When writing about food and food culture, it often seems like I engage in America-bashing because I'm always talking about how Americans do this wrong and Americans do that wrong. I'm really not. I fly the Stars and Stripes proudly and I know all the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” – all four verses, not just the “O, say, can you see...” one.
But the fact remains, Americans are probably the most linguistically ignorant population on the planet. People in nearly every other country are at least bi-lingual. Many speak multiple languages fluently. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks in the good ol' USA who have yet to master English. Subsequently, the things they do to foreign languages would be laughable were they not so atrocious. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the food world.
As ethnic cuisines from other places have integrated into our Yankee melting pot, lots of new food words and phrases have been introduced. And since Americans are far too busy and far too self-important to learn how to properly pronounce and/or use them, they simply “Americanize” them, which automatically makes them correct.
I have suffered in relative silence for many years, but no longer. I'm forming the “Correct Pronunciation of Foreign Food Words Society.” That's right. I'm going to be an activist. You might soon see me on Food Network or Cooking Channel. After all, if a certain young “Dancing With the Stars” contestant can reflect her family values by getting “in a family way” without benefit of wedlock and then be granted “star” status and billed as a “Teen Activist” on national television, who knows how far I might go by calling myself a “Food Word Activist?” I see great potential. And I can't dance either.
Seriously, this militancy came about as a result of my being “corrected” by a “sandwich artist” for a nationally known chain. I was ordering a sandwich and requested provolone cheese. Said “artist” looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Do you mean provolone?” To which I replied, “No, I mean provolone.” And I was told, “All we've got....” – no, actually, it was, “we” – “All we got is provolone.”
Okay, the conversation loses something in writing. The crux of the matter was that I was ordering “proh-voh-LOH-nay” and was being offered “PROH-vuh-loan.”
Italian seems to top the leader board for pronunciation offenses. I've gotten to where I can tolerate “mahtz-uh-RELLA” in place of “mohts-ah-RAY-lah,” and “bis-KAH-tee” instead of “bee-SKOH-tee.” But if you want to watch the skin crawl right up my arms, over my shoulders, up my neck, and explode from my face, hit me with a good old American “mare-uh-NARE-uh” sauce. I have politely tried to teach legions of American restaurant servers to say, “mah-ree-NAH-rah” without much success. But I do try.
The British have their own peculiarities. “BAZ-il,” for instance, instead of “BAY-zil.” (Of course, it would be “basilico” in Italian.) The Brits do get closer with “or-ee-GAH-no” instead of “or-REG-ah-no,” the Italian word being “origano.” But “PASS-tuh” is another weird Britishism often affected by Americans, and I don't understand why. Just don't ask for your PASS-tuh with mare-uh-NARE-uh sauce, and we'll be okay.
And please don't offer me something made with “MUSS-car-pone” cheese. I'll gladly eat anything made with “mahs-car-POH-nay,” but the other doesn't even sound appetizing.
Part of the problem lies in the predilection of the English language toward silent letters. I mean, take the word “knight;” half the letters in it are silent! But the Italian people are very frugal. They don't waste anything, including letters. Oh, they may toss out an occasional “h” at the beginning of a word, but they never throw away a perfectly good vowel. So, whereas the “e” at the end of an English word is frequently silent, this is never the case in Italian. And the closed Italian “e” – the one commonly ending a word – is pronounced like the English long “a.” Hence, “mahs-kar-POH-nay” and “proh-voh-LOH-nay.” (In Italian, the stress is commonly on the penultimate syllable, but that's a topic for another article.)
Besides blatant mispronunciation, though, there's outright syntax abuse. The one that grates on my nerves the hardest comes from French cuisine. When French food started catching on in America, Americans became fond of ordering things “au jus.” “Beef au Jus,” for instance. Now, let me be the first one to tell you a couple of things; in French, the phrase “au jus” is pronounced “oh-zhew,” not “aw jew” and certainly not “aw jews.” Second, the phrase means “with the juice” or “in its own juice.” There is no such thing as an “au jus” sauce. “I'd like that with au jus sauce” is ignorantly incorrect. “I'd like that au jus” is the proper way to order something with a light beef sauce. Statements like, "All of our French dip sandwiches are served on a specially baked French roll, dipped in our au jus" or "served with our au jus" are just wrong! Translate it to English and listen to how stupid it sounds: "All of our French dip sandwiches are served on a specially baked French roll, dipped in our with juice" or "served with our with juice." A light beef sauce, poured over or served on the side, is a “jus,” not an “au jus.” “I'd like my sandwich with a little jus on the side, please” is the correct way to order. Of course, my cause is not helped by people like the folks at Lawry's who market a package mix for “Au Jus.” But if you ever listen to a real chef, one who has been classically trained and actually knows what he's talking about, you'll never hear him use “au jus” as a noun.
Same for any Spanish or Italian dish containing the word “con.” (The word, by the way, rhymes with “loan” or “moan” and not with the name of the Star Trek villain, “Kahn.”) In either language, “con” means “with.” Therefore, there is no such thing as a “con queso sauce.” “Gimme a burrito with some con queso sauce” is a nonsense statement. You're asking for a burrito with some with cheese sauce. “I want a burrito con queso” is okay. So is, “I'd like a burrito with queso.” But please don't give the Mexican cooks on the prep line something to laugh about by asking for “a burrito with with cheese.” (“Ha, ha, ha! Escuchar a los gringos estúpidos!) That goes for “con carne,” too, which means “with meat.” So don't order your chili con carne with meat. It's already in there.
You know what makes it especially sad? The double standard. Americans are the first to fall over laughing whenever a foreigner mispronounces or misuses an English word or phrase. “Ha, ha, ha! Did you hear what the stupid (choose your ethnic pejorative) said? Ha, ha, ha!” But they can walk around saying ridiculous stuff like “mare-uh-NARE-uh” or “aw jew” with impunity. I don't get it.
Sorry, there I go America-bashing again, but it's just irritating to hear ignorant, pretentious people mangaling coq au vin in an attempt to sound sophisticated and Continental. If you can't say “kohk-oh-van” with that funny little nasal sound on the “n,” just order chicken cooked in wine and spare my jangled auditory nerves. Same goes for potatoes or any dish prepared au gratin. “Gratin” does not rhyme with “rotten.” “Oh grah-TAN” – with the same funky nasal accent on the “n” – is correct. “Aw GRAHT-ten” is not.
And, for goodness' sake, if you can't manage “mah-ree-NAH-rah,” just ask for tomato sauce. It may not sound as Continental, but it will sound a lot less stupid to people who know the difference.