English may not be the official language of the United States, but it is the official language of Genos Steaks, a Philadelphia landmark specializing in cheese steaks. Thats because eight months ago Genos owner Joseph Vento filled his restaurant with signs reading, This is America. When ordering speak English.
Supporters of official English think that Vento is right on, while the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission is accusing him of violating its anti-discrimination code.
Vento is the son of Italian immigrants who had to learn English if they wanted to survive in the New World. Shrugging off the Human Rights complaint, he insists that no one leaves Geno’s hungry because of language – not the Mexican immigrants moving into the once-Italian neighborhood or the foreign tourists lured to the restaurant by the guidebooks. But he feels that today’s immigrants – especially the illegal aliens – aren’t learning English. If they want to eat at Geno’s, they’d better know cheese and steak, two words that mean bread and butter to him.
Bosses regularly tell employees what they can and cannot say, and in what language, and the courts frequently support that practice. But telling customers what language to use is a new twist for the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that Vento champions, one which the courts may find discriminatory.
Vento himself doesn’t hesitate to take liberties with language. Instead of naming his restaurant after a family member, he made up the name Geno – à la Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, two fictional creations which became everyday words in the American kitchen – when he opened his business. When sales took off Vento turned around and named his son Geno after the restaurant.
But Vento’s linguistic tolerance stops with the creative spelling of phony names. That’s actually unusual, because the restaurant business has always been heavily influenced by foreign cuisine and the words that come with it. Much of our cooking vocabulary is French in origin because of the Norman Conquest in 1066. The English language never fully recovered from that great wave of illegal immigration, but Vento serves “freedom fries” in his restaurant instead of French fries because the French didn’t support the American invasion of Iraq.
And speaking of illegally crossing borders, long before the French, the Germans, or the Scandinavians invaded England, the cradle of the English language was a colony of Rome. Centuries later Rome – where one does as the Romans do – became the capital of Italy, the home not just of Joe “When in Geno’s speak English” Vento, but also of Christopher Columbus, the Italian who discovered America and wrote about it in broken Spanish because he lived in Spain.
Like Columbus, today’s immigrants to the U.S., legal and otherwise, learn the language of their new home. That takes time: Vento’s parents spoke broken English, though their children were fluent. But while today’s immigrant adults may stumble over language for years, their children are becoming monolingual English speakers, and they’re doing it faster than the immigrants who came before them.
Columbus’s American descendants may have switched from Italian to English, but fortunately for all of us they kept their food terms Italian: spaghetti, macaroni, pasta, and, oh yes, pizza. In southern Italy, pizza is the word for pie. Joe Vento may serve freedom fries at Geno’s, but I bet he calls a pizzeria, not a pie shop, when he wants a pizza.
I may not be the right person to criticize Joe Vento’s English-only sales pitch. I’ve only been in Philadelphia a couple of times, and I’ve never had a cheese steak. All things considered, I’d rather eat in France, because I found to my dismay that the cheese in cheese steaks is often Cheez Whiz. That’s a made-up name – like Geno’s. Not only isn’t Cheez Whiz cheese, it isn’t really English. It’s also not French – in Québec, where French is official and English is frowned on in public discourse, the government wanted to change the name, not because Cheez Whiz was English, but because it wasn’t cheese. But don’t tell that to Joe Vento. He’ll only reply with his version ofwhat the great French Queen Marie Antoinette said when she was told her subjects had no bread: “Let them eat steak.”