cacio e pepe

In today’s episode of Shit I Did To Avoid Working On My Manuscript, I bring you selected reviews of the Bon Appetit Cacio e Pepe recipe, which has sparked three years of ongoing controversy because it includes butter: 

“There is NO butter in Cacio e Pepe! In Rome, they never use Grana Padano or Parmesan, just Pecorino. Otherwise the technique is very good.”

“This pains me….. it says “literally cheese and pepper” but includes butter.. Why BA?!?! Anything besides water, pasta water, pasta, parmiggiano/pecorino and pepper is not cacio e pepe… It’s cacio, pepe and *insert additional ingredient here* 😦 .”

“Keep your pants on (and don’t misquote things)! The “literally ‘cheese and pepper'” is referring to the name, ‘cacio e pepe,’ which literally translates to ‘cheese and pepper’. It’s perfectly legal to add butter and if you have a problem with that take it up with the Italians, not the author.”

“The addition of butter makes for a luxurious, well coated pasta and it is not in any way sacrilegious. If you really want to be a purist about it, then skip the butter; but don’t complain about your half assed cacio e pepe.”

“Wow you people are annoying. I’ve renamed this recipe. It’s now officially called Cacio e pepe e burro e sale e pasta e un piatto e una forchetta e un tovagliolo e un’insalata e qualcosa da bere. Accurate enough for you? Happy? Great. Now go find some other site to troll.”

“I am going to [be] picky here…. Cacio e Pepe has 4 ingredients: pasta, Pecorino (or Parmesan), salt and pepper. Mix Pecorino and fresh ground pepper in a bowl, boil pasta in salted water, lift pasta into the bowl with cheese and pepper and toss with splashes of reserved cooking liquid until thick and creamy. Done. BA prides itself on having simple, direct recipes that anyone can make. That’s why I read it. But in this case I feel readers are being cheated of a truly revelatory cooking experience. The magic of Cacio e Pepe is that it is you can make this drunk at 1 am, when you have impromptu guests (or dates), when you are broke and waiting for pay day, or when you are just learning to cook. It’s magic. And every time you make it you will marvel at how you turned the last things in your cupboard and fridge into pure luxury. And you really don’t need butter or toasted pepper to do that.”

“I’ve been wanting to try Cacio e Pepe – though according to some reviewers I still haven’t. Ha! But I thought this was so delicious. I really enjoyed the process of toasting/frying the pepper in butter. My grinder only does a fine output, so I crushed the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle to match the picture. I used the best cheeses I have access to. Eating this made my soul happy. So good.”

“Alright all you cacio e pepe purists, it’s GOOD and EASY. And quite frankly that’s all that matters. So let people have their cheesy, peppery pasta with a wee bit of butter. We don’t have many joys in life at the moment. But this pasta gave me my one serotonin molecule for the day.”

I don’t know if online recipe comments sections are like this in other cultures, but there’s something distinctly American about the feedback you’ll find on some of this country’s most popular culinary sites. Their comments sections tend to be goldmines of hot takes, personality disorders, and razor wit. Butter, in any online recipe, is Chekhov’s infamous gun: if it appears it will either be used or there will be a vigorous discussion of why it must never, ever be used.

(Also, people tend not to comment if they have actually made the recipe to the letter; they’ll typically issue a rating and then go on to note that they changed out at least six key ingredients for other, totally different ingredients, and make radical suggestions like roasting your chicken over a radiator instead of in the oven, or proving your sourdough by throwing it in the dryer on the delicates setting for 45 minutes.)

Cacio e pepe should be the ideal quarantine food; it’s the loaves and the fishes miracle for us apartment dwellers who lack the means to keep a Mormon root cellar’s worth of pantry items on hand. It should also go without saying that there are bigger issues to be salty about right now than the integrity of one’s cacio e pepe construction. And yet. I find myself torn—there’s really nothing so splendid as a buttery noodle, but in these dark times, is it the gauche epitome of bougie decadence to whip up a pot of C&P with anything other than pecorino and pasta water? Shouldn’t some things be sacred? Or should I ladle on as much fat as I can in the hope of rebuilding the precious myelin sheaths that have been shredded from prolonged pandemic-related stress?

Reading these comments I was also reminded of a very brief scene in The Sopranos in which Ralph Cifaretto (yes, the one who killed the stripper, don’t @ me) is making dinner for Rosie Aprile. Her son, Jackie Jr., who has no business owning anything more dangerous than a super soaker, pops into the kitchen and asks him where he can get a handgun. The point of the scene is that Ralph casually hands a Rutgers dropout an unregistered, loaded weapon, setting the dominoes of tragedy in motion for said dropout to get shot in the back of the head a few episodes later. 

But what I remember most from the scene is that Ralph drops a hunk of BUTTER into the pasta pot of sauce-dosed spaghetti just before serving, stirs it aggressively, claiming that “this is for flavor.” 

The trope of sociopathic goombahs having strong feelings about food goes all the way back to The Godfather, and so is fundamentally nothing original. Coloring noodles with some of the gravy is a thing I am familiar with. The addition of butter to the process confounded the hell out of me. Wouldn’t the butterfat itself coat the spaghetti, and therefore prevent its absorption of the red sauce? I don’t know. I’m a writer. I flunked chemistry. But I feel confident that Clemenza could never, would never. Guy Fieri, maybe.

Ralph Cifaretto was already a deeply upsetting character (see aforementioned stripper homicide) but this was the moment where I knew he was not just your average vicious motherfucker. He put butter in the marinara. He was truly a dark lord. There was no doubt left that he was gonna end up with his head in a bowling ball carrier.

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