The Spaghetti Carbonara Scandal: 50 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Right
- Published on Monday, 25 April 2016 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Here’s Everything You Need
To Make Carbonara*
*In France, that is. Also everything you need to make every Italian and Italophile on the face of the planet think you’re a moron.
Warning! I am about to venture into treacherous territory. If I can negotiate this topic all the way to the end of a 1,200-word article without triggering a barrage of indignant comments, it will be a miracle on par with Jesus feeding the multitude with five loaves, two fishes and one small jar of foie gras.
At least that’s the way they tell the story here in France. It seems that the French have a fondness for altering culinary traditions from other cultures. To pick another example, since it’s already mentioned in the title of this article, let’s take the case of spaghetti carbonara.
The first carbonara I ever tasted was prepared by my girlfriend in undergraduate school back in the States. Her recipe, I realized later, was more or less authentic, using only pasta, eggs, Parmesan cheese and (here comes the “less” part:) regular American bacon — forgivable under the circumstances, because we were in the middle of the Middle West and the nearest actual pancetta was more than a thousand miles away.
I liked it. And I started making it myself, relying on a recipe that I found in a respected Italian cookbook. Essentially, it involved freshly cooked linguine poured into a bowl of whipped eggs mixed with grated Parmesan and chunks of fried pancetta.
(Note to Italian food purists: I know! I know! Please read to the end of the article before writing in to tell me what’s wrong.)
This dish was still in my repertoire when I moved to Paris, which is why I noted with satisfaction that the Italian traiteur (vaguely equivalent to a deli) in what was then my neighborhood always stocked pancetta and very good Parmesan in big blocks for fresh grating.
So one evening I went in and announced to the young (French) guy behind the counter (his national origin is key to the story) that I needed some linguine, Parmesan cheese and pancetta to make carbonara.
He fixed me with a disbelieving sneer, as though I had asked for a marshmallow pizza with extra raisins, and began speaking to me in the kind of slow, patient voice usually reserved for dull-witted children and ER patients on hallucinogens.
I could practically see the unspoken implications in his reply: “One does not put [ugh!] cheese on carbonara [you ignorant boor]. The [only thinkable] way to make carbonara is with eggs, bacon, onions and crème fraîche.”
And thus I learned the sad, shocking truth: the French put crème fraîche (roughly comparable to sour cream) (despite the name) in carbonara.
Shocked and saddened, I stuck to my recipe, although, being a non-confrontational kind of guy, not to my guns: instead of matching him sneer for sneer, as the situation merited, I babbled a stupid excuse about how Americans make a bastardized version of carbonara and bought the Parmesan anyway. But I knew full well that my recipe was considerably more legitimate than his.
To this day, my failure to say (and imply), “Maybe in France you use [gag me!] cream, but not in Italy — as you, given your job, ought to know [you boorish ignoramus]!” remains on my top-10 list of regrets.
But at last, a month ago, I was vindicated: in late March of this year, a French carbonara recipe sparked a scandal in Italy that, in compliance with the only law of the universe more inescapable than gravity, was immediately dubbed “Carbonaragate.”
It all started when a French lifestyle website called Demotivateur posted a video showing how to make “easy one-pot carbonara.” The recipe was quite simple. And quite simply an abomination: it called for sliced onions and bacon hunks to be (brace yourself) boiled in the same pot with farfalle “bow tie” pasta and then mixed with egg yolks and, of course, crème fraîche.
Not surprisingly, it triggered a well-warranted wave of outrage laced with disgust in Italy. People all over the country expressed their horror in the press and social media, and the Italian pasta brand featured in the demonstration demanded that the video be removed.
You can still see it here, but before you click the link, keep in mind: it shows bacon and onions being boiled with pasta. Do you really want to subject yourself to such a grisly spectacle?
Nonetheless, I was pleased that this had happened because, at long last, it made millions of French people, I hope including the snooty clerk at that supposedly Italian deli, aware that they have been making carbonara dead wrong for long decades.
In fairness, however, it’s apparently impossible not to make it wrong. Judging from the online reports about the scandal, and in particular the comments sections, it seems that carbonara is quite the controversial dish — everything from its origins to its ingredients to its preparation is hotly disputed.
Some people say that carbonara originated in Rome, while others insist that it’s Neapolitan.
Some make it only with spaghetti, others with fettuccine or some other kind of pasta.
Some make it with whole eggs, although most use only yolks (and I found one recipe that uses a combination).
Some use Parmesan cheese, some pecorino, and some people both.
Some use pancetta, others guanciale (approximately analogous to hog jowl).
Some add chopped onion, others garlic, others neither.
There’s even a dispute about the universally known “cooking secret” of splashing some oil in the pasta water: many people say it’s a vital necessity but others are convinced that it’s a waste of oil.
In short, every single step in the recipe is subject to variation, and every single variation is vehemently defended by its proponents as the only true way.
It looks as though we're more likely to see full international cooperation on global warming before we see full international agreement on carbonara. Which means it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Yellowknife in 2116.
So, as a public service, I have decided to step in, quell the tensions between France and Italy, and settle the controversy once and for all by presenting the:
C’est Ironique Guaranteed 100 Percent Authentic Pasta Carbonara Recipe
One field of wheat
One cow (alive)
One pig (dead)
One egg per serving
One well-stocked grocery store (preferably Italian)
Two gallons of crème fraîche
One large electric fan
1) Harvest the wheat. Thresh, winnow and grind the grain, and make it into the kind of pasta you want.
2) Milk the cow. Make the kind(s) of cheese you want.
3) Butcher the pig. Remove, slice and fry the cut of pork that you want.
4) Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Then mix them back together (optional).
5) Go to the grocery store. Purchase and prepare the other ingredients that you would like to include (if any).
6) Put a large pan of water on high heat to boil the pasta. Flip the coin. Heads, you add two tablespoons of oil to the water, tails you don’t. Or vice versa.
7) When the pasta is cooked to your liking, mix it in a large bowl with all the other ingredients except the crème fraîche.
9) Afterwards, take the two gallons of crème fraîche and the electric fan to the Italian deli in my old neighborhood. Plug in the fan and turn it to the highest setting. Pour the crème fraîche slowly and patiently into the moving blades.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
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