Italy May Owe the Invention of Carbonara to America

A historian's claim that the dish was inspired by American rations available in Italy during World War II is the cause of continuing controversy.

Spaghetti Carbonara

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At the end of March, the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture announced that they had collectively nominated "Italian cuisine: sustainability and biocultural diversity" to be a candidate for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Although putting Italian cuisine — literally all of it — on the same list with the Neapolitan art of pizzamaking, truffle hunting, and other cultural points of pride would be an incredible honor, those headlines have been overshadowed by claims that Americans had a hand in inventing a classic dish: carbonara.

This started with a Financial Times piece about Alberto Grandi, a food history professor at the University of Parma and the author of a book that questions the origin stories of some Italian dishes. "Italian cuisine really is more American than Italian," he told the outlet, citing Italian emigration to the United States as one of the contributing factors. Grandi noted that the first pizza restaurant "exclusively serving pizza" opened in New York in 1911, not in Naples.

As hard as that might be for some Italians to swallow, the Financial Times also quoted food historian Luca Cesari, whose research has suggested that the pasta alla carbonara was "an American dish born in Italy" during World War II. Many historians accept that chef Renato Gualandi created the now-iconic recipe while cooking for members of the British and U.S. armies in 1944, and he used the "fabulous bacon, very good cream, some cheese, and powdered egg yolks" that the Americans had on hand.

"It was a combination of Italian genius and American resources," Eleonora Cozzella, the author of The Perfect Carbonara: Origins and Evolutions of a Cult Dish, told the BBC. (Grandi made a similar claim at a literary festival in 2018, and was called “every name in the book” by a furious co-presenter.)

The first known recipe for carbonara was printed in "Vittles and vice: An extraordinary guide to what's cooking on Chicago's Near North Side" in 1952, and did not appear in any Italian media until 1954, when the recipe was published in La Cucina magazine.

Regardless of the facts, the true origins of these dishes, or how often these same claims are repeated, they never go over well in Italy. Its National Confederation of Direct Farmers, known as Colderetti, said that comments like Grandi’s "trivialize" the country’s food traditions. It described the Financial Times piece as "an article inspired by an old publication by an Italian author which could make you smile if it didn’t hide worrying economic and employment implications."

Grandi is more than familiar with the controversy that his dish debunking can cause. "I don't understand why many attack me since I don't question the quality of Italian food or products, I historically reconstruct and philologically correct the history of these dishes," he told La Repubblica. "And with my studies, I have shown that many preparations derive from the last 50-60 years of history, and from interactions with the Atlantic culture."

While some Italians have questioned Grandi on social media, others are just jokingly making claims that are equally outrageous. "And buffalo mozzarella was invented by Buffalo Bill," one person wrote on Twitter.

Honestly, that might  be less-controversial than the whole carbonara thing.

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