CHARLOTTE, N.C., Sept. 16, 2015 – Whether we have refined culinary tastes or just enjoy plain old home cooking, there are certain food dishes we have all heard about, even if we have never experienced them. But where did those familiar names come from? That’s the subject of this week’s trivia.
Peach Melba – Talk about an international heritage. French chef Auguste Escoffier created this dessert at the famed Savoy Hotel in London in 1892 or 1893 to honor Australian soprano Nellie Melba.
When Melba performed Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at Covent Garden, the Duke of Orleans gave a lavish dinner party to celebrate her triumph. Escoffier used an ice sculpture of a swan, a feature from the opera, carrying peaches nestled upon vanilla ice cream and topped with spun sugar.
Eight years later, Escoffier modified his creation for the opening of the Carlton Hotel by eliminating the ice sculpture and drizzling raspberry puree over the peaches. There have been variations of the dessert since, but Nellie Melba was the reason for the invention.
In fact, Nellie also lends her name to Melba toast, another creation by Escoffier. Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz, rather than Escoffier, receives credit for naming the crunchy cracker-like wafer, however. Just call it “puttin’ on the Ritz” at the turn of the 20th century.
Veal Oscar – According to legend, Swedish King Oscar II was partial to the ingredients that compose the dish that bears his name. Sauteed veal cutlets topped with either crab or crayfish and Bearnaise sauce are the basic elements. It is traditional to garnish the dish with asparagus spears. Chicken can be substituted for the veal, which then makes it Chicken Oscar, of course.
Naturally, it’s the gourmand who decides who receives the Oscar.
Oysters Rockefeller – Next we travel to New Orleans, where Antoine Alciatore founded Antoine’s in 1840. Oysters Rockefeller was the brainchild of Antoine’s son Jules in 1899, but the name we know today came much later, in 1937. The story goes that Mayor Robert Maestri asked John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world at the time, “How you like dem erstas?”
Thanks to the intensity of the sauce with its rich flavors, the name stuck with Rockefeller.
An interesting side story is that oysters were used as a substitute for the snails in the original dish because oysters were readily available.
Today, oysters Rockefeller remains the specialty of the house at Antoine’s.
Pizza Margherita – Much as Chinese food in the U.S. is not what they eat in China, the Margherita pizza you get in Italy is different from the American version. What we call a cheese pizza with basil is the traditional Margherita pizza created by a Neopolitan chef for the visiting Queen Margherita.
It all comes down to the colors of the Italian flag; red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese and green basil. Bella!
Sandwich – The sandwich gets its name from 18th-century aristocrat John Montagau, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who instructed his valet to bring him some meat inserted between two pieces of bread. Like the rats following the Pied Piper, other noblemen followed suit asking for “the same as Sandwich.”
Montagau found his creation to be conducive to allowing him to continue playing cards or cribbage without being interrupted in order to eat.
The city of Boston added a new twist to the story by passing a law that said “sandwiches” must include at least two slices of bread, therefore eliminating burritos, tacos and quesadillas. Apparently the ruling came when a restaurant that sold burritos wanted to move into a shopping center that had a no-compete clause prohibiting other sandwich shops.
So while the legislation initially appeared to discriminate against Mexican dishes, it did, in fact help them.
Newtons – Sorry we can’t call them “Fig Newtons” any more since Nabisco changed the name in 2012.
Devotees of “The Big Bang Theory” already know, thanks to Penny and Sheldon, that the cookie was named after a town in Massachusetts and not Sir Isaac Newton. Otherwise they would have likely been called “Apple Newtons.”
The popular doughy cookie was created by Charles Roser in 1891. Roser was a baker from Philadelphia with a passion for figs. After receiving a patent for a machine that could insert fig paste into a thick pastry dough, a Massachusetts biscuit company purchased the recipe and began to mass produce the treat.
The actual product was developed out of a belief by many physicians at the time that most illnesses were related to digestion problems and that many of these difficulties could be minimized by a regular intake of biscuits and fruit. Voila, the Newton was born.
And for those of use not born in 2012 or later, sorry Nabisco, they will always be “Fig Newtons” to us, just as Kleenex and Xerox will be with us forever.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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