The Word Snooper Reheats Ricotta and Refines Refried Beans

De Sica – I mean Chan – looked puzzled. “So biscotti means ‘twice cooked.’ Isn’t that what ricotta means?”

“Yep,” I said, my nails clicking against my phone, “I know you can’t see this screen without your glasses, so I’ll give you the executive summary from the Oxford English Dictionary Online. Ricotta comes from ri- ‘again’ and cuocere ‘to cook.’

‘See, some people don’t consider ricotta to be cheese because it’s not made by coagulating casein; it’s made from the whey left over in the production of mozzarella or other “true” cheeses. According to the OED, the “recooking” refers to the heating of the whey.’

Chan nodded. He was stalling, still avoiding asking me his real question, the one that sent him to me in the first place, but he had paid me cash up front. It was his nickel.

“Italian ri-, like English re-, comes from the Latin prefix re- meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards,’” I continued, “but its meaning comes in as many shades as Lady Gaga’s wigs. Sometimes it means ‘again.’ It can also mean ‘back to or toward the starting point’ as in recede. Sometimes it means ‘backing up’ or ‘reversing’ in the sense of undoing an action. Resigning is undoing signing on or signing up for something.”

“What about refried beans?” Chan asked. “Are they really fried twice?”

‘That’s a tough one. Some recipes have you do just that, but a Spanish prof told me that the re- in frijoles refritos is just an intensifier. In colloquial Spanish re- is stuck in front of adjectives to mean ‘very.’ Rebueno means ‘very good’ and refrito means ‘really fried.’

All this food talk was making me hungry. “Look, it’s getting late,” I said, “but you paid me for a full day and I owe a few more hours. Why don’t we meet tomorrow at my other office, the Central Library?”

“All right.”

“Lit Department, Level 3. I’ll head for Dewey section 420 when the place opens at 10:00.” I extended my hand and he shook it.

“See you then, Ms. Kahn.”


“Call me C.J.” He put on his prescription shades and ambled out the door just as the streetlights came on.

The place was empty as a gym in December. The pierced barista was gone, replaced by a young woman with a sleek ponytail and carefully applied no-make-up make-up. I slipped a few bills into her tip cup and made my way out.

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