More on marinara sauce

Rick Brown, in  a 6 April comment on my “semantic change on the menu” posting, quotes me:

“Americans (for whom marinara sauce is just a simple tomato sauce with herbs) feel obliged to stipulate the presence of marine protein if there’s some in the sauce.”

and replies:

This sentence confused me. Did you mean “[…] if they want there to be some in the sauce”?

I was writing from the point of view of someone (a menu writer, a server in a restaurant, a recipe writer, etc.) referring to a sauce, but my comments to follow hold equally for someone requesting a sauce.

In the U.S., such a reference to marinara sauce will be understood as a reference to the U.S.-unmarked marinara sauce, which has no seafood or meat, or in fact mushrooms, in it (but see below). But the expression is not incompatible with the presence of these further ingredients. In the U.S. there are such things as seafood marinara sauce, clam marinara sauce, shrimp marinara sauce, lobster marinara sauce, calamari marinara sauce, crab marinara sauce, fish marinara sauce, salmon marinara sauce, meat marinara sauce, (ground) beef marinara sauce, sausage marinara sauce, chicken marinara sauce, turkey marinara sauce, mushroom marinara sauce, and so on. All of these are types of marinara sauce; that is, X marinara sauce is a subsective compound; in subsective compounds, the compound X Y denotes a type of Y.

The complexity is that some expressions Y are conventionally understood (in certain socio-cultural contexts) as picking out only certain (“unmarked”) types of Y. These conventional understandings can be canceled: if it’s been established that the marinara sauce we’re talking about is curried, or has mushrooms in it, or ground beef, or whatever, then (the/some/etc.) marinara sauce can be used, unproblematically, with this more specific understanding. But in the absence of such a set-up, the more specific understanding requires a stipulation: curried marinara sauce, mushroom marinara sauce, meat marinara sauce, seafood marinara sauce, etc.

In socio-cultural contexts where the conventions are different — in most places outside the U.S., for instance, where the convention is that marinara sauce has seafood in it — the more general understanding has to be stipulated (by, say, vegetarian marinara sauce or via some other expression, like tomato (pasta) sauce).

(What I’ve just said is a considerable expansion of what I said originally, which made assumptions that linguists would naturally supply but which I hoped would nevertheless be comprehensible to others. But I clearly was wrong.)

Now a further twist. For some U.S. speakers, marinara sauce can be used with the general understanding or with the more specific understanding ‘meat marinara sauce’, even more specifically ‘(ground) beef marinara sauce’ (what is known by many in the U.S. as spaghetti sauce), a fact that can make menu references to “marinara sauce” problematic. Here’s one very clear example from many you can find on the net:

Marinara Sauce is the famous Italian tomato sauce. Marinara Sauce can be rich and meaty, good over spaghetti or linguini, or it can be light and vegetarian, for use by itself over pasta, polenta and other dishes, or as a garnish to veal parmigiano or such. Marinara is good with big chunks of wild mushrooms cooked in it and served over pasta. Here is my recipe for a good honest marinara with about any kind of ground meat. Beef of course is a natural. For vegetarian marinara sauce leave out the meat and go a bit lighter on the spices. (link)

(A side issue that I’ve disregarded in all of this discussion is a potential ambiguity in X marinara sauce: ‘marinara sauce (made with) X in it’ or ‘marinara sauce as a sauce for X’. So chicken marinara sauce can refer to marinara sauce with diced or ground chicken it it (the understanding I’ve been discussing) or to a dish with (U.S.-style) marinara sauce on pieces of cooked chicken (an understanding that’s not relevant to my discussion above); pork marinara sauce to marinara sauce with ground pork in it or to a dish with (U.S.-style) marinara sauce on a cooked pork chop or medallion of pork, and so on. Such potential ambiguities are, of course, commonplace in noun-noun compounds.)

4 Responses to “More on marinara sauce”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    This seems to be the case in the UK as well. It confused me no end when I first encountered my (UK) school cafeteria serving pasta with marinara sauce (vegetarian) which just meant tomato pasta, and in this case, no meat/fish of any kind; since in my rather multi-national household, marinara always means a sauce containing fish.


  2. James D Says:

    To add to the confusion, the tomato-only sauce (but AFAIK, not the fish one) is often also called Napoletana sauce. Is this just an instance of clearing up where the mariners were from?

  3. kmwierz Says:

    I was largely unaware of the face that “marinara sauce” usually contains meat, esp. seafood within it. Coming from a (partially) Italian household, though, spaghetti or pasta sauce WAS NOT real pasta sauce unless it included some sort of meat, primarily Italian sausage. When I moved out and started using Ragu, my stepdad was about ready to shoot me.

  4. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] More on marinara sauce (link) […]

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