Let’s get one thing straight: I love pasta. I especially love authentic, traditional pasta, the kind made from scratch in the same way my grandma and her grandma and her grandma made it—a legacy that dates all the way back to the time of Marco Polo. I love egg pasta. I love small-batch pasta made from durum wheat cultivars, slowly dried in the sun, and cooked at sea level with soft, almost silky boiling water.
And yet, when my fellow Italians rail against “fake” carbonara, I have a hard time getting upset.
The most recent controversy dates back to late March, when a French website called Demotivateur published a one-pot carbonara recipe to massive international outrage. Threatened with a public relations disaster, the site’s sponsor, Italian pasta maker Barilla, posted a tongue-in-cheek response (link in Italian). But in the aftermath, Italian bloggers turned against each other. Pecorino or parmesan? Cured pork belly or jowl? How many eggs, and when?
As Annalisa Merelli explained for Quartz, the video offended many people because it violated several long-standing rules in Italian cooking:
No chicken on pizza or pasta. In this case, no onion in carbonara. Another rule: Pasta cooks by itself, not with other ingredients. Boiling guanciale (a relative of bacon) with your pasta, as the recipe calls for, would be like boiling the bacon in American shrimp and grits: gross. As for the crème fraîche, the ingredient that makes carbonara delightfully creamy is egg. Period.
But while I sympathize with the desire to maintain familial and regional traditions, there is something a bit counterintuitive about our culinary protectiveness in this day and age. Some Italians have become intent on asserting an increasingly unrealistic amount of control over the way foreigners cook their food. Indeed, every year a group of chefs organizes an international protest against “the systematic forgery of Italian cuisine.” Fearing the loss of their classic recipes, Italy’s fiercest food police are digging in.
Food has always represented a part of our shared identity in Italy. The Romans thought those who didn’t eat wheat were barbarians. Pasta is such an important part of our culture that we sometimes describe a person’s toughness using the idiom di che pasta è fatta, or “the pasta she is made of.” In a country where many sons and daughters are still expected to dress and act like their parents and homogeneity is appreciated, being able to observe traditional recipes denotes social distinction and belonging. Perhaps our rigid food rules are simply the reflection of a tightly-knit culture.
What many of my countrymen haven’t been able to accept, though, is that Italian food is no longer only about us. Pasta is a successful cultural export; its global presence is impressive and worth celebrating. We live in a world in which you can eat and drink Italian specialties virtually anywhere. The boundaries of what is and isn’t Italian food have become blurred, perhaps irrevocably. Milan is all about high-end burger bars right now. Meanwhile, one of the most visible proponents of handmade pasta is Evan Funke, who has set up shop in Southern California. Further north, San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food has become known for its pesto ramen. Japanese-style wafu pasta has a devoted following throughout east Asia.
In some categories, specialties have actually been improved elsewhere. For great espresso, go to Oslo, Toronto, or Canberra, Australia. At other times, some details are bound to be lost in translation. It’s unfortunate, but probably unavoidable. In France’s formal, protein-centered cuisine, noodles used to be little more than cheap food for students. In this context, the one-pot carbonara makes much more sense, even as it angers the average Italian foodie.
Could the idea of national cuisine itself be losing its relevance? Food is so much about time, place, and performance that, as acclaimed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera recently told the Los Angeles Times, it “doesn’t belong to the culture, it belongs to you.” After all, Italian cuisine is by no means the only one being appropriated. While considered a hallmark of Japanese tradition, ramen’s complicated history begins in China. Vietnamese banh mi’s characteristic French baguette is a tasty leftover of France’s not-so-delicious colonial imprint. Once upon a time, burgers were inspired by the German town of Hamburg.
Nobody wants mass production—fast-food chains and food deserts are favorite foodie examples—but globalization also leads to complexity, novelty, and yes, even authenticity. Conversely, many “pure” traditions are historical constructs. Italian food ranges from the risotto-centered cuisine of Milan to Arabic-influenced Sicilian food. Many of today’s staple regional dishes are barely 100 years old; carbonara itself is arguably younger (link in Italian) than British curries and American chop suey. Even the ubiquitous tomato is a relatively recent addition to the classic Italian palette.
Perhaps the current outrage has more to do with a wounded sense of national pride than anything else. This is a country that has been battered by a series of political and economic storms. Barilla’s corporate slogan is “Where there’s Barilla, there’s home.” In an age of uncertainty, clinging to a timeless diet may offer a modicum of assurance and a way to assert the validity of Italian culture. Still, the idea of enforcing traditional recipes has the dystopian ring of a culture turning into a postcard version of itself. Just imagine an entire city serving a single authorized version of the same traditional dish. Who would want to eat out? As Dave Chang recently complained (rather colorfully), a trip to Rome or Naples may actually leave some foodies frustrated at the relative lack of variety.
At the end of the day, maybe we all just need to be a little bit less precious about our recipes and a little more appreciative of innovation—wherever corner of the world it comes from. In the aftermath of the carbonara scandal, La Repubblica published a series of variants of the recipe; the ingredients ranged from spelt pasta and raw cow milk pasture cheese to sea urchins. Claudio Sadler, whose Milan restaurant has two Michelin stars, makes carbonara with fresh cream (link in Italian).
Respect your tastebuds and concentrate on eating what’s good. Eat what’s near. Eat what you like. And next time you go to Tokyo, remember to grab a pizza.