Hey everybody, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips: where instead of cooking something ourselves, we talk about some interesting fact of food history, culture, preparation, or really whatever the hell pops into my mind. Today, we’re covering Foods with Names. “But Jon,” you interject, “All foods have names.” First off, no, they don’t. “Spaghetti with Pesto” isn’t a name, it’s a list of ingredients. But sure, I’ll allow that all foods have designation titles. No, I’m talking about foods with names IN them, or that simply ARE names.
While there are dozens of such foods, I wanted to focus on the crème de la crème. So I refined my search. My choices couldn’t be super well known (EVERYONE knows that “Sandwiches” are named after an English card-playing Earl), and it couldn’t be particularly disputed (There are no less than 4 claimants to who invented the Margarita cocktail, and who it’s named after. (Fun fact: one of the options is famed actress Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Cansino.) ) Further, I wanted ones that were really interesting, one way or another. I found 8 candidates, though a few only JUST skated by. But, without further ado, let’s step into history, and meet some delicious people.
This one is the one I was least certain about including, but I felt I had to, because it actually inspired this post. My mother idlely commented as we watched a food show that she could never take the name “Alfredo” seriously, because of the pasta. And it caused me to reflect that, like the aforementioned Margarita, it’s a name most Americans see far more on menus than on people. But yes, there is an Alfredo. Alfredo De Lelio took an old recipe called fettucine al burro, and, the story goes, doubled the butter in it to please his pregnant wife. He then started serving it at his restaurant, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The other reason I decided to include it is to point out two parts of the dish that have fallen out of modern usage: Firstly, the actual recipe. See, Fettucine all’Alfredo has an ingredient list 3 entries long: Fettucine, Butter, Parmesan. There’s no cream, no nutmeg, no frills. The dish was made to be eaten IMMEDIATELY, and quickly, before the butter and parmesan, melted together by the heat of the pasta, separated. The other missing component is the showmanship: Originally, the pasta was made tableside, tossed with golden cutlery, and you would watch the butter and parmesan melt together over the pale noodles, in a sort of dazzling golden waterfall, handmixed by the chef or his son. With Alfredo, the biggest bit of magic is the bit we forgot.
This one I picked for one pretty direct reason: I wanted to correct a long-running misconception. NEITHER the salad, nor the medical act of cesarean section, are named for Julius Caesar. In fact, some historians believe the title “Caesar” may have actually been a reference to an ancestor of Gaius Julius being born by cesarean. (Records show he himself was not.) But that's by no means definite, as historians are still rather torn on where the name Caesar comes from. There are several possibilities, due to several words using the same roots, several of which aren't as impressive as we think. (One possible origin is it might loosely translate to "The one with the hair". Which, since Caesar was notably balding...means we might be repeating an ancient Roman JOKE about him.) Julius himself claimed it referred to an ancestor who in war killed an elephant which were supposedly called “Caesai” in the Punic tongue.
But no, the salad was made in the mid 1920’s in California/Tijuana. I say “slash” because they were invented by a man, Caesar Cardini, who own businesses in Sand Diego and Tijuana. The exact date he invented it is debated, though his daughter claims it was the Fourth of July 1924, when an unexpected rush of customers led to him making a dressing of what he had left, and having the chef toss the salads in the dressing at the tables, to make people think it was more showy.
One last interesting fact of Caesar salads: though many recipes add them now, supposedly the original didn’t include anchovies. Rather, it used Worcestershire sauce, which gave it an anchovy flavors. The Anchovies were added by Caesar’s brother for his preferred style of the dressing to make an "Aviator salad", but eventually the two just blended into one recipe.
Fosters may not actually be Australian for beer, but it's New Orleans for SUGAR.
If you’re not very aware of this dish, it’s a flambé dessert consisting of bananas, sugar, and rum. The sugars caramelize in the burning rum, and are used to coat the cooking bananas. They’re very popular at upscale restaurants, where they’re often prepared tableside, in a theme I SWEAR we’re done with in this post. (Seriously, “give it a person’s name and make it at the table” seems to be the cheat code for“Make something look fancy”)
I really wanted to use this one because of the origin: See, it’s named after Richard Foster, who was a prominent member of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a citizen’s organization dedicated to investigating and exposing corruption and crime in New Orleans. At the time, bananas were a new and exotic import, and a nearby restaurant had started doing a flambé dish, so one night they threw it together in his honor.
Kind of funny that a guy dedicated to investigating corruption would have a dish named after him mostly served at the kind of places frequented by those needing investigation. Also, I just think it's cool that such a flamboyant dish is named after a guy who was the mid-point between a private eye and an accountant.
German Chocolate Cake
Am I the only one who thinks it's weird that we associate chocolate with the French, Belgians, and the Swiss, but not with Spain? You know "The guys who pried it from the Inca's cold dead fingers?"
This was the first really big bombshell I encountered in my research. See, German Chocolate Cake, the dark chocolate and coconut cake you know? Has nothing to do with Germany. (Germany DOES have a popular chocolate cake, but it uses Cherries. Some places, in an effort to fix the "mistake", use cherries AND coconut to help make this MORE confusing.) No, German Chocolate cake is named for Sam German, who developed a flavor of dark chocolate for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. (You’ve probably seen their boxes, sitting in the baking aisles. The red ones with the gold logo?) He made the chocolate in 1852, and they named it after him. (Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate)
Over 100 years later, in 1957, a Dallas housewife had a recipe published in the newspaper for “German’s Chocolate Cake”. The company noticed,(Wait, you’re telling me that like, 5 smart-home companies were born and died in the space of the time it took me to write this, but there’s MULTIPLE chocolate companies with histories spanning literal centuries? Weird.) and reproduced it across the nation. The recipe became a smash success, while losing its possessive form.
General Tso’s Chicken
I've always preferred it to KFC, if only because Generals outrank Colonels.
This one has a rather complicated story, to the point that there’s actually a Netflix documentary regarding the dish’s origin, the history of Chinese food in America, the connection between Chinese cuisine and cultural acclimatization, and some really interesting research. If you have a spare 70 minutes, I’d really recommend “The Search for General Tso”.
In case you want to watch the film without spoilers, I’ll keep my revelations here fairly brief, and only discuss two prominent facts about the dish: Firstly, that yes, General Tso is a real person. He was a general several hundred years ago who supposedly never lost a battle, wrote frequently on Chinese values and traditions, and put down a peasant uprising. Pretty popular in his home province, not hugely famous anywhere else. A little like (INSERT YOUR STATE OR COUNTY’S FORGOTTEN POET/WARHERO/EXPLORER HERE).
The other big one is how RECENT the dish was invented. Minimizing spoilers, it was invented post-World War 2, and only became popular in the 70’s. Yeah, you likely have family members older than General Tso’s Chicken. Hell, the creator of the dish passed away LAST YEAR. Not just last year, but “A couple days after Thanksgiving” last year. The documentary actually talks to him, and his son. I just think it’s really cool to realize that sometimes, the culinary innovations and history aren’t history at all, but still unfolding all around us.
Unfortunately, speaking of unfolding, I’m only half-way through this list, and already hitting a 1500 word count. Unless I want this to be almost 3,000 words, I’m going to have to split it up. I hope you’re having as much fun as I am with this, because, seriously, these guys? The minor leagues. The BIG guns are coming out next week.
NEXT TIME FOR QUICK TIPS: TWO OF MY DISHES ARE SO COOL THE NAMES BECAME WORDS. TWO INVOLVE FRENCH GRAMMAR. AND ONE TURNS WORDS INTO A NAME, INTO WORDS AGAIN. WHAT THE HELL DOES ANY OF THIS MEAN? TUNE IN TO FIND OUT.
Also, on Monday, we’ll be featuring a piece on some warm Mexican foods to help you push through the last vestiges of Winter!