Who was the man (or woman) that first decided to put the pea in the pasta carbonara? And Why? What could prompt such a thing and how did it become such a seemingly normal thing to do in America?
When visiting Rome, my husband and I took a food tour. Our guide was Massimiliano, a welcoming soft blue-eyed gentleman. We later learned that he worked with children with disabilities for a living. A very kind soul, indeed. Mid-way through the tour, we stopped into a little restaurant for some pasta tasting. Amatriciana and carbonara were on the menu. The pea conundrum immediately popped into my head.
“Massimiliano, do you know why Americans started putting peas in carbonara?”
He looked at me like I asked for a side of ranch for the pasta. Hurt, confused, shocked. He said something along the lines of, I don’t know why Americans do what they do. They just do whatever they want and ruin it. It seemed to anger him. This was the only point in the whole tour that his friendly and gentle demeanor broke and it was I that broke it.
Immediately regretting I asked, I wanted to clarify, I just wanted to know if he knew why or how peas ended up there. I didn’t think that they should be there. But I was so embarrassed that I gave up. It was all in my head. No one even noticed I asked such a silly question and if they did, they did not care. It was a small group of seven. One other couple from the states, a couple from South Africa, and a single woman who asked too many questions. She had a hard time keeping up while wearing jelly sandals on a walking tour. What do they say in the South? “Bless her heart.”
In hind sight, I guess it was a bit silly to think Massimiliano might know. If anyone knows, it’s someone in America. I tried to dig deeper into the subject but came up with absolutely nothing. Clearly, the first step was Googling “pasta carbonara”. The preview photos of each link were speckled with pea green. I could only frustratingly scroll past so many celebrity chef and blog sites with recipes that blatantly contained peas before giving up.
Of course, I dug deeper after simply Googling its name. Still, all I could find was information on its origins and multiple claims of knowing the true traditional recipe, each one different. Personally, I really don’t think there is just one. If there is, how would that even be determined? It’d be like the great Philly Cheesesteak debate. A question with two different answers that are both correct.
I have more of a casual method and less of a recipe:
Boil a handful of spaghetti (or any other long noodle) in salted water
Sauté some guanciale (pancetta if you can’t find guanciale) and reserve the meat, keeping the rendered fat on low.
Whisk a couple of egg yolks (you can use the whole egg if you prefer) with some freshly grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan Reggiano or both)
When the pasta is al dente, add it to the sauté pan, remove from the heat, and quickly mix in the eggs and cheese until creamy.
Mix in the guanciale, season with salt (and pepper if you wish), and enjoy.
As you can see by my parenthesis, there are many substitutions and options. I know only three things if you want to try to keep it “traditional”: use guanciale (not bacon), eggs (no cream), and if the recipe you’re using has peas, just omit them. Or leave the peas in if you’re into that kind of thing. Just know that there are Italians everywhere that would be very disappointed in you.
I guess we’ll never know who the first jerk to put peas in pasta carbonara was and why it seemed like such a good idea to so many others. If anybody out there does know, please enlighten me.