Iron Rangers say ‘porketta,’ Arby’s says ‘porchetta’

The Arby’s porchetta sandwich.

While language is probably the most important hallmark of a culture, food is a very close second. Everyone’s gotta eat, and what you eat tells a lot about where you live and which traditions you carry through the generations.

Here on the Mesabi Iron Range in Northern Minnesota, a melting pot of cultures made a virtual smorgasbord of different foods. The pasty from Cornwall, England. Lutefisk and lefsa from Scandinavian countries. Sarmas and potica from the former Yugoslavian nations. And, of course, Italian porketta.

These ethnic foods draw national attention time to time. I’m proud that some nice people drove a long way to ask me about the historical and cultural context of several delicious ethnic sandwiches a few years back. Once in a while, a food that seems like it “belongs” to the Iron Range breaks out nationally.

Case in point, Arby’s now sells a seasoned Italian pork sandwich called “porchetta” at select restaurants across the country.

Here is how Arby’s describes its seasonal porchetta sandwich:

Is this the most Italian sandwich Arby’s has ever made? Let’s review the evidence. This pork loin is herbed, rolled, and smoked for eight hours. The meat is topped by melted provolone and bottomed by lettuce, tomato, red onion, garlic aioli, red wine vinaigrette and banana peppers. So, yeah. It’s pretty Italian.

Now, I certainly am not Italian. Not even close. That said, I have an interesting family connection to Iron Range Italian history. My extremely Norwegian grandfather Marv Johnson’s sister Irene married Leo Fraboni, the extremely Italian founder of the Fraboni Sausage Company in Hibbing. That meant that once a month for most of my childhood an authentic Italian porketta would “fall off the truck” and my grandma would cook it.

Note the fact that on the Iron Range we say “porketta,” but Arby’s has called it “porchetta.” They say they derived the recipe from one that dates to the 15th Century. Now, I’m not going to leap on the national chain for getting it wrong. Actually, “Italy” at the time of peak Iron Range immigration was a fairly nebulous concept. That was especially true 500 years ago. Lots of different people and dialects, and different ways of preparing similar foods.

Because Italian immigrants arrived in America without a universal dialect and often not yet literate, the names for the foods were translated many different ways to written language. So on the Range the Italians spelled it “porketta,” and other places out East spelled it “porchetta.”

Are they the same food?

Well, I went down to Arby’s last night and ate a “porchetta” sandwich.

What’s my ruling?

Arby’s “porchetta” sandwich, as prepared Aug. 1, 2017. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Not quite the same. They bear some similarity. Both are seasoned, though I found the Arby’s meat to be fattier, with less of the traditional herbs. I didn’t pick up the fennel that identifies Iron Range porketta. Arby’s serves their sandwich with banana peppers and I found that the peppers overpowered the meat. Without the peppers, the porchetta meat was less flavorful than what Fraboni’s serves. Still good, though greasier.

We have to remember that culture (ie, food, language) constantly changes with the people living in that culture. When Italians made the dramatic journey to America, their traditions changed with conditions. So it’s not surprising that the food Leo Fraboni remembered from his childhood would have been different than what an Italian-American in New Jersey might have seen. Same origins, but different influences.

And keep in mind that porketta, just like Scandinavian lutefisk, was an ancient solution to the lack of refrigeration. Cornish pasties stayed hot for a long time and fit in a miner’s pocket. So there are utilitarian aspects to these foods.

So whether you say porketta or porchetta, the important thing is to think of the stories and memories attached to what you eat. And if there are no stories attached to what you eat, well, what are you eating after all?

Comments

  1. Roberta Olsen says:

    In Italian, “ch” is pronounced as “k”. It is spelled porchetta in Italian.

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