Imagine in your mind’s eye that you are a bronzed adonis. You’ve been cast in a reality dating show and now idle your days away, being filmed as you flirt, work out, and relax by the pool. The living is easy!
Now you’re sitting on large outdoor furniture and having a chat with another tall, gorgeous single. You feel a spark between the two of you. They smile at you and ask what your ideal date would be. “I like simple things,” you might respond, “going on a nice walk, or dinner and a movie.” And then you go in for the words you know everyone wants to hear: “maybe a good Spag Bol!”
Reader, return to your current slouched, un-adonis form. What you just imagined was Love Island U.K., the compelling British program that turns fit young Brits/Scots/Irish/Welsh/etc. into influencers.
As much as I’m invested in the characters, what keeps me watching is just the chance to simply observe British people. As an American, the show is a peek behind the Atlantic Ocean–sized curtain at how the people of the British Isles speak. Their vernacular, their slang—it’s all a delectable word salad, an uncanny symphony of first dates and arguments. I don’t need to pay for an aural sound bath; I have Love Island.
Far and away the most compelling thing I’ve heard on the show is Spag Bol, the perversely short British derivation of pasta with meat sauce, aka spaghetti bolognese. Such curt vowels, it’s like running into a wall twice. “Spag!” and “Bol!” sound like an Italian superhero’s cartoon punch exclamation bubbles.
“Bolognese” is the demonym for Bologna, the capital city of Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region. This is a very wealthy part of Italy, with luxury car exports and banking, so it’s got a high quality of life. But what makes the area truly wealthy is its food.
As a region, Emilia-Romagna is home to Modena’s Balsamic Vinegar and Parma’s Parmesan cheese. It’s a haven for pig scholarship, with heavyweights like prosciutto and mortadella. Emilia-Romagna cured meats are even specifically delineated by the EU and the UK via a “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO), basically a stamp that says “this champagne is from Champagne, France,” or “this prosciutto is from Parma.”
But as far as understanding what a “traditional” bolognese sauce is, the trail seems to start in the late 18th century with a long-simmering ragu of veal, pancetta, and vegetables in a mixture of white wine and milk. Notably absent from this medley is tomato, which was rarely used and not center stage as it might be in an American or British bolognese. And spaghetti isn’t used either, but rather tagliatelle, which is able to capture the sauce better.
The difference between a traditional Bolognese and a Britalian Spag Bol are so stark that in 2019 the mayor of Bologna publicly disparaged the bastardized dish.
Words are some of the weirdest things we have. The Britsh comedian James Acaster does a bit on Spag Bol, and he follows the logical curiosity of breaking down the two words, which are awful-sounding gibberish. It’s part of a larger joke on British colonial tendencies. But it’s nice to hear some criticism of the term from the in-group, and in many articles on Spag Bol, the term is treated with a level of self-deprecation that is reassuring to see.
There are some archival food accounts that are more comprehensive about British cuisine–like Footy Scran, the Twitter account documenting perplexing soccer stadium meals. Scran, too, is just one of those words that’s a word.
And words mean different things here in America than over in the UK, like last week how Beyonce removed an ableist slur from a song off her new album RENAISSANCE, at the behest of UK disability advocates.
Spag Bol is a great reminder that many of the dishes we know and love are specifically Britalian or Italian-American. The chicken parm, for instance, an inarguable classic, is in fact an American invention.
Spag Bol usually involves minced meat, garlic, and herbs. It seems like it’s a bit of a pantry pasta; whatever you’ve got you could arguably toss in, as long as tomato sauce and meat have the leading roles.
The main reason that Bolognese as a concept became popular was the increased availability of cheap meat. Once red meat turned from a rare treat to a regular and cheap commodity, piling it on top of some inexpensive noodles became a widespread practice.
Perusing the #spagbol Instagram hashtag gives me the impression of Skyline Chili (shoutout to Skyline Chili). A heap of noodles and a big brown blob of meat and sauce, dry shredded cheese adorning the top.
None of this is bad, to be clear. Who among us hasn’t thrown together a quick meat sauce, tossed some cheese on top, and called it dinner? But you’re also not gonna stand there and tell me that “spag bol” is not one of the worst set of sounds a human could possibly utter. It’s just unkind, trading the soft, flowing syllables of “spaghetti” for the garish bleat of spag.
Like others before him, the Italian chef Antonio Carluccio also made headlines when he said that the British derivation of bolognese was “pandering.” He is right, to an extent. The British are infamous when it comes to reductive colonialist tendencies. But ultimately, we must accept all foods change as they move around the world; it’s what provides variety and inspires new ideas. Of course, some will be better than others, in both taste and presentation. And regardless of either, it gives us the chance to hear a perfectly sculpted reality star say, without irony or self-consciousness, the stupidest thing possible. An endearingly awful name for an undeniably satisfying dish. Cheers, mate.