Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Comic Book Carbonara: A Graphic Novel Pasta from Cleo Coyle

When I first met my husband, he whipped up a fantastic spaghetti carbonara that has since become part of our menu. Because he’s part Italian, and because both his mother and father taught him how to cook, I assumed his recipe came from one of them. Not so. Marc informed me that he found the recipe in a 1980's comic book.

Cleo Coyle has a partner in
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The comic was Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, launched in 1983. Fans of this series include Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, who hailed Flagg as a precursor to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.

Flagg is not for everyone. It presents a hard-boiled look at life in 2031—after nuclear war and an economic collapse leave things a tad chaotic in the USA. How bad do things get in Chaykin's 2031? One example: The broken down piano player who inhabits the local lounge is Princess Diana's oldest son.

As for today's recipe, spaghetti carbonara happens to be the favorite dish of Rubin Flagg, the comic book's hero. The recipe was published in the same issue that Rubin cooked it up. (Recipes included in fiction! Is that a good idea or what?) 

Carbonara also appears in
On What Grounds:
A Coffeehouse Mystery
Click here to learn more.
Marc made the recipe one day, and it is now part of our personal culinary history. Carbonara is also part of our publishing history because it plays a diverting role in our first Coffeehouse Mystery, On What Grounds. When two alpha male characters argue about the proper way to prepare the dish, our amateur sleuth (Clare Cosi) breaks up the deadlock before cleavers are thrown.

As far as this dish's actual history, pasta carbonara may not have originated in Italy. Some say Italian immigrants developed it in America during the Depression, which is easy for me to believe since my father, who grew up during that era, remembers the "old timers" throwing lard into the skillet to start everything from sautéed vegetables to pasta sauce. 

Some believe the dish was created during World War II, when ingredients common to American GI's—bacon, powdered eggs, and powdered milk—were handed out to hungry Italian citizens during the American occupation. (For more on the history of this dish, click here.)

Today Italians make this dish, which they call pasta alla carbonara, with raw eggs instead of cream (which is more commonly used in versions found in the US, France, Spain, and the UK). Italians also use pancetta or guanciale (types of Italian bacon). To each his own, as they say. And, when it comes to this recipe, our own is below...


Cleo Coyle's
Comic Book Carbonara

Adapted from the comic book series American Flagg!

To download a free PDF of this recipe that you can print, save, or share, click here.

With bacon and cream, you'd think this dish would be heavy, but it's very light and so delicious that a single bowl truly satisfies. Paired with a spinach or tomato salad, it's a complete meal for us. In the summer, we'll eat it as a late lunch or early dinner and simply finish the day with a fruit salad and frozen yogurt.

One last note: The pasta you see in my pictures is Garden Delight spaghetti from Ronzoni. It's enriched with tomato, carrot, and spinach, which provides a full serving of vegetables per 4 ounce portion. The flavor and texture were very nice and the colors let our eyes eat first. 


12 - 16 ounces spaghetti (usually 1 package)
(about) 8 ounces bacon (we use 5 thick-cut bacon slices)
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons heavy cream (+ a tiny bit extra, just in case)
¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) cheese
(optional) Ground pepper to taste


Step 1 – Make spaghetti according to package directions.

Step 2 – While your pasta water is coming to a boil, begin to make the cream sauce. Into a large skillet, slice up the bacon. I simply snip the bacon slices into ¼- to ½-inch pieces using kitchen shears. Turn the heat up to medium and begin to sweat the bacon pieces. After a few minutes, as the fat begins to render (but long before the bacon browns or crisps), toss in the garlic.

Sweat the bacon and
toss in whole garlic cloves...

Step 3 – When the bacon is browned and cooked through (but not crisp or dry), remove the garlic cloves and drain the bacon grease out of the pan. Set aside and finish cooking your spaghetti. When the spaghetti is completely drained, set aside and finish the sauce.

Step 4 – To the pan with the cooked bacon, add a tablespoon of butter. As soon as the butter melts, stir in the cream. Simmer the mixture until it thickens. If the sauce breaks, simply add a bit more cream and stir again.

Remove the garlic, drain the bacon fat,
toss in a pat of butter and the cream...

Step 5 – Add the cooked and drained spaghetti to the large skillet. Pour the grated cheese over the pasta and toss...

Place a pepper grinder and a small bowl of grated cheese
on the dinner table for guests to finish their plates to their taste.
Then plate that pasta up and...

Eat with joy! 

~ Cleo Coyle

New York Times bestselling author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries

Yes, this is me, Cleo (aka Alice). 
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  1. I love American Flagg! I just interviewed Howard Chaykin for the next Crimespree.

    And now I know what I'll be cooking later this week!

  2. What a fun recipe to learn about. I agree, the Garden Delight pasta has wonderful color and love the taste. My husband even likes it and he is not real big of flavored pasta. The boys will like this as well, you can't go wrong with bacon. Thank you for sharing Cleo.


  3. How fun, Cleo! Leave it to you to share such an engaging story! The pasta looks *wonderful*!! My mouth is already watering!

  4. I love your personal history with this and it's origins! What a nice update to a favorite dish. I hope I can find that kind of pasta, makes it look extra delish!

  5. What a great post! I have often turned to mystery novels for great recipes, but would never have dreamed that comic books have them as well. Thanks for the tip on Garden Delight pasta, I'll try it and this recipe.

  6. Oh, this pasta is right up my alley! Bacon! Heavy cream! Mmm! I'll check out Garden Delight pasta, too...thanks so much for the tip!

  7. Fascinating, and it proves you never know where you'll find a great recipe. I love the tip of tossing the garlic cloves in with the bacon. Can't wait to try!

    ~ Krista

  8. I'm adding this recipe to my collection.

  9. Were you aware that Chef Connor and his lovely sister Emily are both seriously into anime/manga/cyberpunk and steampunk??!!! We recently introduced him to Michael Chabon, in fact!! I shared this recipe and he has it on his list to make soon! I just bought some of that pasta yesterday...it cooks up beautifully...can't wait to try it!

  10. You know me ... I'm trying to figure out if I could make a version of this using bacon salt instead of actual bacon. Because, you know ... BACON!


  11. Thank you! I just got a craving so intense for this, that I almost called my ex-husband to see if he still had the recipe. We originally made this when the original comic book issue came out in the 80s.