Why DID he call it macaroni?! October 7, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Thomas Jefferson, Yankee Doodle, Revolutionary period, Revolutionary songs, macaroni, Macaronis
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about that beloved children’s song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It all started when my girlfriend, Bridget, and I had dinner at our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s cozy country cottage, Hawk’s Haven, last night.
In typical Silence fashion, Silence has gotten so excited that it’s finally cool enough to use the oven that she can’t stop using it. We were treated to her homemade jalapeno poppers (woo-hoo!) as appetizers, baked sweet potatoes to go with the meal, apple crisp for dessert (with vanilla ice cream and loads of fresh whipped cream, just the way I like it), and a loaf of still-warm banana bread to take home. With the sweet potatoes, Silence served up one of her signature huge tossed salads, broccoli, and her famous Crock-Pot macaroni and cheese. And it was the mac’n'cheese that started us thinking about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
There are many versions of the famous song, but the version we all grew up with is “Yankee Doodle went to town/Riding on a pony/Stuck a feather in his hat/And called it macaroni.” Bridget, with a forkful of mac’n'cheese halfway to her mouth, looked at it, then at me, and asked, “But why did he call it macaroni?! Or is it just a nonsense rhyme?”
Being a history buff, I actually knew what a Macaroni was, and what the verse was trying to do. But even I was surprised by some of the things I found out when I did a little research. But let’s start with the basics.
The song was, to say the least, not meant to be flattering to poor Yankee Doodle. Basically, it was a British creation, to the tune of the popular children’s song “Lucy Locket,” making fun of the Colonists for being buffoonlike hicks. A “doodle” was an idiot, and a Macaroni was a fop who wore such dandified, outrageously patterned clothing and towering wigs that the cartoonists of the era had a field day depicting these “tulips of fashion,” their tiny hats perched atop their skyscraping wigs like birds’ nests in the upper branches of a tree. So a “Yankee doodle” was a Colonial rube who thought he could aspire to the heights of fashion simply by sticking a feather in his hat. To make matters even worse, he went to town riding on a pony rather than a proper horse.
What I didn’t know was that the song predated the Revolutionary War. It in fact was created to make fun of the unsophisticated Colonists who fought (on the side of the British, to add insult to injury!) in the French and Indian War. (Two of whom were George Washington, nothing if not fashionable, and Daniel Boone, who would have disdained all fashion rather than trying to “ape” or copy it.) Of course, the British later used it to mock their enemies during the Revolution, and the Colonists defiantly adopted it as a marching song for their troops, so successfully that “Yankee Doodle” is now considered an American classic.
There was something else I didn’t know: “Yankee” was a term first applied to the British themselves by the Dutch! Who’d'a thunk?!
I was in the middle of explaining all this to Bridget when Silence broke in, cutting as usual to the chase. “Never mind that, Richard! Yankee Doodle blah blah blah. What I want to know is, how did macaroni end up being called macaroni, anyway?”
Hmmm. This turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought. A hasty visit with my good friend Wikipedia suggested that perhaps it shared a root with the Latin “macerate,” to cut or chop up, since, after all, macaroni is cut into fork-friendly lengths. (Unlike, say, spaghetti or fettucine.) But I’m not convinced.
Here’s my theory: If you look at the wig of a Macaroni, you’ll notice prominent elbow-shaped curls along the sides. The Macaroni fashion, like the pasta itself, originated in Italy, and was picked up by upscale young Brits when they traveled the Continent during what was called the Grand Tour and brought back home to astound their friends and confound their enemies. (Well, it was brought back, at any rate.) The elbow-shaped pasta of the same name also made its appearance around this time, and was embraced by trendsetting gourmets like Thomas Jefferson. (Macaroni and cheese, believe it or not, was one of his favorite dishes.) Perhaps the Italians simply named their elbow-shaped pasta after the outrageous curls on their dandies’ wigs. Makes sense to me!
If you have a better theory, please tell me. I’d love to surprise Silence with it at our next get-together!