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Macaroni and Gravy? (minicast)

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This week, we’re going through the e-mail bag. Here’s a savory, sensuous one. It’s from Stacey in Boulder, Colorado.

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Stacey grew up out West, but says she spent summers and Christmases at the home of her maternal grandparents, just north of New York City.

“This side of my family,” she writes, “is unapologetically Italian. For me, a highlight of every visit was the night of arrival. My grandma would welcome us home with a big pot of gravy. After the day-long trip to get there, Stacey writes, “nothing was more comforting or restoring than walking into a Grandma-sized hug, and a house positively perfumed with the sweet, heady scent of garlic and tomatoes.”

Now, about that pot of gravy, she writes: “In Colorado, or anywhere else I’ve been, it’s called marinara sauce. Outside of my family, I have never heard the word gravy used to describe anything other than the brown gravy you put on a turkey at Thanksgiving.” And, she says, “Hearing the word gravy used in this way evokes just as much warmth and contentment as the smell or taste of the gravy itself. I can almost feel my grandmother’s bone-crushing hug swallowing me up once again.”

Stacey wants to know: Is gravy just her own family’s weird word for tomato-based sauce? Or is there anyone else out there who understands what she calls “the intimate, emotional, have-some-macaroni coziness behind this seemingly simple term.”

Stacey, you’ll be pleased to know that lots and lots of people refer to this stuff as gravy. In fact, this kind of gravy made an appearance in an episode of the HBO series The Sopranos. A member of the mob in New Jersey goes to Italy. He dines out in Naples. But he can’t find what he wants on the menu. Check out what happens.

So, using the word “gravy” in this way isn’t unique one family. But I must add an important word of caution: Many Italian-Americans do call it “gravy,” but others are adamant—and I do mean adamant—about calling it “sauce.” In fact, you can find some amazingly heated debates online about which is the correct term. In Italian, the word sugo can mean either “sauce” or “gravy.” It may be that some Italian immigrants translated it into one English word, while those in other communities used a different English translation.

So, pasta lovers: Which is it? Sauce or gravy? Let us know. We’d also like to what other odd food names evoke vivid sensory memories for you. And, as always, we welcome your thoughts about any aspect of language. Our address is words@waywordradio.org.

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