Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Great Sandwich Debate

Earlier this semester in my technical writing class, there was a day when each student wrote a little something for an in-class assignment and then they got to share their writing with the class. One by one, the students slipped me their papers and I projected them onto the big screen so we could all see as I read them aloud.

In the middle of one of those papers I stumbled over a sentence because I didn't think it was constructed correctly. "Now you can go inside and make yourself an Italian?" I asked. "Did you make a mistake there? Did you write the wrong word?" I couldn't imagine any way that sentence could be correct. How did one make himself an Italian? Did it involve marinating oneself in a vat of sauce while guzzling Prosecco and meditating about Venice?

Even though I was pretty sure I was in the right and that the student had made a mistake, that didn't change the fact that the entire class looked at me like I was insane.

"What do you mean 'How do you make an Italian?'" they asked.

"An Italian is a thing?" I asked. "A non-person thing?"

They exchanged glances. Some started mumbling. "What would she call it?" they whispered to one another. There was some low discussion and then one student shot his hand up.

"A SUB!" he said.

"A sub?" I asked. "An Italian is a sub?"

"Yeah," the student said. "Sort of."

I was stumped. Stumped and disappointed. I'd just assumed the people of Maine called their subs grinders--excuse me, grindahs--like their neighbors in Vermont and New Hampshire. This I had been prepared for. This is what I'd been led to believe would be the case. After all, the last time I was up in New England with Ex-Keith, he and his family had to brief me on this very subject after we'd passed a pizza place that advertised Grinders! on its sign. I'd been confused.

"That's just what they call them up here," Keith said, waving his hand out the window as if to indicate the entire patch of New England. And I'd just gone on believing that to be true.

To hear that I was incorrect rankled me. "No, no, no," I said. "You guys call them grinders. I know this. I was told this."

A female student wrinkled up her nose. "A grinder?" she said. "That just sounds silly."

"It's Italian country up here," another student informed me. "They are delicious."

I was still a little sore on the subject. I wanted some answers. Concrete answers. "What is on an Italian?" I asked. I wanted to see if we were really, truly, honestly talking about the same thing.

"Oh, you know," one of my students said. "Meat, vegetables, oil--that kind of stuff."

"I see," I said. I nodded sagely. "What you are describing is a SUB."

"Italian!" they insisted.

Before the move I had made space in my heart and vocabulary for the word grinder, but there was no room for me to store the term Italian. I felt robbed of a folksy-sounding regional specialty. Italian is already a word with other meanings that have nothing to do with meat on bread. Grinder, however, is just a goofy-sounding word that could mean something else if you wanted to define someone who sharpened things, but who's ever used it in that capacity? So, really, grinder is more separate, more contained, more specific than Italian.

Because I was so disappointed and because I was in mourning over potential opportunities to drop the word grinder into polite conversation, I attempted one last time to convince my students that they were wrong, and that the term Italian was just goofy. If the sandwich wasn't going to be a sub and it wasn't going to be a grinder, then it might as well be dead to me.

"Listen to me," I said. "You know that restaurant where you go to get your Italians? Is it called Italian-Way? No. No, it is not. It is called Subway."

"Ha ha ha," my students laughed. "You're so funny. You're so cute."

I've been through this before. I spent three solid years in the Midwest trying to convince its residents that the phrase green bean hotdish was NOT NORMAL and that chicken noodle hotdish sounded like a science experiment gone terribly awry. And when I rolled out my own version of hotdish--my famous Smoked Gouda Chicken Casserole--it was criticized. The noodles instead of tater tots (or a similar form of potato) were unacceptable. And an expensive brick of cheese? The Midwesterners scoffed at such an idea. If they weren't able to produce a hotdish with whatever they had in the fridge--staples every Midwestern home should have: a bag of frozen tater tots, a sketchy brick of mild cheddar cheese, ground chuck, and cream of mushroom soup--then it was scarcely worth the effort. Any hotdish that cost over four dollars to assemble was an affront to hotdishes everywhere.

Minnesotans were as passionate about their hotdishes as I was about, say, wings or fingers. And while I think it's been clearly demonstrated that the Midwestern palate is--for the most part--a sad, sad thing, and that anything they say about cuisine or things that are supposed to have flavor should be discounted as hugely false, I am not yet sure I can say that about Maine. In fact, I might have to defer on this whole Italian business. I might have to give in and start using the term--especially when you consider that my mailbox keeps being stuffed with coupons for local sandwich shops that run Italian specials every week. I might be willing to give Mainers their silly term because... you know what? These people know how to eat. I mean, consider their state cookie: it's actually two cookies smooshed together with a hearty dose of frosting. Also, here there is unfettered access to things from the ocean, which proves for some mighty fine eating. The lobster you got in Minnesota had been through a long and bumpy journey across several thousand miles before it reached your plate.

And so I give Maine good, good grade when it comes to issues of food, taste, culinary history, and the like. (This judgment does not include pizza, which will be a subject for anther time.) And because of this good grade, I am more willing to be lenient when they start throwing around silly terms for such common everyday food items. Minnesota is not so lucky. But for Maine? For Maine, I'll let this one slide, although I'll probably still be mourning the word grinder this time next year.

(Here's more information about Italians, and what they share and do not share with subs, hoagies, grinders, etc.)


Nathan said...

I've heard the expression "grinder" in regard to a sandwich but I've never heard anyone say "Italian" without adjoining "sub" or "sandwich" with it.

I think the tater-tot fixation is uniquely Minnesotian. Wisconsinites also eat them, of course, but they will use also use noodles and the expression "casserole" as opposed to "hotdish" (I was as confused about the term as you were when I moved here, that and calling brownies and similar food items "bars").

Grinder is still a great word, full of oportunities for double entendre.

Jason said...

What you need to do, Jess, is introduce them to an Italian hotdish grinder.

Problem solved.

I mean--seriously--who wouldn't love a sandwich with ground beef, tater tots, oil, and all the fixins?

See? Hahahaha.

Jess said...

Mmmmm. An Italian Hotdish Grinder. Man, think of all the money I am going to make when I market that sucker!

The Mighty Flynn said...

I miss Italians. Try one at Colucci's (top of Munjoy Hill, Portland). Theirs was written up in Gourmet's "Road Food" column a few years ago. BTW, the only people who would go to Subway for an Italian are the same fools who'd go to McDonald's for a lobster roll.

Have you come across American Chop Suey yet?