This month we celebrate a dish created in ancient Greece, perfected through millennia with regional variations across Italy, and finally embraced with passion in America. Yes, we’re all about National Lasagna Awareness Month, with National Lasagna Day coming up July 29.
Along the way, and especially after crossing the Atlantic, the dish evolved – generally becoming heavier than most Italians like it. In America, after all, pastas tend to be served as main courses rather than smaller, lighter starters. It also got misspelled, since like spaghetti, fettuccine, ziti, penne and all the rest, pastas are called by their plural form – thus, it’s really lasagne. Presumably because this heavier dish struck Americans as more a single big thing than a gathering of little things, it’s most often treated here as singular: lasagna.
Not everybody knows about lasagna’s Greek origins, though travelers to both beloved countries might suspect as much. Greeks stuff everything that sits still long enough; and what they can’t stuff, they layer. Witness the two most popular Greek dishes actually invented in Greece – makaronia tou fournou. Both, at times, are explained to Americans visiting Greece as “Greek lasagna,” which might feel a bit degrading to the people who invented lasagna in the first place.
All the same, the original version strikes us as pretty different from the lasagna we know and love today. The Greek “laganon” was a flat sheet of primitive pasta dough cut in strips, while the word “lasanon” was a kind of trivet that held a cooking pot. Taking their cue from Greeks (as usual), the Romans made it “lasanum” for the casserole-style pot or deep dish in which early versions of the dish were made.
There is one shocking, even depressing reminder, though. Every conceivable version of lasagna made and eaten before Columbus made it to the Americas featured absolutely no tomatoes. No red sauce. Europe had never laid eyes on this fruit of the New World before he and other explorers started bringing back plants. For years even after that, most Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous.
The fruit found its greatest early champion not in a Carlo, an Antonio or a Luigi, but a Thomas. Thomas Jefferson promoted tomatoes heavily as an agricultural product, right along with the grapes for wine he hoped America would someday manage to grow. He ought to be proud of us.
Starting in the Middle Ages, Italy became the birthplace of modern lasagna. Along with pizza and a few other life essentials, lasagna hails from the Campania region around Naples. All the same, it spread outward from there through many regions and many dialects, taking on many forms based on local taste preferences. And since Italy was only unified in the mid-19th century, most people were none the wiser. Lasagna was simply what their Mama made.
As befits a land in which most residents were poor and agricultural, lasagna was always a celebration dish. In its hometown of Naples, for instance, it was called “lasagna di carnevale” – meaning a meat festival before the start of meatless Lent. It was served only during that Carnival season, featuring not only meat sauce and fried meatballs between sheets of pasta but hard-boiled eggs. In the Emilia-Romagna region around Bologna (yes, as in Bolognese), the sauce slowly simmered with ground beef, ground pork, red wine, garlic, onion and oregano was called a ragu and the finished product became known as “lasagna al forno,” meaning lasagna baked in the oven. As a roots reminder, Greek pastitzio is sometimes still called “makaronia tou founou.”
The special occasion element remained, however. In Emilia-Romagna, lasagna celebrated the birth of a girl, while in Puglia it became a Christmas tradition. In the region known as Marche, it was enjoyed mostly at weddings, though sometimes served to a special guest at any time of year.
Though there were differences from region to region, even from town to town, one theme comes into focus with hindsight. Northern Italy favored lighter, more delicate lasagnas, while southern Italy and especially Sicily preferred heavier. This fits history’s narrative nicely, since Sicily remains more Greek than Italian and even features unexpected spices from centuries of North African occupation. It was Sicily and other parts of Italy’s impoverished deep south that produced nearly all the “Italian” immigrants to America starting in the mid 19th century.
Several things happened to the dish when it metaphorically stepped off the boat at Ellis Island, and also in immigration port cities like New Orleans and Galveston. Yes, it eventually became most people’s main dish. Also, meat was suddenly plentiful and cheap, so like most Old World dishes that made the crossing, lasagna became more meat-centric. And over the loud protests of Italian-born chefs to this day, it started relying on thicker dry “lasagna noodles,” rather than tissue-thin sheets of egg pasta made in house. You can certainly feel the difference when you try to stand up after your meal.
Still, there’s no denying it – lasagna is one of the world’s truly iconic foods. It’s changed a lot since ancient Greeks were making something like it, in each case blending available local ingredients to satisfy prevailing local tastes. With the convenience of delightful tomato sauces and generous selections of many cheeses, you can make lasagna as an everyday dinner. But don’t ever forget – lasagna is always a celebration of bounty, of flavor, of goodness, of life.
MOM’S DOUBLE-BARRELED LASAGNA
Of course you can use two jars of either (or any) of the Mom’s pasta sauces called for in this recipe and be very happy, but we really like what happens when you use one of each. It makes for the best of both worlds, which in the case of lasagna is an awesome thing indeed.
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground mild Italian sausage
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 large jar Mom’s brand Primavera Sauce
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons dehydrated minced onion
2 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon Greek seasoning, such as Cavender’s
1 box regular (not no-boil or oven-ready) lasagne sheets
1 large jar Mom’s brand Spaghetti Sauce with Whole Garlic and Basil Leaves
2 cups shredded mozzarella or Pizza Blend cheese
Additional grated parmesan cheese
Crushed red pepper
Prepare the Meat Sauce by cooking the ground beef and Italian sausage in the olive oil in a pan. When cooked, stir in the red wine until evaporated. Add the parsley and Primavera Sauce. To make the Ricotta Filling, thoroughly combine the ricotta, parmesan and eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir in the onion, parsley, garlic powder and Greek seasoning.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cook the lasagna noodles in salted boiling water just until tender, 8-10 minutes. Drain under cold running water to stop the cooking. Spray the bottom of an ovenproof 13 X 9-inch baking dish with vegetable spray and cover with about ¼ of the Meat Sauce. Layer with 5 lasagne sheets (4 long-ways and 1 trimmed to fill across the top). Cover this pasta layer with about 1/3 of the Ricotta Filling, then another ¼ of the Meat Sauce, then about 1/3 of the Spaghetti Sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella and additional parmesan, if desired.
Repeat the process with two more layers of noodles, ending before the last of the mozzarella. Bake for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the mozzarella and, to taste, with Greek seasoning and crushed red pepper. Bake for 10 minutes more. If desired, switch the oven to broil just long enough to bubble and brown the top. Let cool 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Serves 10-12.