Marco Werman: Let’s talk pasta now, with food historian Maureen Fant. She splits her time between New York and Rome, and it was in the Italian capital as a college student that she first ate a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. I mean authentic carbonara, made with just pork, egg and cheese. By the time Fant came back to the US, she’d fallen in love with the dish. For our latest segment on global chefs and tastemakers, in New York, Maureen Fant tells us what happened next.
Maureen Fant: The first time I think I cooked spaghetti alla carbonara on my own was in this very apartment, in 1968. And nobody I knew in New York had ever heard of it. It’s hard to believe there was a time when Americans had never heard of carbonara, but I assure you, in 1968, all sauces were red. And in fact, the guest of that evening later told me that he had been embarrassed for me because he thought I had forgotten the spaghetti sauce. Things have changed dramatically. First of all, everybody now thinks they own carbonara. People feel free to vary it as they please. They say, oh, my carbonara contains peas. Well, I’m telling you that your carbonara does notâ€”Nobody’s carbonara contains peas. Carbonara is a wonderful basis for creativity and other things, but you stop calling it carbonara at the moment when you add something other than pork, egg and cheese. That’s carbonara.
Fant: There is a theory that carbonara was introduced by US soldiers after World War II, who had dried eggs and bacon among their rations. This is, of course, nonsense. The actual origin is in the mountains, in the Apennines, in the mountains of central Italy. Northern Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche, that area, where shepherds and charcoal workers â€“ â€œCarbonaraâ€ comes from the word for charcoal, â€œcarboneâ€ â€“ These people who had to be out, away from home and preparing their own meals had to have food that they could cook easily. Carry a hunk of pork and a piece of cheese, they could grab an egg from a passing hen and make their carbonara, presumably if they were able to boil water.
Fant: There is something about these really, really traditional dishes that is worth remembering. I don’t want to compare spaghetti alla carbonara to the Colosseum. It seems silly. But this kind of food, for me, represents social history. It’s the history of a people. And when it all gets mixed up, we forget who these people are, and who they were, and how they started, and all the hard work they did. And so, I think that’s worth hanging on to.
Werman: Maureen Fant is a food historian, and the co-author of Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way. She divides her time between Rome and New York, where she told her story to The World’s Alex Gallafent. You can find a recipe for authentic spaghetti alla carbonara at PRI.org.