Thai noodles may be new, but the Italian version won Americans’ hearts years ago.

Yankee Noodle 

Thai noodles may be new, but the Italian version won Americans’ hearts years ago.

A noodle isn't always just a noodle. For example, a traditional noodle (the kind used with stewed chicken or beef stroganoff) is made with flour, water and egg or egg yolk. The Asian noodles used in such restaurants as the new Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop and Satay Bar may be prepared out of any number of ingredients: rice flour, mung-bean starch, potato flour, buckwheat flour or soybean starch. Spaghetti contains semolina -- a coarser wheat flour -- with eggs added as an option.

And until the influx of Asian restaurants, Kansas City's best-known "ethnic" noodles were spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine and lasagna. And those noodles met with some hostility at first.

In her excellent history of American cooking styles, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century, Mary Drake McFeely notes that at the turn of the twentieth century, "American cookbooks and cooking schools taught American cooking.... Well-meaning social workers tried to persuade recent arrivals to cook and eat American food."

It's hard to imagine a day when traditional Italian dishes were considered a threat; they've been the country's most popular ethnic food for many years. But, McFeely writes, "the voice of authority, intent on propagating a single American culture, disapproved." She notes that one social worker visited an Italian family in the early 1900s, afterward angrily writing that the people were "still eating spaghetti, not yet assimilated."

Luckily for American diners, it was the spaghetti that assimilated into American culture. By the 1940s, Americans not only loved it, but they also could buy cans of heat-and-serve Chef Boyardee noodles at the local A&P. The canned stuff was named for the Italian-born Hector Boiardi, who started as a chef at New York City's Plaza Hotel before opening his own restaurant, Giardino d'Italia (in English, "Italian garden") in Cleveland in 1924. More than sixty years later, comedian Roseanne would get a huge laugh on TV by gasping at a menu and saying, "I would not pay $12.95 for spaghetti if Chef Boyardee was in the kitchen!"

In two of Kansas City's most popular Italian restaurants -- Cascone's (3733 N. Oak Trafficway) and Anthony's (701 Grand Avenue) -- a good spaghetti dinner never costs that much. At Cascone's, which has been serving up spaghetti, mostaccioli and hefty, luscious slabs of lasagna for 45 years, dinners still come with slices of Roma bread and butter. The tab for a big bowl of spaghetti with a meatball, meat sauce, Italian sausage or marinara comes to less than $7.

It costs only about 90 cents more to get spaghetti with sausage or a meatball at Anthony's -- with its flattering pink lightbulbs and a sound system that offers the best of Dean Martin, Jerry Vale and Rosemary Clooney (singing "Mambo Italiano") -- but that includes a crisp salad. And if you're going to eat a lot of that crusty Roma bread anyway, go ahead and use it to sop up some of this restaurant's superb lightly breaded shrimp in a garlicky oil-and-butter sauce. At Anthony's, the traditional fettuccine Alfredo is called Fettuccine Angela, but the restaurant makes all the other noodle dishes from the kinds of recipes Italian immigrants brought with them and refused to stop making.

A century later, those recipes are American food.

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