Spag Bol – From Bol or not?

In a November 1939 column in the New York Sun, drinks and food columnist G. Selmer Fougner gave a recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese.

You may read it here.

A reader had asked Fougner for the recipe to Macaroni with Bolognese Sauce, served at the Italian Pavilion restaurant at the New York World’s Fair. Macaroni typically is a dried pasta, as spaghetti is.

Fougner answered that the sauce was undoubtedly the same as for Spaghetti Bolognese, the recipe for which he was given two years earlier when in Italy. Fougner then printed the recipe.

Neither milk nor bacon of any kind features in Fougner’s version, yet both are common in today’s recipes for Bolognese sauce. There is also no garlic, or herbs. A prime cut of beef is used, vs. the ground beef commonly seen today.

For years now I’ve been reading that Bolognese sauce, or ragù, is never served with spaghetti or macaroni in Italy, much less Bologna. Rather, a few fresh pastas are, especially tagliatelle. The Mayor of Bologna, in well-publicized remarks last year, sputtered that spaghetti Bolognese wasn’t a genuine dish of the city.

And yet, another native of the city, Pierro Valdissero, as reported four years ago in the Guardian, disagrees. He researched the dish in-depth and declares, to some local discomfiture one supposes, that it is an authentic dish of the area. He states that for hundreds of years some families served spaghetti with the ragù, notwithstanding that dried pasta is more typically a staple of the south.

This arose, he said, since fresh pasta was not affordable by families of average means except for special occasions. He argues that a higher-echelon version of the dish made with fresh pasta emerged in local restaurants that attracted a more monied clientele, and in time the connection with dried pasta was forgotten.

Seemingly, the debate rages on, but here is my point.

Surely the Fougner column supports Valdiserro’s account. After all, why would the Italian Pavilion, sponsored by the Italian government, serve a non-authentic dish in its restaurant, one meant to showcase national culture? It would have been no trouble to make fresh tagliatelle every day surely for the crowds.

Second, what motive could Fougner have had to misstate the nature of the dish? As an experienced gourmet he had to know the difference between fresh pasta and dry.

Would he have cavalierly substituted spaghetti for an approved fresh pasta and not tell his readers? It’s true that spaghetti was on its way by 1939 to being if not already a national American dish, and hence relatively familiar to readers (vs. fresh pasta), but I don’t think he would elide the fresh pasta without mention.

Fougner was a well-known and successful journalist and author by this time, and tended to stress authenticity when discussing food and drinks. To my mind Valdiserro’s conclusions gain credence when viewed in the light of Fougner’s recipe.

It’s really an old story, that culinary or drinks memories can be surprisingly short, or incomplete. The quotidian can, in a few short years or under new conditions, seem never to have been.

It would be preferable to find the menu of the Italian Pavilion to see exactly how the dish was described. A few menus of the national restaurants are available digitally (I discussed beer on the British menu earlier), but can’t find the Italian one.

Note re images: the second image above is copyright of Sven Manguard, and is used pursuant to Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0. Image was sourced from Wikipedia’s article on Bolognese sauce, here. The first image was sourced from the Fougner column identified and linked in the text, via Fulton Historical Newspapers.




1 thought on “Spag Bol – From Bol or not?”

  1. Just an update: a search in the Fulton Newspapers and Brooklyn Daily Eagle from the 30’s-early 50’s discloses numerous references to spaghetti Bolognese and occasionally other dishes “alla Bolognese”. Once or twice raviolis appear, presumably the fresh pasta. The only time I found a hint of a Bolognese dish held superior to the typical American version is in a 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle column. A dinner made by an evidently Italian chef, or Italian-origin, featured a spaghetti the columnist thought better than what Americans were typically served as spaghetti Bolognese.

    This may have been a reference to a fresh pasta Bolognese, as clearly the one or two raviolis versions I found were. This however merely shows two versions existed, while I never found (in these sources in this period) a suggestion that the usual spaghetti Bolognese served Americans was their invention or not in some way characteristic of Bologna.

    I should note too that Fougner refers to spaghetti Bolognese numerous times in his 1930s columns, and in one of them, gave a recipe for the Brown Sauce base, that uses salt pork.

    Further, Greenwich Village restaurants were serving spaghetti Bolognese at least from 1933 as numerous ads and other accounts attest in the New York press in that period. Likely this started much earlier, but I did not check.

    An 1896 book by famed Waldorf chef Oscar Tschirky describes Macaroni, Bolognese Style, so the dish goes back at least that far, in America. Here, it is a baked dish.

    Food scholar John Mariani’s book on how Italian food conquered America states that in 1933, the Italian line carried on one of its ships carrying largely non-Italian passengers a ravioli Bolognese – probably the fresh pasta. He does refer as well to the menu of the Italian Line’s restaurant at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but the book is partial view on Google Books and (to date) I cannot confirm if he adds anything of interest viz. Bolognese dishes served there. See here.

    A quick review of other books dealing with Italian food in America provided no ready answers, but I cannot claim comprehensive study, to date again.


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