PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) What I know as "gravy" much of the rest of the country would never consider gravy, and that distinction comes with a price attached to it.
The United States has spent roughly the last year in a dialectic about dialect. A dialect quiz conducted more than a decade ago by the Harvard University Linguistics Department gave way to dozens of dialect maps, a New York Times quiz, an Atlantic experiment and renewed debate over the pronunciations of "route," "pecan" and "merry/marry/Mary."
What that discussion didn't include was a definition of "gravy" that the Times' business section alluded to earlier this month in a series about Carlos Vega, a Guttenberg, N.J., pizzeria owner who sold his business and focused on producing, marketing and selling a line of tomato sauce called Jersey Italian Gravy. With help from the folks at Cornell University, Vega began making the sauce in 500-gallon batches, jarring it and distributing it to partners including Whole Foods Market (WFM) and Bed, Bath and Beyond (BBY). While Vega focuses primarily on the New York Metropolitan area, he also targets regional expatriates in California, Arizona and Florida.
And he sells it for $8.99, or more than double the cost of Borden's Clasico sauce or three times the cost of Unilever's (UL) Ragu brand.
"Last year we offered samples to over 20,000 people and possibly one percent questioned the cost," Vega told the times.
That's not entirely surprising. More than $6 for a six-pack of beer seemed unthinkable before craft beer charged a premium for different styles and more expensive ingredients. A $4 cup of coffee is still cause for complaint among drip drinkers, but became an accepted norm once Starbucks (SBUX) made espresso a java for the masses.
But there's a little more to Jersey Italian Gravy's premium price than its cooking process. Vega notes that it's a slow-simmered, small batch sauce with only five ingredients -- including California tomatoes as expensive to procure as those from Italy's San Marzano growing region. It's also just a little bit of home coated in code that outsiders just don't get.
To much of the U.S., gravy is the white or brown substance slathered over breakfast biscuits or poured liberally over Thanksgiving turkey. It is decidedly not poured over any pasta that isn't an egg noodle and it isn't something you'd want to find coating your chicken parmigiana (or parmesan, since we're discussing dialect). To certain U.S. families of Italian heritage, specifically those found in New Jersey and around New York City, the gravy name also covers the meat-laden sauce more commonly referred to as bolognese or even a standard marinara sauce.
The etymology is unclear. It's been suggested that perhaps the latter definition of gravy comes from a botched English translation of "meat sauce." That translation was never applied evenly, either, as some households grew up with "sauce" or "marinara/bolognese" while others grew up with "gravy."
Even the mention of "gravy" in a tomato sauce context ignites passions long dormant. I've been fighting this battle on all sides since childhood, when even the students of St. Mary's Elementary School in Nutley, N.J., and their parents couldn't reach consensus on the term. That was just a light skirmish compared to the all-out culture war that awaited when I went away to Syracuse University in Central New York and faced the ridicule of most of my freshman dorm floor for daring to call it "gravy." By the time I finished a three-year stint as a dining hall worker, I'd had the gravy knocked out of me by an endless line of medigan students wondering if their ravioli was about to be doused in turkey fat.
In the ensuing years, I've heard the arguments from both sides of the dinner table. My family insists that gravy is what my grandmother called it and, therefore, is my heritage. The head chef at one of the most lauded Italian restaurants in Boston engaged me in a local blog to tell me that "gravy" -- like several other American-Italian words and traditions -- was just a cover for bland sauce and a watered-down version of the sugos (thin sauces), salsas (thick vegetable sauces), Carbonaras, Arrabiatas and Checcas of my ancestors. Our own Rocco Pendola made a strong argument for the latter.
I just wanted someone to put some of whatever it was on my meatball parmigiana sandwich and not substitute parmesan or provolone for the mozzarella. I just wanted someone not to make such a big deal about the nomenclature and focus on the food for once.
That's what a $9 jar of Jersey Italian Gravy is selling: A nice serving of "shut it." When HBO's The Sopranos made the "gabagool" pronunciation of cappicola into a national joke and the Whole Foods clientele that regularly summers in Tuscany can't figure out what you're saying when you pronounce it gah-nool (cannoli), bro-zhoot (prosciutto) or mutz/moots-ah-del (mozzarella cheese), a jar of "gravy" on the counter is your grouchy old woman meting out her revenge with a wooden spoon.
There's an entire closet industry built around offbeat regional cuisine, which I'm reminded of each time a friend from New Jersey posts a Facebook update from his new home in Silicon Valley.
"$10 to buy pork roll in CA but it's well worth it!"
That was his message earlier this week upon finding a 1.5-pound package of Taylor Pork Roll -- a breakfast meat not unlike mild salami produced only in Trenton, N.J. -- at one of his local grocers. It's yet another product that nobody can seem to reach an agreement on -- with North Jersey and New York City calling it Taylor Ham and South Jersey and Philadelphia calling it pork roll -- but also another bit of regional fare that unites a small segment of the population and confounds those outside it. While that's not exactly an outrageous price for pork roll, it's a bit of a premium on what he'd find if he went to a New Jersey or Philadelphia Shop-Rite supermarket for the same product. That said, it's also a break on the $15.50-per-roll he'd have to spend to have pork roll shipped from New Jersey using one of a number of online services offering such things.
In short, it's getting better. The U.S. is only becoming more connected through technology, and those who appreciate its regional foibles or the words and flavors of their far-off former home are finding them all within reach. As the dialect maps show, there's no "right" way to name soda or pop, crayfish or crawdads, frosting or icing. There are just multiple versions in far-flung parts of our very large land.
Just as an exiled Northeasterner in the Midwest might crave a cruller or a Chicagoan in Boston might wonder where all his doughnut shop's bear claws went, there are niches within the population that crave Taylor Ham on their breakfast sandwich instead of bacon and want what you call tomato sauce when they ask for gravy. There's money to be made from indulging those differences.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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