It's An Italian-American Thing
If you are a follower or at least a frequent reader, you know about my quixotic one-man campaign to stamp out ill-used Italian words and phrases. If you're new to these scribblings and screeds, benvenuti. Today, however, is a little different; today's windmill tilting exercise involves gravy. “Sunday gravy.” “Tomato gravy.” “Red gravy.” Whatever you call it, it's a source of great culinary and cultural debate. What's it about? I'll attempt to tell you.
Essentially, it's una cosa italiana-americana; an Italian-American thing. When Italian immigrants began arriving on American shores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most were intent on assimilating into American culture. In some cases, the assimilation was driven by a desire to begin a new life in a new world; wanting to leave the hardships of the Old World and the old life behind. In other instances, rapid assimilation was the result of the extreme prejudice exhibited toward Italians in many parts of the United States. Often too low on the social ladder to even be considered as second-class citizens, Italians were the objects of scorn, derision, and mistrust. It was, therefore, to the immigrant's advantage to “become American” as quickly as possible. And that's where “tomato gravy” likely originated.
In their rush to “become American,” Italian immigrants often tacked “American” names onto things, including themselves and many of their traditional dishes. Back in Italy, a meat sauce was called a “ragu” or a “sugo.” A plain sauce was just a “salsa.” Of course, none of that Italian lingo was going to fly on American tables. Americans called the meat-based sauces they poured over their food “gravy.” So, because they wanted to “be American,” Italians began calling their hearty meat sauces “gravy,” as well. And the misnomer was passed down through the generations so that it persists even today. If you are a member of one of the country's dwindling Italian-American enclaves and your mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother called the stuff you pour over pasta “gravy,” chances are you call it that, too. Even though it's not.
By strict definition, a “gravy” is “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” The word comes from the Middle English “gravey,” which, in turn, derives from Anglo-French “gravé,” meaning “broth” or “stew.” Ain't nothin' Italian about any of it. In general, a gravy is a subset of a sauce; usually a quick "rustic" or unrefined sauce made from pan drippings but with little, if any, reduction, often relying on a starch thickener like flour or cornstarch. It's about as far removed from a meat and tomato-based Italian sugo or ragu as any concoction I can think of. When I think of gravy, I think of the unctuous substance you pour over mashed potatoes or meatloaf. Or maybe the creamy “sawmill” gravy or “red-eye” gravy served with biscuits, ubiquitous in Southern cuisine. Tomatoes don't enter the equation.
Still and all, a handful of diehard descendants continue to refer to their “Sunday gravy,” not because the sauce they're referencing bears any resemblance to a true gravy, but merely because their anxious ancestors dubbed it thus in an effort to “be American.” But you can't tell them that; they were born calling it “gravy” and they'll take “gravy” to the grave.
The “gravy” train of thought runs on the same bent, rickety rails as the so-called “Italian” these people often use to describe their food. Anybody who mangles Italian words like mozzarella (“moots-uh-RELL”), prosciutto (“proh-ZHOOT”), cappicola (“gabba-GOOL”), cavatelli (“cava-DEEL”), and an ear-assaulting array of others is also likely to call a sauce “gravy.” And there's just no point in arguing with them. You might as well go have a conversation with a post. The proud bandiera-waving denizens of these enclaves are going to say the things they say because that's the way Grandma said them and there's no arguing with Grandma.
Beyond the borders of a few square miles on the east coast of the United States, there is not one place on the planet that calls tomato sauce “gravy.” Try going to Italy and asking for a plate of pasta with “gravy;” your Italian host will have to go find a dictionary to even begin to figure out what you're talking about. And he won't have much luck because there's no direct Italian translation for “gravy.”
I write all this in full realization that I'm not going to change a single mind among those already aboard the “gravy” boat. Italian-Americans who don't pronounce the last vowel in their names, who believe that spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana are authentic Italian dishes, that Italian ham is called “proh-ZHOOT,” and that the red sauce on their pasta is a “gravy” are not going to be much influenced by my pedantic “proper Italian” pedagogy. After all, if it comes down to choosing between some goober on the Internet or Grandma, Grandma wins. No, rather, I'm trying to reach those young, impressionable, questioning knowledge-seekers who have not been encumbered by generations of flawed immigrant tradition and who are truly interested in learning pure, modern Italian.
See, that's the crux; all these wretched mispronunciations aren't really all that wretched. Instead, they are based on dead dialects, regional dialects that were being superseded by modern Italian even as their speakers were leaving Italy for America. What these immigrants brought with them was essentially a dead language. And when their descendants persist in using words like “moots-uh-RELL,” they're not speaking “Italian,” they're just mouthing hand-me-down words that would barely be recognized in the country where they originated. Maybe if these folks went to Calabria or Sicily, they might find some ninety-year-old paesano who would understand them, but the vast majority of Italians would hear “gabbagool” as nothing but gobbledygook.
But I digress. Back to the “gravy” issue.
“Gravy” eaters sometimes make certain distinctions. Anything in a a jar or anything made with just tomatoes and herbs apparently qualifies as a “sauce.” However, if it's got meat in it, it's a “gravy.” But even that isn't universally true. In fact, there is no universal acceptance among gravy groupies. It all comes down to who you ask. One Brooklyn restaurateur says, “Traditionally, gravy has meat in it,” while another one opines, “Italian-Americans connote ‘gravy’ to mean a sauce with meat in it, but that’s a ragu,” A guy out in Coney Island says it depends on the color: if it's red, it's a sauce and if it's brown, it's a gravy. Another New Yorker believes that linguistically, “sauce” is a more accurate term, derived from the Italian word “salsa,” which refers to a topping.
Of course, if you want to bolster the “gravy” side of the debate, you could point out that “sugo” is a derivative of “succo,” the Italian word for “juice.” And since “gravy” is made from meat juices......but now we're doing a semantic dance on the head of a pin.
Bottom line? If you're from one of those families or one of those places that calls it “gravy,” go for it. Call it “gravy” because you're going to anyway. How could Grandma be wrong? For the rest of us, it's always going to be a sauce. And as long as it's good, who cares? Just shut up and eat.