Mertie’s Mondays: “Spaghetti Carbonara”, Depression-Style

“Spaghetti Carbonara” from depression-era cooks. Essentially, it’s spaghetti with cheese; how can you go wrong? Oh, yeah, ask a drunk guy to cook it!

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Spaghetti Carbonara

One of the greatest filler of bellies during the Great Depression was pasta. It was relatively cheap, filling, and could be combined with other things to give both protein and carbohydrate to your family without breaking the bank.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti for one

These days Spaghetti Carbonara is rich, with cream sauce, ham, and pecorino Romano cheese. The finest restaurants serve it. Its origins are obscure: it appeared in its current form sometime after World War II in Italy, according to Wikipedia. Elizabeth David’s 1954 cookbook included it (Elizabeth David was the first British cookbook author who was not more concerned about ordering the servants around than showing the mothers of Britain how to cook good, non-stodgy food for their families). [Italian Food (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)]

My grandmother was cooking this for her family in the late 1930’s and before. Her origins were in the Acadian areas of Nova Scotia, so her native cooking style was Acadian (not Cajun, that came later). I believe that this dish was concocted as a quick, one pot, no-bake alternative to Baked Macaroni and Cheese. I can’t prove it, unfortunately.

Here’s my mother’s recipe. I will discuss the various alternatives to some of the horrible cheese substitutes she used in the ingredient list.

1/4 lb of pasta per person to be served. Most pastas work well with this dish, although the best are regular elbow macaroni and spaghetti or linguini.
3 eggs, whisked
1 tbl butter (in England they refer to a knob of butter)
Grated cheese. Cheddar works best: strong cheddar can overpower the rest of the ingredients, so I prefer mild. Do not use mozzarella under any circumstances: it will clump up and make an unholy mess in the middle of your pasta. My Mom used pasteurised process cheese food (aka Velveeta) or Cracker Barrel Mild or Medium, but I don’t use this nowadays. Amount: as much as you like but no less than 1/2 cup.
Milk (about 2-3 Tblsp.).
Salt and Pepper

Method:

Boil the pasta in a couple of quarts of salted water.

While the pasta is boiling, whisk the eggs together and set aside. Grate the cheese coarsely into another bowl. Have the milk, butter, salt, and pepper handy as you’ll need them in quick succession.

When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain and immediately return to the pot. My way of finding out whether it’s al dente is to fish out a piece from the boiling water with a spoon or fork. Then I transfer that piece to my other hand, clap my hands together, and vigourously shake until the pasta is cool enough to taste. This prevents burned tongues but is not quite as messy as throwing a piece of the pasta at the wall, as some others do.

When the pasta has cooked and been drained and put back in the pot, return the pot to the stove and place on a medium low fire. Immediately add the egg, milk, butter, and cheese. Add the pepper and begin to stir the pasta around quickly, scraping the cooking egg off the side of the pot as you go. The idea is that you are scrambling the egg within the pasta. Stir until the cheese is melted and the egg is thoroughly cooked and clings to the pasta in little curds.

Have the salt shaker and a Parmesan grater at the table to add some zest if people want it.

This is great for a kids’ meal, as it’s relatively easy to make, most kids love it, and it’s very filling. Serve it with a small green salad and Italian dressing on the side.

My mom used to make this at the end of the week just before my dad brought his paycheck home. It had the advantage that the ingredients were pretty inexpensive, apt to be around (what household didn’t have a few eggs and some Kraft slices or a chunk of Velveeta knocking around), and meatless (we were Roman Catholics and at that time meat was forbidden on Fridays), and it kept us kids quiet.

However, she had a story connected with it, that I’ll leave you with. Her mother’s father was a sea cook. He was French-Canadian and used to be the cook on fishing boats on the Grand Banks. Unfortunately, none of his recipes have been passed down to us, except for one. As many seafaring men do, he liked a drop of alcohol now and then to keep his whistle wet. One day my grandmother had to go out, and she left her kids in the care of her father. She told him to make the above dish for the three kids, and left him the recipe.

By the time it came time to cook, my great-grandfather was somewhat the worse for wear. The pasta itself was OK, but instead of cheese he used lard, and instead of raw eggs he cut up hard-boiled eggs and added them to the pasta, mixed everything up until the lard melted, and served it to my mother and her two brothers.

She looked at her brothers, and they looked back. Not eating it wasn’t an option, as their mother expected them to eat what was put in front of them. But they took one forkful and realised it was inedible. Luckily, they had Rex to rescue them. Rex was their pet German Shepherd, a lovely dog, a great companion, and omnivorous. They quickly slid their plates under the table and Rex did the honours. Result: three hungry but unpunished children and a very full dog.

Cleanup note: If you don’t want your dishwasher, whether human or mechanical, to complain, you should soak the pot, the utensils, and the plates you eat Spaghetti Carbonara from in water immediately after using them. Otherwise, you will be left with a hard-to-clean pot or dish and a grumpy dishwasher.

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Author: Chris Hansen

Expat American living in London, now a British citizen as well. I was originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and that's where my mom raised me, so my momfood comes from New England.

8 thoughts on “Mertie’s Mondays: “Spaghetti Carbonara”, Depression-Style”

  1. I make this at home! It’s my version of mac and cheese. I usually just use freshly grated parmesan though, since I love it so… I want to try it with velveeta. And maybe even fried spam. I wonder how my kids will recount it?!!!

    1. :-) My mom’s standard spaghetti had parmesan, butter, garlic, salt, and pepper. She didn’t like tomato sauce, but she made it for us. So I would eat my butter/cheese pasta until it got to be too rich for me, then add tangy spaghetti sauce to the second half of the dish.

  2. Dispense with the eggs and use elbow macaroni and commodities (block American) cheese, and you’ve got my mom’s macaroni and cheese. Yum!

  3. My mom always made baked macaroni and cheese. I believe (though I can’t remember) that she made a sauce of cheese, milk, butter, and egg, poured it into cooked macaroni in a flat pan, then topped it with breadcrumbs and baked it. I have never had much success with this, for some reason, so I stopped making it. I may revisit it at some point.

  4. So simple, but so tasty! I have a wonderful package of pasta that I got from a local organic food market, and I think I know what I’m going to do with it now!

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