Do you have a favorite comfort food — a food that reminds you of your younger days, or of home cooking? My favorites tend to vary with the seasons and the surrounding circumstances. I could eat some kind of pasta everyday. One of my favorites is pasta carbonara, accompanied by a green salad. Where did it originate?
Like so many of our dishes, pasta carbonara evolved over many centuries. First, there had to be pasta, which became the basis of many dishes, and then the addition of bacon, which is credited for its popularity to the years of World War II, although it was an American staple many years before that. The combination of the two produced pasta carbonara.
Like many of our everyday foods, the Italian favorite gained international fame through the soldiers of the Allied armies in World War II. They brought back home foods they had encountered overseas during the war. They found in the carbonara sauce the familiar foods of their homeland — eggs and bacon — which was combined with their new love: spaghetti.
According to legend, pasta was one of the unusual exotic things Marco Polo brought back to Venice from the mysterious Orient more than 700 years ago. The story is that while he was in China, Marco Polo learned the art of making pasta. He was so impressed with pasta that the good people of Venice, upon his return home, also fell in love with pasta.
However, according to another story, pasta was brought to Italy in the fifth century by invading Germanic tribes. A handsome Italian soldier is said to have won the love of a tribal chieftain’s scullery maid and pried the secret of noodlemaking from her. He passed the secret on to his countrymen.
Let’s look a little further at pasta history. Some believe pasta started in Mesopotamia a thousand years ago. Others say that pasta was first made in Ethiopia in about the 11th century. Then the third version relates to pasta’s origin to Greece, on the theory that the word “macaroni” came from the Greek word “makar,” meaning “blessed,” as used when referring to sacramental food. In Sicily, people insist that pasta came with the Arabs when they invaded Sicily, sometime in the seventh century.
There are also less romantic accounts of the origin of pasta. However it happened, it was the Italians who transformed the drab noodle into a culinary art form that gained an international reputation and a wide following.
Of course, the Italians do not have a monopoly on pasta. Noodles still feature prominently in Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking, as well as less so in the cuisine of Japan. In Europe, various noodle dishes are specialties of Alsace. In America, pasta is often served instead of potatoes or rice. However, the assortment of Italian pastas and the innumerable ways they are served are incomparable.
Between 1700 and 1785, pasta became the rage in Italy, and the number of pasta shops in Naples alone increased from 60 to 280. Pasta of every shape dried on the rooftops and hung over fences in that city. Gioacchino Rossini, the well-known 19th-century Italian composer, spent much of his earnings trying to invent a commercial macaroni machine.
Macaroni, spaghetti and all the other pasta shapes were considered food for the poor in the late 18th and 19th centuries in both Europe and America. However, that was not always the case. The natives of Naples, who were among the first to develop pasta machines, considered pasta a great luxury.
Many Italians who came to the United States during the Gold Rush of 1849 became restaurant proprietors and cooks. Their simple spaghetti with tomato sauce caught on rapidly. Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of World War II, spaghetti became a popular American dish. With Italian neighborhoods in large cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, local non-Italian residents started tasting the exotic, inexpensive fare of their Italian neighbors. At first, pasta could be purchased only from gourmet grocers, whose shelves were filled with imported pasta, cheese and sauces.
A Frenchman opened the first American pasta factory in Philadelphia in 1798. But it was Thomas Jefferson who really brought pasta to America when he purchased a simple macaroni machine made Italy.
With the advent of World War I, imports from abroad were cut off, and local production of pasta became essential. By the end of the war, there were 557 pasta manufacturers in America. Pressure from the ever-growing group of domestic pasta manufacturers forced the Department of Agriculture to encourage farmers in the Midwest to grow durum wheat. This is the hard wheat needed for firm pasta dough. Today, North and South Dakota are the leading states producing durum wheat. At about the same time, food companies began to feature canned tomatoes and tomato sauces.
There are more than 60 different basic varieties of pasta, included in three main categories — tubular forms, such as spaghetti and macaroni; flat, such as fettuccini and lasagna; and the small grain-like soup pastas. Tubular and flat pastas come in various lengths and widths, from thinnest vermicelli to sheets of lasagna.
Pasta is made from the semolina milled from durum wheat — a hard, flinty wheat, high in gluten and protein, which converts into a malleable pasta dough. Sometimes the dough is enriched with eggs or spinach puree to add to the flavor.
The pasta dough is forced through perforated cylinders to create various shapes. Small pastas, like macaroni, are cut to size as they emerge from the presses, while longer pastas like noodles and spaghetti are produced in different lengths by machines. The cut pastas are then taken to the drying ovens — the small ones on trays and the long ones over special drying racks.
One of my favorite pasta dishes is Spaghetti alla Carbonara. The heat of the just-drained pasta cooks the egg yolks in this favorite Roman dish. Italians claim this was a popular Roman dish of coal miners; others claim it was long ago enjoyed by charcoal makers.
»3 egg yolks
»6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
»Salt and freshly ground pepper
»6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
»3 ounces thinly sliced bacon, cut into julienne strips
»1 pound spaghetti
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In a large pot bring lightly salted water to a boil.
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and bacon together over medium heat. Saute until slightly crisp and golden, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until barely al dente (done). Drain the pasta and transfer it to the frying pan containing the bacon. Stir over low heat for 2 minutes.
Arrange the pasta on a warm platter. Pour the beaten egg yolks over the top and immediately toss well to coat the spaghetti. Serve piping hot. Serves 6.