Why am I writing about lasagna? Its origins became a topic for discussion among my brothers and I—and I wanted answers.
I wanted to know how this one particular Italian dish, normally served during festivals (such as Christmas), became a staple of the American dinner table and modified in ways that people all over the world eat it. My grandmother, the daughter of immigrants from Croatia who grew up in St. Louis, would make lasagna frequently.
I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to how lasagna became the casserole of choice in the United States. But, my journey took me down a rabbit hole full of culinary and lexicographical changes that, in some way, made me realize that what we eat in the United States has changed dramatically since World War II. I also found a lot of lasagna recipes.
The dish we call lasagna has been called, for most of its existence, and in most parts of the world, lasagne. Lasagna is singular, and lasagne is plural. The exact etymology of the word is unclear, but it has referred to a wide sheet of pasta that is placed in a pot with food served on top of it for a very long time. The first reference to it in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 18th Century, and that’s just to its appearance in print in English. There are references to words very similar to lasagne in Greek and Latin, as a scholarly article describes here.
English poet Robert Browning wrote about the dish in “The Englishman In Italy” in 1844:
“We shall feast our grape-gleaners (two dozen, Three over one plate) With lasagne so tempting to swallow In slippery ropes,”
In Italy, there is no one way to make lasagne. It is a dish that varies by region, with the only constant being the noodles. Some versions have a lot of meat; some have fruit, some have eggs, some have cheese. Besides the noodles, the common factor is that lasagne is a dish usually reserved for special occasions.
For most Americans, lasagne would be considered a dish that is noodles, topped with meat, cheese, sauce, and then more noodles. You can reorder the layers, substitute some ingredients, but it’s ultimately a giant casserole of meat, cheese, and pasta. So where did that come from?
Finding the history of lasagne in mainstream American cooking led me first to try finding references to it in American newspapers. For the Los Angeles Times, the first reference I could find was in 1930 when there was a small space-filling article (it was a thing, kids, ask your parents about how newspapers did that. On second thought, ask your grandparents) about Venetian lasagne served around Christmas time and it consisted of “oil, onions, peas, parsley, pine nuts, raisins, currants, and candied orange peel.” While this may sound tasty, it is not the lasagna that Americans would come to know and love.
I decided to check the New York Times as well. The paper has long had an extensive food section with recipes. Also, much of Italian cooking in America (although far from all) got its start in New York City.
And on June 18, 1945, while World War II was still going on and there was food rationing, there was this headline “Lasagne Imbotitte or Stuffed Macaroni is a Gala Dish Requiring Little Meat.” The ingredients (most of which you had to get at Italian markets), were: lasagne noodles (they were described since most people did not know what they were), mozzarella cheese (you could substitute cheddar), ricotta cheese (you could substitute cottage cheese), parmesan cheese, along with onion, garlic, and ½ to 1 pound of meat in some combination of beef, pork, or chicken, or ½ of that if you got beef, pork, or chicken livers. No tomato products are included.
There is a picture included, and the finished product looks pretty much what you might think is lasagne today. This lasagne, which is popular in Naples, would end up being the base for lasagne today.
But lasagne still was not part of cuisine all over the country in 1945. It got a big boost in the 1950s. In 1950, the Buitoni Company of New York started selling frozen lasagne for people to thaw and cook. In 1951, the same company sponsored a cooking competition for the best macaroni dish. The winner was a dish called lasagne rolls; the key ingredient was ragu sauce. (The recipe in the newspaper spelled it as Ragu sauce, so it could have been the brand name sauce, which went on the market in 1937.)
In 1952, Les Amis d’Escoffier (a New York gourmet society) holds a six-course meal to celebrate the top dishes in the country. On the menu: Baked Lasagne. If you look at the recipe, it’s not much different than what you get served in a school cafeteria. There are noodles, meat, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, olive oil, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese. Aside from laying out the meat as meatballs, it’s pretty much just lasagne.
I checked a few mainstream general cookbooks (far from systematically), but by 1953, lasagne starts showing up in all of them. Good Housekeeping had a recipe in 1955. The editions of Betty Crocker and the Joy of Cooking that come out in the late 1950s have lasagne recipes. Lasagne, the generic festival dish of Italy, has now just become another thing to make.
In 1967, the ABC television series “Batman” even had a villainess named Lola Lasagne played in typically understated style by Ethel Merman. In the character’s backstory, though, we find out that her birth name was Lulu Schwartz and changed her name after marrying South American playboy Luigi Lasagne. The plot for the episode has a lot of backstory and minimal forward movement. It’s mostly just Ethel Merman saying “Lola Lasagne” for about 15 minutes. OK, perhaps I have gotten off track here.
But why did it become so popular? If you make a delicious lasagne, it is a production. As I am a librarian and not a food historian, I can offer up some ideas. One, lasagne, was one of many Italian dishes that became popular after World War II. Women’s magazines were full of recipes like this. Prior to the war, Italian food in the U.S. was macaroni. After the war, it became a bit more diverse. Two, the American population was growing, dare I say, booming, after World War II. People were looking for food that could feed a lot of people. And also have leftovers. Three, in the 1950s, beef and dairy were the kings of American cuisine. Lasagna delivers those ingredients quite easily.
Sometime in the 1960s, it became more popular to spell lasagne as lasagna, although you can find it sold in stores and restaurants under both spellings. This search also turned up for me that until the 1950s, it was common in the English speaking world to spell “pasta” as “paste.” (Both pronounced as two-syllable words.) But once “paste” became very popular and also often had recipes that included tomato “paste” (one syllable), the “paste” spelling of pasta dropped out of the English language.
Regardless of its spelling, lasagna is an example of a dish that went from being something being made in Italy, to something that American cooks adapted and made a staple. Mostly because we put a lot of cheese in it.
If you want to meet REAL food historians, the Culinary Historians of Southern California have programs at the Central Library on the second Saturdays of most months as well as other programs at branch locations.