For totally banal reasons, we were unable to celebrate Thanksgiving on the proper day. Dreary tasks kept us in Florence too too-late-to-put-in-any bird unless, of course, we wanted to eat at 3 a.m.
Incredibly dispiriting. Time to beat one’s breast like one of those professional female mourners on an ancient Roman sarcophagus, pull out one’s hair, and wail (I pretty much did both of those things).
Fortunately, Calvin Trillin sprang to mind. Calvin Trillin is one of our Household Gods. Should we ever have to depart in haste due to anything, we would take his books with us. Every year, we read aloud two of his Thanksgiving-related pieces. In one, he controversially suggests abolishing eating turkey on Thanksgiving and replacing it with carbonara. The essay is called “Spaghetti Carbonara Day” and the first sentence is a call to arms: “I have been campaigning to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed from turkey to spaghetti carbonara.” He then bravely continues: “It does not require much historical research to uncover the fact that nobody knows if the Pilgrims really ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing we know for sure about what the Pilgrims ate is that it couldn’t have tasted very good.”
We decided spaghetti carbonara was just the thing.
When properly done, it’s a gift from the gods. When not properly done, it can be a mess (you never, ever want to scramble the eggs). The basic recipe is simple: spaghetti, eggs, cheese, pancetta. But then polemiche (as they say in these parts; we’d say controversy/argument/nit-picking) arises over the exact approach: Should I use the whole egg, or merely the yolk? Should I use a couple of egg yolks and a whole egg? Ought I to add a little cream? Or should I add a little milk?
The late, great bard who was Alan Davidson weighs in: “[it] is made with spaghetti which, when still as hot as possible from cooking, is liberally dressed with hot fried PANCETTA (the sort called guanciale), which resembles bacon, raw beaten egg, and grated cheese. The heat cooks the eggs to some extent [not really, I don’t think]. Additions often made are a little wine [yum!], heated with the bacon, or cream.” He then discourses about the dish’s origins, dismissing the idea that it was a favorite of the carbonari (charcoal burners). More likely, he says, “A more credible explanation is that it was invented in 1944 as a result of the American occupation troops having their lavish rations of eggs and bacon prepared by local cooks. The name would then be from a Rome restaurant, the “Carbonara,” which makes a specialty of the dish.”
EGAD! Might we -- that is, we Americans? -- be responsible for this Italian classic? It would make perfect sense – us, the Land of Plenty in a country reeling from the deprivations of war?
Samantha, who makes the best plate of carbonara on the planet, uses a little milk and egg yolks. Stig in London has been known to throw in Cheddar cheese (if you haven’t tried it, do: it’s divine, and if you have the first Greens cookbook, check out Deborah Madison’s version with smoked cheese and green olives). Ada Boni, the Irma Rombauer of Italy, does an egg/100 grams of spaghetti, and uses both cheeses. Calvin Trillin makes his with pancetta and prosciutto. Crustily beloved Elizabeth David made hers with maccheroni (though she’s one of my heroes, she would), pork product lightly fried in butter (hm …), whole eggs, and only Parmesan. The River Café Green book has an asparagus carbonara which, when it’s the season for, is beyond wonderful. Though it appears that black pepper’s not a vital ingredient, it is for all of us who make it. We like ours particularly peppery, hence the excess.
Spaghetti alla carbonara con porri /spaghetti carbonara with leeks
1/3 lb. spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, diced
1 T. olive oil (extravirgin not necessary)
3 egg yolks
¼ c. light cream
¼ c. Parmesan, grated
¼ c. Pecorino Romano, grated
3 T. (at least) black peppercorns, mortar’d and pestle’d
Bring a pot filled with water to a boil.
Trim the leeks: you want the part where the white fades into the green; clean them carefully and julienne them as finely as you possibly can. (Reserve the white part for future use, compost the upper part; or give the white part to Lulu, who adores raw leeks.)(Yes.)
Put the olive oil in a saucepan, heat, and throw in the pancetta. Cook ‘til crisp, remove, and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 1 T. of the pan’s fat. Throw in the leeks, and cook ‘til just about golden brown.
While the leeks cook, throw the spaghetti into the boiling water.
Mix the egg yolks, light cream, and cheeses in a small bowl. Add the black pepper.
Drain the spaghetti, and toss it with the egg mixture. Add reserved pancetta and eat immediately.
Serves two. It always gets eaten up, hence nothing left for the dogs.
If a good plate of carbonara exists in Tuscany, I have yet to find it. It always tastes best in Rome; here are two places to have it the next time you’re in town.
La Carbonara, (birthplace of?) Campo dei Fiori 23, Rome, 06/686 4783.
Maccheroni, Piazza delle Coppelle 44, Rome, 06/68307895. Reservations a must, as is their carbonara.
Oh, what has happened to my footnotes? On eating late-night fowl: This reminds me of the first Thanksgiving dinner I ever cooked for 12 or so unwitting Brits, a Scot, and a Dane. After securing a turkey at Harrod’s (I had to return an hour later to pick it up, as they had to pluck it), turkey and I repaired to friend’s flat in Chelsea, where the meal was to take place. A mid-afternoon (lengthy) power failure translated into the turkey emerging from the oven at around 11 p.m. Dane and I whiled away the hours with a bottle of dry vermouth.
Calvin Trillin's other marvelous piece: “Doing it the Lard Way” – about deep frying turkeys – appeared in the November 27, 1995 issue of the New Yorker. This was a most novel idea at the time (of course, Calvin Trillin’s always been on the crest of the wave). This reminds me of another Thanksgiving-related story. Once upon a time, John and Todd deep-fried a turkey on their driveway outside Ithaca, New York. Todd thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that he’d successfully disposed of the fat underneath the gravel of their driveway. In fact, he hadn’t, and Gizmo, their lovely but somewhat dimwitted Lab mix, ate it. This led to highly expensive emergency surgery at, fortunately, one of the best vet schools in the States (Cornell).
Quote from "Spaghetti Carbonara Day" from Third Helpings, New Haven and New York, 1983.