There is no word for “gravy” in the Italian language. Words like salsa, ragu and sugo refer to that red stuff that is put on pasta, but it would be a stretch to say that "gravy" is directly translatable to any Italian word.
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Yet still, Maribeth Capelli, event organizer for the Hammonton Gravy vs. Sauce Competition, put on by the Hammonton Rotary Club from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, at Hammonton’s Firehouse No. 2, predicts that a majority of people, when asked at the end of the event for their vote on the topic, will choose gravy.
“I think a lot of people think that, because of their heritage, they know the correct answer,” she says of the passion people feel for their version of the word. “We take a vote at the end of the competition and usually gravy wins. There are a lot of die hard Italians that say it’s gravy, but in Italy they don’t even have a word for gravy.”
Though hesitant to show a bias, Capelli confirms this in confidence, backed up by the fact that one of the Rotary Club’s Italian exchange students readily contradicts that gravy is a word used by Italians.
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Whether or not locals choose to believe this claim, the term gravy — which some assert is any and all red sauce, while others make the distinction that it is red sauce made with meat — is a big part of Italian American culture. A town known for its deep Italian roots, Hammonton is the perfect place for a Gravy vs. Sauce Competition, in part because its residents are so passionate about the name, but mainly because those residents can make some damn good gravy/sauce.
“I was the one who brought the idea to the club as a new member,” Capelli says. “We were looking for other fundraising ideas, and we already have a really well-attended homemade wine competition. So I thought, why not translate that to sauce, since Hammonton is known for its Italian population?”
Now in its third year, the event benefits the Rotary Club, which in turn funnels the money to community service projects and scholarships. The competition breaks down into two categories: homemade and professional. Typically around 30 people enter into the former division, bringing their own family recipes to compete. The latter will have representatives from restaurants like Rocco’s Town House, Columbia II, Mario’s Pizza and Pasta and more.
Attendees will get to vote on their favorite for the Peoples’ Choice Awards, while three judges — Kelly McClay, Academy of Culinary Arts Certified Executive Chef at ACCC, Bruce Johns, director of culinary operations and Certified Exectuive Chef at ACCC, and Governor Tom Fletcher, Rotary District 7640 Governor — will vote for their own top creations. Contenders can bring to the table any of four subcategories: classic red, meat sauce, white sauce (like alfredo or garlic and oil) or other (blush sauces and the like).
So, although there will be a vote at the end to decide whether gravy or sauce is the correct term, what really matters isn’t the name of pasta’s perfect pairing, but how it tastes.
“I think people tend to like the classics better,” Capelli says.”I’ve seen some people try to think out of the box, but normally the ones that are the winners are the most traditional.”
Sheeran vs. LoBiondo
One of the more public debates over gravy vs. sauce occurred years ago between broadcast journalist Dick Sheeran and U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo.
“I grew up in South Philadelphia. People always ask you if it’s tomato sauce or gravy, and no one knows the origin,” recalls Sheeran, reminiscing on his lighthearted sparring match with Rep. LoBiondo. “People in South Philly have their own way of doing things …
“I was covering (Representative) Frank LoBiondo’s campaign a few elections ago, and I was looking for some color while setting up my radio report. (The interview) was held in an Italian American social club and they were serving pasta with red gravy.”
After covering some political questions, Sheeran ventured to ask LoBiondo about the pasta being served and the controversial substance on top.
“We engaged in a little bit of debate on the air,” Sheeran laughs. “I grew up in South Philly and he grew up in the farmlands of Vineland, so we spoke a different language.”
This is clearly an issue both men are still passionate about, evidenced by the fact that, when we reached out to Rep. LoBiondo for his side of the story, he sent back the message (with capitalization and punctuation specified):
“It’s very simple — you put gravy on turkey and roast beef. You put sauce on pasta. EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT!!!!!”