Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–than maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.
It’s that time of year, folks. Some of us dread tax season, while others have already excitedly processed our W-2 forms and gotten our refund checks already snugly cushioned in our savings account where they will soon be pilfered and turned into euros for next month (Rome and Athens here I come!). No matter how you feel about it, what all of us likely have in common is combing through any possible tax refunds available–and sometimes we stumble across some truly confounding tax laws in the process. Around the world, you can find a “Fat Tax” on junk food or a “Cow Flatulence Tax” on…well. But one of my favorite ones, of course, brings us back to a time when things were so much more delightfully weird thanks to the ever bizarre behaviors of the people living in the Roman Empire.
When they weren’t busy guzzling putrid fish sauce, the practice of collecting pee from urinals in Rome was so popular that some Roman Emperors saw a golden opportunity to cash in. Among them was Vespasian who ruled the empire in the 1st century AD and would otherwise be most famous for starting the construction of The Colosseum, but will now forever be immortalized instead as the guy who taxed the piss out of Rome. 
The Urine Tax (Vectigal urinae) specifically targeted public collection of urine that was done in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima or great sewer system. The Cloaca Maxima was one of the earliest examples of a sewage system built in the world proving that the Romans certainly knew how to ‘keep their shit together’, which perhaps is a credit to how long the Roman Empire managed to last for as many centuries as it did. These collectors or cleaners would take what urine was left behind in public latrines (the how is a process I’m less inclined to know for the sake of my own innocence) and would sell it to a buyer which is where the taxation came into play. The individual looking to purchase the urine for who knows what purpose is the one who would be charged the additional tax. You’re probably asking yourself, why in the great stabbed Caesar would anyone need a batch of random pee? Well, you’re in for a treat, I guess.
Turns out the use of urine was an industry in and of itself back then and urine was quite the lofty ingredient for all kinds of chemical processes. Urine was primarily included in the uses of tanning, wool production, or even as a whitening product (seems counter-intuitive, I know) with the ammonia helping clean togas.  Even more extensive were its supposed medical uses…
According to Pliny the Elder, essentially the father of encyclopedias and good friend of Emperor Vespasian, urine could be used to cure all sorts of ailments like sores, gout, dog bites, skin irritations, burns, rectum diseases, chaps on the body, head ulcers and scalp diseases, and whatever else could likely be submerged in the yellow elixir.  Before we completely write off the old crazy man and thank Mount Vesuvius for taking him and his pee-cures off this planet forever, every single one of us has heard that if you’re stung by a jellyfish the best way to deal with the pain is let it all out on the sting spot like a Coldplay song (It was all yellllowwww) despite doctors telling us not to do this–so apparently urine’s reputation as a cure-all has persisted through history with or without Pliny’s personal contribution. Hey, it’s still better than what the Ancient Egyptians used for contraception.
The loathsome character of a few, such as dung and urine, may originally have been due…to the conviction that life-essence was in them in a concentrated form. …it is just possible that the use in medicine was partly due to the obvious value of manure as a fertilizer. –H.S. Jones, Ancient Roman Folk Medicine 
So why is Emperor Vespasian so strongly associated with this Urine Tax since it seems not unusual to a people that see nothing wrong with slathering pee all over their heads, especially since it was unsurprisingly the madman Nero who started the tax in the first place? That would be thanks to a common phrase that goes, “Money Does Not Stink” which is attributed to Vespasian and can still be found referenced in popular works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example. According to Suetonius, as the story goes, Vespasian’s son and future Roman Emperor Titus lamented to his father on how disgusting it was to consider a taxation on waste from public toilets. Vespasian’s response was to hold a coin under his son’s nose and ask if the smell of it offends him as well. Titus admitted that it did not, to which Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine.” Born then was the Latin Pecunia non olet or “money does not stink” which essentially means to say, despite where it came from or how it was accumulated, wealth retains its value. 
Thanks to Emperor Vespasian’s continued efforts toward the taxation of urine from Roman latrines, his name is still used today to denote public urinals which can still be found all over Italy (Bagni Vespasiani!) and France. I suppose his son Titus got the last laugh in this regard–perhaps if Vespasian had listened to Titus, his eternal legacy would have been his name on all built amphitheaters instead.
Fact Check It, Yo!
 Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Divus Vespasianus, c. 110 C.E., P. XXIII, Translated by J.C. Rolfe, The Loeb Classical Library, Obtained via Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/suetonius-vespasian.asp
 Witty, M. (2016), ANCIENT ROMAN URINE CHEMISTRY. Acta Archaeologica, 87: 179-191. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0390.2016.12170.x
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History; 28.19, chap. 18 – Remedies Derived from the Urine: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=PerseusLatinTexts&getid=1&query=Plin.%20Nat.%2028.18
 Ancient Roman Folk Medicine Author(s): W. H. S. JONES Source: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October, 1957), pp. 459-472 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24619369
When I was 8-years old and most girls were decorating their bedroom walls with posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, I was busy ogling thick textbooks filled with images of sinewy, mostly-shirtless pharaohs. This childhood interest of mine was not at all helped by the release of the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt that same year which was similarly filled with plenty of cartoon biceps. And as a little girl, it made sense to me that I should aspire to be Evelyn O’Connell in The Mummy (1999) and nab myself a sort of walking Curse Bae with regenerating abs who wants to make-out a little and maybe sacrifice you in some kind of ancient ritual or whatever. I’m not sure why Evie didn’t go for that, personally.
So when I learned in school about the existence of an Egyptian pharaoh that was my age, I totally thought I had some kind of chance here–despite the fact he’d been dead for 3,000 years or so. But what’s a minor inconvenience in love, right? King Tut was my boy king! Unfortunately, my Catholic school girl self was in for a rude awakening on just how hot this dream barge probably was. Hold on to your chariots, folks!
The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.
But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.
If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!
According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down.  We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:
“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria 
We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.”  Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.
“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. 
Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. 
“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius 
With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. 
So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!
“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne 
Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.
How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?
Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.
Fact Check it, yo!
 Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.
 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html
 Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt
 Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Nothing makes me want to hurl more than oft repeated historical misunderstandings. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ is a saying that forces me to eat copious amounts of cake to feel sane, hearing “Napoleon Bonaparte was really short” and I can be seen adding glasses of wine to the mix, and listening to another geographical wizard exclaim that “Cleopatra was Egyptian” and now I’m trying to find the nearest room to chuck it all up in–which if I were living in the Roman Empire would be convenient, right? Except they didn’t actually have a room for this as is popularly believed.
‘Vomitorium’ sounds like one of those words one could easily decipher. It’s Latin and clearly using the root word for ‘vomit’ and ‘orium’–so a functional place to vomit. The mind puzzles over what exactly a ‘vomit place’ could be and knowing the extravagant splendor of Roman indulgences of the elite class–wouldn’t it make sense that in between all of those supposed orgies, Emperor assassinations, and dishes slathered with garum sauce, the Romans would require a room in which to purge their feast-ly contents just so they could go back to eating and partying anew?
Sure, if there was any evidence of it.
Unfortunately, the reality of what a ‘vomitorium’ actually is amounts to a much more mundane truth. The term does derive from the same root of the word vomit, in this case “to spew forth” which is exactly what the function of a vomitorium serves as, just not in keeping a toga party raging until dawn. In Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, it became necessary to create a passage way in which a large crowd of people could leave as quickly and efficiently as possible–exactly like the contents of a stomach after consuming those questionably cooked fish tacos from last night. When you’re a civilization of bread and circuses, evacuating a stadium like projectile pea soup ala The Exorcist certainly becomes a high priority in architectural ingenuity. 
So where did this retched misconception come from other than a misunderstanding of architectural terminology and why did it continue to be hurled around as a ‘fun fact’ of Roman history? First, let’s start with the primary sources.
…but all naked and panting as they are, the instant they leave the bath they seize hold of large vessels filled with wine, to show of, as it were, their mighty powers, and so gulp down the whole of the contents only to vomit them up again the very next moment. This they will repeat, too, a second and even a third time, just as though they had only been begotten for the purpose of wasting wine, and as if that liquor could not be thrown away without having first passed through the human body. – Pliny the Elder on ‘Drunkenness’, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES. 
The usage of the word ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t appear until the 5th century AD when it is used by the Roman writer Macrobius in his work The Saturnalia to describe these passageways in stadiums as being designed to ‘disgorge’ an audience from the venue. Seems as if the word itself should have been able to survive into modern times intact with its original meaning then, but instead it was muddled with other accounts and hurled together into the misconception it is today.  We can look at the works of Seneca the Younger, a lucrative philosopher of Stoicism (A philosophy also noted for it’s teachings in discipline and freedom of passions), in which he lambasted the indulgence of certain Roman’s in a letter to his mother Helvia where he metaphorically implied that “They vomit so they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” which seems to have been taken as a literal source of evidence by later centuries of writers who believed this to prove the need of a purge room like the infamous ‘vomitorium’. 
This misunderstanding is not helped either by satirical works such as the Satyricon which scholars believe was written by Petronius, a courtier of Nero, in the 1st c. AD. Yeah, that guy of reputable shenanigans. Petronius describes a dinner celebration in which the patrons were not only busy fornicating in an orgy but also throwing up the contents of their feast. Even if this were a work of non-fiction, and one that would have been applied to a particularly abominable Emperor, he does not mention a specific room where these events would have supposedly taken place. Other writers such as Cassius Dio, Cicero, and Suetonius mention specific stories in which vomiting after excess had taken place (Julius Caesar was said to partake in purging antics) but, again, no mention of a puke room specifically. 
Sure, there is also Aulus Cornelius Celsus who recommends vomiting as a medicinal treatment where he suggests that “…after a dinner of many courses and many drinks of diluted wine a vomit is even advantageous” but continuing to clarify “When anything in the dinner is felt to disagree, he should provoke a vomit, repeating it the next day“. So this is not necessarily meant to suggest that one should be purging the contents of their dinner just so they could resume ingesting as much as they desire immediately after. Also, not to mention, Celsus is a practitioner of the imbalances of humors and prescribes vomiting to ease in the plethoric and bilious. And even then, he specifically states -“I allow that vomiting should not be practiced for the sake of luxury…no one who wants to keep well, and live to old age, should make it a daily habit.” So this supposed practice of binging and purging wasn’t exactly one that was encouraged either. 
Yet, despite ‘vomitorium’ clearly being used to describe architecture in its first usage and the lack of a ‘purge room’ being mentioned in sources detailing acts of vomiting among Romans, we get to the 20th century where Aldous Huxley publishes his novel Antic Hay in 1923 which serves as a comical narrative lampooning the lifestyle of exorbitance among the London elite.
“The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter…” Ch. 18 
It’s here that Huxley calls back to the Satyrion as mentioned earlier and applies the term ‘vomitorium’ incorrectly to the salacious acts of binging and purging described by Petronius. From here the association of a room in where Romans would purge their food and resume their feasts enters into the pop culture lexicon and Aldous Huxley is credited with creating a brave new world of alt-historical realities.  Almost one hundred years later and people are still regurgitating the same misconception–an idea further perpetuated by any clever writer who thinks the concept of a ‘vomitorium’ a sick one to include in their works or just passed around by people who heard it secondhand.
Clearly, the misuse of ‘vomitorium’ is about as contagious as the stomach flu. Let’s do us all a favor and keep the myth down so we don’t all get sick with a case of ‘being wrong’, yeah?
Fact check it, yo!
 Alice P. RADIN Fictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium:
 Pliny the Elder, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES, Ch. 28: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:phi,0978,001:14
 Macrobius, The Saturnalia: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Macrobius/Saturnalia/home.html
 Celsus, On Medicine, Book III: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/3*.html
 Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay, Ch. 18: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/huxleya-antichay/huxleya-antichay-00-h.html
The given address goes to a Steampunk cafe specializing in games and coffee–another novelty era ripe for nostalgic yearning but not the one we were looking for. Where the hell is this place? The first time I had visited Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, Minnesota I was accompanied by a friend who was already privy to the location. Half the appeal of a secret speakeasy hidden away in a niche part of town already known for it’s fanciful coffee-shops, coin operated video game arcade clubs, and ‘hot yoga’–is that it’s a destination prided on the fact that you kind of already need to know where you’re going. Like being a member of an Eyes Wide Shut sexy, Eleusinian Mysteries kind of cult meeting or a pirate marauding around the Caribbean looking for the Isla De Muerta–an island that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Being ‘in the know’ about Volstead’s Emporium adds a lot to its notoriety. Going to their website offers no assistance–there is no address, no online menu, no pictures or an extensive proselytizing ‘About’ page. It’s tough to know this place even exists, or what it is, unless you become one of the initiated via word of mouth.
We were driving around Uptown one evening where, during a traffic stop, I recognized the location we were at–and that down that seedy, familiar-looking alleyway nestled behind the Steampunk cafe was the secret speakeasy I had wanted to take my boyfriend to for ages. It felt like a re-discovery and I hastily tried to remember where it was for next time, when we would plan our visit and get to transport ourselves to a faux, 1920’s era den of libations.
For those who need a quick History lesson to refresh–the Temperance movement in the United States won a political victory from 1920-1933 when the entire country went “dry”. Meaning, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was banned. To enforce this draconian rule, the government passed the Volstead Act (Where our friendly Emporium likely took its name from) which went a step further in defining the intoxicating substances that were banned and the punishments that came with breaking these laws. The rise of bootlegging, gangsters, and speakeasies–secret law-breaking establishments selling banned booze–became a direct consequence and the 1920’s is forever remembered with these associations.
Unfortunately, memory is only as good as it is served. Turns out, when the summer construction is hazardous and the Happy Hour besought motorists are honking more persistently than a skein of geese, it can be a bit frustrating to try and remember a scattering of location markers after finally getting lucky finding a parking spot. Had I known that the large, neon gleaming sign for beer and bratwurst king New Bohemia resided across the street from our desired crime scene alleyway, our journey on empty stomachs might have been easier to bear. Once found, walking down said alleyway gives off an appropriate air of sleaziness, and as sweltering as the heat often gets in the summer, I was just thankful it wasn’t garbage from the line of dumpsters that marked our path. Hanging a left midway, there’s a smattering of apartment balconies claustrophobic-ly clustered together and in the small back of the building obstructed by vents, there resides a large bolted metal door with a creepy red serial killer light hanging above it. A most welcoming destination, if I ever saw one.
“It’s all you, babe.”
I took this initiative with the fervent composure of a Flapper girl, who had likely already spent most of the evening dancing the Charleston to extinction, and rapped the door with my knuckles like I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. The slot in the door opens and a pair of eyes greets you–“Yes?”
“We have a reservation for two!”
The door is unbolted and we entered into a stairwell devoid of any identifying features aside from the bookie wearing a surprisingly dapper get-up. “Enjoy” is all he says as he goes back to manning the door. It’s up to us to take ourselves down the stairs and to the basement where we stand momentarily confused, there are at least three doors to choose from–not one of them marked with a sparkling Go Here to Drink sign to help us out. We could just make out the muffled sound of chatter and glass clinking enough to try Door Number 1–which ended up leading us into a time machine.
An oft overlooked aspect of any dining experience is the ability to transport a patron. This can happen with really good food–it’s much easier to feel like you’re on the coast of Sorrento enjoying a bowl of pasta in a white wine sauce when the spaghetti is al dente and the clams are cooked to perfection and you’re even given a shot of limoncello to chase it all down with. But atmosphere is just as important too and at Volstead’s–you do feel like you just stepped into a 1920’s speakasy which would make even the most classy of bathtub gin stirrers proud.
There are no windows and the establishment is dimly lit, there’s a piano and a jazz player in the back corner strumming soft melodies with the tempered line of the bartender shaking drinks. People are laughing uproariously all around, likely amplified by the low ceiling and general jovialness that comes with a really well mixed cocktail. It’s welcoming–and cuts the tension had while trying to find the place to begin with.
We were seated at a booth across from the parlor tables, draped with curtains we could easily pull for more privacy. It felt like we were only missing poker chips and the acrid smoke of cigars hanging in the air to set the mood into one in need of a police raid. For another brief moment, I felt like a femme fatale who was clandestinely meeting with a surly detective across from me, who was cloaked in a make-believe fedora and interrogating me on my whereabouts the night Tommy the Gun was murdered–all under the veneer of a heavy sepia filter. Or that was just the Old Fashioneds talking.
Volstead’s is a novelty experience, a way to feel like you’re in a piece of history for the night–surrounded by good drinks and food to boot. There’s a library room where you could sit and partake in a re-imagined game of Clue wearing monocles and dinner jackets, a large dial safe loitering under the stairs where surely the funds of nefarious mobster money ventures is well hidden, and there is even a telephone booth in the back by the restrooms for even the most ardent Doctor Who fan to enjoy. Voldstead’s is straight up cool so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
No one warned us about the framed mirror on the wall of our booth, that it would swing open and the waiter would grin as we jumped in surprise, serving as a portal in which to take our food and drink orders. I think the waitstaff probably finds most of their amusement in this gimmick–and it’s certainly a fun experience to team up with your waiter on. There is a buzzer under the mirror when you’re ready to order and there was at least one more incident where the frame creaked open like a horror movie prop with no waiter to be found, only for him to pop up into view a second later and ask what we’d like–to more jump scares from us. It’s hilarious.
Now all of this is fine and dandy, right? But the main attraction of any dining establishment is the food. And oh boy, does it not disappoint. The first time I went to Voldstead’s, I chose a guilt-free zucchini carbonara with added shrimp that was surprisingly complex and topped off the evening with warm, gooey bread pudding. This time, I went with the usual favorites my boy detective and I usually partake in at other restaurants–the first test for us being the charcuterie plate. I finally learned how to properly pronounce “charcuterie” when I embarrassingly ordered it incorrectly and my windowed waiter set me straight–not sure whether he was smirking at my inability to speak French or because I was recovering from another fun jump scare. Not to be a gerkin (no old fashioneds were consumed in the making of this dad joke), but I’m pretty easy to satisfy when it comes to charcuterie plates–the server had me at spicy salami, spec, and capicola. I was so excited I didn’t even pay attention to what the cheeses were.
Next, I ordered the most basic sounding ‘Steak & Potatoes’ which was anything but and I got it cooked a beautiful, medium-rare despite ordering it just medium, but hey–they were just looking out for me and my philistine steak preparation ordering ways. This is one of the better steaks I’ve eaten and I didn’t need to drop a $500 tab at Manny’s to enjoy it–this gorgeous hunk of meat is up there with the bavette I had at 112 Eatery and the steak I had at a (now closed) restaurant outside of New York City I had visited in high school that was apparently one of Elvis’ favorites.
Though any sane person would be full at this point and I was working on my second cocktail (Like Clockwork–Cognac, Bourbon, Dolin dry, Amaro Nonino, Orange Bitters, Expressed Orange–definitely got me all good and “bezoomny”!), a place can’t be sufficiently done and tried until you order a dessert and a regular, black coffee. Now, it should shock no one to know that I can be a bit of a pedant about certain things–and coffee is one of those things. I’ve worked in and out of the coffee industry for the better part of 8 years as a barista and on the corporate level slinging office work. It’s not particularly hard to find quality, well-sourced beans and it is even easier to brew them right. A restaurant can tell me a lot about how much they care about every aspect of their commitment to quality and food by how good their regular brewed coffee tastes. I’ve been disappointed in establishments that otherwise provide good meals but then serve up bitter, black water mudd that tastes like it had been sitting for more than 2 hours in back. I move from disappointed to irritated when this crime is committed by an authentically-declared French or Italian restaurant where ending your meal with a good coffee is tantamount to the cultural experience. One sip from Volstead’s chosen brew and I knew this place really was every bit as great as I knew it to be.
The tiramisu I ordered for dessert wasn’t bad either–and as your resident swarthy Italian-American, I’ve had plenty of tiramisu in my day. The only thing about it I found particular to note, was how the lady fingers weren’t soggy and absolutely drowning in booze and/or coffee. Unlike me this evening, of course.
So, dear reader, consider yourself well and in the know about Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, MN. I’ve now passed on the secret to you–and if you’re in the area or visiting the Twin Cities, I hope that you take a moment to stumble around W. Lake St. attempting to find it. But shhhhh–don’t tell your dinner companion(s) about the mirror window.
While there are legitimate concerns out there over the authenticity of cultural cuisines and our American foundation of fast food and franchise chain restaurants, taking what is not ours and spinning for profit–it’s easy to get caught up on what is “real” food and what isn’t. One conversation, however, that I feel myself irked by consistently, is what makes Italian food authentic here in the United States. It’s a fair question, after all, because you’re not likely to find meatballs, Alfredo sauce, garlic bread, or a “Hot Dago”  back in the Old Country of Italy. But there is a distinct difference in what is Italian and what is Italian-American. After all, the cuisines of immigrants who came from Italy was heavily influenced in not only their fellow foreigners and adjacency to other cultural cuisines, but also in being forced to adapt old dishes to new based on the availability of foods in The States at that time. What we have here is a hodgepodge of old Italian with a distinctly American flair. How do you make do without olive oil? Butter up that bread instead and use plenty of garlic. And what do you do when you show up in a country that’s brimming with cows? Pack up those meatballs like your friendly neighborhood Swedes and toss them in the sugo! And, speaking of sauce, pretty much the only kind easily made was red because canned tomatoes were the only thing easily found in markets at the time–until you got to Alfredo sauce. “Who is Alfredo?” Native Italians will ask–well, he was a chef in Rome back in 1914 who made a white sauced based dish that happened to be served with fettuccine noodles that day when two American Silent-Film Stars dined at his restaurant. They loved it so much, they took the recipe back home which became a hit among the elite, solidifying its popularity in Olive Garden’s across the nation after Alfredo’s family later opened a few restaurants showcasing the dish stateside in the 1970’s.  So perhaps you can’t find meatball sub sandwiches in Italy, but these are authentic to and traditional Italian-American foods that were invented right here in the United States due to the unique cultural experiences of Italian immigrants at the time.
And probably nothing more storied to this unique experience of cultural history exists in Minnesota than Cossetta’s Market–a pinnacle of Italian-American cuisine and heritage here in St. Paul.