Tuesday 12 December 2017

Hail Caesar, em, salad! How top dishes got their name

Myles McWeeney investigates the origin of our favourite foods

Myles McWeeney

Have you ever wondered how the dishes we enjoy eating got their often curious names? Was it because Julius Caesar enjoyed crunchy cos lettuce with anchovies, croutons and mayonnaise before a session in the Senate that one of the most popular starters today is called a Caesar salad? Did the hamburger steak really originate in Hamburg in Germany? Why is a kipper a kipper?

Sadly, the Caesar salad's antecedents are far more modern than Imperial Rome, although it has to be said that its creator was indeed Italian, even if he was operating far from the Mediterranean.

Caesar Cardini and his brother Alex had emigrated to the United States before World War 1. But after Prohibition was introduced, the brothers moved their successful LA restaurant in 1924 to Tijuana, just across the border in Mexico. There wealthy Americans could drink alcohol without fear of prosecution.

One Fourth of July the restaurant was so busy it ran out of food, and as the patrons clamoured to be fed, Caesar obliged by throwing everything he had left in the kitchen into a huge salad bowl and he then tossed it theatrically in front of the hungry horde. The guests, many of them Hollywood stars, loved it, and from then on 'Caesar's salad' was always in demand.

There have been many learned treatises written on the origin of the minced meat patty called a hamburger. The US Library of Congress cites Louis' Lunch, a restaurant in Connecticut, with making America's first burger in 1895, but others point to Old Dave's Hamburger Stand at the 1904 World Fair in St Louis run by Fletcher Davies from Athens, Texas.

But the truth is burgers go back much further. In 1802 the Oxford English Dictionary defined a Hamburg Steak as a type of chopped salted beef served in a round bun in the German port.

As German emigration to the United States increased, many New Yorkers soon got to know and love this handy fast food.

The popularity of French fries -- those thinly cut deep fried chips without which a burger isn't really a burger -- in America goes even further back. They were introduced by one of America's greatest heroes, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was American ambassador to France for five years and when he became president in 1801 he hired a French chef, Honoré Julien, to work in the White House.

At one of his frequent banquets Jefferson introduced his guests to a dish he called 'potatoes fried in the French manner', soon shortened to 'French fries'.

A kipper is simply a smoked herring, and every one of the old folk tales (you know, the ones about how so-and-so left some fish hanging in a shed where a fire had been left burning all night and in the morning everyone though they were ruined until they tasted them) are apocryphal.

The process of 'kippering', salting and smoking fish or meat, probably dates back to prehistoric times. The term could come from the word 'kipe', a creel used to catch fish.

Many dishes are named after famous people for whom they were created, often by publicity-conscious restaurateurs. The French chef Auguste Escoffier, who cooked at London's famous Savoy Hotel towards the end of the 19th Century, was a past master at this.

He created a dish of peaches with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce and called it Peach Melba after the famous Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba, and another famous invention was the Tournedos Rossini, a fillet steak topped with a slice of fois gras and scattered with black truffles, in honour of the great Italian composer Giacomo Rossini.

Yet another of his dishes, Sole Veronique, had operatic inspiration. It was named after Escoffier's fellow countryman Messager's hugely successful work Veronique, which ran for 496 performances in London.

What Caesar Did For My Salad, by Albert Jack. Particular Books, £12.99

Irish Independent

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