It may be a cliché, but the United States truly is a melting pot. American English has a plethora of regional dialects, resulting in fun (yet sometimes confusing) differences in what we call certain things, especially foods. It’s often possible to tell what part of the U.S. someone is from based solely on what they call a certain dish. As with all regional terminology, there is no right answer, only whatever jibes with the local lingo.
A Holiday Side Dish
Dressing vs. Stuffing
What goes next to the turkey at a holiday meal? For many Americans, the answer is either stuffing or dressing, a bread-based, herby side dish. In general, the Northeast and Pacific Northwest call it “stuffing,” while the South and Midwest stick with “dressing.” (Some Pennsylvanians reportedly call it “filling.”) It’s not just a difference in the word; the cooking technique changes, too. Stuffing may be cooked inside (as in stuffed inside) the cavity of the turkey, while dressing is typically roasted in a separate dish outside of the bird (though the two dishes tend to have similar ingredients).
What Goes on Pasta?
Gravy vs. Sauce
Thank “The Sopranos” for bringing awareness of this difference to those outside of Italian American families. Those lucky enough to be in such families call their red tomato sauce “gravy,” which can be seriously confusing to other folks who likely use “gravy” to refer to the brown sauce topping mashed potatoes. In the South, “gravy” could be a white sauce studded with sausage and usually served with biscuits. Using “gravy” to describe tomato sauce is most often seen in Italian American areas such as the Bronx, east Boston, and Chicago. There is no clear-cut evidence as to why Italian immigrants began using “gravy,” although some linguists believe it could have been a way to identify as more “American,” because “sauce” sounded like the Latin and Italian word “salsa.” According to the dictionary, "gravy" is a sauce cooked with meat juices, stock, and other ingredients — pretty loose, so the Italian American version fits.
A Breakfast Staple
Pancakes vs. Flapjacks
By and large, the most popular name for this breakfast dish is “pancakes.” By definition, pancakes are thin, flat cakes, usually eaten with syrup or rolled up with a filling. The word formed in the Middle Ages, directly from cakes made in pans. Breakfast eaters in the Southeast, meanwhile, are more likely to call these treats “flapjacks.” The word “flapjack” has been around nearly as long as “pancake,” first appearing in the early 17th century, but it sometimes described a food more like an apple tart than a pancake. In the U.K. and Canada, a “flapjack” is an entirely different dish, akin to granola bars. So where do the terms “hotcakes” and “griddle cakes” fit in? They’re both synonyms for thick pancakes — even McDonald’s uses variations of both on the menu.
How Do You Like Your Eggs?
Dropped vs. Poached
Poached eggs are cooked in boiled water without a shell. The term comes from the Middle Ages, from the French pochier, meaning “enclose in a bag.” You may be able to find eggs Benedict on a brunch menu in the Northeast, but asking for “poached” eggs might garner some funny looks. Most New Englanders call them “dropped” eggs instead — to make them, drop a cracked egg into boiling water. According to linguists, “dropped” is used nowhere else in the U.S. to describe eggs (except during kitchen mishaps).
Hero vs. Sub vs. Grinder vs. Hoagie
Let’s look at one of the most common food feuds in America: the great sandwich debate. Most Americans call it a “sub” (short for a submarine sandwich, named after the uncanny resemblance to the watercraft), but some local dialects have special names for it. Philadelphians insist it’s a “hoagie,” while New Yorkers swear by “hero” — both terms emerged in the early 20th century. Sandwich-shop owner Al De Palma began calling his sandwiches “hoggies” because you “had to be a hog” to eat a sub that big. “Hero” had a similar upbringing; journalist Clementine Paddleworth described a sandwich that was so big, you had to “be a hero” to eat it all. Head farther up the coast and New Englanders call it a “grinder,” which might have stemmed from an Italian American slang word for dockworkers.
What Fruit Is That?
Mangoes vs. Bell Peppers
A stroll past the produce section at a Midwestern grocery store might leave some patrons puzzled at signs for “green mango peppers.” Green bell peppers are called “mangoes” in some states (particularly Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania). According to the Dictionary of Regional American English, a “mango” is any fruit or vegetable (especially a pepper) filled with spiced stuffing and pickled, so it’s not uncommon to see recipes for “stuffed peppers” listed as “stuffed mangoes” in Midwestern cookbooks.
Though both peppers and mangoes are fruits, anyone who’s tasted them can tell you that they have very different flavors. Mangoes in the traditional sense are sweet, tropical fruits that get their name from the Portuguese manga, while peppers (from Sanskrit pippalī, meaning “berry”) are fruits of the Capsicum family with a pungent (often spicy) flavor and edible seeds.
Cottage cheese vs. Smearcase
Cottage cheese is made from curds of slightly soured milk and is often served alongside fruit or used in baking. The term is of unknown origin but was coined in the 19th century, and the food goes by different names around the country. In the South, it might be called “clabber cheese” or “Creole cream cheese” (especially in Louisiana). In the North, it sometimes goes by “Dutch cheese,” “pot cheese,” or “smearcase.” “Smearcase” was derived from the German schmierkäse — combining “to smear” and “cheese.” This term is still popular in the Pennsylvania Amish community and the surrounding area. In Baltimore, “smearcase” has taken on a new identity as a custardy cheesecake.
A Sweet Treat
Soft Serve vs. Creemee
What most call “soft serve” across the U.S., Vermonters call “creemee.” They’re basically the same thing, but creemees are made with a slightly higher fat content, giving the ice cream an even creamier texture (hence the name). There are roadside creemee stands aplenty in the Green Mountain State, so be sure to order a maple creemee (made with genuine Vermont maple syrup) during your next trip.
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