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).
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.