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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Great Spoon Debate: The "Right" Way to Eat Spaghetti

Never mind shifting economic conditions and world peace. Forget about global warming. Let’s get down to the real issues. Like the right way to eat spaghetti. I mean, do you use a spoon or don’t you?

By using a spoon, I’m referring to the practice of employing a large spoon in tandem with a fork as a means of transporting spaghetti from the plate to the mouth. People who utilize this method hold a spoon upright in one hand with the tip of the spoon’s bowl in contact with the surface of the plate. They then push a quantity of spaghetti toward the spoon with a fork. Once the pasta makes contact with the spoon, they twirl it around the fork until they have a sufficient amount wound around the fork to lift it from the plate and bring it to their mouths.

Back in the callow days of my youth, I was told that this was the way “real Italians” ate spaghetti. But is it?

First, the etiquette experts weigh in:

''Most restaurants (and hostesses) that feature pasta provide guests with a large spoon as well as the knife and fork. The fork is used to spear a few strands of spaghetti, the tips are placed against the spoon, which is held on its side, in the left hand, and the fork is twirled, wrapping the spaghetti around itself as it turns. If no spoon is provided, the tips of the fork may be rested against the curve of the plate.'' '-- The New Emily Post's Etiquette, Elizabeth L. Post, 1975

“That many people use spoons to assist forks in eating spaghetti, Miss Manners is well aware. That correct spaghetti eating, with fork only, is not easy, Miss Manners also knows. (Why Miss Manners is suddenly writing her sentences backward, she does not know.) The most rewarding things in life require patience and diligence. In the civilized world, which includes the United States and Italy, it is incorrect to eat spaghetti with a spoon. The definition of “civilized” is a society that does not consider it correct to eat spaghetti with a spoon.” – Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin, 2005

Okay, so much for the etiquette experts. Let’s turn, instead, to the real authority on the subject of spaghetti (and pasta in general) – its inventors, the Italians.

Now before the shrill cries of protest start filling the air, invoking the ancestors of the Chinese and the spirit of Marco Polo, allow me to clarify; if the Italians didn’t actually invent pasta – and you’ll get arguments on the subject from the top of the boot to the tip of the toe – you’ve certainly got to give them credit for establishing it as a cultural icon.

With that said, it can be stated unequivocally that Italians do not use a spoon.

Aaarrrghhhh! More shrill cries of protest! “Some of the best Italian restaurants provide spoons with their spaghetti!” “My mama’s Italian and she taught me to use a spoon!” “I once saw Joe DiMaggio eat spaghetti with a spoon. Are you saying HE’S not Italian?”

Calm down, calm down. Let me clarify again; Italians in Italy don’t use spoons. Shriek all you want, you won’t find a spoon in a plate of spaghetti in any restaurant – or on any table – in Italy.

No, using a spoon is one of those marvelous Italian-American creations. Like pepperoni, stromboli, and spaghetti and meatballs. (Ouch! Stop that shrieking and look it up.)

Restaurants that serve “Italian food” in America give you spoons for one simple reason – they get tired of people asking for spoons. And as for your mama and Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper was a native of California and wasn’t your mama born in Brooklyn?

Italians who have not emigrated to this side of the pond – and many who have – maintain that spoons are for children, amateurs, and people with bad table manners. The learned Ms. Post notwithstanding, it is considered a major breach of etiquette in any Italian home to use a spoon and fork combination when eating pasta. Most Italians speak of the hours spent by their parents and grandparents educating them on the way to eat pasta without using a spoon. They may have used a spoon as children, but were quickly expected to master the correct technique of twirling spaghetti around a fork so that not a single strand would be left hanging down and thus lifting it neatly to their mouths.

“Correct” being a subjective term, I suppose, let me posit it this way; if you don’t want to be seen as an ill-mannered, amateurish child at an authentic Italian table, here is the “correct” way to eat spaghetti using the fork, the fork, and nothing but the fork.

Put said fork into a few strands of spaghetti. Note the word “few.” You’re not trying to gather up the entire serving in one mouthful. Rest the tines of the fork against the curvature of the bowl or against the curved edge of the plate. (More on plate vs. bowl in a minute.) Twirl the fork around while at the same time lifting it briefly from the plate to keep too much pasta from accumulating at one time. When you have gathered an appropriate bite, lift it quickly to your mouth. There should be only enough pasta on the fork to comfortably fit in your mouth without your having to ratchet your jaws open and, as cute as it might have been in “Lady and the Tramp,” you should not have to slurp up long, dangling strands of spaghetti. If you do get too much on your fork, or if you have lots of dangling strands, just start over again. If at first it takes half an hour to eat that serving of spaghetti, trust me, practice will make perfect.

The number one complaint about the “twirling” method of spaghetti consumption is that the sauce splashes on your nice white shirtfront. There are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself and on your wardrobe.

First off, do as I do and wear black. (Just kidding…although it’s not a bad idea.) Seriously, though, one of the reasons the whole “spoon” thing came to be is that once upon a time, for reasons nobody can fathom, Americans served spaghetti exclusively on plates. In Italy, spaghetti is generally served in broad, shallow bowls. The flat surface of a plate does not lend itself well to chasing and capturing spaghetti, hence the introduction of the spoon. But if you use a bowl, the natural curvature of the bowl does what the spoon would do, so no spoon is necessary. Ta-dah!

Next, cook your pasta properly. Al dente means al dente. I know, I know. It really means “to the tooth,” but what I’m saying is that when the box says “cook for 8 to 10 minutes,” it means cook for eight to ten minutes, not fifteen or twenty. Overcooked pasta is fat and slippery. It is much harder to wrap around a fork and much more likely to unwrap on its way to your mouth.

Finally, realize that in Italy, the pasta is the “star” of the dish. The sauce is merely a condiment. Don’t oversauce your pasta. Americans like to pour a quart of red sauce on a cup of cooked spaghetti. With that ratio, it’s almost impossible not to slop sauce everywhere. Less sauce equals less opportunity for splashing. And besides, you’re eating spaghetti and tomato sauce, not tomato sauce and spaghetti, right?

There is another heretical way in which some people eat spaghetti and it is one that you absolutely should not do – emphasize NOT – as in never, by no means, on no account, not at all, in no way, ever – and that is to cut up your spaghetti and eat it with a spoon. This is heaping sacrilege upon insult. Just spit on the Italian flag and be done with it. The only thing on a par with this culinary travesty would be breaking the spaghetti up before you cook it. I will tell you without hesitation that a true Italian cook will flinch at the sound of spaghetti being broken before it hits the pot. It’s almost as if he can hear the screams of the defenseless pasta being massacred. And those tortured cries are only accentuated when the pasta is subjected to being chopped into little bitty pieces and shoveled into the maw on a cold, heartless spoon. I haven’t come up with an appropriate punishment for pastacide, but I’m working on it.

So, the next time you order spaghetti in a “real” Italian place – like Olive Garden or Chuck E Cheese – and your server offers you a spoon, just look him or her square in the eye and say, “No, thank you. I know how to eat spaghetti the right way. Then pick up your fork and ciao down. (Sorry. It just slipped out.)

Buon appetito!

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