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A Brief, Inaccurate and Most Likely False History of Carbonara

Image from Fabrizio Villi 

Image from Fabrizio Villi 

La vita è una combinazione di magia e pasta. 

(Life is a combination of magic and pasta.)

- Federico Fellini

 

The myths we recount about of origin of things are often as important as the things themselves. We love a good story, and where the isn't one we are very happy to fill in the blanks with apocrypha, even when it borders on the absurd. Indeed the more emblematic a particular item is and the more vital its symbolism to the construction of a particular identity, the more we will create legends around its beginnings. The more convincing those stories are, the more likely we are to believe in them and believe in our own origins as a result. In the US, we've just celebrated the mythic origins of our own country and regardless of our rational selves on those other 364 days we cannot help but feel the tug of something profound on this one day where our pride in being part of this story surges forth. So you see, nations are built on this premise. Heroes are made. Legends are written.

A pasta dish is born.

Because in fact if we're talking about nation building, almost nothing is more powerful than the myth of a national dish. That people will raise their forks in salute to their flag is as common as it is incredible, and that it will be a subject of contention follows just as easily; communities identify each other not only by the sounds of their voices and the cut of their dress, but by the smells in their kitchen. Indeed, it can get real: the 'Hummus Wars' between Israel and Lebanon have taken on proportions that can only be described as mythic, and the symbolism is manifest. Lebanon's 2010 record breaking hummus weighed 10,452 kilograms, a weight that corresponded to the land mass of the country. The symbolism is manifest.

From chocolate chip cookies to sushi rolls, the contemporary world is replete with these stories of triumph over adversity and the delicious results of these many culinary battles. Italy is almost entirely made up of and held together by such tales, and each region has a library of dishes that comprise their pantheon. However as a nation we might politely say that a unified Italy is a fairly new concept and that apart from some brief moments where the national football team is winning World Cups, there is little evidence to suggest that its anything more than a fiction on a map. Of course the internal politics of a country, much like dirty laundry or any of us singing in the shower, are things that outsiders rarely see. Go to any 'Italian' restaurant around the world and you will see a cross section of the country laid out in conveniently formatted menus. I guess that its only by making nice when visitors come by that any of us ever actually get our houses in order.

So with all that in mind, think if you will about the very most 'typical'' or 'traditional' Italian dish that you know. Chances are very likely that we'll all come up with the same short list, and on that list will most certainly be pasta alla carbonara. And why not? It is after all, the dish that is Rome itself: deceptively easy to navigate, temperamental, simultaneously elegant and crude. The silken egg covering pasta, tossed together with brutish blocks of cured pork and all at once creating a cacophony of silence and noise. It is Rome on a hot summer day with the pavement melting and cars snaking and careening into one another with wild abandon, all under the hush of those majestic hills and painted skies. It is, as they say, eternal.

Or is it? The thing about founding myths is that they give reason to a thing being where it is, and the thing about Italy is that its actual founding came millenia after it had already been there. Moreover, those first years were hardly golden; before a generation had passed Italy had already lost the hope of a burgeoning republic and taken refuge in the heavy arms of fascism. When the dust of a world war had settled, the Italian state that remained was faced with the unenviable task of digging itself out from under the rubble, and some of those bricks were incredibly old. What they needed was a national dish.

And here's where it gets interesting.

The first recorded recipes for Carbonara date from well into the post-war era and no cookbooks older than 60 years reference the dish by its name, making its explosion onto restaurant menus and dinner tables in the years subsequent an even more fascinating phenomenon. Most importantly, while the dish itself is said to epitomize Roman cooking and thus the soul of modern Italy itself there is neither a precise list of ingredients, preferred cooking method or most importantly, a singular story around how the dish came to be at all. Let's think for a moment about how incredible this actually is: a 'national' dish that has no clear origin or no person to whom its creation can be attributed, nor is there a definitive set of things that must be in it to make it 'carbonara'. Roughly speaking, sure but this is Italy: nothing is left to chance when it comes to cooking. Other pasta dishes, for example, are very clear as to what goes in them and what defines them: pasta all'amatriciana, for example, is always done with guanciale, onions, and tomato sauce. Pasta cacio e pepe is always done with pecorino, and the method of cooking to achieve the resulting sauce is exact. Instead with Carbonara we find that some say only pancetta, while others will not use anything other than guanciale. Some say that it must be parmigiano, others pecorino and still others a mix of the two. Everyone at least agrees on the egg, right? Sure, though some will tell you to use only the yolks, others a combination of yolk and white, and even others will give some sort of proportional measure that would make Avogadro shake his head in dismay.

At least you know that its always spaghetti, right? Nope, many will tell you that its the shorter pastas that hold the sauce better and that this is the 'original' way. Speaking of the sauce, it seems to be the most elemental aspect of it all, doesn't it? Wrong again. Debates will rage about the appropriate thickness of the sauce, whether it should cling to the pasta or form a more chunky sauce to then be scooped up at the end. At least, surely there's no cream added you say. Well then contend with the fact that no less a national treasure than Sophia Loren puts cream in her Carbonara. Indeed at every opportunity to establish some sort of uniformity, Carbonara screams anarchy. In this way Carbonara does better perhaps at encompassing the utter impossibility of Italy as a whole ever coming to an agreement on anything at all. Its inability to be one thing is what makes it perfectly symbolic. 

Everything you see, she owes to spaghetti. 

Everything you see, she owes to spaghetti. 


And what of its origins, while we're on the subject? So far, we've come across no less than four potential theories that we've field tested by discussing them with people in Tuscania, mostly over coffees and grappas (because we are truth seekers, after all). The first is that the dish was first made by wood coal workers in the Apennines mountains in Abruzzo, and that these workers most likely came from around Rome. The large wooden piles that they would make to burn off and turn into charcoal were known as carbonai, and they would subsequently stay in the woods for extended periods of time while they prepared the coal for sale. Naturally these stays were pretty rustic, so the provisions they would bring for themselves would necessarily be meant to last for a long period of time as well as to be able to provide them with a substantial meal. Its fair enough to think that they would have brought things like cured pork (more than likely guanciale because it was cheaper but pancetta may have also been available), dry pasta (more than likely short pasta since it travelled better without breakage), pecorino, and eggs, and pepper. It is also fair enough to think that they may have cooked over the slowly dying embers of the charcoal piles, and thus that la pasta della carbonai, soon to be Carbonara, would be born.

But wait, that's a logical theory but its hardly exciting,. Who builds a national narrative on a bunch of coal miners sitting down for dinner?

The guy on the left is in charge of sauce tonight. 

The guy on the left is in charge of sauce tonight. 

As anyone who's studied revolutions will tell you, its all fine and well to have a bunch of poor disenfranchised people looking to change the world, but nothing really happens until you get some rich kids with trust funds looking to slum and get real. So really, what we need is a vanguard to make the legend into something much more epic which will then in turn inspire others to take up the cause (or in this case, the plate). Luckily, the second theory has all of that and more! As legend has it, Le Carbonari were a group of revolutionaries that were instrumental in the development of an Italian nationalist movement in the early 1800's and the subsequent unification of Italy under the risorgimento. If you've ever been to any town in Italy ever and seen streets named Garibaldi, Mazzini or Cavour, you've walked in the steps of the Carbonari (though one of our grappa buddies contends that Garibaldi was a Mason rather than a Carbonari, but that distinction is a bit above our pay grade). Whilst hiding in the hills and plotting their revolution, these young idealists frequently found themselves with a humble assortment of ingredients and thus decided to make the best of it by creating the dish which came to bear their name.

Revolution! Dinner! 

Revolution! Dinner! 

Of course, there's nothing that says that these revolutionaries would somehow be great cooks and even less that says that the recipe would have somehow stuck. But its so neat, isn't it? However, it does neglect the rather glaring fact that there was no mention of Carbonara in the Italian kitchen prior to the post war period, and that does carry some weight in our highly scientific investigation. Indeed this is a curious fact, that the post war period would have seen the rise of the dish and that it might have had such immediate export power. Could it be because in fact, the dish that is the very standard bearer of Italian gastronomy was indeed invented by Americans? The third theory holds that in the period where the American soldiers entered Rome in World War II, they brought with them their US Army rations which included, among many other things, powdered eggs and bacon. Finding an impoverished city full of fantastic cooks with recently exploded and carpet bombed kitchens, they set about sharing their rations with those who would prepare meals in the communal ovens and stoves that most people used for their meals. Thus with the combined resources of the American soldiers and the ingenuity of their Roman brethren, the Carbonara was born. As these soldiers returned home they brought the news of Carbonara with them and as they had little experience of any other dishes they assumed that this was the most typical one in Italy.

Powdered eggs never tasted so good. 

Powdered eggs never tasted so good. 

The fourth theory is one of considerably less potential for Matt Damon to star in its film adaptation, but is still a fairly important one on the list. It names the Neapolitan nobleman Ippolito Cavalcanti as the progenitor of Carbonara, as he wrote about a dish called unto e uovo or 'grease and eggs'. This dish would have used lard or some other animal fat in combination with eggs and tossed with pasta to create a dish that would have been the precursor to Carbonara, as lard was often used to give substance to dishes when meat was scarce. In Cavalcanti's 1837 book, La Cucina Teorico Pratica, a good many of the recipes would have used these types of ingredients and would form the basis for much of the cuisine that we would typically think of as Cucina Casareccia, or Italian home cooking. Of course while the dish bear some resemblance to Carbonara it is essentially something quite different: in our family, my grandmother used to prepare a similar dish to this one every Easter and it was said to be a Neapolitan recipe. Carbonara as such did not come with Italian immigrants in their densest years of immigration so this theory falls a bit short in a fully explanation. Plus, it would make a terrible movie.

The poor guy looks like he's starving. 

The poor guy looks like he's starving. 

So which one is true? What are the real ingredients? What is, for once and all, an authentic Carbonara? As far as we've gathered, it is all of these things and none of these things, and Carbonara is in many ways whatever one decides that it is. I'd like to believe that all of these stories of origin are in some part true: that old Ippolito was cooking his lard and egg pasta and that it was a hit with the Southern peasants, who chose to jazz it up with the changing times. I'd love to think that the secret societies that would go on to make Italy a country found themselves breaking bread with groups of impoverished coal miners and that in so doing, they were inspired to keep fighting. I'd also like to believe that sometime soon after that, when Rome had been nearly destroyed by folly, groups of intrepid Romans got together on the streets and took the rations those American boys gave them and thought back to the Carbonari and figured that they'd make do with powdered eggs and bacon. I'd also love to think that somehow Sophia Loren got in on the action, and that everyone was all the better for it.

And so perhaps, that's what makes Carbonara such an utterly special dish. For while there is no precise myth surrounding its origins, it is an entirely creative dish that at its heart symbolizes something more than just that thing which every Italian knows how to do. It is perhaps something larger than that, something that goes to the very heart of the Italian kitchen and what makes it such a compelling library. Because while there are some golden rules to these most essential “authentic” dishes, there is always the latitude allowed to use what's at hand, to make it work, to invent and innovate through necessity. At its very core the Italian kitchen is resilient, and it is all the better for its resiliency. Its heroes are coal miners and housewives and Counts and soldiers and anyone in between. It is the most humble of origins made into legend. It is magic. 

*Recommended pairing for this article: Bacon, Egg and Toast (Carbonara)

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