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What If Someone Made An Onion Pasta Recipe and It Didn't Go Viral?
Well, it would be the perfect recipe to pair with good-value light red wines, which have also still not gone viral despite my best efforts.
You might be surprised to learn that, in my other life, I spend a lot of time following viral recipes on social media and making them in my kitchen. Whether it is lasagna soup, vodka butter, cowboy butter, crispy sushi rice waffles, miso pasta, cheese-wrapped pickles, or kimchi grilled cheese—if it’s a mashup or hack that has several millions views on TikTok, I’ve likely made it and written about it. Many of these recipes are surprisingly good. Some are not. But regardless, I’m often left wondering: Why? Why is this recipe so popular? Why does something like, say, Dr. Pepper cupcakes go viral?
I mean, I’m not stupid. I know the immediate answer to this. Often it’s because the person cooking or baking in the TikTok video is cute and/or charming in a way most of us will never be. I am aware that caviar and sour cream on a Dorito or the tunacado sandwich becomes a popular snack when a young woman, who is attractive in that social media sort of way—and has a half-million followers—eats them in front of the camera. Other times, however, it’s less clear.
I was thinking about this last month when I wrote about the one-pot French onion pasta recipe that seemingly everyone had been raving about. There always seems to be a popular one-pot pasta dish making the rounds, and this happened to be winter 2023’s one-pot pasta.
What Is One-Pot French Onion Pasta? It’s a pasta dish that’s made similarly to classic French onion soup, which starts with deeply caramelized onions and includes ingredients like mushrooms, thyme and white wine. While typically, you would cook the pasta separately from everything else, in recent years it’s become somewhat trendy to cook pasta in the same pot as your other ingredients
It’s unclear who was the first to make French onion pasta. Some credit TikTok creator Carolyn Wong, who goes by @carolbeecooks on TikTok. Some say it was Joy the Baker. I first saw it in 2021 on the blog Wandering Chickpea. The Washington Post chimed in on its origin a couple of weeks after my piece ran. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. French Onion Pasta is now everyone’s recipe.
Looked at from another angle, the One-Pot French Onion Pasta is just the latest allium pasta to get wildly popular. A few years ago, it was a certain carmelized shallot pasta recipe in the spotlight. That one, by Alison Roman, was even available on a sweatshirt. And long before The Shallot Pasta, there was Marcella Hazan’s essential four-ingredient tomato sauce—the ur-viral recipe, one of the most famous pasta sauces ever—in which the onion is key.
Still, none of these are my favorite onion pasta recipe. For me, the best and simplest, onion pasta comes from Vincenzo Buonassisi’s The Pasta Codex, his 1974 masterwork that was translated into English in 2020.
If you don’t know The Pasta Codex, you should get to know it. “Is it a vicious lie that pasta makes you fat?” Buonassisi asks in his introduction. He delves into who invented pasta (likely “primitive man”), explicates the Roman poet Horace’s beloved “tagliatelle” with leeks and chickpeas, dismisses the myth of Marco Polo bringing spaghetti from China, muses on the taste for sweet pastas during the Renaissance, and notes a document from 1041 in which the word “maccherone” is used to insult someone as “a bit of a dope.” We learn that the first forks were brought to Italy—to make pasta eating easier—from Byzantium in the late 11th century, that a 1792 American cookbook erroneously suggested pasta be cooked in water for three hours, and that Lord Byron “connected pasta with erotic themes” offering, in his Don Juan, an aphrodisiac of vermicelli, oysters, and eggs. As to whether pasta is unhealthy, Buonassisi dismisses the notion, insisting instead that pasta is “a way to rebel at the table against a lifestyle that oppresses humanity at every turn,” that a dish of spaghetti “can provide a pure and simple boost of optimism,” and that “pasta remains a good friend to all.”
And this is all just in the first dozen pages. What follows then are 1,001 recipes, beginning with a simple Spaghetti Aglio e Olio and ending with Maccheroncini Col Ragu di Cammello (“Camel is featured on the table frequently in Africa, but you must seek out a young camel—no more than three years old”). There are historic recipes, such as the 18th century Neopolitan dish thought to be the first pasta recipe that calls for tomatoes, a pasta with honey dating to the Middle Ages called sucamele (“honey-suckers”), and an ancient Florentine chickpea pasta dish, Strisce Con I Ceci. There are curious regional variations, such as buckwheat noodles from Valtellina in the Alps, gnocchi from Trieste stuffed with plums or apricots, and knödel from German-speaking Alto Adige. There are even appearances by non-Italian “pastas” such as spätzle, pierogi, kreplach, and Tagliatelle Cinesi (“Chinese noodles”).
All of which is to say that The Pasta Codex might be one of the most delightful cookbooks I’ve ever come across. It was a labor of love for Buonassisi and the capstone of a career that includes many years as a food and wine correspondent for Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, as well as the host of numerous cooking shows on Italian television. He died in 2004, long before seeing his work translated into English.
There are plenty of my personal favorites in here, including some pastas on which I’ve already waxed lyrical. Buonassisi offers a number of recipes for Genoese pesto, an interesting take on Marubini Cremonese, Tortelli di Zucca, and the strange, sweet Tortelli Cremaschi.
The book is peppered with simple recipes with basic names but very complex and offbeat back stories. About the recipe for Bucatini With Onion, Buonassisi writes, “Obviously this is a sauce for onion lovers only.” He says the recipe comes from a famous 20th-century composer, Giovanni D’Anzi, “who gave Milan the great gift of a song about the Madonnina on top of the city’s Duomo (‘Oh mia bela Madunina’).”
Bucatini With Onion could not be simpler. There isn’t really much of a recipe. Here’s how you make it: Thinly slice six yellow onions. In a saucepan or pot, cover them in olive oil, and cook gently over low heat, being sure to keep an eye on them and stirring often. Be patient. After about 35-45 minutes (or more), when the onions are very soft but still hold their shape, you cook the bucatini, drain, and then toss the pasta with butter, a “generous amount” of Parmigiano, and then add onions. Serve with a “generous amount” of ground black pepper. “This dish takes rustic and simple ingredients and elevates them into a dish fit for royalty,” writes Buonassisi. “It is truly fantastic.” I completely agree.
When I made this dish last week, I paired it with two good-value light reds that I picked up from my local wine shop. Ever since my recent rants against poor-quality American “starter wines” I’ve been giving myself a little challenge. I’ve been trying to find reds that fall below the price of the ubiquitous, middling Meomi Pinot Noir—the very definition of what the industry would call a “starter wine.” In my local store, Meiomi Pinot Noir is $15.98 per bottle.
For the same price as Meiomi, I bought a pinot noir made in the Loire appellation Reuilly, Domaine Valéry ‘Le P’tit Renaudat’ 2020. And for $2 less, I bought a blend of mencía and other Iberian grapes from Bierzo, Spain: Domaine de Tares ‘El Paisano de Tares’ 2021.
Both of these wines wildly over-performed for the price. Le P’tit Renaudat was the kind of good-value pinot noir that’s become hard to find in the U.S., with bright, fresh berry, and also something more earthy and more complex.
Meanwhile, the El Paisano de Tares was almost rosé-like, lively and fruity, but with an attractive backbone of pepper and a hint of tobacco. This low-intervention wine from Bierzo might not fit everyone’s definition of a “natural wine” but it was organically grown, hand harvested, foot trodden, and spontaneously fermented with native yeast—unlike most industrial American “starter wines.”
Both went delightfully with Giovanni D’Anzi’s simple onion pasta dish. I am aware that neither the recipe nor the wines will likely ever go viral. And that’s totally fine. I’ll take value over viral on most days.