"we are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too."

–michael pollan

"nous ne sommes pas seulement ce que nous mangeons, mais aussi comment nous le mangeons."

–michael pollan

An American’s Take on French Carbonara

An American’s Take on French Carbonara

the story

As an American living in France, my kitchen is a realm of culinary fusion and experimentation. It is a place where French ingredients meet American influences–everywhere from traditional to modern and multiethnic.

In the beginning, when I was often craving the tastes of home, I learned to adapt my dishes to local ingredients and French palates. There was a New England chowder that subbed clams for Mediterranean mussels. My spaghetti was made with saucisse de Toulouse instead of the usual fennel-scented Italian sausage. And I learned that even something as simple as a BLT could be made up all fancy on a baguette, the preferred sandwich bread of the French.

Once I had become more comfortable in my new life and kitchen, I began to bring in French recipes and somehow make them my own: a juicy poulet rôti and pan-roasted potatoes drenched in my mother’s gravy, or a gratin de pâtes with a crispy lid of sharp English cheddar in place of the classic gruyère.

Yet no dish represents this culinary fusion in my mind as well as pâtes carbo, a classic French comfort food inspired by the famed Roman carbonara.

pates carbo

When I was still struggling to find my way in a country so new to me, my husband introduced me to the velvety preparation, made pungent with the addition of caramelized onions and thickened crème fraîche. While defenders of “authentic” carbonara would scorn the use of cream to enhance the sauce, the French have shamelessly embraced this controversial ingredient.

As the French have done before me, I too have made this dish my own by gradually tweaking or adding new ingredients. My tried and true pâtes carbonara features two onions–somewhere between lightly caramelized and scorched–a hefty serving of lardons, and a few heaping scoops of crème fraîche, finished off with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmigiano. Pâtes carbo has since become a part of my regular meal rotation, and–full disclosure–it may just be the perfect meal to whip up when you’re wading through a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon.

To attest to the adaptable nature of carbonara, I’ve had success with a number of variations. Following the recipe of a friend, I’ve added in a teaspoon of whole grain mustard to create something reminiscent of lapin à la moutarde. Or, during southern France’s hot summer evenings, I preferred a few zests of lemon to brighten up the otherwise rich sauce. I could imagine replacing lardons with thinly sliced mushrooms or leftover pulled chicken; and, for those who insist on a bit of green on their plate, I might suggest the addition of wilted spinach or green peas.

What all of this shows, more than anything, is the versatility of a beloved dish and the ability of each chef to make it their own, to bend it to their tastes and terroir. Although pâtes carbo may share the carbonara name with its Italian cousin, it is reimagined à la française in a way that has made it another dish entirely.

The French’s pâtes carbo is delicious comfort food that deserves to be appreciated, but its story opens us up to larger questions of food authenticity and ownership. Like all food, this dish is the result of centuries of agricultural domestication that have created lardons and sweet onions, the development of artisanal techniques that brought us crème fraîche and pasta, and even the more recent globalizing forces that allow an American like me to cook Italian dishes à la française in my kitchen in Brittany.

Discussions of food authenticity and ownership are certainly important to have. They force us to question our privileges and appreciate the cultural context of what and how we eat. But we also need to leave room for exchange and evolution, for the type of experimentation that might create new cuisines and flavor combinations. So, in the spirit of pâtes carbo, embrace your inner recipe tinkerer–and, most importantly, bon appétit!

the recipe

Serves: 2-3

½ pound pasta – I use spaghetti or linguine
1 ½ tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, sliced into ¼" half moons
5 ounces smoked lardons – or thick-cut bacon cut into ¼" strips
5 ounces crème fraîche
Salt and pepper, to taste
½-1 cup reserved pasta water
Grated parmesan or gruyère, for serving

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to pasta maker's instructions. Remember to reserve some pasta water for the sauce before draining!
  2. While your pasta water is heating, melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and browned to your desired level of caramelization.
  3. Add lardons and increase heat to medium-high. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until your lardons have crisped up. Pour off any excess fat.
  4. Reduce heat to medium-low and add crème fraîche, as well as salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook 3-5 minutes until the cream has thickened slightly and taken on the caramelized color of the onions.
  5. Add cooked pasta to the sauce and continue to cook 2-3 minutes, turning often. Add reserved pasta water as needed to create a loose sauce.
  6. Serve with freshly grated parmesan or gruyère.