Better Late Than Never – The Rocket Campaign

March 22, 2009 at 11:48 am

Rob Gardner

The older half of the Local Family spent a few days recently in Wisconsin.  We bought  home all sorts of Wisconsin: New Glarus beers, Roth Kase cheeses,  landjaeger and other charcuterie, but I’m most pleased with the Yuppie weed most commonly called arugula we got.  We purchased two bags of arugula, I mean rocket, at the Madison Farmer’s Market on Saturday.  The rocket will add a needed dose of zest to our menus, but another and more vital thing, it reminds me of my 2009 resolutions.  Resolutions, like many that went by the wayside.

Back in January when everyone was filled with vim and vigor for the coming year, I announced to the Local Family that I had a mere two goals for the year.  I would eat more carrots and I would get people to stop using the term arugula and instead use the more proper rocket, well rocket being the actual English name for the green.  Carrot, you wonder, that was about doing more with carrots than stock and sticks, a lesser aspiration.  Rocket, that’s a good one.  Or was it.  The general opprobrium I faced from the remaining Local Family members as well as the few members of the general public I tried to sway to rocket cause, rather left the battle inchoate.  It is time, however, to renew the rocket call.

The New York Times recently asked a few foodies to address some food myths.  David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, took the defense of his green:

Readers, I come to defend arugula, the libeled salad green of the supposedly clueless, head-in-the-clouds cultural elite. Barack Obama took a lot flak for mentioning the high price of arugula at Whole Foods on the campaign trail — from Hillary Clinton’s campaign as much as John McCain’s. But really, there’s nothing fancy about arugula. In Mediterranean countries it has long grown wild, as a weed; during and between the World Wars, it was often subsistence food for an impoverished, foraging citizenry. Secondly, arugula is today as common in America as minivans; you can find it in every supermarket and in the “spring mix” of McDonald’s premium salads.

Yes, we should not fear arugula. We should not call it that.  Call it rocket.

It turns out that cause-shame brought on by my clan caused me to be somewhat scooped on the arugula-rocket issue.  At Culinate, Giovanna Zivny blogged about calling it rocket just a few weeks ago.    She, however was not on a mission.  Although as Italian as a Giovanna can be, she’s a rocket user.  She explains that she’s used that term because, well that’s what they called it way back when she started eating it in the 1970′s.  After all, Alice Waters still uses the term rocket on her menus.  When did we go from rocket to arugula?

Did you even know arugula is really rocket?  Well it is in the UK.  In France it is roquette (pronounced rocket, which is what inspired Giovanna).  In Italy it is rucola or ruchetta.  Why is it arugula in the US.  Arugula is dialect pronunciation.  The same Southern Italian way with words that turned capicolla into gabagool and pizza into apizz, turned rucolla into arugula.   Way back in 2000, Terra Brockman pointed out that term arugula took hold in America with Italian immigration about 100 years old.  She also noted that the acceptance of slang has not set well with others too.

The borrowing from Italian dialect rather than from proper French riles some blue bloods, such as William Woys Weaver, author of the excellent book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, who refuses to use the southern Italian dialect term because “it is like calling beans faggiul, or snails lumache, or conversely, about as elegant as calling dandelion by its American dialect name, Piss-a-Bed.”

She dismissed this as “elegance-schmelegance.  What she does not, cannot address, is why this little known slang use took over as the vegetable gained popularity in the US.

Elegance-schmegance, not only is Terra supporting  slang, she’s been stealing my Yiddish heritage. Where do we stop? Now you may say, we should have our own words, different from across the pond. After all do we dress our babies in nappie’s and wheel them in prams?  Of course not.  And we have no idea what petrol is and would stare blankly if someone asked us to hold the lift.  Would not the English rocket be more prissy?  A rocket sandwich with your pinky dangling.  Is this exactly not what we want.  Are not more people attracted to vegetables if Tony Soprano eats them.  Is that what got some marketeer hepped on arugula.  Well, all I say to that is imagine Terrance Stamp asking for a a f**cking rocket sandwich.  Are you dismayed on any sense of effeteness.  Will you use the right term.  We do not go looking for arugula in Napoli do we? 

There is much to pride in rocket.  It’s got flavor.  It also serves as a good foil to many dishes.  The River Cafe gals, Rogers and Gray use rocket in about all their antipasti.  It also makes an excellent pesto (and in fact can be cooked like other assertive greens),  The most limiting factor, in fact, I believe, is the nonsense name, arugula.  Rocket is not only correct, it is awe-inspiring.  Rocket means men on the moon and blowing things up.  Concepts that made America great.  With your help, we will become the United States of Rocket.