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.
In early twentieth-century Italian, alla carbonara meant (by association) in a secretive or subversive fashion. And while there is no doubt that alla carbonara can also be interpreted as relating to coal (also called carbone in Italian), it’s implausible that the dish is related to coal or coal miners. It’s more likely — in my view — that it’s related to charcoal or embers (see my proposed etymology below).
It’s worth noting here that alla carbonara is used as a designation in Sicilian cuisine for dishes using cuttlefish or squid ink. Seppie alla carbonara are cuttlefish that have been cooked in their ink. While pepper is generally accepted as a sine qua non condiment for this dish, few would describe carbonara as black as coal.
“Bacon and egg” hypothesis is improbable (early occurrences of carbonara in Italian literature)
The American soldier hypothesis is also untenable. Although the designation carbonara doesn’t begin to appear in Italian literature and in English-languages guides to Italian and Roman food until the mid-1950s, I have found an occurrence of the term in the Lunga vita di Trilussa (The Long Life of [the great Roman popular poet] Trilussa), published in Rome in 1951, the year after his death. In this hagiographic account of the poet’s “long life,” the author refers to spaghetti alla carbonara as one of Trilussa’s favorite dishes. It’s unlikely (for all the obvious reasons) that the biographer would include a dish that was introduced by American soldiers who arrived in Rome in 1944.
I also found instances of the term in Alberto Moravia’s wonderful short stories Racconti Romani (Roman Tales), first published in 1954, a delicious collection of vignettes of classic Roman characters, including a waiter (“Il pensatore” or “The Thinker”) who gets into a lot of trouble after insulting a rude guest under his breath. (Look for the 1956 translation published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy [yes, Cudahy].) Again, the fact that the dish is invoked in a portrait of a classic character would seem to indicate that Italians and Romans considered it a typical dish of the Eternal City.
Above: My good friend and client Tony Vallone likes to experiment with his interpretations of traditional dishes, like this carbonara with broccoli raab.
Cavalcanti and the Neapolitan origins of carbonara
None point to Cavalcanti as the inventor of the dish. But many cite his preparation of macaroni “co caso e ova sbattute” (“with cheese and beaten eggs”) as its precursor.
As with any philological endeavor, we need to look at the original text in context to understand its meaning (and its role in understanding the origin of carbonara).
The recipe appears for the first time in the second edition of Cavalcanti’s wildly successful book, in an appendix written not in Italian but Neapolitan. With his treatment of “Cucina casareccia in dialetto napoletano” (“Home Cooking in Neapolitan Dialect”), Cavalcanti created a distinction between the haute cuisine of his milieu and the familiar, popular cuisine of the Neapolitan proletariat. (This fantastic book, btw, is a precursor of the popular cuisine mania that has gripped our imaginations in current era of gastronomic awareness.)
“Co caso e ova sbattute” is literally the last of a long series of simple preparations for macaraoni (short pasta). And it’s worth noting here that it’s also one of the dialectal Cavalcanti’s preparations for peas. In other words, by 1839, we can be certain, pasta with eggs and cheese was a well established dish, especially among the “common” folk.
(For a solid overview of scholarship on carbonara and its origins, see Anthony Buccini’s “On Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Related Dishes of Central and Southern Italy,” in Eggs in Cookery: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2006, Prospect, 2007; like many food historians, Buccini neglects to address the meaning and usage of carbonaro/a in twentieth-century Italy and he fails to look closely at Cavalcanti’s text.)
Above: In his 1957 guide to “Eating in Italy,” Hammond omits carbonara from the chapter devoted to Rome but includes it in the pan-Italian overview.
Carbonara, a new theory of its origin
In the course of my research to date, the earliest description of carbonara that I have identified is found in Eating in Italy; a pocket guide to Italian food and restaurants by Richard Hammond, published by Scribner in 1957.
In it, he includes carbonara in his shortlist of pan-Italian dishes and omits it from his chapter devoted to Rome.
“[Spaghetti] alla Carbonara: in a sauce made with egg, cheese and bacon, or prosciutto (ham).”
The gloss is significant: not only is it the first known description of the dish (1957) but it also reveals that it was commonly prepared with different types of cured pork (not just bacon or pancetta); and the fact that it is included in the general overview (and omitted from the Roman overview) also gives us an indication that the dish was already popular in other major urban centers in Italy by the mid-1950s.
Above: I’m happy to report that Tracie P’s carbonara appears frequently in our lives.
While I have no solid evidence of this, my philological intuition leads me to believe that the innovation of carbonara was the inclusion of cured pork.
To my knowledge, no gastronomer has made the connection between carbonara and carbonata, a term widely used in Renaissance Italy to denote a type of salt-cured and smoked pork.
And with this post, as we eliminate previously proposed theories for the origin of this dish, I’d like to propose that the designation carbonara could have been inspired by the use of salt-cured pork that had been smoked sotto carboni (by means of [wood] charcoal or embers).
Philology is an inexact and rarely conclusive science. Its name comes from the Greek, a love of language.
Even though we may never find the true origin of the dish, its appearance lies somewhere between Cavalcanti’s macaroni co caso e ova and Trilussa’s spaghetti.
The one thing that I’m certain of is that I love spaghetti alla carbonara as much as I love the history of words.
Wrap your tongue around that! And thanks for reading.