“Those are traditional Italian cookies, you know,” the clerk said — a young man I would judge, on the basis of accent, to be Russian. ”I know,” I said. “And I miss the big traditional butter cookies you used to have, the ones that were plain or half covered in chocolate,” I added, going a step too far.
I was purchasing the cookies for my last day of class, wanting my students to have the taste. For reasons unclear to me, I had scoped through a series of Italian bakeries in the Village the day before, noting each time things missing that should have been there: pignolis fully covered in nuts; fig cookies as the Christmas season moves on, those large butter cookies which tended to be eaten after the fancier ones were gone, being simple, but simply delicious. My reasons must have had to do with some desire to regain my past, Proust-like, in the taste of a cookie.
When the Russian young man confided in me that the simpler biscuits I’d purchased were “traditional Italian cookies,” a whole lot came together. The Italians who used to bake the cookies are gone now — to colleges and engineering jobs and to firms on Wall Street. The desire for the authentic Italian cookie or hero can drive us to frenzy — as anyone who has visited Torrisi Brothers or Little Italy on a weekend will know. But traditional Italian cookies? More often than not, they’re gone now too or mingled with a Spanish or Russian twist.