Media

More Awkward Italian-Sandwich Moments Ahead

David Brooks columns aside, Americans aren't running scared from imported cured meats.

Does this look intimidating?

Source: Wikimedia Commons user Cherrylet

It was while on a flight home from California on Wednesday night, checking Twitter after 12 days of vacation-enabled absence, that I learned New York Times columnist David Brooks had written something controversial about Italian sandwiches. This was at first a little hard to figure out, online discussion of the momentous event having already moved on to a point where it was assumed that all readers were already so familiar with the original offense that it didn't need to be spelled out.

This Twitter-fueled acceleration of public debates, often rendering them incomprehensible within hours to those who weren't paying close attention, is a strange phenomenon. For all I know, it may explain some of the growing distrust of the national media and in-the-know elites in general. But I'm a card-carrying member of that national media, so I was quickly able to puzzle out (pro tip: I Googled "David Brooks sandwich") that everything had started with a Brooks column published online Tuesday under the portentous headline "How We Are Ruining America."

The piece was an otherwise quite reasonable take on Richard Reeves's new book, "Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It," 1  that included this strange paragraph:

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.

Along with a lot of derisive Twitter commentary, these words have already spawned a substantial opinion literature in the national media (most of which can also be found by Googling "David Brooks sandwich"). A sampling: "David Brooks thinks Italian cold-cut sandwiches contribute to social divisions. He’s not entirely wrong" (Washington Post), "David Brooks: the reason for inequality is uneducated people can’t order fancy sandwiches" (Vox), "The problem with David Brooks’s sandwich shop anecdote" (Washington Free Beacon), "The real problem with David Brooks’s sandwich column" (Washington Post), "Times columnist says confusing sandwich menus, not structural inequality, killed the American dream" (Slate), "Heroic columnist saves uneducated friend from embarrassing meal at sandwich restaurant" (Eater), "How good manners would have saved David Brooks from his deli disaster" (Washington Post), "David Brooks sounds like the lunch date from hell" (GQ), "Did David Brooks get permission from the alleged sandwich naif before embarrassing her in the New York Times?" (Washington Post), "What David Brooks doesn't get about gabagool" (CityLab), "The other problem with cultural codes in a meritocracy: Yes, this is about that David Brooks column" (Washington Post).

Yes, the Washington Post has really been flooding the zone on this one. It's not just democracy that dies in darkness, apparently. Italian sandwiches do, too! 2

And yes, the resources devoted to picking apart one paragraph in a David Brooks column may also explain some of that growing distrust of the national media. Sure, there were smart insights in lots of the critiques, 3 and the underlying subject of economic mobility is really important. But such a mass exercise in sandwich-gazing inevitably feels a bit unseemly in an age when resources devoted to actual news reporting have declined sharply.

As best I can tell, Bloomberg News and Bloomberg View hadn't participated in this exercise -- until I went and sullied that admirably clean slate with this column. I wasn't going to do it, either, but then I stumbled upon the irresistibly Bloombergy angle of looking at U.S. imports of Italian meat products (such as soppressata):

Eating More Soppressata

Italian meat product imports to the U.S.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

According to the Census Bureau's trade data, lots of what you might call Italian-lifestyle imports -- wine, apparel, shoes, cookware -- saw declines during the recession and a recovery after, but are still below 2007 levels. So the meat-products import boom stands out. 4 The rise of Eataly, the purveyor of Italian meats and other delicacies that opened its first U.S. outpost in New York City in 2010 and was bringing in $85 million in revenue from that location alone by 2014, surely has something to do with it. So does the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2013 decision to relax a long-standing ban on the importation of certain cured-pork products from Italy. (As for that 2016 decline, I'd chalk a lot of it up to currency fluctuations.)

What are the implications of all this for economic and social mobility? Oh, really, I have no idea. But I'm guessing that, as a nation, we have a lot more awkward soppressata moments ahead of us. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Another reminder that Christopher J. Scalia really needs to get cracking on that book he's been (facetiously) promising in his Twitter bio: “Enough! How long, hyperbolic book titles are corrupting our culture, poisoning our politics -- & what we can do to stop them!”

  2. The incident appears to have occurred at a Washington restaurant, so I guess it also qualifies as local news for the Post.

  3. Rod Dreher's "When is a sandwich not just a sandwich?" is especially good.

  4. Even more of a standout is the boom in auto imports from Italy (from $804.5 million in 2007 to $4.1 billion in 2016) brought on by Fiat's 2011 return to the U.S. market.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE
Comments