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)?
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.