My mission to write a blog a day for the entire month of November was ALMOST successful. I came up four blogs short. But a promise is a promise…so, four more to go. Starting with this one–which was actually the one I’ve been trying to write for two months, that spurred me to start the blog-a-day mission in the first place. It’s finally done!
I am not a food snob.
Oh, sure, I guess I have my moments. I won’t eat Taco Bell, for one thing. I try to avoid any food whose name contains the word “Whiz.” At home we just upgraded from regular ol’ Digiorno’s to their schmancy new “Pizzeria!” line, with little flakes of oregano or parsley or whatever that green stuff is. And I usually go for the Kashi frozen dinners over Lean Cuisine. (Lemongrass Coconut Chicken, y’all. Seriously.)
But I am not a food snob. I drink Miller Lite and screw-top wine. My favorite restaurant is Cracker Barrel. I’ve actually consumed and enjoyed those frozen chicken wings so devoid of actual chicken that they’re legally required to call them “WYNGZ.” And while I do own several cookbooks, the only one I really use is something called A Man, A Can, A Plan.
So when the owner of Barilla Pasta went full-on homophobic on a radio show earlier this fall (that link covers some of his choicer comments), I was shocked to find—amidst the usual calls for the usual boycott—this weird strain of folks who kept saying it was no big loss, because Barilla was terrible pasta anyway.
“Noticeably poorer!” said one.
“Gummy!” said another.
And while I really really wanted to hate on Guido Barilla, all I could think from then on was:
“Seriously? There are pasta snobs?”
Let me go back. There’s a very simple reason why I’m not a food snob: I really can’t tell the difference. Not even lying. I’ve learned that steak is better if you marinate it, but otherwise it’s basically just beef. I can sip wine and tell you if it’s “red” or “white,” but I can’t tell a “shiraz” from a “cabernet.” Oh you should have seen me at the Biltmore last year, trying to make sincere comments at the wine tasting that didn’t involve the phrase “I’m only here for the free booze.” (What is a “note”? Somebody enlighten me.)
So when it comes to pasta, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all the same ol’ lina.
But—apparently—there are others with more distinguishing tastes.
“I prefer DeCecco!”
What in the hell is going on? It’s pasta, people! Nitpick if you will over boxed versus homemade or gluten versus gluten-free, but good Lord, man, are they not all the same vaguely beige stringy sauce receptacles, regardless of the name on the package? Has this Barilla episode not taught us that discrimination in all its forms is wrong?
(Apparently it’s taught Mr. Barilla. Score one for international pressure.)
It boggled my mind. But then I thought—maybe it’s me. Maybe there’s something I’m missing. I’ve been a pasta fan all my life—ordering spaghetti-with-meat-sauce off the kids’ menu three times a week at the Golden Gate in Lansing, or dragging my parents to all-you-can-eat nights at this restaurant or that, or scouring central New Jersey to find the most perfectly wonderfully stereotypical pizza/pasta place in the state.
Had I been inhaling spaghetti so fast I never stopped to taste it?
There was only one way to find out.
I had to put Barilla—and myself—to the test.
From A To Ziti
Fortunately, at least, I wasn’t alone in my confusion.
“Wait,” said my friend Paula. “They’re saying Barilla sucks because—because it’s anti-gay?”
“No,” I said. “Well, actually yes, but it’s also the pasta. They’re saying the pasta sucks.”
“You mean, like, Barilla sauce isn’t as good as other brands?”
“No, it’s the pasta. They’re saying it’s low-quality pasta.”
A couple seconds went by.
“Because it’s not ‘al dente’?”
“I don’t even know.”
The mission! Test-taste a whole bunch of different pasta brands at once, and see if I can identify any tangible difference at all. (Aside from the ideology.)
The accomplice! Kit FitzSimons, my roommate and partner in crime.
The supplies! In my cupboard: one box of Barilla-brand elbow macaroni and several boxes of Harris Teeter store-brand spaghetti.
(Oh, I can feel you pasta snobs shuddering already.)
I needed more variety. But where to begin? So many choices—DeCecco! Bertolli! Tamagotchi!—and as far as I knew they all came off the same assembly line. This whole scheme would be a total failure if I went out and tried a dozen brands, only to have them all turn out to be differently-named Monsanto subsidiaries.
Clearly some research was in order.
So here’s what I learned, after a half hour on the internet:
1. Good pasta is bumpy and dusty. Bumpy to hold the sauce, and dusty for some reason I couldn’t quite figure out that has something to do with how heavily-processed it is. But you definitely want something that doesn’t feel smooth, and if it looks like it’s recently been rolled in flour, all the better.
2. Apparently it’s supposed to taste “nutty.” I did not know this. Did you know this?
3. And DeCecco seems to be a popular brand, at least among the demographic that spends its time posting on Internet comment threads. So, minus ten points for DeCecco.
(And my very, very Italian friend Kristen added: “You have to try gluten-free. You’ll definitely tell the difference with gluten-free.”)
So, armed with all that, off I went to boost Orange County’s sales tax revenue.
I started with a bag of Trader Joe’s organic spaghetti. Some guy from the Sopranos had said good things about Trader Joe’s spaghetti, and you don’t want to cross a guy from the Sopranos. Check one. From there, it was off to Harris Teeter, where DeCecco happened to be on sale. Check two.
But I still didn’t have any really schmancy stuff. Trader Joe’s Organic was all well and good, but to make this work I needed something really pretentious. Where, where, where does one go in this town to buy the sort of food that thinks way too highly of itself?
(My other option was Whole Foods, but I think I’m supposed to be boycotting them too.)
Weaver Street turns out to have a terrific selection. The first thing I spotted was something called Ancient Harvest: organic, gluten-free pasta made from quinoa, of all things. Well, gosh, you gotta have quinoa. (Plus, it was calling right to me. “YOU’LL NEVER GO BACK TO ‘PLAIN’ NOODLES AGAIN!” it said. Quotation marks and all.)
I figured that would be enough: regular pasta from Harris Teeter, DeCecco and Barilla; fancier organic stuff from Trader Joe’s; and the gluten-free quinoa. A nice mix, all in all.
And then—right there in the Weaver Street pasta aisle—I saw it.
Oh sure, I already had my gluten-free selection—and I wasn’t about to say no to quinoa—but good lord, how could anyone turn this down? Organic! Kosher! “GOOD CONSISTENT TEXTURE NOT MUSHY AL DENTE WHEAT-FREE GLUTEN-FREE!” Seven different distinct fonts, just for the product name! (Not even exaggerating. Count ‘em.)
And that’s just on the front of the package. On the back, it gets even better:
This pasta is made from quality rice and formed to gourmet class. For years, our focus has been on making a pasta from rice that delivers an ultimate enjoyment of pasta…
JOY! A rice pasta that cooks likes any regular pasta. Award-winning taste. Al dente and not mushy. Its texture, superb.
“Ultimate enjoyment of pasta,” you say? “JOY!”, you say?? “Cooks likes any regular pasta,” you say?! Sign me up!
Plus, who could turn down these cute li’l bunnies?
(Because if a BUNNY says it’s not mushy, it’s got to be true.)
So there it was. Armed with six different pasta brands, I marched off to the kitchen to make some magic happen.
A Penne For Your Thoughts
Now, when it comes to preparation, I’m pretty easy to please. I won’t go full Honey Boo Boo and pour butter and ketchup all over it, but I’m usually good with cheap tomato sauce in a can.
But even I knew that that wouldn’t do for such a highly scientific taste test as this one. Sauce covers up the pasta, and it was the pasta we were after. (“Harris Teeter rotini taste just like Barilla when you cover them in pesto and cheese!” reported my friend Brad. Well, that just wouldn’t do at all.)
So after much discussion (about fifteen seconds), we decided on a twofer. Taste all the pastas first completely plain, then once more with sauce and Parmesan.
Fire up the stove!
ROUND ONE: Barilla Elbows; DeCecco Spaghetti no. 12; Harris Teeter Half-Cut Spaghetti
The kitchen was hot and the action was hotter. Boiling pots bubbled side-by-side as the culinary world breathlessly watched, and waited. “Al dente perfection in seven to eight minutes,” the package said. Four minutes went by. Five. Six.
Oh, what the hell. It looks about done.
We sat down and dove in.
First, Barilla! We tasted the noodles plain.
“Hmm,” said Kit.
“I like it,” he said after a few seconds. “It’s hard to dislike when it’s my favorite kind of pasta.”
“No, elbows,” he said. “Like macaroni and cheese.”
“Without cheese,” I said.
I took another bite. I chewed slowly, pondering. The world turned.
“We’re not very good taste testers, are we,” I said.
Second, Harris Teeter! Indistinguishable by sight from Barilla, except for the shape.
“This—this has no flavor,” said Kit. “It—tastes like water.”
“Did Barilla have a flavor?” I asked.
“Sort of,” he said. “More than this, though, right?”
“I really couldn’t tell the difference.”
“I mean—” He started examining the back of the box. “I mean, I don’t know what ‘durum semolina’ is, but this is nothing but durum semolina.”
“Does that matter?”
“Well, Barilla—” He started reading that box. “See. Barilla has all these other ingredients.”
I looked at it. He was right.
INGREDIENTS: SEMOLINA (WHEAT), DURUM FLOUR, NIACIN, IRON (FERROUS SULFATE), THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID.
“But I don’t know what any of those ingredients mean,” I said. “Is it the thiamine mononitrate that’s adding the flavor?”
“Maybe it’s the riboflavin.”
Third, DeCecco! Darling of the Internet message board!
The DeCecco was a little dusty out of the package, and it had a bit of texture. Score two.
We took a bite. Neither of us said anything.
We took a second bite.
“This tastes like—” Kit started.
I threw up my hands. “Okay,” I said. “I can’t tell the difference between any of these.”
“Well, the texture’s different,” Kit said. “It’s—it’s chewy. Like Twizzler pull-and-peel.”
“That’s bad, right?” I said.
“Well, it’s not good.”
“Maybe I didn’t cook it long enough,” I said. “The package did say cook it longer.”
“Maybe this is ‘al dente,’” Kit said. “What’s al dente?”
“I think it’s—well, it’s like—” I started. I paused. “I don’t really know.”
We Googled it.
“Google says it means ‘firm but not hard,’” Kit said.
“That isn’t helpful.”
We’re bad pasta snobs, y’all.
So after all that, the verdict: three brands of fairly inexpensive, mainstream, store-bought pasta, and they all taste pretty much exactly the same, which is to say they didn’t really taste like anything at all. Adding sauce and Parmesan didn’t help distinguish them.
On to round two!
ROUND TWO: Barilla Elbows; Trader Joe’s Organic Spaghetti; Tinkyáda’s Gluten-Free Pasta Joy; Ancient Harvest Gluten-Free Quinoa Supergrain Pasta
With special guest stars Ragu sauce, Parmesan cheese, Coca-Cola, and I think that’s Cool Ranch Doritos photobombing there on the right.
Okay, there’s an extent to which pasta is pasta. But with organic, quinoa, corn, gluten and gluten-free all in the mix, there HAD to be a difference here.
And there was.
“The Trader Joe’s tastes like nothing,” Kit said at first.
“No, it does,” I said. “Wait for it.”
He waited for it.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s got a—it tastes like—”
“Cinnamon,” I said. “The Trader Joe’s tastes like cinnamon.”
Trader Joe’s Organic Spaghetti does, in fact, taste a little like cinnamon. It’s delicious. It’s even better with sauce, especially the kind of sauce that’s enhanced by a hint of cinnamon. (You know. Ragu and what not.)
“Wow,” I said. “I never knew.”
“Okay,” said Kit. “Let’s try the gluten-free.”
( I should pause at this point to mention that I’m paraphrasing a conversation that took place quite a while ago, so the conversation didn’t necessarily go exactly like this. For instance, Kit did not actually say the phrase “Okay, let’s try the gluten-free,” nor do I believe he’s ever said that once in his life.)
But we tried the gluten-free.
Now, I should pause at THIS point to say that we have a friend, Sylvia, who’s been a gluten-free baker for a couple years now, and her stuff is terrific. Good gluten-free breads and pastries and pastas are not easy to come by, but we know from experience that it’s not impossible.
But THIS gluten-free pasta? Not so much.
The Ancient Harvest actually wasn’t terrible. “But it’s gritty,” Kit said.
“It—” he paused. “It tastes like pasta with sauce, without the sauce.”
“The texture, I mean,” he said. “It’s as if there’s something on it, but there’s not.”
“Let’s try the Tinkyáda,” I said.
Again, I remind you that I may or may not have actually uttered the phrase “Let’s try the Tinkyáda” here. But let me assure you, I will NEVER utter it again.
“Ugh,” I said. “It’s—sticky.”
“It’s chewy,” Kit said. “Not in a good way either. Like—bouncy chewy.”
“It’s got this sticky film on it,” I said.
I touched it. The film came off on my fingers.
I checked the pot it cooked in. The sticky film had congealed on the edge.
Appetite spoiler alert.
“I am not finishing this,” Kit said. He physically pushed the bowl away.
“Do you want to try it with sauce?”
He looked at me.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
So into the trash it went. It didn’t even survive a three-bite taste test.
The bunnies LIED!
And thus ended—successfully, I guess—our quest to find a pasta that’s distinguishable from Barilla.
So after all that, what have we learned?
Well, first off, we learned that “food critic” is not the job for me.
Mainly, I learned that there are, in fact, real substantive differences between (some) different types of pasta. I’m still not convinced there’s any significant distinction between Barilla and DeCecco and Harris Teeter—except for the politics, that is—but man, once you go beyond the mainstream store-bought stuff, there’s actually a pretty wide spectrum. Both better and worse.
I will not be eating Tinkyáda again.
But Trader Joe’s Organic Spaghetti is a winner.
Always trust the Italian peasant over the bunny.
(Shame I’m having to leave my apartment. I’m walking distance from Trader Joe’s right now.)
So, chalk that up to an interesting culinary adventure. I haven’t had too many. The one that still takes the cake is that time in Albuquerque when my friends and I went into the Standard Diner (“Guy Fieri ate here!”) and I ordered something called the “Bourbon Butter Burger” (“as featured on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ with Guy Fieri!”). It came to the table, open-faced. “Man,” my friend Stip said. “That’s a giant hunk of cheese on top of the burger.”
“That’s—that’s not cheese,” I said.
It was an inch-thick slab of pure butter.
(It was delicious, by the way.)
So this didn’t quite measure up to that. But at least we got enough pasta out of it to last several months. And we’ll be buying a new kind of pasta from now on, assuming I can work up the energy to trek to Trader Joe’s.
(The whole point was to find something to replace Barilla, after all.)
The leftovers, though, I have to say, weren’t great.
So it is with my cooking style, I guess. Even when I try something fancy and gourmet, it always comes out looking like I would’ve been better off with Spaghetti-Os.