Food & Drink

What Italian Sandwiches Can Actually Teach Us About Food and Class

What David Brooks gets wrong about soppressata, capicollo, and social mobility.
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So plentiful are the errors and so deep the bully of New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ recent column “How We Are Ruining America?” that to enumerate them fully would be to release more noxious intellectual pollution into the atmosphere. No one needs that. But I would like to say something about class and food.

Brooks’ column seems inspired by Richard Reeves wonderful book Dream Hoarders in which the Brookings Institute economist argues that economic inequality is perpetuated intergenerationally through a few key mechanisms: exclusionary zoning in residential areas, unfair mechanisms influencing college admissions and informal allocation of internships. These conspire to hoard opportunity and form what Reeves calls a glass floor.

Though Reeves’ book is heavily footnoted and meticulously sourced, to these arguments Mr. Brooks replies, “Nah, bro. It’s sandwiches.” In a much discussed and mocked passage he uses the following example:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

There's an obvious flaw here: Arguing the barriers to socioeconomic mobility are informal and social, as opposed to economic and structural, is akin to arguing that climate change is real but not caused by humans or that it might be Russia but might be other nations too. That is to say, it is an argument so self-serving, doubt-sowing and counterfactual as to be immediately dismissed.

From the idea that when faced with unknown deli meat his friend froze up to the image of Brooks, overcome with noblesse oblige acquiescing to Mexican, a cuisine that those without a college degree can enjoy, the whole graf is rotten. But it is, nonetheless, instructive.

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Embedded in the lines and in Brooks’ schema of prestige v. non-prestige is an entire edible world and eons of culinary history. To begin with, the villainous meats that are responsible for the increased GINI coefficient: sopressata and capicollo.

The paisanos who brought these culinary traditions to our shores weren’t the monied elite ruining America with their highfalutin tastes but the impoverished immigrants who helped make America in the first place.

As one might suspect from the prevalence of vowels, the gourmet sandwich shop at which Brooks and his pitiable friend found themselves was Italian—specifically a Washington D.C. shop called Radici.

It is uniquely dunderheaded that Brooks holds the sandwiches Padrino (the Godfather) and Pomodoro (the tomato) and these meats to be the embodiment of exclusionary privilege since they are the food of poor Italian peasants and, later, poor Italian immigrants.

Both capicollo and soppressata are cured meats, often air-dried, from the south of Italy. Soppressata hails largely from the small towns of Basilicata, in the arch of Italy’s boot; Apulia, the stiletto; and Calabria, the toe. The reason it is air-cured is not that it’s bougie and cool to do so but because it’s a tradition that pre-dates refrigeration.


Capicollo, often called, at least in my neck of the woods, gabagool, is another meat from Southern Italy—Campania this time—that’s prosciutto-adjacent in a swine’s body.Perhaps if Brooks spent less time thawing the frozen face of his friend with the warm unguent of his sensitivity and more time understanding immigration patterns, he might have considered that the paisanos who brought these culinary traditions to our shores weren’t the monied elite he claims are ruining America with their highfalutin tastes but the impoverished immigrants who helped make America in the first place.

Between 1880 and 1924, over four million Italian immigrants, many driven by poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity in southern Italy, arrived in the United States. With them, they brought their cured meats, red sauces, vowel-chopping accents and an allegiance to garlic. Their food, hitherto held in high esteem, plunged in prestige in direct proportion to the influx of immigrants.

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As NYU Professor Krishnendu Ray writes in his terrific book The Ethnic Restaurateur, only when the offspring of these immigrants gained financial and social currency did their cuisine assume anything resembling respectability. “When American Italians climbed out of the ghetto and into sports arenas, corporate offices, governor’s mansions, city halls, and movie studios,” writes Ray, “Italian food was re-assessed in the American imagination.”

What helped these immigrants, many without even a high school degree, climb out of poverty wasn’t that they could order gourmet sandwiches without fear of stigmatization.

What helped these immigrants, many without even a high school degree, climb out of poverty wasn’t that they could order gourmet sandwiches without fear of stigmatization, but rather it was the mechanisms of social mobility in the United States that Reeves so adeptly shows have atrophied in recent years—which Brooks so venally undervalues.

Apart from the patronizing tone and historical misunderstanding of cured meat, Brooks plops another meat on the deli counter: a red herring. For the fault, dear Brooks, is not in our soppressata but in ourselves, or as that bastion of wisdom, Clemenza from The Godfather might say, “David, leave the sandwich—take the mobility."

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Joshua David Stein
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