There’s a gentle storm brewing on Nigella Lawson’s Facebook page, where critics are calling her Tuesday recipe of the day “a train wreck,” “the death of Italian recipes,” “an outrage to Italian cuisine.” Folks, it’s time to meet what Nigella Lawson calls her spaghetti alla carbonara.
It’s a recipe lifted from her 2004 book Feast, that achingly gorgeous piece of food writing I return to frequently. "I think spaghetti carbonara is what Meryl Streep cooks for Jack Nicholson in the film version of one of my favourite books, Heartburn,” she writes in her preamble to the recipe. “And it is so right, for that chin-dripping, love-soaked primal feast, the first time someone actually stays through the night."
The recipe itself is simple, really. It calls for spaghetti, cubed pancetta (not guanciale), olive oil, large eggs, parmesan cheese freshly-grated, black pepper, white wine (hm), grated nutmeg (interesting choice), and double cream.
The dish sounds wonderful, frankly, but it's the inclusion of that last component—a whopping 60ml of double cream, blended with the parmesan, eggs, and pepper—that Lawson's critics believe screws with the fundamental calculus of carbonara, diluting its taste and, more crucially, the dish's soul. Lawson's disclaimer that the recipe is "not entirely authentic" wasn't enough to assuage the ensuing torrent of anger. “Using cream is not being revolutionary,” one aggrieved Facebook user claimed. “It’s just the most traditional way to kill a dish.” There’s a fine line between improvisation and disrespect to Lawson’s critics. What one might consider a gesture of culinary experimentation can be perceived, especially to purists, as murder of a dish that's pretty clear-cut.
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There's a pretty compelling question at the heart of this, at least to my mind: How much can you futz with the makeup of a dish before you must call it by another name? And what burden falls on figures like Lawson, with such devoted and wide followings, to honor a dish's history through the language they use?
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.