The Classic Italian Comfort Food, Lasagna.
Though most attribute the first modern lasagna recipe to Naples, its history is much older. It is said that lasagna pasta is one of the oldest types of pasta.
In Ancient Greece, the meal was called Laganon. The name comes from the cooking method, not the ingredients. The flat, fermented dough was cut into strips and layered with sauce. The Greeks have since refined the recipe, which they know call Pastitsio.
The Roman version similar to lasagna was called Lasanum or Lasana (meaning container or cooking pot). Roman foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius described the meal in his recipes, later compiled in the manuscript de re conquinaria. Through historical references, it is clear that many enjoyed this meal. The Roman Poet Horace refers to the meal, and it is said that the great orator Cicero enjoyed it, as it was soft and easy to eat, especially for an older man with poor teeth.
Fast forward to medieval times in England. The chefs of Richard II called it Loseyn in the 14th-century manuscript a Forme of Cury. The spice trade from the east had just opened up, which exposed the west to many different cultures. The flavors and recipes of the Spanish, French, Italians, and Arabs influenced the royal chefs. Though there were layers of pasta, there were no tomatoes in England at the time. The layers instead had different types of cheese, spices (nutmeg, for example), and fresh herbs.
At the same time as a Forme of Cury, the Italians documented their recipe in Liber de Coquina's manuscript (The Book of Cookery). The recipes in Liber de Coquina closely describe what we know now as current-day Lasagna. The chefs flattened the dough into thin sheets and boiled them in hot water. The cooked dough was layered with cheese and spices. Later versions called for replacing water with chicken broth on nonreligious days or adding walnuts with thick layers of warm cheese.
For most of early Europe, Tomatoes were not consumed, as they were considered poisonous. It was not until 1544 that tomatoes appeared in European cuisine and 1692 in a recipe constructed in Naples. Now we are talking! The modern-day lasagna in Naples, called lasagna di carnevale, is layered with ragu, meat (often sausage or fried meatballs), hard-boiled eggs, ricotta, and mozzarella. The meal has a cousin, lasagne al forno, layered with thick ragu and béchamel sauce. For as many theories of the meal's origin, there are bazillion versions of the dish worldwide. Even in Italy, the pasta variations were regionalized based on what ingredients were readily available. In the South, lasagna dough was made from semolina flour, whereas the north used flour and eggs; though today, Italian pasta commercially sold is made from durum wheat (semolina).
The Italian immigrants that came to America brought this cherished recipe with them to their new country. The meal was a staple food for many homes as the ingredients were inexpensive and could feed large families for multiple days. Each family had their variation and recipes for the meal. Some preferred the traditional thick ragu and meat, while others enjoyed adding vegetables. Recipes were adapted based on what the families could find or afford. This cooking technique also became handy with leftovers. Whatever the family had left over from the previous night's meal was often added to the layers to avoid food waste while making a tasty, affordable meal. In my family, lasagna was a favorite. Who doesn't remember the pan hitting the table with a thud, heavy with fresh pasta, generous amounts of ragu (it would be a disaster if there were not enough sauce, resulting in the meal being dry), and layers of ricotta and hot mozzarella?
In my cookbook, A Thyme and Place, I made a version celebrating the original recipe in a Forme of Cury. My recipe preserves the tradition of a tomato-less lasagna, slow-cooked short ribs, and béchamel becoming the dish's star. Whatever version you prefer, lasagna is a special meal that continues to be enjoyed by all.