Carbonara, a new theory for its origins and name

October 29, 2012

origin name carbonara

Above: Tracie P adds onion to her Carbonara, just another idiosyncratic — and delicious — interpretation of this recipe (the above was one of the dishes in last night’s dinner at our house).

Premise

Perhaps more than any other recipe in the Italian gastronomic canon, spaghetti alla carbonara and its origins have perplexed and eluded gastronomers for more than five decades.

Most food historians group the currently and popularly accepted theories of the etymon into three groups: the origin of the dish can be ascribed to 1) coal miners; 2) American soldiers who mixed “bacon and eggs” and pasta after occupying Italy in the post-war era; and 3) Ippolito Cavalcanti, the highly influential nineteenth-century Neapolitan cookery book author, whose landmark 1839 Cucina Teorico-Pratica included a recipe for pasta with eggs and cheese.

There is also a fourth theory that points to the restaurant La Carbonara, opened in 1912 in Rome. According to its website, it was launched by “coal seller” Federico Salomone. But the authors of site do not lay claim to the invention of carbonara nor do they address the linguistic affinity (even though they mention that their carbonara was included in a top-ten classification by the Gambero Rosso).

Origins and historical meaning of the word carbonara

The “coal miner” hypothesis is highly unlikely in my view. Carbonari are not coal miners but rather makers of [wood] charcoal (colliers in archaic English). If we agree that carbonara (the dish) began to appear in industrialized Italy (see below), we also have to take into account that the word carbonaro/a also had a different and more prevalent meaning for Italians at that time. The carbonari were members of a Neapolitan secret revolutionary society (similar to the Free Masons) called the Carboneria. The nineteenth-century group took their name from a fifteenth-century Scottish group of rebels who masked their subversive activities by pretending to be colliers.

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Celebratory 2001 Pora and Walter Benjamin: reunited with my library

September 7, 2009

“Unpacking My Library” is the title of one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essays. On the surface, it is an entertaining essay about a harmless self-indulgence of one of Europe’s leading literary minds between the two world wars. But the underlying text is a study of the nature of book collecting and how our understanding of literature and culture is shaped through the very medium by which they are transmitted to us. Ecce textual bibliography and the study of how the medium (the signifier) affects the meaning (the signified).

Walter Benjamin famously “fished for pearls” in his legendary library. The depression that he suffered when he fled from the Nazis and was separated from his precious books is as tragic as his senseless death by suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940 — a day away from freedom.

I’m no Walter Benjamin (by no means) and I am blessed to live in a time and place of relative prosperity and stability and freedom of thought and speech.

Yesterday, after two years of separation, Tracie B and I began unpacking my library after it arrived from my storage space in Manhattan here in my new home, Austin, Texas.

I cannot tell you my joy at being reunited with my Petrarchs, my Pasolinis, my Benjamins, my dictionaries (my Goldoni dictionary edited by Gianfranco Folena! my Cortelazzo etymologic dictionary!), and my countless tomes on food and wine.

There is so much information available today on the internet and the Google Library project is a promising if controversial initiative. But… books, books! Nothing can take the place of these glorious little information-delivery machines!

And the dulcis in fundo was a little sedicesimo of poems and songs on wine written in Neapolitan dialect. My lovely Tracie B curled up on the couch as I continued to unpack and read me sweet rhymes on wine with her soothing Neapolitan cadence. Today, she shared some of our Sunday afternoon with a translation of one of the poems on her blog.

To celebrate last night, we ordered pizza (please don’t tell Franco, but we were beat after a day of unpacking!) and drank a bottle of 2001 Barbaresco Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco (I picked it up for a song in a closeout sale here in Austin). The wine was rich and almost Barolo-like in its power, unusual for Pora which is generally softer and rounder among the Produttori del Barbaresco crus. The 2001 — a great vintage for this wine — is closing up right now and I’m putting my two remaining bottles away, to be revisited in a few years and maybe more.

Pondering my copy of Benjamin’s Reflections which now lives happily again on my desk, I couldn’t help but think of Pora and Barbaresco as a terroir and a text, a text delivered to our palates via the medium of Nebbiolo.

Tonight, I won’t bore Tracie B with my collection of essays on the history of punctuation or my introduction to old Occitan. She’s promised to make me something out of the cookbook by nineteenth-century Neapolitan noble Ippolito Cavalcanti! :-) Something having to do with escarole, eggs, and Parmigiano Reggiano… mmmmmmmm…

Happy Labor Day, y’all!


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