Spaghetti alla Carbonara—Unknown Heritage

March 12, 2009

…was today’s lunch. Calvin Trillin would have smugly grinned, since he has long campaigned to persuade Americans to replace turkey with carbonara as the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving tables. I tend to concur, never serving turkey on that most gastronomic of all days.

Anecdotes are varied and vague about the true nascence of carbonara.

First thought to be a dish from ancient Rome, the name was said to come from a meal made in the Appenine mountains of the Abruzzo by woodcutters who made charcoal for fuel and would cook the dish over a hardwood fire. Another version is that given the meaning of alla carbonara (coal worker’s style), the dish was prized by miners because the few ingredients could easily transported on the way to work, and because the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper resembles coal flakes. A more recent tale is that food shortages after the liberation of Rome toward the end of World War II were so severe that Allied troops distributed military rations of powdered eggs and bacon which the locals mingled with water to season dried pasta. A more diverse theory is that in the region of Lazio halfway between Roma and Benevento, pasta was seasoned with eggs, lard, and pecorino cheese. During the German occupation of Rome during the World War II, many families dispersed from the city into Lazio to escape the oppressiveness of the occupation and were awakened to this delicacy along the way.

Whatever myth is truth, this should be a table regular. A symphony of eggs, cured pork, cheese and pasta…is there more to life?

SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA

2 T extra virgin olive oil
10 ozs thickly sliced guanciale, pancetta or quality bacon, diced into 1/2″ pieces

Sea salt
1 lb spaghetti, linguini or fettucini

2 large local, free range eggs whites
4 large local, free range egg yolks
2 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper

Additional egg yolks for serving (optional)

In a large, heavy sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the guanciale or pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crispy and golden. Remove the pancetta and drain on paper towels. Set the pan aside, but do not remove the rendered fat.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a stock pot with liberal amounts of salt—so the water tastes like the open ocean. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente; drain, reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water. Bring the sauté pan with the guanciale or pancetta and fat to a low heat, add the pasta, and immediately add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, two or more of the egg whites, two extra egg yolks, pepper liberally and toss well.

Divide the pasta among serving bowls, make a nest in the center of each and drop a yolk into each nest. Pepper some more, grate additional cheese over each plate and serve at once.

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