Britain’s Queen of food television, Nigella Lawson, has incurred the wrath of Italy’s newspaper of record, Corriere Della Sera, over her renaming of the traditional ‘pasta alla puttanesca’ to ‘Slattern’s Spaghetti’.
It’s not difficult provoke Italians when it comes to messing with their traditional cuisine. So it can be assumed that Lawson knew the risks associated with changing the traditional name for a regional pasta dish because it sounded ‘unpleasant’, and that it would open a Pandora’s box of irate comments from Italians on social media. However, Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s biggest selling newspaper, is also willing to ‘stir the pot’ of the name change.
Spaghetti puttanesca is a pasta dish from Campania prepared with olive oil, black olives, capers, tomatoes and garlic, and sometimes anchovies. The name ‘puttanesca’ is derived from ‘puttana’ the Italian for ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’, so the dish could be translated as meaning ‘whore’s pasta’.
On Lawson’s website, the dish appears with a new name – ‘Slattern’s Spaghetti’, meaning ‘slob’s spaghetti’.
“My version of pasta alla puttanesca has had a slight name change,” she writes. “And yes, I realise that it’s not really necessary to translate the title, as this store cupboard standby of pasta with anchovies, olives, capers, garlic, chilli flakes and tinned tomatoes is widely enough known, but humour me: Slattern’s Spaghetti it now is!”
It seems Lawson has taken umbrage with the derogatory term ‘whore’ (although ‘sex worker’s pasta’ doesn’t have the same ring to it), and by doing so drew the ire of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, which decried the name change as “political correctness”.
According to Lawson, there is some logic to the name change. The etymology of the name is unclear. Legend has it that the brothels of Naples would prepare this easy dish to entice customers through the door with its sumptuous aroma. But some historians think that the ‘clients’ were hardly visiting for the food, and would be visiting anyway. Rather they suggest that it might have been a dish that could quickly and easily be prepared between clients.
Another take on ‘puttanesca’ comes from historian Jeremy Parzen, who suggests a less specific use of the word in respect to the dish. "Italians use ‘puttana’ (and related words) almost the way we use ‘shit’, as an all-purpose profanity, so pasta alla puttanesca might have originated with someone saying, essentially, ‘I just threw a bunch of shit from the cupboard into a pan”.
This would tie into another theory that the name originated on the island of Ischia around 1950, and was created by Sandro Petti, owner of the restaurant Rangio Felon. The story tells of how some customers arrived just before closing and as the restaurant had run out of fresh ingredients, Petti decided to cobble together a dish with whatever was at hand - ‘una puttanata qualsiasi’, meaning ‘any old crap’.
Lawson explains her new name with a reference to a Twitter exchange: “I recently had a Twitter conversation with one Jim Hewitt (@jimbarleycorn) about the new name for this, and I gratefully end with this fabulous message of his: ‘On those days when my mum couldn't be bothered to brush her hair and cooked dinner using whatever was in the cupboard she would say: "Hush. I'm slatterning!" This is perfect for a slatterning day.’
The television star responded to Corriere’s tweet of their article with “Non è vero”. Corriere's tweet has since, intriguingly, been deleted, while the article remains online. Lawson has been a gracious and positive presence on Twitter throughout the pandemic, responding personally to her fans who post about making her recipes. Many other Italian news outlets have jumped on the bandwagon and are repeating Corriere’s message.
Whether Corriere Della Sera is justified in its criticism of Lawson, of course, is debatable. The change may or may not be down to ‘wokeism’, but the recipe has appeared even in Italian cookbooks under different names. In his 1844 cookbook Cucina Teorico-pratica, Ippolito Cavalcanti refers to it as 'Vermicelli all'oglio con olive capperi ed alici salse', while in the 1931, Touring Club Italiano's Guida Gastronomica d'Italia calls it 'Maccheroni alla marinara'.