Future English majors: Don't let anyone tell you that you should pursue a degree in anything else. Your English degree will give you a million things—the abilities to make an argument, to write gracefully, to look for hidden meaning. With your English degree comes a curiosity for and appreciation of wacky, bizarro, pseudo-poetic words.
Many of them have to do with food: When we come up with recipes, we nickname them, either to make them our own or to bestow them with some sort of grandeur. Grasshopper pie. Scrapple. Eggs mimosa.
Here are some of our favorites, decoded:
Grasshopper pie gets its name from a bright green cocktail. And that name, explains Eater, is credited to the New Orleans bar Tujague's, which supposedly invented the drink in 1919 (though it wasn't truly popularized until the 1950s and 60s) and still lists a Grasshopper—green crème de menthe, white crème de menthe, crème de cocoa, and heavy cream, with a brandy float—on its bar menu. (The "grasshopper" in the Grasshopper seems to just come from the glowy-green color. No actual grasshoppers are harmed in the making of this cocktail.)
Some Grasshoppers—especially, according to Eater, in dairy industry-happy Wisconsin—skip from crèmes to mint-chip ice cream, which makes the transition from cocktail to ice cream pie a natural one. The crème de menthe usually sticks around in both the ice cream cocktail and the ice cream pie. (The pie also sometimes forgoes ice cream for a gelatinized whipped cream or marshmallow base.)
It sounds just like what it is: a tiny scrap. The Oxford English Dictionary claims that scrapple's etymology is simply that "scrapple" is a diminutive of "scrap," and the first recorded use in 1855, in a publication called the Rural New Yorker.
Scrapple is a sort of farmer food, evolved out of the need to make use of every last bit: It is usually made of ground bits of pork—like the trim that would otherwise get made into sausages, as well as skin, tongue, and other offal—plus, usually, cornmeal, broth, and spices. The mixture is then pan-fried.
If someone called you a coddler, you wouldn't be wrong to take offense. A "coddle" or a "coddler" is someone who coddles, or babies, oneself. But when applied to the humble egg, there's perhaps no better treatment: A lovingly, gently cooked egg, boiled inside a glass or porcelain cup, is creamy and soft. "Coddled" is a very fitting descriptor.
"Coddle" actually meant "boil gently" (16th century) before it meant "pamper" (around 1816). (Previous spellings include "quoddle"!) Many of the examples the OED cites include apples (for example, "Take your Pippins green, and quoddle them in faire water," from a 1655 publication by one T. T. de Mayerne), and some speculate that the verb "to coddle," meaning to boil gently, might be derived from an English variety of apple, the codling.
If that's the case, it makes even more sense that the egg coddler might come from Britain: It seems as though the first widely manufactured coddlers were made and sold by the England-based Royal Worcester china company in the 1880s. They're some of the best known coddlers (and largely available on eBay or Etsy, though no longer sold by Royal Worcester).
You know, those fluffy little bits of hard-cooked egg yolk, scattered across the top of your asparagus (or, occasionally, over other vegetables or hard-cooked, halved egg whites; this recipe calls for a sort of béchamel to be poured over the whites and the egg yolk to be sprinkled over the top). Yes, you could just call it "sieved egg," which would be true: That's what eggs mimosa are. But its comparison to the frothy yellow blossoms of the mimosa tree is strangely apt.
When it started to be called eggs mimosa is uncertain, the New York Public Library's collection of vintage menus first includes "Salade Mimosa" on a 1939 menu from a Grand Hotel Royale. It seems to be French in origin.
"The name was supposedly acquired from being thrown to quiet the dogs," explains (helpfully) a 1981 pamphlet called Crawdaddy: A South Louisiana Food Glossary. A 1947 article in This Week Magazine further clarifies that hushpuppies are "a Southern fried bread like a miniature corn pone—but glorified," since they're "made with the white cornmeal of the South, smooth and fine as face powder."
According to Serious Eats, the "quiet, dogs!" theory is hooey, and "As far back as the 18th century, the phrase was used as a term for silencing someone or covering something up." The article goes on to explain that "hushpuppy" or "hush-puppy" has also been a name for gravy (specifically, it seems, ham gravy)—and that hushpuppies as we know them now were once called "red horse bread." The author of the article, Robert Moss, suspects—and this is the most convincing possibility in my own mind—that "'hush puppy' was simply a euphemism for stopping the dogs in your stomach from growling."
You may know Steak Diane—especially if you ate at upscale steakhouses in the 1960s, when Steak Diane was all the rage. But who is Diane, you say? An excellent question. There are many dishes, all of them meaty (and often game-based), prepared "à la Diane," which suggests that they might be nodding to Diane (a.k.a. Diana), Roman goddess of the hunt.
The traditional Steak Diane is usually composed of thinly sliced steak, panfried and served with a creamy roux-based sauce (sometimes with Worcestershire, sometimes with cream, sometimes with Cognac, sometimes with truffles, as in the 1907 recipe some say to be the "original"—one by the French chef Auguste Escoffier); sometimes there are caramelized onions and mushrooms and lots of black peppercorns, too—it's the classic steakhouse dinner. But there were other things prepared as "Diane"—partridge, quail, chicken, and even fish.
What is a pandowdy? Not a dance performed south of the Mason-Dixon line, as we once jokingly speculated—though if someone asked me to pandowdy, I would—but a fruit dessert that's essentially equal parts fruit (traditionally apples, says the OED) and topping (either biscuit or pie dough that you smash into, crème brûlée-style, halfway through the cooking so that the fruit bubbles up through it). Sometimes, as in this 1851 menu, it's called "pandowdy pudding."
The silly name is a headscratcher, though; the OED claims it's specifically a New England dish. A very basic interpretation could be that the "pan" comes from the root of bread—"pan" or "pain." And "dowdy," as in "shabbily or unattractively dressed"? Well, it is basically a broken-faced pie.
Peach Melba might be the most popular "Melba," but it isn't the only one. In fact, peach Melba, Melba toast, and Melba sauce are all named after the same Melba: one Nellie Melba, née Helen Porter Mitchell, an Australian opera singer (a soprano, to be exact). Nellie Melba was hugely famous during her lifetime (1861 to 1931), both in her native Australia and worldwide. "Melba," explains the OED, is actually shortened from "Melbourne," which is where Nellie was born and where she started her operatic career.
She was so beloved that dishes were named after her. (Escoffier, the fellow who's said to have first recorded a recipe for Steak Diane, is also said to be the inventor of Melba toast, named, of course, after Nellie.)
Half of this name comes from—like "pandowdy," maybe—the dish's appearance. Eton mess is messy! Think a pile of whipped cream, meringue rubble, and smeary strawberries bleeding over the top of it all. Messy indeed.
But the Eton bit comes from its location (and has nothing to do with eatin'): Eton is a village in southeast England, and home to the famed Eton College, a boys' school, which is said to have invented it. Some say that a pup romping through a picnic at a Eton College cricket game squashed someone's pavlova; others say it's just a traditional cricket-game dessert. The judge is out on this one.
What's the funniest food name you can think of? Do you know the history of it? (And do you have any nicknames in your own family's roster of recipes?) Tell us in the comments.
On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.Listen Now