jewish history pasta salad
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Why Pasta Salad Is Actually Really Jewish

This beloved American side dish is rooted in Italian Jewish cuisine.

Scooping a spoon of lukewarm macaroni salad — glooped in mayonnaise, studded with unidentifiable vegetables — onto a paper plate at a picnic or barbecue feels like a quintessentially North American experience. “I’ve always thought of pasta salad as a peculiarly American treatment of pasta, and not even necessarily Italian-American. Recipes have been printed in the U.S. at least since 1916,” summarized Chris Crowley for Taste. But the concept of eating cold, dressed noodles has a surprisingly rich Jewish history. 

It’s said that the Jews have an ancient connection to pasta; historian and archeologist Susan Weingarten claims that the first written mention of pasta appears in the Talmud, referencing a food called triqta. Prolific Jewish food writer Claudia Rodin takes this further, crediting Jews with being the first to champion eating cold pasta and inspire others to explore and invent variations. 

“Centuries before Americans popularized pasta salads Jews were the only Italians to eat cold pasta,” Rodin wrote in the Spring 2003 issue of Notes from Zamir. 

Cookbook author Marcia Freidman agrees, explaining that pasta salad evolved as a clever Italian Jewish invention intended to make cold pasta more palatable on Shabbat, when it is prohibited to cook. This prohibition has particularly shaped Saturday lunch fare, which traditionally consists of slow-cooked dishes assembled before Shabbat begins on Friday night, or cold dishes. It’s worth noting that pasta salads are very popular among Orthodox Jews in the U.S. for this reason, and often skew more American than Italian when it comes to flavor and ingredients (hello, mayo!). 

“In Southern Italy, Jewish communities often used a sweet and sour dressing made of vinegar and sugar, or sometimes lemon and sugar, to dress their pasta salad,” said Freidman. This not only added flavor but also served as a preservative. 

In “Jewish Flavors of Italy: A Family Cookbook,” for instance, Silvia Nacamulli includes a recipe for Tagliolini Freddi per Shabbat (cold tagliolini for Shabbat), where pasta is enrobed in a punchy tomato sauce laced with vinegar, sugar, lemon and chili. “The dish tastes slightly different when warm rather than cold, but it is delicious either way,”  writes Nacamulli. The tomato sauce is “actually better used cold,” she says. 

Part of the reason Italian Jewish cuisine is so distinctive is due to Italian treatment of the Jews in the 15th and 16th centuries. Jews were often discriminated against through social and economic restrictions, and were segregated in ghettos. In these ghettos, Jews crafted a cuisine that adhered to their dietary restrictions and incorporated local ingredients that were disliked by non-Jews (and thus cheap and plentiful), like eggplant, artichokes, fennel and onions. They transformed them into delectable dishes like caponata, fennel gratin and  — yes  — pasta salad.

Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, author of “Cooking all Guidia: A Celebration of the Jewish Food of Italy,” hasn’t found direct evidence of Jews inventing the concept of eating cold pasta in her research, though she sees why it would have been popular among Jews who observed Shabbat. Instead, Guetta suggests a cold rice salad, with recipes she’s seen dating back to the 16th century, could be the origin of pasta salad. Many of the vegetables and ingredients typical of Italian pasta salad feature in this cold rice dish. 

“As pasta gained more variety, it’s possible that people started treating it like rice. It’s possible that Jews, accustomed to serving their pasta cold, contributed to this evolution,” she hypothesized.

In Italy and beyond, pasta salad has become an integral part of the Shabbat table, with families passing down their unique recipes from generation to generation. Whether it’s a classic American macaroni salad or a sweet-and-sour Roman recipe, pasta salad symbolizes culinary creativity and tradition. And while the historical connection between Jews and pasta salad remains open to interpretation, its enduring presence reflects the richness of Jewish culinary heritage and its ability to adapt and evolve over time.

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