Presented on February 1, 2020 by Vanessa Freytag
There is a scene in Nora Ephron’s award winning Sleepless in Seattle in which Sam (Tom Hank’s character) has sought guidance from his friend Jay (Rob Reiner’s character) about getting back into dating after the death of Sam’s wife. Jay is trying to prepare Sam for the fact that dating in 1993 is different from the last time Sam was on the market – 1978. They discuss that women now split the check and that men need to have a cute butt. Then the instructional training takes a turn:
There’s a pause and then Jay suddenly blurts out a single word – “Tiramisu”
“What is tiramisu?” asks Sam
“You’ll find out.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!”
“You’ll love it.”
That short scene caused the studio to receive dozens of calls every day from movie goers who also wanted to know what is Tiramisu? A 2015 article on the website “The Take” gives more context to the sweet phenomenon:
…“It started the Monday right after the film opened,” said Susan Levin, TriStar’s executive director of publicity. “When we tell them it’s just food, a lot of the callers don’t believe us. Others sound a little disappointed, and some just go, `No way.’”
…It was a brand new thing, and Sleepless in Seattle helped pique everyone’s interest in trying it. TriStar capitalized on the wave of inquiry about tiramisu by turning it into a marketing campaign, publishing Nora Ephron’s own tiramisu recipe and taking the dessert’s publicity to Good Morning America.
Ephron continued on the DVD commentary, saying, “My dream was that line would play for the people who knew what it was and in a different way for the people who didn’t know what it was.” It seems that worked. Now, with tiramisu a staple on the dessert menu of practically every Italian restaurant in the world, the joke remains funny not because people don’t know what tiramisu is, but because, as Ephron said, it’s hard to comprehend someone being unaware of its existence.
My introduction to Tiramisu happened a little differently. My father retired in the early 1990s from a lifelong role as a salesman working for a supplier to the car industry. Although I grew up in Michigan because, well, that’s where the American Car industry was – both of my parents were native Bostonians. His goal in retirement was to open an espresso café on Hanover Street – the main road in downtown Boston that goes through the North End, historically the Italian immigrant section of the city.
My mother’s family was a genetic mix of German, English and Irish. Her mother passed away when my mom was in college and she was mostly estranged from her father and siblings.
My father’s family history, however, was ever present in our lives because we spent most summers in Boston with my Uncle and Aunt or at my grandparents’. Both of my dad’s parents were born in Sicily and came over separately in the early 1900s. My grandfather was a typical immigrant of that time – he worked on the wharfs and eventually got a job collecting the weekly life insurance premium payments in the North End. It was ten cents weekly per policy; and he got the job because he spoke Italian and the insurance agent didn’t.
Grampy was personable and eventually became an insurance salesman himself. Ultimately, he opened the Nobile Insurance Agency on Hanover Street. As he saved money, he began to purchase buildings in that area – again a very typical story of immigrant entrepreneurship and success.
This is where my life intersected with Tiramisu. I was visiting my dad in the early 90’s and we were making a supply run to Café Roma. The very popular café was on the first floor of one of the buildings he and his three brothers inherited after my grandfather passed. He told me to open the trunk and grab the bottles. They were gallon milk jugs filled with what looked like filthy water from Boston Harbor. When I asked him what he was doing carrying dirty water into the café he said “That’s the Tiramisu juice”. What??
He pulled me inside to the kitchen and closed the door so it was just the two of us.
That’s the dipping liquid that makes our Tiramisu the best on Hanover Street, he whispered
What’s in it?
Someday I’ll tell you honey, but it’s a recipe that’s been handed down for generations in our family. It’s a secret. Mike’s Pastries (my father’s sworn enemy pastry competitors down the street) would love to get their hands on this. It’s liquid gold.
Then he took me to the pastry case and scooped out a piece of Tiramisu. I took one bite and it was true love. Layers of flavor, mildly sweet with a little tang, a smokey coffee aura and a creaminess that made me swoon.
My dad then proceeded to tell me the “history” of Tiramisu. This was also half-whispered to me because, as my brother Larry says, my parents were the last living evidence of the Victorian age. In his entire 90 years, my father never swore in front of me and when it came to sex he swore that all of us kids were additional immaculate conceptions.
But there’s something about Tiramisu that makes people go a little off kilter. To my shock my dad told me that “Italian ladies of ill-repute” served it in the restaurants that, apparently, accompanied the bedrooms that were on the upper floors. For decades I believed not only the story of its invention but also that my father’s version was a Nobile-family heirloom.
As it turns out – neither is probably true.
The origin stories of Tiramisu are numerous and passionately debated. This is a matter of pride in Italy.
The version my father shared is widely believed. If you ask on Hanover Street where the dessert comes from you will often hear a baudy version that has most Italians I’ve met in North End cafes claiming it with a bit of Italian machismo.
The word Tiramisu is roughly translated to mean “pick me up”. The story goes that the dessert which includes espresso, sugar and whipped egg whites was invented in the brothels during the 1600s or 1700s in the Veneto region in the far Northwest of Italy. The caffeine, sugar and protein are rumored to be the perfect mixture to revive clients’ male members so they can perform over and over again and therefore have a larger bill to pay.
The city of Treviso, was long considered the origin of the dessert. Their claim was based on the Veneto brothels story or, alternatively, stories that a local restauranteur invented it in the 1960s. However even the restaurant story has conflict and intrigue. Two different Treviso restaurants claim the credit: El Toula and Le Beccherie.
Outside of Italy the Treviso stories were the most popular for decades.
That was changed in 2015 by food writers Clara and Gigi Padovani who are well known for their research on cuisine. They claim there is documentary evidence that the dessert was invented in the 1950s in the Italian village of San Canzian D’Isonzo – near the border with Slovenia. This region is called Friuli Venezia Giulia. They found recipes for a dessert that included the finger-like sponge cookies, coffee, cream and mascarpone by digging into culinary archives and conducting interviews throughout Italy.
The Padovanis claim they are “neutral” on the origin topic because they come from Piedmont which has no claim to stake in this fight. However, this did not dampen the reaction when they published their findings in the book “Tiramisu – History, Curiosities and Interpretations of Italy’s Best Loved Dessert.”
The governor of the Veneto region was clearly incensed by the San Canzian D’Isonzo origins. He was quoted to say “Don’t question its origins in Treviso. No one can swindle us out of tiramisu – it was invented by the Alle Beccherie restaurant in Treviso. That is set in stone.”
Italians take their food and their food origins seriously. For 25 years they campaigned to have the European Union recognize Naples as the home of pizza. They finally succeeded in 2010. There is recent movement to do the same for Tiramisu. However, within Italy, the battle for which Italian town will eventually be recognized as the birthplace is ongoing between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia.
Mr. Luca Zaia, former Italian Minister of Agriculture shared his thoughts on the importance of this quest “If others have copied it, that’s because it’s the best and most genuine dessert in the world. In every sector, the best things are always copied, from Ferrari to great wines to great fashion brands. This is not the first time someone has tried to hijack tiramisu.”
The affection and protection of Tiramisu is also upheld by the Accademia Del Tiramisu. It was founded in 2011 and its mission states it is a cultural and food and wine association, inspired by the principles of historical, cultural and gastronomic information. Its aim is to disseminate the true geographic origins and the authentic ingredients for the traditional recipe.
Note that the “recipes” section has just one recipe. I think this is their statement that there is the original and what’s the point of any others.
They also have a section on Patriotism and Tiramisu. They describe an interesting twist on the origin story. During the unification of Italy in the 19th century the dessert was supposedly created to show that unification of different traditions and peoples could work even in world of food. The biscuits were Savoiardi named for the House of Savoy family. The lands that made up the Savoy region were claimed by France, Switzerland and Italy. The biscuits were then blended with Mascarpone which is a cheese associated with Lombardy, Italy. There is Marsala from Sicily and coffee from Triest.
Another patriotic mention by the Accademia claims the dessert was served to Italian soldiers who were stationed at the Treviso region line of Italian defense in WWI. There is a pivotal battle that occurred there in June of 1918 in which the Italian army prevailed over the Austro-Hungarian empire. Historians mark that as the start of the downfall of the empire.
There are other interesting claims and interpretations of Tiramisu. One includes a connection to the Oedipus complex. This is based on Freud’s assertion that because our first food is our mother’s breast milk it creates a lifelong fixation on creamy, milky, sweet dishes.
Tiramisu also shows up as a favorite for authors of many genres:
Mystery writers like it:
- Tea, Tiramisu and Tough Guys: A Cape Bay Café Mystery by Harper Lin
- Chocolate Tiramisu Murder: A Donut Hole Cozy by Susan Gillard
- Killer Tiramisu by S.Y. Robins
Romances and this dessert go hand-in-hand:
- Me, You and Tiramisu by Charlotte Butterfield
- Tiramisu Kiss by Peter Breeden
- The Man Who Loves Tiramisu by Ursula Fischer
Locally, the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter John Eckberg and two friends shared their decades of guy trips together in the “Mud Daddy Chronicles: Raging Bass, Mystic Muskie and Twinkie Tiramisu”. They claim their version is award-winning. I’m not convinced.
Grandma Serafina’s Famous Tiramisu is a recent addition to this dessert’s writer’s circle. The 2016 stage play by Jonathan J Samarro has a setting that took me back to my childhood visits to my grandparents where I sat next to my Grampy while he cracked open walnuts with his bare hands and gave me, his granddaughter Bella Bella, the sweet meat. This staging description is exactly what I saw as I looked around the apartment:
The room is reliquary of disintegrating porcelain figurines, including the Infant of Prague, the Virgin Mary, and a variety of Catholic saints – all of them chipped and worn with an occasional broken limb or digit. Leftover palms from Palm Sunday are tucked behind a crucifix on the wall.
The enthusiasm for Tiramisu has not lost its momentum forty years after it took America by storm. What’s new in the past few decades is the countless variations.
There are riffs on the original:
- Tiramisu with Cinnamon
- Double Chocolate
Some get more inventive:
- Cinnamon with traditional Italian Nougat
- A version with fresh oranges and chocolate
Some I think are a bit ironic. The Italian and Irish immigrants in many towns, Boston included, had a mutual dislike for many generations. However, there are now Irish Coffee and Whisky Cream versions.
And then there are versions I am glad my father never saw before he passed away: Granola Tiramisu is at the top of that list.
As I researched this paper, I began to realize my adult obsession with Tiramisu has been built on a lie. The recipe – which I finally received when my father passed away only because we found it slipped into his cookbook shelves – clearly hadn’t been in the family for generations. Whether the true story of its origins is the brothels of Italy or played a role in the unification of the country we may never know. My father’s recipe was a modern one and not from the family.
I am most thankful for the fact that my dad’s recipe has no eggs in it. It isn’t a traditional version. I had worried during the 3 years Café Roma was open that my father would someday be jailed for “food negligence”. I imagined that the raw eggs in Tiramisu would be contaminated and sicken hundreds of patrons. The number of health violations broken by the milk-jugged dipping liquid was probably in double-figures. I couldn’t fathom how the café would handle eggs!!
I chose the phrase “dessert storm” for this paper because it does appear that in America, we often have a delicacy that becomes a sweeping obsession across the country. Melissa McCart titled her culinary investigation article “The Mysterious Origins of Tiramisu, the Dessert That Took the 80s by Storm.”
Which desserts were most popular at which timeframe is not a topic that creates universal agreement but there is a surprising consistency among those who claim to have researched the question. Here’s what I found from the mid-‘50s to today:
- 1953-57: Bananas Foster – Many know that Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans has the claim on its invention. The story is that a huge load of bananas arrived at the port and they had to find a way to use them before they rotted.
- 1958-62: Baked Alaska – Perhaps a nod to the addition of Alaska as a state in 1959.
- 1963-67: Sparkling Jello Molds – My childhood nightmares about this dessert prevent me from looking any further into its history.
- 1968-72: Chocolate Fondue – This was a riff on the centuries old Swiss melted cheese dip. It was invented at the Suisse Restaurant in New York city as part of a Toblerone marketing campaign.
- 1973-77: Carrot Cake – This is attributed to the beginnings of the health movement in the US. Certainly, it is a great example of our quest to be healthy but find food that tastes just as good as the fat and sugar-laden treats we love. As we now know, there really isn’t much health in this cake, just sumptuous goodness.
- 1978-82: Hummingbird Cake – The chef, Jamie Oliver, believes the cake was originated in Jamaica. It gained enormous popularity after a recipe was included in Southern Living
- 1983-87: Jello Pudding Pops – I’m not sure how this one got on the list but this is the timeframe when they were introduced.
- 1988-92: Tiramisu – As we’ve heard this became hugely popular and I can personally attest to the fact that by the mid-‘90s every café and restaurant on Hanover Street had this on their menu.
- 1993-1997: Chocolate Lava Cake – This is a happy accident story. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten claims he undercooked a set of small cakes at his restaurant, Jolo. He cut into them, finding out they were underdone but tasted the sinfully rich ooze and realized it would be a hit.
- 1998-2002: Cupcakes – I’ll end this list here. I think this is a trend we all remember and one that has morphed into the cake-pop craze.
We all do it. We romanticize certain foods. They may connect to our childhood or to our ancestors. They may make us feel hip and part of the in-crowd especially if we are at the forefront of a trend.
In some small way I regret choosing this as my topic. It certainly exposed that my decades-long ideas have been a fiction. However, I think my father knew what he was doing. He certainly knew the recipe was not a Nobile-heirloom and he was a hugely successful salesperson – eventually a national sales manager for a large supplier of car parts. Dad knew everyone on Hanover street – I met dozens who came to his funeral and regaled me with stories about him. I think he knew the racy story of a brothel-born dessert was false but it made a great tale that I found out he told whenever he had the chance.
My dad loved listening to Luciano Pavoratti. It seems fitting to end this paper with words of wisdom from the singer who had a reputation for joyfully living life to its excess:
“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”