Today, no food says "marathon" more warmly than pasta, the carbo-load of choice at pre-race suppers. I'm a food-writer, so when I visited Marathonas, the Greek village that gave the race its name, I began thinking about a pasta dish that would not simply be carbs plus a sauce, but a celebration of marathon history.
The marathon's story, I discovered, dates from 490 bC, when Athens ruled the surrounding region of Attica, where Marathonas is located. The Athenians also traded around the Mediterranean and often ran into trouble with the Persian Empire. Eventually, the Persians decided to quell the seemingly puny city-state and landed an army of 20,000 on the plain of Marathonas. Athens could only muster 10,000 soldiers, but their general, Miltiades, strung them out across the plain, positioning extra battalions at the ends of the line. When the Persians advanced on the center of the line, Miltiades ordered the ends to move towards each other, thus surrounding the invaders and defeating them.
It was a stunning victory, and its survivors basked in glory. Take Aeschylus, for example. He wrote some of the world's greatest tragedies, but his epitaph highlights only his military role: "Under this stone lies Aeschylus... The Athenians in the grove of Marathon and the Persians who landed there were witness to his courage". The Athenians also witnessed the endurance of their soldiers, who marched home across the baking hills of Attica.
Here's where it gets a bit muddy: Some records suggest that one runner, Phaedippides, brought the victory news, and died of exhaustion on arrival; others say that the entire army hastened with the tidings. Whatever the case, it is this 26-mile journey that is remembered in marathon races.
The Athenians celebrated, feasting on foods from the farms and shores of Attica. Banquets began with baskets of bread served with chargers of delicacies: olives, asparagus, and garlic alongside oysters, sea urchins, and tuna and specialties such as shrimps fried in honey, tiny birds tucked into turnovers, and roasted grape hyacinth bulbs. Next came whole fish such as sea bass and spit-roasted lamb and pork, maybe even hare brought by hunters from the hills. Wines and cheeses from Attica completed the meal, along with honey cakes and bowls of grapes, figs and other fruits and nuts.
Most of this will sound familiar to anyone who has visited Greece. As in ancient times, Greek meals still begin with appetizers called mezethes: stuffed vine leaves, silvery little fish, garlicky dips such as tzatziki and skordalia. Whole fish or spit-roasted meat still win out as favorite entrees. And Greeks still adore pastries sticky with honey and syrups.
But what about those first marathoners? As I looked at the pinkish line painted on the road from Marathonas to Athens, I wondered whether those who first trod it carbo-loaded like runners do today?
The answer, I discovered, was that Athenian soldiers had army rations of barley baked into dry cakes. Easily transported, they were eaten by dunkingthem in water or soup. You can still buy such rusks, called paximadia, in Greek bakeries today. Though they look quite different from pasta, conceptually they are similar: both are dried flour products brought to life by liquid and sauces. Why not, I thought, create a pasta dish with a sauce recalling marathon history?
To start, it must have olives. Today, Marathonas lies quiet, the only sounds are the swish of a scythe as a gardener mows the flowery grass of the great burial mound, and the rustle of the gray-green leaves of the olive trees. Legend has it that when Athens was new, several gods wanted it to take their name. The wily citizens agreed to name it after whoever gave the most valuable gift. Poseidon, god of sea, seemed set to win when he gave the horse and explained its value in battle. But Athena, goddess of wisdom, trumped him by producing an olive tree. Though it looked unimpressive, Athena pointed out that it would provide both food and wood for tools and houses, thus promoting peace. Celebrating this, the Athenians twisted olive branches into crowns for winning athletes - a tradition remembered in the olive wreath logo of the Athens Olympics of 2004.
So olives in my marathon pasta recalls Athens and the winners' crown. What else? I wanted an ingredient for a runner. Bay leaves, which also appeared as victory wreaths, were the answer. In Greek they are called dafni after the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river god, who was transformed into a bay tree. It happened when the lusty Apollo saw her dancing. She ran away as fast as she could, but looking over her shoulder she saw he would catch her, so she called on her father for help. The bay-tree idea was his solution. Now Daphne is remembered in the aroma of the bay leaves that infuse so many Greek dishes.
Oregano infuses them too. The wonderfully fragrant Greek variety is called rigani, which means "joy of the mountains" because it grows wild on the very hills over which the victors of Marathonas ran to tell their great news. Fennel, too, must be in the recipe because the Greek word for it is marathonas. The stems, leaves and seeds are all used in cooking, but the seeds were what I wanted because they give a faint licorice aroma, reminiscent of favorite Greek drinks such as ouzo.
But with olives, bay leaves, oregano and fennel as flavorings, what would I use for the sauce? The answer had to be tomatoes. These culinary newcomers reached Europe from Mexico only in the sixteenth century and became popular only in the 1800's. But now they are happily settled into Greek cuisine - a New World addition that links the marathons of America with the land that gave the race its birth.
With tomato sauce, my recipe was complete. I made it on the day of the "Boston Marathon", and ate it on a balcony above the wine-dark sea that brought those doomed Persians to Marathonas nearly 2,500 years ago. I scanned the mauve mountains of Attica, and thought of those ancient soldiers hurrying with their victory news and of today's runners, including my son, stepping out on the road from Hopkinton.
Ingredients for 4 runners
Run The Planet thanks Running Times Magazine (www.runningtimes.com) for the permission to reprint the article "A Celebration of History - Creating a Pasta Dish from Marathon" by Claire Hopley. Claire Hopley writes about food, travel and contemporary fiction. Her most recent book is "New England Cooking: Seasons and Celebrations" (Berkshire House, 2001).
Text & recipe copyright © by Running Times Magazine.
Illustration & running suggestions copyright © 2002 by Run The Planet.