from rural Tennessee," says, Jim Oesterle, political scientist and oral historian. His grandmother and her parents mixed packaged spaghetti in a buttery sauce of finely chopped onions or scallions, green peppers, and black pepper along with chopped ham or bacon.

Or, "It's the bacon that makes it more American. Real Italians will make spaghetti 'Amatriciana' with pancetta" says Chicago-raised actor, Joe Mantegna.

There's an episode of Criminal Minds where he make it for the rest of the cast.

Bacon? Pancetta? Puleeeze! "American spaghetti' is just plain noodles and ketchup," says New York City home maker, Lucy Shmeeler.

No. "My mother used Olive oil and parsley, or basil, with parmesan cheese on top," says Chicago commercial photographer JoAnn Carney about her 'American spaghetti.'

Or none of the above: "American spaghetti is good old macaroni and cheese" says Los Angeles talent agent, Alisa Taylor.

And that's just American spaghetti. Have you tried spaghetti named after a city? "Cincinnati spaghetti features a watery, gravy-like sauce," says Joanne Curran, Los Angeles bank executive.

Or, allrecipes.com will tell you that Cincinnati spaghetti is made with ground beef, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, cheddar cheese and - unsweetened CHOCOLATE. (Keep in mind, Cincinnati used to call itself Porkopolis due to the large oinker businesses that thrived in the city.)

Then there is Polish spaghetti? It blends broccoli, Cheez Whiz and, or course, Polish sausage.

Or spaghetti Pie? It's got margarine, cottage cheese, mozzarella, eggs, and ground beef under a crust in a pie plate and baked for 20 minutes.

Here's the irony. Whatever form it takes, spaghetti is the least user-friendly food to eat requiring a deft collection process before it even enters your mouth. Are you a one-handed fork twirler? Or do you need a spoon to gather it all in? Do you cut it in half?

There's the esthetics. No one looks cool slurping up a mess of whiplashing, saucy noodles.

And how about the protection issue? Clothing stains are guaranteed unless you cover up with a bunch of skinny dispenser napkins so many restaurants provide.

An yet, in all its many varied forms, no matter how un-cool it is to ingest, spaghetti still stands alone in its own category, second to none among other fancier uptown pastas. Which is why it is among America's top ten most popular comfort foods.

And that is certainly nowhere near ordinary.