The Name Game

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a food item, it might be anything from a description of your appearance to a regional or historical association to an expected reaction. Below is just a small sampling of some of the fun names associated with foods, but it may just give you an idea of how colorful (and in at least one case, misleading) these names can be.

One example of a food generally known by its appearance is ladyfingers, which look to some like long, female digits—except that in Britain and the U.S. this sobriquet identifies narrow strips of golden cake, while in India it refers to okra. Not so obviously named for appearance is cabbage, the name of which comes from caboche, an Old French word that means “head.” Cappuccino got its name from the fact that coffee with milk is just about the same color as the robes worn by Capuchin monks.

Imam bayildi (“the priest fainted”) suggests an anticipated reaction to a flavorful, oil-soaked eggplant dish. Xnipek, the name of a popular salsa in the Yucatan, means “dog snout,” which supposedly refers to the runny nose this fiery sauce engenders. And the name of the great Italian dish saltimbocca means “jumps in the mouth,” which it certainly always does for me any time I see it on a menu.

Most people are surprised to learn that German chocolate cake is named for one of its major ingredients, Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was itself named for its creator, an Englishman named Sam German. The cake was invented in Texas in 1957. (As a German friend of mine once noted, when this confused nomenclature was explained, “I wondered why I’d never seen this back home. And I wondered why a German would be using coconut.”)

Sylvester Graham, a promoter of natural eating, gave his name to the sweet, whole-grain crackers he invented. (Hard to think of Graham crackers as healthfood now.) Another healthy-eating advocate, J.H. Salisbury, a 19th-century English nutritionist, gave his name to a ground-beef patty that he hoped would reduce fat in people’s diets.

One of my favorite opening lines of an article (read so long ago that I couldn’t possibly track it down,) ran “Melba toasts the peachy singer.” And, indeed, names often signify that something was created for a famous or powerful individual, from the popular Australian dessert, Pavlova, to beef Stroganoff. On the other hand, chicken Marengo, while associated with Napoleon, is named for a key battlefield (it was created from scrounged foodstuffs after the battle was won).

Delmonico steak and Delmonico potatoes both owe their names to New York’s first luxury restaurant, Delmonico’s, which the Delmonico family ran from 1835 to 1881. Two other famous dishes came from this restaurant that don’t bear its name, however. Eggs Benedict were named for regular patrons, Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict. Lobster Newburg was originally named Lobster Wenburg, after shipping magnate Ben Wenburg, until Wenburg got drunk and got into a fight at the restaurant. The proprietors then changed the name of the dish to Newburg.

Place names are so strongly associated with some foods, we hardly remember that the foods were named for a location. In this category, we find hamburgers (Hamburg), frankfurters (Frankfurt), wieners (Vienna, which is Wien in German), and cheddar (Cheddar, England). (There are myriad other foods associated with specific places, but few have become as “generic” as these, losing all sense of association with the places for which they are named.)

Italian food is particularly rich in descriptive and associative names. Linguine, for example, means “little tongues,” mostaccioli means “small mustache,” fettuccine means “small ribbons,” penne means “quills, pens,” vermicelli means “little worms,” ravioli means “little turnips,” orecchiette means “little ears,” and spaghetti means “strings” or “cords.” But there are hundreds of pasta shapes, looking like (and named for) stars, butterflies, peapods, torches, seashells, and more.

It’s not just the pasta that gets identifying names, however. The dishes in which these pastas appear often let you know where the dishes originated, or with whom. Fettuccine Alfredo was invented by restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio at his restaurant in Rome. (And his is infinitely better than any of the knock-offs one finds anywhere else.) Pasta marinara was first popular with sailors and spaghetti alla carbonara is credited to charcoal makers, while pasta puttanesca is associated with ladies of the night (some say because it’s spicy, others, because it’s quick, inexpensive, and good cold, if your dinner gets interrupted).

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language

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