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On culinary vocabulary

We tend to take the names of the things we put in our mouths for granted. But once in a while we may do a double take. At bang-bang chicken, for example: why on earth is it called that? Who dreamed up such outlandish terms as death by chocolate and pigs in blankets? Where did jammy dodger come from? Or Bedfordshire clanger? Why is there a cheese called Stinking Bishop? And as for Buffalo wings!

Once that little seed of curiosity has been planted, you begin to notice all sorts of other conundrums. What’s the difference between a pope’s nose and a pope’s eye, for instance, or between a priddy oggy and a tiddy oggy, or between Kobe beef and Wagyu beef? Was there ever a Marie Rose who inspired that pink sauce? Who or what are or were Maris and Piper, of potato fame?

Eponymous gastronomy

If you’re anything like me, a gastronome with linguistic tendencies, this leads you into ever more fascinating byways of culinary etymology. There are all those eponyms, to start with. Some are fairly straightforward, or at least appear to be, such as Barnsley Chop, Eton mess, Kendal mint cake, and Parma ham, but many require further elucidation (bananas Foster, for example, which was named after a friend of the owner of the New Orleans restaurant where the recipe was invented; Pringle, which comes from the name of a street in a town in Ohio; and tarte Tatin, which preserves the name of the two French sisters who popularized the tart), and others still defy conclusive explanation (it’s not known for certain how beef Wellington got its name, for instance, and Australians and New Zealanders still argue over who originally christened the pavlova).

Patatas bravas by any other name. . .

Then there’s the constant deluge of foreign food terms coming into English which cry out for explanation: Japanese umami, for instance, coined by Professor Kinunae Ikeda, which means literally ‘delicious taste’; or French tartiflette, which is based on a Franco-Provençal word for a potato; or Italian macchiato, which means literally ‘stained’; or Spanish patatas bravas, ‘fierce potatoes’. Sometimes the foreign name gets translated into English, like tiger bread, which comes from Dutch tijgerbrood (in 2012 Sainsbury’s changed the name of its version to giraffe bread, after a little girl wrote to complain that the pattern on its crust looked more like a giraffe’s markings than a tiger’s).

Old-established words can demand a revisit, too. Marzipan, for example, whose etymology was once thought to revolve around a term for a medieval Venetian coin, has now been shown (equally surprisingly) to come from the name of a town in Burma; and US researchers have established that hot dog originated in Yale University slang in the 1890s.

Once you get started, the surprises and delights keep coming. And they’re not even fattening.

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