Let’s Finally Settle the Decades-old Sauce vs. Gravy Debate

No one knows exactly how it started, but every Italian American knows which side they're on.

By: Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor

Sauce or gravy?

Why are Italian Americans so passionate about sauce or gravy? Both terms appear in 19th and early 20th century cookbooks, newspapers, menus, and advertising for American-type sauces/gravies. In 1902, an Italian woman described her tomato sauce as “gravy” in the New-York Daily Tribune, and Chef Boyardee canned his “sauce.”

But when did the divide become so hostile? I think in the 1970s/80s when the hospitality industry tried to establish fine dining Italian restaurants similar to French ones. NY Times food editor Craig Claiborne wrote in 1979 that there was no difference, but the word sauce had a “more sophisticated ring to it.”

Some people think only New Yorkers or pre-WWII immigrants say gravy and that more recent immigrants say sauce. Both camps insist only “real” Italians say the word they use. But the truth is there isn’t a common factor. Italian or American region, or age doesn’t matter.

Bill Tonelli wrote in Slate that the “gravy people will die out.” He interviews scholar Simone Cinotto who says that from 1900 to 1940 “gravy” was used very rarely in his sources. However, the food of Italian Americans, as I write in my book, Authentic Italian, is primarily from Southern Italy, which had an oral tradition.

In the same article, scholar Nancy Carnevale wonders how the Neapolitan word for tomato sauce, ragù, translated to “gravy.” She says, “Gravy is such an English word, whereas the transition from salsa to sauce is not such a big change.”

But the word “gravy” is not such an English word and neither is “sauce.” Both come from the Anglo-French and can be found in Middle English in the 14th century where “gravy” has a number of spellings, including gravegrauey, and graue. In Old French, it was gravé, spelled more frequently as graue. In Middle English, its meaning was a “sauce or dressing for fish, foul [sic], or rabbit,” according to the Middle English Compendium of the University of Michigan Library, and sauce is “a condiment for meat, fish, fowl, etc., a sauce; also, a pickling liquid, brine.”

I believe the word “gravy” came with the immigrants from Italy to America and the word “ragù” is the word “gravy.”

How did I come to that startling conclusion? It is all about the etymology of the words “gravy” and “ragù.”

As I said, gravy has a few spellings. (Bear in mind that Old French was the language of the Angevins, from Anjou, who were rulers of Naples in the 14th century.) In Old French, “graue” was a more popular spelling than “grave,” which leads me to believe this word originates from Latin because of the pronunciation of the “v.” It would be the same as a “u,” i.e., oo. A “v” in Latin and Neapolitan is spoken as a “w,” i.e., g-rau-e. Now, add the fact that Neapolitans tend to leave off the last vowel and we get just “grau.”

In Neapolitan, a ragù is often spelled “rraù” (like in the Eduardo de Filippo poem). The “g” in the “gu” is silent or elongates the “u” sound. A single or double “r” in Neapolitan can mean there was a “g” at the beginning of the word. For example, grazie in Italian is razia in Neapolitan. Grotto, “cave,” rotta. According to Dale Erwin and Tessa Fedele’s Neapolitan Dictionary, grattate, “to grate,” in Italian, is ratta in Neapolitan. Grappo, a “bunch” in Neapolitan, can also be rappo. Granulo, “hail,” ranulo. Gratiglia, “grill,” ratiglia. Gruongo, “eel,” ruongo. Gruosso, “big,” ruosso. Therefore, it stands to reason “graue” can also be “rraù,” or ragù.

It is said ragù comes from ragout, but not only is ragout a stew, it derives from the French verb “ragoûter,” which probably had an “s” after the “u” because of the circumflex—as in the “ragoust” Jonathan Swift recommended in Modest Proposal. Since ragout and ragù are different food preparations, I think they are also different words.

After researching, I could write a book on the subject, and I’ll post a longer piece on my blog. But I think both sauce and gravy are correct. Like the Italian-American people and their foodways, neither will die out any time soon.

Dina M. Di Maio is a New York- and Tennessee-licensed lawyer with an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She has written and/or edited for Glamour, Family Circle, Time Out New York, the American Bar Association, and more, on many topics, including food and Italian culture.


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