(HOST) Recent news from Philadelphia reports that the City of Brotherly Love has landed a hard punch to America’s stomach. Commentator Nancy Nahra has the story.
(NAHRA) At Geno’s Steaks in Phllly, a sign on the wall tells you, “This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ‘SPEAK ENGLISH.'” Joseph Vento, the owner, wants customers to do what his grandparents did when they moved from Sicily – learn English.
If you want a Philly cheese steak, the gold standard, then say it in English. Makes sense. Well for a New York minute – maybe.
Some things you can do just fine if you stick to English. Get a haircut. Go to the car wash. For eating, though, think twice.
At Geno’s Steaks you’re safe. But if you ate only things you could order in English, you would eat bread and water before long. Here’s why.
In the land of immigrants, people come and learn quickly to be American – in public. But at home people like to cook the way they used to – in the old country. Our entrepreneurial ancestors figured out how to parley home cooking into good business. All those Greek restaurants of the 1950s have morphed into Mexican restaurants on the way to becoming Thai and now Bosnian. Grateful patrons sample exotic treats and learn how to ask for them.
Now. Try to get through a day without a few non-English words for food. Not when you go out for filet mignon, but any time you have pasta, or nachos and salsa. You see the trap.
But you have to hand it to Mr. Vento. He serves cheese steak. Two words. Two syllables, words to stomp to. Have another look. Two nouns.
He’s hit the pay dirt of English, something our language does better than most: put two nouns side by side and hear the sense come across. Not by a system, not logical, if you push it, but clear.
Here’s how it works: Think of whale oil. Something you don’t use every day, but you know what it must mean: oil derived from whales. So far, so good. Okay. Think about baby oil. Not the same thing. But no one slips over the difference. That’s English.
Try that in other languages and you might have to use a preposition (oil of whales, oil for babies) or even explain it a little. Not English. There you go.
Mr. Vento knows his onions. But if you play by his rules, no pizza with mozzarella. No pizza at all. That’s tough. Want to give up tortillas? Won-ton soup? And vegetarians aren’t much better off: no more tofu.
Okay. A truce. Let’s say it’s easier to speak American than to eat American. And that sign, Mr. Vento, does not say “This is the United States.” It says “America,” an Italian looking word. Even in Philly.
Live by your rules, Mr. Vento, and maybe you won’t starve, but you won’t eat very well.
Nancy Nahra is Professor of Humanities at Champlain College.