Sauce or Gravy? A Debate for the Ages


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

Sauce or gravy?

It’s a question that seems simple enough, but ask any Italian American and you’ll absolutely get an earful.

No one really knows who coined the term gravy, or when the sauce-gravy controversy started; however, every Italian-American knows what side they’re on.

Lorraine Ranalli, author of the book Gravy Wars, told Slate, “In my research I found that in the U.S. there are pockets where gravy is the accepted term—in parts of Philadelphia, the Bronx, east Boston and Chicago.”

New Yorkers through the five boroughs favor sauce, but there are some NYC gravy fans as well.

New Orleans Italian Americans lean toward gravy, as do most folks from New Jersey, specifically from Essex County—Newark, Orange, Nutley and Millburn.

Nancy Carnevale, author of A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945 told Slate, “I grew up in Princeton, which had a pretty big Italian population. My parents came here in the 1950s from the Molise region of Italy. We used the word ragu for the standard sauce you would make with meat, sausage and meatballs. Salsa was the word they used for plain tomato sauce, a kind of light tomato topping, no meat. I’ve heard that ragu was somehow translated to gravy but I never knew why. Gravy is such an English word, whereas the transition from salsa to sauce is not such a big change. But everybody’s attached to their history.”

Some linguists theorize immigrants borrowed the term gravy from the American lexicon as a way to fuse Italian traditions with U.S. culture.

In the end, it proves to be an enjoyable — and sometimes divisive — argument that often boils down to: my family or neighborhood used the term sauce, so sauce is the correct term–or vise versa.

One thing is certain, sauce is the more widely accepted noun, so gravy may one day fade.

And who knows, perhaps another term will take gravy’s place, allowing the controversy to rage on for another 100 years.

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