It is called sauce or gravy? A Slate investigation into the linguistics of the Italian American dinner.

Sauce or Gravy? The Secret, Fervent Debate at the Heart of the Italian American Spaghetti Dinner.

Sauce or Gravy? The Secret, Fervent Debate at the Heart of the Italian American Spaghetti Dinner.

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Nov. 16 2015 12:44 PM

Sauce or Gravy? The Secret, Fervent Debate at the Heart of the Italian American Spaghetti Dinner.

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Forget tomato and to-mah-to. Will these become sauce or gravy?

Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

“The Italians of my parents’ generation are held together by the notion of the family,” wrote Martin Scorsese in his introduction to Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook.* “That is why the pasta sauce is so sacred to the Italian family.”

See, now right away we have a problem. Because as pretty as Scorsese’s words might sound, he’s taking sides in a major ethnic dispute. It involves Italian Americans and food—and not just any food but that most elemental source of nourishment (actual, emotional, spiritual, tribal), practically the equivalent of mother’s milk. The food of foods.

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Tomato sauce. Wait, I mean gravy.

There’s nothing about the stuff itself that created this rift, just the name by which it’s called, gravy or sauce, seemingly a trivial matter but guaranteed to trigger strong partisanship.

Virtually all Italian Americans will split along the gravy-sauce line. “Either one, who cares?” is not considered to be an option, and once you suggest that your terminology (meaning the one you were born into, since only a traitor would switch) is more correct or authentic—as you inevitably will—you restart this old battle all over again. Sauce People ask, “If you call it gravy, what do you call gravy?” To which Gravy People reply, “In Italy there’s no such thing as gravy!” “But we’re in America now!” the Sauce People fire back triumphantly, as if to end the argument. But the argument never ends.

Sauce People point out that calling it gravy is confusing to the general population. But maybe that’s why Gravy People like it—it’s a code word, a high sign, a secret handshake. Did Sauce People give in to the pressure to assimilate? Are Gravy People still living in caves? The only certainty is that the other guys are wrong. (Any use of a compromise term that requires a modifier—i.e., “Sunday gravy,” “red gravy”—is fraudulent and contemptible.)

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There is no brow high enough to rise above this fray.

I asked Don DeLillo.

“It was always gravy, never sauce,” he wrote back.

I asked Camille Paglia.

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“Both my maternal and paternal sides of the family (from central and southern Italy respectively) said SAUCE!! I never heard the term ‘gravy’ for tomato sauce until I moved to Philadelphia 31 years ago, and it still sounds ultra-weird to me.  I think of gravy as a tan or brown river thickly poured over bare slabs of dull American meats,” she wrote.

Another prominent Italian American voice wished I hadn’t asked at all. “No. Sorry. Not keen to weigh in,” he replied.

See? Strife.

Go to Facebook, search “Gravy or Sauce,” and end up with a list of pages with titles like:

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         It’s Gravy Not Sauce

         Real Italians Say It’s Gravy

         In Eastie We Call It Gravy Not Sauce

         The Red Stuff on My Pasta Is Called Sauce

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And, finally:

         Let’s Not Fight Over Gravy or Sauce

Good luck with that.

Francesco Durante, who was editor of the Naples newspaper Corriere del Mezzogiorno and also of Italoamericano, a monumental anthology of writings by early immigrants, had no insight into why anybody needs two warring terms where one would do just fine. But he quoted “O rraù,” a poem written in Neapolitan dialect by the playwright Eduardo De Filippo, to illustrate the nature of southern Italian emotional attachment to the subject.

In the poem, a man complains to his wife about her cooking:

'O rraù ca me piace a me
m' 'o ffaceva sulo mammà. 

Which Durante translated as:

The ragu that I love only my mom was able to do …

There are theories, of course. There are always theories.

It’s possible, as some contend, that the rift is simply a matter of geography. Lorraine Ranalli, author of a book titled Gravy Wars, said, “In my research I found that in the U.S. there are pockets where gravy is the accepted term—in parts of Philadelphia, the Bronx, east Boston and Chicago.” Elsewhere, she found only sauce.

I asked a resident of New Orleans, where some of the earliest Italian immigrants settled. “Gravy,” he said, whether it’s “a very light Sicilian gravy” or “a heavily seasoned, full of onions and peppers Creole-inspired version.”

I asked someone from Detroit. “Here it’s sauce,” he wrote. “I never heard ‘gravy’ until The Sopranos. Also where I first heard ‘gabba-goo.’ ”

“I never encountered the use of ‘gravy’ until I moved to Pennsylvania,” said Donna Gabaccia, the author of We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. “Up to that point, having lived in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, I knew only ‘sauce,’ always in English. So, in my experience at least, gravy was a Pennsylvania word for sauce.” 

I asked Maria Laurino, the author of Were You Always an Italian? who immediately conducted an ad hoc survey.

“I was with a good cross-sampling of New Jersey Italian Americans this morning,” she wrote, “specifically from Essex County—Newark, Orange, Nutley and Millburn—and posed the question. They looked at me as if I had five heads: Of course it’s gravy! Who says sauce? Though that theory was blown by one of them who said that all her Italian friends from the Jersey shore call it sauce. Go figure.”

I kept asking.

California? “Sauce!”

Toronto? “Sauce, never gravy.”

The ultimate authority in these matters should be Simone Cinotto, who teaches history at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Pollenzo, Italy, and is the author of The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City

“The dichotomy between gravy and sauce—I really have no idea,” he said. “I think mostly it’s a geographical thing, with Jersey Italians preferring gravy whereas New Yorkers and people on Long Island saying sauce. The sources that I used in my book were from 1900-1940, and invariably the word sauce is used and very rarely did I encounter the word gravy. Food seems like a very simple thing because everybody eats it and loves it, but what we eat is shaped by different forces and contexts.”

However, if you try to actually map the gravy-sauce divide, inconsistencies and contradictions emerge. Why would it be gravy in Louisiana and East Boston but so frequently sauce in between? Why is there disagreement even among the five boroughs of New York City, forget about New Jersey? And how come two major outposts of Italian American life in the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit, don’t use the same word? Even if we could establish a detailed geography of gravy vs. sauce, we still wouldn’t understand why the split exists, or what (if anything) it signifies.

Another theory is that descendants of the great wave of Italian immigration at the start of the 20th century are Gravy People, while those who came more recently went with sauce.   

“My parents came to America from Italy in the 1950s and all the immigrants I knew, when they used English, called it sauce,” said Joseph Sciorra, a folklorist with the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. “I never heard the word gravy for it until I was an adult, and I grew up in Brooklyn! I think it’s generational—the more recent immigrants said sauce. But why are people still so hot about this? It’s about my grandmother did it like this and called it that and that’s the only right way. In the end you’re talking about the same thing. They probably don’t even make their own sauce-slash-gravy.”

Nancy Carnevale, author of A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945 said, “I grew up in Princeton, which had a pretty big Italian population. My parents came here in the 1950s from the Molise region of Italy. We used the word ragu for the standard sauce you would make with meat, sausage and meatballs. Salsa was the word they used for plain tomato sauce, a kind of light tomato topping, no meat. I’ve heard that ragu was somehow translated to gravy but I never knew why. Gravy is such an English word, whereas the transition from salsa to sauce is not such a big change. But everybody’s attached to their history.”

In other words, nobody—not even scholars who devote their lives to studying the most arcane points of ethnic culture and customs—has figured this out. “I just think there are some things that cannot be proved by science,” said Ranalli. “Just like you cannot prove where God came from.”

Since this seemed to be purely a matter of semantics, maybe someone like Roberto Dolci, a linguist who teaches at Università per Stranieri di Perugia, could help.  

Like everyone else, he had a theory.

“For Italian Americans to use the word gravy for tomato sauce might have come from the idea of belonging,” he said. “To an Italian, the word sauce could easily have sounded exactly like the Italian word salsa, the way it would be pronounced casually—salsa, sauce. … So I think to use the word gravy is much more American, a way to refine your lexicon to be more integrated into your new context. You know that language is identity, so you use a word to change who you are. You want to be American so much that you use a word semantically incorrectly. You actually over-correct, but in doing that you expand the meaning of the word.”

Could that be the eureka moment in the life of gravy/sauce? Perhaps the immigrants thought that if they called their salsa, their sugo, their ragu by the term gravy, it would make their food—and maybe themselves—more palatable to American tastes. Today’s Gravy People are the stubborn holdouts, living reminders of their ancestors: tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free to eat the food they brought with them under new skies.

In the end, the Gravy People will lose this war, for the simple reason that no one’s making any more of them. The original Gravy People will die out, and their kids and grandchildren will give in to the weight of common usage and become sauce people. Gravy will go the way of those skinny, stinking black stogies old Italian men used to smoke—they looked like twigs and smelled like burning hats, but once they jutted from the jaw of every stooped, white-haired old southern Italian immigrant.

Now, what about that word Scorsese used for what goes under the gravy/sauce? When he claims to illuminate “why the pasta sauce is so sacred to the Italian family,” he is once again on shaky ground. We have to assume he used this other universally understood term knowing that it, too, would be deemed suspect. Because on this, among all Italian Americans—Gravy and Sauce People alike—there seems to be only agreement.

“It was always macaroni, never pasta,” said DeLillo.

“Who says pasta?” said Laurino and all her respondents.

Nobody. Trust me on this one. Nobody.

*Correction, Nov. 16, 2015: This post originally misspelled the title of Catherine Scorsese and Georgia Downard’s book Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook.