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The Trouble with Nigella Lawson's Carbonara

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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.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti 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."

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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.

Pasta Carbonara
Pasta Carbonara

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.

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?

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Brussels Sprouts Carbonara
Brussels Sprouts Carbonara

I'm of mixed minds here, so let's address a simpler matter. Do you put cream in your carbonara and still call it carbonara? Please let me know.

Tags: i love nigella, nigella lawson