Italian academic cooks up controversy with claim carbonara is US dish

<span>Photograph: Katsiaryna Hurava/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Katsiaryna Hurava/Alamy

An Italian academic has caused more than a stir after saying the recipe for carbonara is American and the only place in the world to find bona fide parmesan cheese nowadays is Wisconsin.

Alberto Grandi, a professor of food history at the University of Parma, made the remarks in an interview with the Financial Times. He also claimed tiramisu and panettone were relatively recent inventions and that most Italians had not even heard of pizza before the 1950s.

Grandi is known for making bold statements about Italian food but for Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, he has taken the biscuit with his latest claims, especially as the government has just put forward the country’s sacred cuisine as a candidate for Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list.

Coldiretti said Grandi’s interview delivered “a surreal attack” against symbolically Italian food “precisely at the occasion of its candidacy for intangible heritage”.

“On the basis of imaginative reconstructions, the most deeply rooted national culinary traditions are disputed,” the association said.

“In essence, [he claims] the Americans have invented carbonara, and panettone and tiramisu are recent commercial products. Above all, [the interview] goes so far as to hypothesise about parmesan and the one produced in Wisconsin in the US – the homeland of fake ‘made in Italy’ cheeses.”

Grandi also attracted the ire of Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League who has long used food as a symbol of Italy’s national identity.

In a post on social media, Salvini said “experts and newspapers are envious of our tastes and beauty” before adding that “buying, eating and drinking Italian is good for health, work and the environment!”

Grandi’s claims were partly drawn from existing academic literature, the Financial Times said. In reference to carbonara, he cites Luca Cesari, a food historian and author of the book A Brief History of Pasta, who said carbonara was “an American dish born in Italy”.

The dish is believed to have been first made by an Italian chef in 1944 for American soldiers in Riccione using bacon and eggs rations. “Italian cuisine really is more American than it is Italian,” Grandi told the Financial Times.

Parmesan cheese, from the Emilia-Romagna region, dates back to the 12th century and Grandi believes Italian immigrants, probably from the Parma area, started producing it in Wisconsin in the early 20th century.

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He said Wisconsin parmesan was “an exact modern-day match” for the original recipe because, unlike their counterparts in Parma, cheesemakers in the US state never evolved the recipe.

As for pizza, Grandi said that before the second world war it could only be found in some southern Italian cities and that the first restaurant serving only pizza opened in New York in 1911. “For my father in the 1970s, pizza was just as exotic as sushi is for us today,” he said.

As the row rumbled on, Grandi told La Repubblica on Monday that Italian cuisine was “assuming an identity dimension beyond all reasonableness” and that the “Pavlovian reactions” to his comments “make no sense”.

“I don’t understand why many attack me,” he said. “I don’t question the quality of Italian food or products, I reconstruct the history of these dishes in a historical and philologically correct way.

“With my studies I have shown that many preparations derive from the last 50 to 60 years of history and from interactions with the American culture.”