Fill ‘er up.

Dear Word Detective:  We have just returned from a visit to Minnesota where my husband’s family live.  No mosquitoes and no day over 80 degrees!  Fantastic!  On a visit to a favorite local restaurant the special was a beef or turkey “commercial.”  It is very much like a hot roast beef or turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy then poured over all.  Is this a Midwest thing or a Minnesota thing?  I had never heard this before and I grew up in Illinois.  Any ideas on this epicurean conundrum? — Marsha in AZ.

Good question, and yet more evidence that I shouldn’t write this column when I’m hungry.  I think it was the mention of mashed potatoes that attracted me to this question.

“Gravy on everything” is definitely a Midwest thing.  Sometimes, in fact, gravy itself is the dish.  I vividly remember the first time I encountered “sausage gravy” in Ohio.  It’s just what it sounds like, cream gravy with bits of sausage mixed in.  People often eat the stuff with a spoon straight from the bowl, although pouring it over home fries is also popular.  Terrifying.  I suspect it was invented by a lonely cardiologist.

“Commercial” as a name for a hot roast beef or turkey sandwich platter with all the fixings, however, is a new one on me, and if the term is used in Ohio I haven’t run across it.  As a matter of fact, it doesn’t appear in any of the lexicons of regional American slang I have, or any other source I have access to (which is a lot of sources).  But my motto is “If you can’t find the answer, stare harder at the question,” and, after following that method for a few hours, I believe that I have the answer.  I’m not certain, but I’m at least 90% sure I’m right.

“Commercial,” of course, is primarily used as an adjective meaning, generally, “pertaining to or engaged in commerce.”  (“Commerce,” meaning broadly “buying and selling,” comes from the Latin “com,” meaning “together,” plus “mercis,” meaning “merchandise, goods.”)  But “commercial” can also be used as a noun, as we use it to mean “paid advertising broadcast by a radio or TV network.”  In this sense, which first appeared in the 1930s, “commercial” is short for “commercial announcement.”

A much older use of “commercial,” however, dating back at least to the mid-1800s (when it was used by Charles Dickens), is as a short form of “commercial traveler,” what we would also call either a “traveling manufacturer’s representative” or “traveling salesman” (“Do you know anything about a commercial called Slater?”, Dorothy Sayers, “In the Teeth of the Evidence,” 1939).

I believe that this is the same sense of “commercial” you saw on that restaurant menu.  For most of the 20th century to be a “commercial” was to spend weeks or months on the road, driving from town to town and, more importantly, eating exclusively in restaurants, most often small roadside diners.  These travelers were an important source of business to diner owners, and they were well aware that a man (as “commercials” almost always were) spending all day driving would want a full meal for lunch or dinner when he took the time to stop to eat.  Naming a filling meal of meat, gravy, bread, potatoes, etc., “the commercial” would be the equivalent of calling it “the Salesman’s Special,” and sure to catch the eye of a hungry “commercial.”

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