Norman Van Aken's A Word On Food
8:00 am
Sat July 6, 2013

Thank You Marco Polo! The Universal Love Of Spices

Mongolian Veal Chop
Credit Norman Van Aken

I have heard the sing-song voices of children in the swimming pools of hotels I’ve stayed in from Hattiesburg to Honolulu as they play a game called, “Marco Polo”. 

FIRST CHILD: “MAR-CO?

SECOND CHILD: “PO-LO!”

I still don’t understand the rules or goals. The children go up and down in the water constantly repeating his name. Are they seeking each other? Does it have an end?

It’s something that you can get warm and fuzzy about or it may make you consider hurling the book you’ve been trying to read in the direction of their parents. I love children and books though… so I chill and slip on my headphones… and listen to WLRN...

Marco Polo figures so often in the food histories of Europe and Asia that there is the debate whether most of what he reputedly accomplished is pure PR. The closest other example is probably the squabble around the authenticity of Shakespeare and whether he may or may not have penned some of those plays. Poor Shakespeare! He seems to be all but forgotten in childhood games.

Marco Polo was born to a Venetian merchant family. His father Nicola and uncle, Maffeo were not poor, but they couldn’t afford to hire others to do their buying and selling. 

So they cut out those middlemen and hit the road eventually bringing Marco along in 1271 when Marco was just 17 years old. It was Marco who eventually got the publishing bug amongst the three men and history remembers the storytellers… Or let’s hope so!

Though the Mongols had dominated the trade routes, they sporadically allowed more merchants to come in and out of the region. Merchandise that did not seem valuable to the Mongols was often seen as very valuable by the west. As a result, the Mongols received in return a large amount of luxurious goods from the West. However, they never abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Too much fun I guess. Marauding must have its charms!!

After Genghis Khan died, the Silk Road was in the hand of Genghis Khans' daughters. 

Boggles the mind, no?

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia. It was an ancient caravan route that linked central China with the eastern Mediterranean. It was established during the period of Roman rule in Europe and the Han Dynasty in China. It took its name from the silk that was brought to the west from China. Though silk was the major trade item...many other goods were traded, as well as various technologies, religions and philosophies. Oh! Another detail… The Bubonic Plague a.k.a “The Black Death” also traveled along the Silk Routes.

Mar-co?

Po-lo!

When I read about ‘The Silk Road’ I conjured up a barbeque marinade that I dubbed “The Mongolian Marinade”. I submerge a large raw, veal chop in it overnight and let it get deeply flavored. The next day I set it forth…. on a barbeque type grill… until it is crusty at the edges, glazed all over, juicy within and ALIVE with the SILK ROAD SPICES!

Ironically… Marco Polo would probably not be known unless he had not landed in a jail!  It was in Genoa where he shared his stories with other prisoners. “The Travels of Marco Polo” was not penned by the famed Venetian traveler himself but fellow inmate Rustichello da Pisa… 

“Rusty of Pisa” I guess. Marco died in that prison in 1324.

Come to think of it Marco would have been a real natural to do his own radio show. 

I can hear it now. From Genoa City Prison, Marco Polo’s, “A Word on Food”.

“MAR-CO?

“PO-LO!”

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