Have you ever tasted something that was so wonderful that experiencing it for the first time transported you rapturously to another plane, the food itself rising to the level of the divine, the perfect essence of what that food was supposed to be?
That's what happened to Corby Kummer, the Atlantic's food writer, and Boston Magazine's restaurant critic, with his first taste of gelato, in Italy, as he explained in the August 1984 issue.
I had to stop everything when I took my first bite of gelato, the Italian version of ice cream. Although I was in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence, and surrounded by some of the most famous sculptures in the world, I could concentrate only on what tasted like the biggest, ripest, most richly flavored peach imaginable. It made the ice creams I had had before seem chalky. Each flavor I went back to try — apricot, blueberry, fig, melon — also seemed like the apotheosis of the fruit. The lemon and grapefruit were almost overwhelming in intensity.
An apotheosis (uh pah thee OH sis) — from the Greek apo and theos, god — is what many of us have experienced when tasting a new food, or one we've tasted before but that was "nothing like this." It happens every day to diners at Junior's restaurants in Brooklyn and Times Square. With their first taste of Junior's ambrosial and sensuous cheesecake, their eyes widen in surprise; then slowly and blissfully they close them, enraptured by this very private and personal and sensual encounter with a cheesecake that was deified years before they ever tasted it; an apotheosis in their mouth, an extra-palate experience that transports them from Junior's to the Empyrian heights of cheesecakedom. Truly, it's the apotheosis of cheesecake.
Moving above and beyond desserts, we encounter the sense in which apotheosis has been primarily used, the raising of a person to the rank of the divine. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were apotheosized either during their lifetimes or after, all of them rising to godlike heights in the hearts and minds of millions. Indeed, the painting in the canopy of the Capitol's rotunda, in Washington, which depicts the father of our country rising to the heavens, is titled "The Apotheosis of George Washington." And among the apotheosized, shall we include Twain, Hemingway, Whitman, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King? And Presley, Lennon, Brando and Rodgers and Hammerstein? And Nathan's hot dogs and Krispy Kreme doughnuts?
Among the apotheosized foods in my life are the deep-dish sweet cherry pie that Clara McGinnis baked on the Pennsylvania farm where I worked as a teenager; and the malteds at Moe's, a candy store on Avenue U, in Brooklyn; the apotheosis of all beverages, as far as I'm concerned. Why is wine so exalted, when even a mediocre malted is a far more satisfying beverage?
But among apotheosized foods, I must include my mother's spaghetti. Actually, my mother's second-day spaghetti. It was always better the second day. What a dish. In fact, when my mother was expecting me home during a college vacation, she'd cook spaghetti the day before, mix it in the pot with meat sauce, fresh from the jar, let it sit in the refrigerator and warm it up whenever I walked in the door. I'd savor every forkful. midnight. Little did my mother know that spaghetti with meat sauce is not cuisine de rigueur, as Kummer explained in his July 1986 food column. Carol and I excerpted a passage from it in More Words That Make a Difference to feature codify (KAH duh figh), meaning "to arrange in systematic order."
Italians have codified which sauce goes with which pasta, and the code allows for a good deal of exchange. Luigi Veronelli gives a short outline in The Pasta Book, which was recently published here. In the broadest terms, long shapes go with tomato sauce and short shapes go with meat and vegetable sauces.
A pasta code. Who knew?
Hammurabi's Code I know. When Hammurabi codified his Babylonian kingdom's laws around 1800 B.C. by having them engraved on a seven-foot stone pillar — known in archaeological terms as a stele (STEE lee) — he gave civilization a great gift. Despite the harshness and severity of many of its laws — robbery and hiding a runaway slave were both punishable by death, for example — the code replaced impulsive and arbitrary justice with a publicly declared rule of law. "It was a great improvement in social justice and criminal law over what came before it," said Saul Shajnfeld, a Queens, N.Y. lawyer familiar with the history of the ancient Middle East.
And did you know about the cappuccino/espresso code? Well, you should, so you can recognize a cup of inauthentically baristaed cappuccino when you see it. Here's Corby again, in the passage from More Words That Make a Difference that featured the word repugnant, meaning "repulsive, distasteful, or offensive." It appeared in his November 1990 food column.
Cocoa powder is seldom seen in Italian bars, and cinnamon is an unknown embellishment. On a cappuccino there's just beautifully creamy foam. But could someone please tell me where the custom of serving espresso with a sliver of lemon peel came from? Not from the Italians, who regard this practice as a repugnant American aberration. Coffee aficionados despise it, because the acidity in the peel's oil ruins the balance of the acidity in the coffee.
During the 10 months Carol and I spent at the Atlantic's offices gathering material for our book, we visited many cafés in Boston's North End, just around the corner, and let me tell you, in every café in America's oldest Italian neighborhood our cappuccino was sprinkled with cocoa, and most of the time our espresso had a lemon peel in it. Who knew?
Well, we didn't, so for this article I phoned several Boston cafés and restaurants to ask, "Peel or no peel?"
Café Vittoria — no peel
Florentine Café — always a peel
Mike's Pastry — no peel
Café Pompeii — only if customer asks
Joe Tecce's — always a peel
Café Paradiso — no peel
Antico Forno — only if customer asks.
Mike's Pastry — no peel
No consensus there. On the other hand, they all sprinkle cocoa on their cappuccino.
Until I encountered Corby's passage on pancetta (pan CHE tuh) in the February 1990 Atlantic, I had always thought that savory meant "good tasting," and didn't plan to include it in the book. Corby wrote:
Pancetta is ubiquitous in Italian cooking, serving with onion, carrot, celery, and parsley as a base for nearly every savory sauce and stew.
When I learned that savory (SAY vuh ree) means something much more specific, I realized the word and the passage had to go in, for if I didn't know what it meant (Carol did, though), many others didn't, as well. I had erred, perhaps, because I had always thought of savory as the opposite of unsavory, and, therefore, pleasant. Indeed, its earliest meaning was "pleasing to the taste," but today savory almost always refers to a food or dish that is pungent, salty, peppery, or just plain tasty, but not sweet — as in the passage about pancetta, a kind of bacon. Dishes made with herbs, spices, onions, mushrooms, meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, pasta and seafood are savory. Fruits and desserts are not savory — they're sweet. But the taste of anything can be savored! (Savory is also the name of an herb in the mint family used to flavor food.)
Our sojourn with Corby Kummer ends with an excerpt from his 1994 Atlantic article on balsamic vinegar, in which I learned not only that "balsamic vinegar of any kind is a rarity in an Italian kitchen," and that an American supermarket "is much more likely than an equivalent grocery store in Italy to stock balsamic vinegar," but that Italian connoisseurs prefer balsamic vinegar as an after-dinner cordial and "are astonished to hear how freely Americans use it."
The passage's featured word is viscous, whose meaning ranges from thick, syrupy and slow-flowing, to gluey, sticky, slimy or gummy. Our kitchens are filled with viscosity — honey, molasses, ketchup, liquid soap, olive oil. And so are we — blood and other bodily fluids. To me, "viscous" describes any liquid that's thicker than water.
Viscous (VIS kuhs) derives from viscum, the Latin word for birdlime, a sticky substance made from mistletoe berries that is spread on branches to catch birds that alight on them. Corby wrote:
True balsamic vinegar is viscous, with a mahogany sheen that makes it seem more a glaze than a common vinegar. The flavor is mellow, deep, rounded, and of such concentrated sweetness that the acid serves only to accentuate the herbal notes conferred by the various aromatic woods in which the vinegar has aged for at least twelve years and often for decades.
To check out how our own balsamic vinegar from Fairway, a Manhattan market, met those criteria, I poured some into a small dish, a piece of bread at the ready. Mahogany sheen? Yes! Mellow, deep, rounded, sweet flavor? Yes!! Viscous? Uh oh, no. On the other hand, the label said it had been "aged in antique wooden barrels," which sort of made up for its lack of viscosity. But aged for decades? I doubt it. Not for $2.95 the bottle.
Corby closed his balsamic vinegar article by suggesting that readers "experiment right away with pouring it over vanilla ice cream." Being a big fan of Corby, as well ever willing to try new food combinations, I went to the local deli "right away" — at 11 p.m. tonight, in fact, as I was finishing this article — and bought a pint of vanilla Häagen-Dazs.
Carol and I spooned out the ice cream, poured some Fairway balsamic vinegar over it, and tasted. Not bad, but worth the "experiment." Perhaps Corby's balsamic vinegar had aged longer — like 20 years longer — and had lots more of that "deep, rounded, sweet flavor." A balsamic vinegar sundae it wasn't.