On my subway ride to work [recently a year ago when I drafted this post] I was reading a cookbook: Cooking By Hand by Paul Bertolli. And I had the novel experience of having a cookbook bring tears to my eyes. (Without the involvement of onions.)
Of course, now, googling around for other mentions of the passage in question, I see that the consensus is that the passage in question is overly sentimental, sappy, excessive. And, I grant, my weeping was of the nature that I occasionally get from commercials for Hallmark or AT&T Long Distance, viz., sappy, sentimental, reaction-to-shameless-heartstringpulling tears: not enough even to wet my cheek. But the tears were unembarrassed, at least, because they indicate that I’m not yet a zombie. I found the passage affecting and inspiring because I read it not as what it really is — a device for introducing a section on balsamic vinegar — but took it as it declared itself: a Letter to my Newborn Son.
Bertolli is telling his son about the six balsamic vinegar casks that a friend gave to the boy on his birth; that the friend had made such casks for all of his own children, and that the friend’s father and grandfather had been endowed with such casks themselves. Some rhapsodizing about tradition.
By the time you are old enough to read this, the vinegar that I will soon start for you will have aged enough to draw. In it you will taste the years that it has marked since you were born. It will grow sappy as you move into your teens, then deepen and thicken as you become a man. In your twenties its dark obscurity will mirror the complexities of life that dawn on you; in middle age balsamico may help you remember who you are and with whom you have belonged. When you grow old, it will be the nectar that you have waited all your life to sip, by then a kind of magic elixir. Like you, it will have become everything it has ever been for better or worse, an embrace of the “sweet and sour” that is life…
Reading, before, and typing, now, I struggled with the urge to bowdlerize “become a man” to “become an adult” because all the father’s-father-son-man-boy-grandfather stuff was bothering me already, innocent as I am of any consciously cherished patrimony. Perhaps that lack, only occasionally perceptible to me, is what gave me a flash of bitterness that I could never have such a battery of casks for myself. But this struck me only after the initial flash, a tangible and practical consideration of the best way to procure such a thing for my own children: still picturing a son, but knowing that I would have to give the same to a daughter or she’d scratch my eyes out.
Sure, I want these casks for myself, but I feel the experience could never be the same as the one I could give to my children. Any means I used to procure six casks of 27-year-old vinegar would ultimately be pastiche, a macaronic affectation that would make me feel fraudulent and “aspirational”, however much I enjoyed the product. I rather like the idea of starting such a thing for my own children, fully aware that I will not live long enough to experience the magic elixir stage: for the love and thoughtfulness evident in my creating something whose fruition I will not be able to fully enjoy.
Considering my adolescent reactions to my own father’s foodways (which were not handed down to him, but adopted in a fairly reactionary American Hippie way), it seems to me entirely plausible that my child may not be very interested in the vinegar for the first 15-20 years of its life in the cask. And the amount of maintenance involved probably sounds obscene to people who aren’t food freaks. But I’ve been pricing balsamic since I read that passage, and it appears that six casks of great, > 20 year old artisanal vinegar also has a street value approaching the price of a year of college.
Posting this a year after drafting just to get it out of here. If you ever see a long post here where I whine about not growing up with ancient food traditions, it came out of this.