Sam: What is “tiramisu”?
Jay: You’ll find out.
Sam: Well, what is it?
Jay: You’ll see!
Sam: Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!
That brief exchange from the 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle put tiramisu on the cultural map. Sure, it was popular beforehand, but after…well, it’s all in the post The Home Dairyman Strikes Again down below. The 90’s were the Decade of Tiramisu.
Where did tiramisu come from? There are popular myths that date it to the Age of the Enlightenment, to Venetian courtesans, to the Court of Cosimo the Third, Grand Duke of Tuscany, etc., etc.. However it’s quite clear, based on the documentation, that tiramisu is a much later invention. Most serious dessert historians (?) date it to no earlier than the 1960’s.
For it wasn’t until the 1970’s and 80’s that the word “tiramisu” started popping up in print in a small northern Italian city by the name of Treviso. Exactly which resident of that ancient city actually invented it is the subject of an ongoing debate, one I’m not the least interested in exploring. However I will say that the controversy illustrates perfectly the strangeness and murkiness of food history in general. When we can’t know for certain who invented a dessert that’s a mere 40 years old, what chance have we got for the classics, most of which are well over 100?
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “tiramisu” means “pick me up” in Italian, a probable reference to its caffeine content. What we would call a real picker-upper.