Spaghetti Carbonara - Detail - ©

Carbonara Consumes Italian Culinary Conversation

Italians are stereotyped as ultra protective of their food traditions. As such, the Italian government has asked Unesco for Intangible Heritage List protection. But then there’s the Carbonara controversy…

Spaghetti Carbonara - © keyword-search.comSpaghetti Carbonara: Can also be served with almost any style or shape of pasta.
Can be made in minutes, right in the hot pan used to finish the pasta.

That’s just the latest move to protect beloved Italian food icons from appropriation by other cuisines. Italy was always one of the first to get on the bandwagon when countries started to register their wines, cheeses and other foods for protection via name trademarking under strict place-of-origin and recipe requirements.

Now, food industry and foodservice folks there want the whole, collective Italian culinary experience to be registered and protected on the Unesco Intangible Heritage list.

There is much debate about how officials would legislate and enforce such a move.

But the micro controversies also rage on

The latest such question that’s inflaming delicate Italian sensibilities over their food is – believe it or not – whether Carbonara is an Italian tradition or an American invention.

Those who don’t know should first be advised that Carbonara is a pasta sauce style in which the white cheese sauce is made right in the pan by adding eggs, cheese, crumbled bacon, salt and pepper and olive oil to hot pasta in a frying pan while swirling and tossing. Yes, there are some definite similarities to Alfredo Sauce, there. And Italians are famously jealous of their classics.

The arguments, on paper

An article in the Financial Times, Italian food expert Alberto Grandi claimed that carbonara was actually invented by Americans living in Italy just after World War Two. “A surrealist attack!” denounced the agricultural association Coldiretti, while the social media caught flame in a juicy debate.

The authoratative source may be a BBC article by food author Eleonora Cozzella. She spent six years covering National Carbonara Day on April 6, and ended up writing a book called The Perfect Carbonara.

“Cozzella interviewed the grandchildren of innkeepers who, in the late 1940s after World War Two, would feed American soldiers in the picturesque neighbourhood of Trastevere, just across the river Tiber in Rome. Soldiers were apparently asking for ‘spaghetti breakfast’: eggs, bacon and pasta. And at the time, although the country was on its knees, Italians could buy military rations on the black market that included bacon from Americans and powdered eggs from the British.”

Origins remain unclear…

“No one has a trademark on the recipe,” says Alessandro Pipero, chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Pipero in Rome, who the BBC says is considered one of the kings of carbonara;. “Honestly, I don’t care who invented it,” he adds.

The first American recipe for Carbonara was apparently published in 1952. But the first Italian recipe for carbonara was not published until 1954 in La Cucina Italiana magazine. “And it is a strange one,” says Cozzella. “It has parsley and even gruyere as cheese! It’s as if they had heard about it but didn’t know what they were writing about.”

My take

Whatever the real answer to the at times riot inducing question, it’s a good example of recipes Italians call theirs which will ultimately require court cases, and involve many dark and bitter moments to resolve.

Now imagine working your way through a whole national cookbook deciding what’s really Italian or not.

Muse on that!

~ Maggie J.