Monday, July 14, 2008

The language of menus.

July 14 ...

Just a simple little story today, friends. A little musing on the naming of dishes. Once upon a time, when the language of menus was French, French, or French, every averagely sophisticated diner would have understood the likes of Truite à la Normande or Sweetbreads à la Financière, even if they could not hum La Plume de Ma Tante or ask the price of a pedicure. Then, as the nineteenth century wore on and eventually gave way to the twentieth, Americans and Britishers began questioning the practice, for reasons of national pride. A couple of world wars reinforced the changes, and although royals and heads of state hung out the longest - for reasons of elitistm, I guess – French was eventually dropped from menus everwhere but in its own country.

By the sixties and seventies, the desire for novelty (often for its own sake) meant that the ability to provide this became part of the definition of culinary skill and creativity. A new dish was required every week. Gone were the days (centuries or decades, actually) when one’s ancestors would have recognised every item on the menu in your hand. Classical menu phrases gave way to long-winded descriptions that almost substitute for recipes.

Away from restaurant dining and civic banquets and high-profile chefs, the little woman at home had a different menu challenge. How to disguise the leftovers as a new dish. And then – what to call it so that the family did not guess the ruse. Occasionally, home cooks almost willfully refused to be part of that deception, and presented things with names such as Old Maid Pie (or Scrap Pie).

I give you a couple of other failures to hide the culinary truth by the use of creative language. The first is from that canny Scot, Mrs.Dalgairns, who undoubtedly saw frugality as a virtue to proclaim.

Debris Pudding.
Mash a few boiled potatoes with a little salt, milk, and a good bit of butter; mince very finely the lean part of some cold boiled salted beef, mix it with the mashed potates, and brown it in a Dutch oven in the same way that a salt fish pudding is done. This pudding may be made of the remains of a piece of boiled beef, allowing to one pound of the beef one pound and a quarter of potatoes.
[The Practice of Cookery; Mrs Dalgairns. 1830.]

The second one puzzles me. Why not call it Bread and Butter Custard?

Save-All Pudding.
Put any scraps of Bread into a clean saucepan, — to about a pound, put a pint of Milk ; set it on the trivet till it boils, beat it up quite smooth, then break in three Eggs, three ounces of Sugar, with a little Nutmeg, Ginger, or Allspice, and stir it all well together. Butter a Dish big enough to hold it, put in the pudding, and have ready two ounces of suet chopped very fine, strew it over the top of the pudding, and bake it three quarters of an hour ; four ounces of Currants will make it much better.
[Cook’s Oracle, William Kitchiner, 1823.]

Tomorrow’s Story …


Quotation for the Day …

In America, even your menus have the gift of language.... "The Chef's own Vienna Roast. A hearty, rich meat loaf, gently seasoned to perfection and served in a creamy nest of mashed farm potatoes and strictly fresh garden vegetables." Of course, what you get is cole slaw and a slab of meat, but that doesn't matter because the menu has already started your juices going. Oh, those menus. In America, they are poetry. Laurie Lee.


srhcb said...

A great example of culinary "truth in labeling" is found in MFK Fisher's "How to Keep Alive", from To Cook a Wolf. She doesn't give the recipe for a dish developed as economical base sustenance a title, but does refer to it at one point, using an upper case first letter, as "Sludge".

The Old Foodie said...

I just gotta get around to re-reading MFK. Thanks for the reminder. I still like 'bread and soppy'!

Shay said...

Mais non! You still gonna see French on da menu in parts of La Louisiane, cher!

The Old Foodie said...

No doubt about it Shay - I have got to schedule a culinary visit to your country one of these days. My previous visits have been fleeting and had other agendas. Food Food Food Focus next time.

Ferdzy said...

Egad! What's with all this suet in bread puddings?! Glad I live in more civilized times ;)

Rochelle R. said...

The name Debris Pudding cracks me up. It reminds me that I absolutely hated leftover meat when I was a child, I couln't stand the taste. I would have gladly called it debris and sweep into the trash can.

The Old Foodie said...

Ferdzy - your arteries can thank you for it.
Rochelle - food memories are good, arent they? even the bad ones!