Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Nobel prizewinner and the pasta

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1930, I believe. You see him at left looking more sophisticated and attractive than he really was.

Just very recently I posted on the terrible error of thinking that Alfredo sauce is Italian, an error that truly puzzles the few Italians who have ever heard of it.

Imagine my surprise last night as I was reading ole Sinclair's best-known work, Babbitt (1922) (a thorough trashing of Middle America set in a fictional Midwestern city) when I came upon this:

"He concentrated on Lucille McKelvey...
“I suppose you’ll be going to Europe pretty soon again, won’t you?” he invited.
“I’d like awfully to run over to Rome for a few weeks.”
“I suppose you see a lot of pictures and music and curios and everything there.”
“No, what I really go for is: there’s a little trattoria on the Via della Scrofa where you get the best fettuccine in the world.”
“Oh, I— Yes. That must be nice to try that. Yes.”

Now this must be the origin of the American idea of fettuccine Alfredo. When you consider how famous Lewis was in the first half of the century, you can see that this reference to Alfredo in Via della Scrofa must be what started the idea that this was indeed an Italian dish. Or contributed to it, along with the celebrities who frequented the place. Most of them non-Italians.

Incidentally, the socially insecure Babbitt later apes the vapid Lucille McKelvey, who would rather eat pseudo-Italian food than see Raphael's School of Athens, by telling a woman at another dinner party that he goes to Chicago not for the cultural attractions but for a little restaurant with the best steak in the world.

Sinclair Lewis was not a good writer in the strictly literary sense, but a first-rate social analyst. Many of his observations on America still ring true, unfortunately. He was however basically wrong in upholding what he saw as the vast superiority of Europe over America. During his lifetime the Europeans started two world wars (in which we had to fight) and saw a massive influx of their desperate people to our shores- that alone should have told him that something was amiss in the Old World. He died in Rome in 1951 of a heart attack (perhaps not unrelated to Alfredo's pasta) and alcoholic excess.