For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce