Carbonara: a clue to understanding its origins?

best carbonara recipe

Above: My wife Tracie P’s Carbonara. As Charles Scicolone would say, I am truly blessed.

Italian cuisine is a world cuisine.

Even in its most perverse expressions (Olive Garden?), it is immediately and unmistakably recognizable.

And while French haute cuisine remains one of world’s benchmark for fine dining, Italian gastronomy is perhaps the world’s most widely embraced culinary tradition. Consider the fact that pan-Asian cookery is only now beginning to find a solid foothold in Europe whereas pseudo-Italian restaurateurship and Italian food products have been wildly popular in Asia for decades now.

One of Italian gastronomy’s greatest strengths is its ability to assimilate other culinary traditions and foods.

Where would Italy be without tomatoes, a New World fruit that first made it to the country during the Renaissance and only became popular after the second world war?

Where would Italy be without corn, a New World grain that became widely cultivated there during the nineteenth-century famines?

Where would Italy be without Norway’s salt cod, a food stuff that came into fashion in Italy during the Renaissance when land-locked principalities needed readily available fish to meet the Church’s rigid dietary restrictions (which prohibited meat on many days of the year)?

worst carbonara ever

Above: I found this image, entitled “Spaghetti Carbonara,” trolling the Flickr (Creative Commons). It looks disgusting, right? And it breaks every one of the rules that define Spaghetti alla Carbonara (including the pleonastic bread on the side). But it’s immediately recognizable as pseudo-Italian cookery.

After posting on Italy’s hamburger mania last Friday, it occurred to me that the current popularity of the canonical American dish may give us some insights into how Carbonara was folded into the Italian gastronomic canon in the 1960s.

My research into the origins of Carbonara has all but proven that the dish did not appear in Italy until after the second world war, when dried pasta first became a staple of pan-Italian cuisine. Like Amatriciana and Puttanesca, Carbonara is a dish that emerged as an early icon of the new post-war Italian cooking.

It’s important to remember that Mussolini and the fascists orchestrated Italy’s great urban migration in the years that led up to the war. And the fascist embrace of radio and film created the prototype of the pan-Italian identity.

In other words, it was during the years of fascism that Italians first came into regular contact with their countryfellows from other regions (as they migrated toward the urban centers) and the advent of easily accessible mass media showed Italians what life was like in other regions than their own.

It’s also important to remember that the period following the second world war marked the first time that Italians could travel freely in the country and that commerce, thanks in part to infrastructure created by the Marshall Plan, created new opportunity for cultural exchange in Italy.

These elements, combined with the economic renewal of the 1960s and the advent of television, helped to shape the new pan-Italian post-war identity. And this era is when Italians start to eat dried pasta and canned tomatoes for the first time in their history.

Earlier this year, Neapolitan journalist and wine writer Luciano Pignataro posted a piece on his blog about “Spaghetti and Meatballs,” a dish, as the author recalls, which Neapolitans (in Naples) often prepared at home in the 1960 and 70s. The recipe was brought from the U.S., reports the post, by Neapolitan immigrants who returned home.

The author recalls that during a recent visit to the family’s hometown in Irpinia, an aunt prepared Spaghetti and Meatballs using the grandmother’s recipe.

The author of the post even goes as far as to quote leading Italian gastronomic scholar Massimo Montanari, who writes about how dishes like the American-born Spaghetti and Meatballs became culinary stereotypes that helped to shape pan-Italian identity in the post-war era. The immigrant’s experience played an important role, notes Montanari, in the emergence of the pan-Italian experience and had a great impact on culinary practice in Italy (Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or, Food and the Nation, Columbia University Press, 2013).

Does Italy’s hamburger craze give us insight into how “bacon and eggs” may have found their way into the Italian gastronomic canon?

As my post Friday illustrated, much was lost in translation as the hamburger migrated across the Atlantic.

Although I have no incontrovertible evidence, I believe now more than ever that Carbonara was probably borne out of the post-war immigrant experience.

The financial crisis and the strength of the Euro over the dollar in the years that followed led to a tide of Italian tourists in the U.S. There’s no doubt in my mind that their exposure to American cooking played a fundamental role in the current hamburger craze (the same way that American tourism in Italy in the 1990s played an important role in the rise of Italian cuisine in our country).

When all of these elements are considered, it appears probable — and certainly plausible — that Italian immigrants brought “bacon and eggs” home with them to Italy when they returned to Italy after the war.

The first appearance of the dish in Italian literature dates back to the mid-1950s. That’s the first time that Italian immigrants could return to Italy (when Hitler rose to power in the late 1930s and he formed an alliance with Mussolini, Italian immigrants couldn’t return home).

Reflecting on the way Italians have embraced the novelty of the hamburger, seamlessly and swiftly incorporating it into their own gastronomic tradition, I believe that the answer to the Carbonara conundrum lies somewhere at the bottom of a trans-Atlantic passage.

16 thoughts on “Carbonara: a clue to understanding its origins?

  1. Hello there,
    I believe I can give some insights about the origins of Carbonara.
    Although official books of cuisine in our country didn’t assess the widest, and ever-growing, variety of classic meals until the late ’60s, a couple things must be said about popular recipes:
    – they didn’t make it to the higher grounds of cuisine until they became celebrated by chefs of major Italian restaurants
    – cooking literature was stuck to the Roman and Middle Ages classics (which exclude tomatoes from any meal, yet include olives in practically every meal…) until such things as pizza and spaghetti made it to the wider public.

    Carbonara lies among those very popular, and thus underestimated and undignified, meals which roots can be found back in the 14th thru 17th century. Its name reveals some habit that coal miners had since ever: bringing with themselves very energetic and at the same time easy to combine ingredients:
    1. Pasta, which exists in our country since the latter Roman cuisine
    2. Eggs, as poor and cheap a meal as a stereotypical symbol of strength
    3. Pancetta (NOT BACON!!., let’s not get lost in translation, our pancetta is a totally different cut from a closer area of the parks body, yet it isn’t bacon) which can be stored in salt and leather pouches for up to a month. It’s a contemporary notation the usage of the so-called Guanciale, a cutlet closer to the pig’s mouth, in the place of pancetta, ensuring more meaty flavor to Carbonara.
    4. Black Pepper, a spice the ancient Romans considered a source of power and energy – it is a medical fact the increase of at least 1 degree thru 4 in the human body temperature after eating any meal consistently spiced with black pepper.

    Carbonara, it means “the meal of the coal miners”: its association with those whose lives are underground made it very very popular among Italian college students, whose life is pretty underground anyway ;-)

    Last but not least, Carbonara is my specialty in our kitchen, and our mutual friend Andy and his wife Joann had a chance of experimenting it done and served to table of 6 not long ago at our home in Rome – yes, I’m the guy on the right in that photo! ;-)


    • Adriano, thanks for sharing your insights here. I think if you take a look at my research you’ll find that it’s next to impossible that Carbonara is a) an ancient dish and 2) a dish favored by coal miners. You’re a little late to the party on those two counts. Have a look if you care to.

      Secondly and more importantly, please note that there Italian cookery is actually very well documented throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Italy with a number of milestone cookery books, all of which omit Carbonara.

      Again, if you look at my research, you’ll see that Cavalcanti actually includes a recipe for macaraoni with raw egg and cheese but it’s a far cry from being a precursor of Carbonara.

      But, hey, what would I know? That is, what would I know beyond the fact that I’ve devoted the last twenty years of my life to historical Italian gastronomy. That is, I devoted two decades to the field after completing a doctorate in Italian, including years at Padua and the Scuola Normale… but hey, what would I know?

      • Dear Do (Do stands for?..),

        Chapeau for your research and time spent in our country.

        I’m not sure you stand in the line of Vissani and other Italian chefs who actually support the theory of undignified meals and their origins…
        Yet let me join your view with the issue of “ancient-ness” of recipes.
        In Italy, time span is very differently calculated than, for example, the US. An ancient church in the US may date back to the 18th century, while a church built by then in Italy can be rightfully said as modern. Likewise, recipes coming from popular roots were mutated and rediscovered so many times that being mentioned by Guido Cavalcanti makes them relatively modern with respect to Lucullo or Svetonio Paolino, just to quote some dignified references of the Latin pre- and post- imperial cooking world.
        With that in mind, my friend, the popular tradition isn’t anything taught in the classes you attended proficiently.
        It comes from a voyage of a life of discovering how my people interacted and intersected each other on many levels and passions, way before the XX century..

        And if you ever will please spending in this country some more years in dining and exploring the trattorias, the little places where people keep the most known secrets of popular traditional cuisine, you’ll then be amazed at what sort of treasure you’d find in the mix-up of Latin and Medieval cooking processes still in use.
        In that light, you may as well understand why Carbonara is actually not quoted nor described on any printed paper….because you don’t need to quote or explain the simple things everybody knows here since ever –way beyond tomatoes, way beyond hamburgers…– when it’s about sitting and dining at a popular table of a trattoria.
        Where wine is offered for free.
        It’s a pleasure that I wish for you and anyone else craving for some serious tuition about cuisine!

        Cheers, be well.

  2. The only disputed but undisputable fact is that nobody knows the origins of carbonara. By the way “carbonaro” is not a coalminer but the person who by a special technique of slow burning, prepared coal from tree in or near wooded areas. The need of having easy to carry and easily kept ingredients as pasta, pancetta and pepper is quite OK as an explanation of the origins of this much beloved dish. But eggs ? How and how long would they keep ? Probably the addition of eggs appears after WWII and this gives a good explanation why carbonara is not mentioned before the ’50s while “gricia” (pasta with pepper and cheese) is. Infact one could say that gricia is the grandmother of both carbonara, matriciana and arrabbiata. Another tradition explains the name by drawing a parallel between the dirty face of a coalseller and the black of the pepper sprinkled on the spaghetti. Yet another oral traditions places the birth og carbonara just after WWII when American and english troops i Rome provided their hosts with surplus egg and bacon.
    This is a nice explanation and it is consisten with the absence of anu mention of carbonara before WWII, but it is still an unsubstantieded explanation.

    • This is the only correct post here. It started in the mountains outside of Rome where there are no coal mines but a “Carbonara” who burns wood down into charcoal to make it lighter and easier to get up to the steep hill towns and burn more efficiently to heat cast iron/metal stoves. I’m guessing it happened after WWII because before that people would not have had cast iron cook stoves or cast iron heat stoves and would have just burned wood straight in a fireplace (charcoal doesn’t work in a fireplace). The “Carbonara” was probably more needed after the war. This was a simple quick winter time dish with staples. Eggs don’t need to keep! In poorer countries nobody refrigerates eggs and you get them near daily from hens. The “Carbonara” would have grabbed two in the morning on his way to work.

  3. Hello and thank you very much for sharing this post! I am in love with pasta and a huge fan of carbonara! When I was a kid, my mum made the most delicious one! Growing up, I tried many versions and some of them included creme. Although, I like the taste of it, I do find it heavier and that the creme is overpowering the intensity of the other ingredients. So, what do you think? Would you add creme to yours?

    • Hi Effi, thanks for reading. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. At our house, we make Carbonara using prosciutto and egg yolk, with no cream.

      My own personal variation on the recipe is that I sautée the prosciutto beforehand and deglaze it with a little white wine before folding into the strained pasta.

  4. What an excellent article, and how fascinating to see the defensiveness and sheer ignorance of those who “know” the history. The charcoal-burner (or shepherd) story is still very prevalent, even among those who ought to know better.

    • Jeremy, thanks for the kind words and the comment here. My thoughts on the origins of the dish continue to evolve and so far, more than anything else, I’ve been eliminating some of the folkloric etymologies by employing classic tools of philology. I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of this linguistic conundrum. But as with all works of philology, the path to the answer may be more enlightening than the answer itself. Thanks again.

  5. I might be able to shed some light on the origin of Carbonara. It is actually a fusion of Italian and American breakfast preferences. The person who provided me with this account was a fellow Army Officer and faculty member at West Point in 1993, who had been assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.
    In the aftermath of WWII after most US soldiers had gone home, there remained detachments throughout Europe who were taking care of various end of war missions. Often these detachments had contracts with the locals, who ran the mess halls, providing locally sourced meals.
    One morning, one particularly large and imposing Sergeant, after months of eating pasta for breakfast, irritably refused the morning meal of pasta he was offered, demanding that they take it away and bring him bacon and eggs. A scramble ensued due to his apparently exasperated demeanor. A short time later the Sergeant was dumbfounded to be presented with bacon and eggs…. mixed into pasta. But it was good.
    So why is it called Carbonara? The Sergeant was African American.

    • Lovely story! An homage to the WW2 veterans and the post war construction era of post war Italy. Just made Spaghetti Cabonara last evening with bacon(oops) but will use Pancetti next time! There will be a next time as this recipe was most delicious. Ciao!

  6. Pingback: FOOD FAIR: Red sauce or white sauce? – have a taste of europe ;P

  7. Why would US soldiers and Italian locals decide to call powdered eggs and bacon mixed with pasta after people who burned coal?
    Thank you Adriano and MM for providing a more reasonable and likely explanation.
    I found no articulated example of how it could be ‘impossible’ for Carbonara to be an ancient dish favored by coal burners.
    And I too am late to the party, by about 6 years… but you had me at ‘impossible’.

    Case in point:
    It is unlikely you will find in any reputable cookbook a recipe for peanut butter and jelly on white bread layered with crushed chips. Yet, this was a well known favorite phenomenon for many children in the US in the 1970’s (maybe a bit before/aft). It too had four ingredients, easily obtained. It wasn’t inspired by nuts and berries… it spawned from common everyday ingenuity, a need to fill your belly, but a need to change it up a bit. And much like the wisdom obtained from a Bard, it was passed down ‘word of mouth’, for at least a few generations. In 200 years will people say it didn’t happen because it was not written down? I ate enough of them to beg to differ.

    CB’s had access to eggs, pasta, cheese, and preserved forms of fat. Why is it hard to believe coal burners couldn’t whip up something with those four items? And who is to say there were not people who ate this prior, but it wasn’t until it was consistently made by coal burners that is was given nomenclature. Because it was not written down in a published book it is ‘impossible’? Certainly, I am not disputing that powdered eggs and bacon did not make a debut with pasta after WWII. That too seems plausible. But not so much as an origin story… more ingenuity, maybe? If a bunch of kids can be creative with chips, and a few soldiers/locals with powdered eggs, then why not coal burners with everyday items found in their homes/villages? And when was the last time you recorded an everyday mundane ritual for posterity? I don’t think any of my PB&J wC eating friends ever said “hey, one of us better write this down”. And if you have recorded an activity/adventure/recipe for posterity recently, did you name it something random and nonsensical? Because I am quite sure we would have never thought to name our sandwiches after coal burners.

    Loretta: read Mr. Lee’s comment again. Twice if you have to. Mr. Lee: was amusing up until the last line. Soured it.

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