If You Eat It, It Becomes Authentic: A Conversation About Red Sauce with Ian MacAllen
Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, Ian MacAllen’s first book, takes on a food that is ubiquitous today, but wasn’t always loved in America. Ian, Italian from his mother’s side, took his love of the food and culture and dove in deep. The book is meticulously researched, spanning over one hundred years of American history and dipping far into the past of certain dishes and ingredients. Ian is a font of red sauce knowledge and brings to this book both rigorous research and the sensibility of an appreciator of a good spaghetti and meatballs.
I met MacAllen in The Resort, a writer’s community co-founded by Catherine LaSota. Since mid-2020, he and I have been part of a weekly accountability group that meets to share writing-life updates, and through that, I got to peek into his process of finishing Red Sauce. The book fascinated me because red sauce is my comfort food. My relatives immigrated to New York from Ireland during the potato famine. My great-grandfather died early, leaving my great-grandmother to re-marry a first-generation Italian immigrant, and his recipes have trickled down the family. I jumped at the chance to read the book and ask MacAllen a million questions about his inspiration, research and revision process, and opinions on what Italian-American food means in 2022.
MacAllen has been on staff at The Rumpus since 2013, he is a regular reviewer at Chicago Review of Books, and his recent writing has appeared in Whetstone Journal, America Domani, The Provincetown Independent, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and when asked if any ingredient is too irreverent, he says no, and cites his favorite “weirdo slice” as a penne alla vodka pizza.
As an avid enjoyer of dishes smothered in marinara and cheese, I was delighted to talk with MacAllen over the phone about what connects and distinguishes Italian-American food from Italian food, the evolution of red sauce cuisine in America, and how to cook pasta perfectly.
The Rumpus: What brought you to writing Red Sauce? Was there an aha moment that pushed you to write this book?
Ian MacAllen: I’m half Italian, and my wife is too, and so essentially what happened is one night we were out to dinner at this restaurant Trattoria Spaghetto, in the West Village in Manhattan, which is a place she and her family went from the time she was old enough to eat pasta. It was this classic red sauce place with the red checkered tablecloths and a fake fresco of Venice or the Aventine Hills in the hall. We were sitting around drinking wine by the house carafe, which is usually larger than a bottle, so between two people, you’re getting a little buzzy. We were having a good time and talking about how different the food is between what we ate in Italy and the food we grew up eating at these ostensibly Italian restaurants. Once I got home, a little bit drunk still from the red wine, I started Googling but didn’t find concrete answers. Some articles say a certain dish is from a certain town, but how did it get here? None of that.
Rumpus: Can you tell us more about how you approached writing about such a layered topic where there are many different origin stories for dishes?
MacAllen: There’s a moment when you think you found how a particular sauce came about. Then you find something else that indicates that it was a good narrative, and there’s possibly truth to it, but this other narrative is also possibly true. It comes down to weighing your sources, seeing if any of them have been proven false. Carbonara has five or six mythologies, a lot involving US service members. One says Italians cooked carbonara for the soldiers, and another says Italians invented it with what was in the K rations that the US servicemen had. Also, about a hundred years before the war, there was a secret society in Italy called the Carbonari, another possible origin of carbonara. There is this moment where you must first cut yourself off from doing more research because that rabbit trail goes on forever in some cases, right? You have to ask yourself, “Do I have enough?” And if you feel you’ve explored enough, you have to assess what stories are valuable and which are most likely true.
Rumpus: What are some of the overarching principles of red sauce cuisine?
MacAllen: I think the fundamental element of Italian cooking is adaptability. If I go to the market on a Tuesday and want to cook with carrots, but they don’t have carrots, I can adapt by picking up a different root vegetable. I think that served Italian immigrants well when they came to the United States. Also, they have traditions of cooking with tomatoes. Tomatoes were a big part of Southern Italian cuisine when immigrants came to America. In America, they have better access to canned tomato products than fresh ones because the growing season of tomatoes in New York, Baltimore, Boston, or Chicago, is much shorter than in Sicily. But they’re able to adapt. They learned to use canned tomatoes or paste. They also adapted the dishes made in Italy with what they had available in the United States, and because they could buy better, more expensive products, the dishes changed. Take eggplant parm, for instance. There is a traditional eggplant parm dish, and when the immigrants came to the United States, they could suddenly buy meat that they couldn’t buy before. So maybe they throw that meat into the eggplant parm and then perhaps add extra cheese to it because they could buy a lot more of it.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the writing process. Was there much difference between the manuscript as you sold it, and the final product?
MacAllen: Early in writing, the structure was that each chapter would focus on a recipe or food. I maintained some of that, but it has been reworked to be much more chronological, so that the narrative moves linearly from the early 1900s through modern times or the post-war period. And I think that contributes to the overall concept of looking at red sauce as this unique 20th century American phenomenon, and its rise and fall. A lot of what I talk about is how one reason red sauce joints are closing down is this really strong emphasis on northern Italian style being the “authentic” style and how we in the US perceive that. It makes a lot of sense to go chronologically to tell that story.
Rumpus: What were your inspirations heading into this project? Were there other books you wanted to be in conversation with?
MacAllen: I read two of Mark Kurlansky’s books, Salt and Cod, where he dives deep into one specific thing, using it to talk about history and other cultural phenomena. And I read a lot of similar books written by people who came after and wrote about different topics. I read a couple books about bananas because they’re fascinating. I don’t know if you know this, but we’re about to not have any bananas because of the banana blight. Not to get you concerned, but eat your bananas now if you like them.
Rumpus: And they already taste way different than they used to, right?
MacAllen: Exactly. And so, I already had read twenty or thirty books over the last decade about food or related topics, like grocery stores. I’ve read a couple books on grocery stores, which I think are fascinating. And so, I knew I wanted my book to be similar, but after reading so many food books, I knew there were challenges, especially how to get a narrative arc into such a researched book. Early drafts of Red Sauce suffered from not having a cohesive narrative arc, even though I’d read books with that problem, and I was trying not to do that—I still did. An interesting element of being edited is they sometimes need to say to you that you did the thing you didn’t want to do. So, overall, Red Sauce was modeled on those big food books I’ve read.
Rumpus: I know you write fiction, too, and I was wondering if you worked on other writing projects throughout writing Red Sauce?
MacAllen: When I was having the conversation with my wife that launched Red Sauce, I was actually bouncing around an idea for a novel loosely based on my family’s story of leaving Italy and coming to the States. In writing that, I realized you have to show people doing domestic things, right? So, if you’re at home, what are you eating in 1925? What are you eating in Italy and what are you eating when you come here? What is life like when you get here? And, you know, I didn’t get particularly far. I was doing parallel narratives, and I realized I would need to do some food research, which probably prompted me to have that conversation with my wife, that launched Red Sauce.
Rumpus: Did you encounter any myths or misconceptions about red sauce cuisine throughout your research?
MacAllen: It’s not necessarily so much of a myth, but there are some food writers who I respect and who are excellent researchers who present a more coherent Italian narrative. They lump all Italian food together as Italian food, and Italian-American food is a subset of that. I think it’s not invalid, either. I mean, it is one way of looking at it, right? Essentially all descended from the same core ideas, and the foods, while different, have similar attributes. For me, I was really saying red sauce is its own special cuisine. And that’s a different way of looking at it. The tough one is when people you respect, and whose research is very good, contradict each other. A couple of times, speaking about the same dish, people would say, “This is definitely Italian.” And other people would say, “This is definitely American.” And then you’re like, “Okay, well, both of these are respected sources, and they’re contradicting each other.” The only way to really approach that is to mention what both people are talking about and then come up with why I think it is one or the other and come squarely down on it.
Rumpus: What are some underappreciated red sauce dishes that are accessible for home cooks? Or dishes you’d like to see more people make?
MacAllen: Well, what’s really fascinating is that Fettuccine Alfredo, which is not red, I know, enters mainstream Italian-American cuisine in the prewar period. And then you go to any red sauce restaurant, and you can get that, right? You can find recipes for a modern (like Olive Garden) version of Fettuccine Alfredo, on the internet. Occasionally, Olive Garden sends their chef out onto TV to promote it, and they’ll do a recipe that’s an Alfredo sauce.
The original Alfredo sauce is just butter and Parmesan cheese. High-quality cheese, high-quality butter, and it’s super simple with a very nominal amount of practice. The key is to finely grate your own parmesan cheese with a Microplane rather than buying it. The problem with the pre-ground Parmesan you get in a little tub from the grocery store is there’s usually a substance in there to keep it from clumping, and that substance will prevent the cheese from melting into the butter. Instead of getting this really silky smooth sauce with a creamy quality, even though there’s no cream in it, you’ll get like a lumpy, clumpy Alfredo. What essentially happens in the United States is we’ve adulterated that recipe of butter and cheese and turned it into having cream, having different kinds of cheese, and a lot of variations. Some recipes add Swiss cheese because the melting quality of Swiss tends to be very smooth and silky. It gets complicated. So, when someone looks at the version of the recipe I’ve seen for Olive Garden Alfredo sauce, there are like twelve different ingredients, and everyone’s concerned about the right ratio. When the simplest thing to do is to use a little bit more butter and a little bit more cheese than you think there should be. And you mix it together while it’s still hot in the water from the pasta, and you have a creamy Alfredo sauce.
Rumpus: So, we—meaning Americans—complicated it?
MacAllen: Right. And the other thing I was thinking is, a lot of times with a simple red tomato sauce, one of the things that goes wrong for people is they don’t realize how important time is as an ingredient. One of the magical elements of Marcella Hazan’s basic butter and onion tomato sauce, which came about in the seventies, is that you can skip the time, but you get a thinner sauce. If you have two or three hours, let the sauce simmer. Your tomatoes will concentrate, the sugars will become full-bodied, and the sauce will thicken. And that thickness will have a texture to it, a true old-school red sauce kind of texture. All from time on the stove.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, I noticed a lot about longing and comfort, and how Italian immigrants were recreating food they missed. Were you thinking about the immigrant’s struggle and how that connects to red sauce cuisine?
MacAllen: Red sauce is definitely the ultimate comfort food. And I think red sauce is going to be one of those foods where people will feel both nostalgic for it and eat it, seeking comfort in this very upsetting time that we live in. It’s a food that’s designed to be that way, right? It’s connected to our relationships with people that we’re eating with. Food is a manifestation of love. You make food for your family, and that’s how you express that love. By consuming it, even if you’re alone, you have those memories connected to it. I think that was also important to the immigrant groups when they came to America. Often, they were being reunited with family or were newly separated from their family by immigrating, so if they could buy a fancy cut of meat because they came to America, they would. It’s been comfort food from the beginning. And you know, it’s also a great way to eat your calories. Who doesn’t love good stringy cheese when you’re feeling down?
Rumpus: How are you keeping the red sauce heritage alive for your son and the next generation?
MacAllen: We definitely were trying to feed him pasta before he really wanted to eat it. One of the first things we gave him that was not milk was tomato sauce. And he actually, because it was a little sweet, was okay with it. But you know, toddlers are fickle, so you give him red sauce a couple times, and the next couple of times after that, he doesn’t like it. But the other day, he ate an entire slice of pizza, according to my mother-in-law, so that’s good. Additionally, we eat pasta and red sauce several times a week or variations of that. We almost made Penne alla Vodka tonight, but at the last minute, we swapped it out for something else. It’s clearly part of our traditions. One of the things that came up at Thanksgiving this past year that briefly trended was the #ThanksgivingLasagna. And it was all Italian-Americans talking about how the dish they made at Thanksgiving was lasagna. So even though you have turkey, mashed potatoes, and all those other carbohydrates, there’s a lasagna. Cause you’re supposed to have one, right?
Rumpus: Lasagna’s never bad to have on the table. Do you have any advice for people who don’t cook red sauce at home?
MacAllen: Good ingredients are always important. That can be a nice, high-quality pasta. I do think it’s common for people to overcook their pasta and then wonder why it’s soggy. At the beginning of the book, I mentioned the story my mother always tells of the first time my father took her over to meet his mother. My mom’s future mother-in-law made spaghetti, and she threw it against the back of the stove and said, “If it sticks, it’s done, right?” And then my mother says, “Oh no, no, we taste it.” And so, I think what’s really important is that people need to taste the food. Taste the pasta. Taste the tomato sauce while you’re cooking it.
Rumpus: We’re touched on this a little bit, but what do you see as the future of red sauce in America?
MacAllen: I think it’s really a matter of if people continue eating the food, it will continue to evolve. You can’t expect things to stay the same forever. Every once in a while, it’s great to go back to some traditional recipe you remember from your childhood or that grandma used to make, but small incremental steps going forward are essential too. It’s like language. Latin is a dead language because no one speaks it, and it doesn’t change, but English changes all the time. We invent new words. New terms like “vibe shift” appear. Who used “vibe shift” a year ago? No one. Language changes, and I think food is the same way. If it’s not changing to be of the moment, then it won’t be valid or authentic. But I think if you eat it, it becomes authentic.
Author photo by Annmarie Pisano