The photo above comes from the Facebook of my friend Giovanni Contrada (left), born in 1957 and raised in Boston by his mother (right) a seamstress from Naples whose first language was Neapolitan.
That’s a bottle of “Fernet” on the counter and the setting is breakfast before getting off to school.
“My mother used to give me an espresso with a raw egg yolk [folded in] and a shot of Fernet,” Giovanni remembers.
By the time Giovanni was school-going age, there were literally scores of Fernet Branca imitators and counterfeiters. As late as the mid-2000s, if you visited the food shops that dotted 18th Ave. in Bensonhurst (Brooklyn), you’d still find a few of the labels on the shelves. I remember seeing some at Trunzo when I lived in Brooklyn and shopped there frequently.
In Italy to this day, Fernet Branca and the many popular amaro and “Fernet” brands are considered and consumed as tonics. And in an era before a Duane-Reade on every corner and a pill for every malady, amaro and Fernet in particular were employed and applied as cure-alls — and not just for indigestion.
Giovanni’s photo and remembrance are examples of how Italian migrants brought this tradition with them. And many of Italian-American friends in their mid-50s have similar recollections of Fernet as a tonic given to them by their parents.
Americans’ attitudes about Fernet and amaro began to change in the 1970s when Fratelli Branca began to reposition the Fernet Branca brand as a recreational drink. That all went away in the 1980s when the FDA noticed that Branca was still importing the brand using a medicinal license, a bureaucratic nugget that dated back to the Prohibition era when the brand was openly sold as a tonic in Italian neighborhoods in the U.S. Jägermeister ultimately took its place.
Giovanni’s mother passed away last year. I can’t imagine that she would recognize the Fernet of her youth in the festishization of amaro that has emerged here in the U.S.
I’ve really been enjoying Levi Dalton’s excellent series of posts “On the Amaro Hunt in Italy.” And it’s been exciting to watch brands like Nonino become so popular among the legions of mixologists who use amaro as an ingredient in their ars miscendi spiritus destillatos.
But like Virginia Slims, we’ve come a long way, baby…
Off topic, Giovanni is the stylist behind the Imp of the Perverse, a fashion line you’ll find on the racks of upscale retailers like Fred Segal in West Hollywood. He regularly posts images of his new work and the many celebrities who sport his jackets via his Twitter.