According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word oxoleum (in its alternative spelling of oxelam) is recorded in English usage in 1575. If I understand the etymology correctly, the word derives from a fourth century Hellenistic Greek word, and came to English via sixth century Latin. I am curious, now, and wonder at what point did the English abandon this perfectly good word with its ancient and illustrious heritage - a heritage inextricably linked with the history of Britain - for the indisputably French vinaigrette? Nor is it just a question of word usage. At some point for the mass of Britons, the idea of a simple oil and vinegar dressing for salads became viewed as a slightly nasty Continental Idea, to be eschewed, if one had a patriotic bone in one’s body, for a boiled salad dressing or a commercial ‘salad cream.’ I know this to be true, growing up in post-war northern England, where the only use for olive oil was for medicinal purposes (I seem to remember for sore ears), for which it was purchased in tiny bottles from the pharmacy (I mean ‘the chemist’)
As for vinaigrette, originally it simply meant vinegar-sauce. In seventeenth century England – French things being very fashionable at the time – a vinaigrette was a ‘a condiment prepared with vinegar’ such as pickled cucumbers. It did not become vinaigrette dressing until the second half of the nineteenth century in England. The supporting reference cited by the OED for this change in English usage is from one of my favourite sources – Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1877).
The dictionary (which does not list oxoleum) certainly attributes the idea of an oil and vinegar dressing to the French:
Vinaigrette, Sauce à la: This sauce is much used in Paris for cold viands. Sauce à la Vinaigrette is composed of salad oil, vinegar, finely chopped parsley, and shallots, onions, or chives, with pepper and salt to taste.
The dictionary goes on to discuss the uses and variations of this sauce, but as this post is about oxoleum, I thought I would give you the earliest recipe for it that I know – from Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, by John Evelyn, 1699.
Then, for the Oxoleon; Take of clear, and perfectly good Oyl-Olive, three Parts; of sharpest Vinegar, (sweetest of all Condiments), Limon, or Juice of Orange, one Part; and therein let steep some Slices of Horse-radish, with a little Salt; Some in a separate Vinegar, gently bruise a Pod of Guinny-Pepper, straining both the Vinegars apart, to make Use of Either, or One alone, or of both, as they best like; then add as much Tewkesbury, or other dry Mustard grated, as will lie upon an Half-Crown Piece: Beat, and mingle all these very well together; but pour not on the Oyl and Vinegar, 'till immediately before the Sallet is ready to be eaten: And then with the Yolk of two new-laid Eggs (boyl'd and prepar'd, as before is taught) squash, and bruise them all into mash with a Spoon; and lastly, pour it all upon the Herbs, stirring, and mingling them 'till they are well and throughly imbib'd; not forgetting the Sprinklings of Aromaticks, and such Flowers, as we have already mentioned, if you think fit, and garnishing the Dish with the thin Slices of Horse-Radish, Red Beet, Berberries &c.
Note, That the Liquids may be made more, or less Acid, as is most agreeable to your Taste.
The French are notoriously protective of their language, to an extent which seems to many of the rest of us to represent nationalism gone down a ridiculous blind alley. Also it seems pointless - languages are dynamic things, ever adapting and changing, and the meaning of individual words not constant across time. I would hate to be thought to be one of the frozen language crowd, but nevertheless, there is something sad about the complete loss of a lovely word such as oxoleon, when the actual thing still remains – leaving no option but the substitution of a ‘foreign’ word – especially one with a slightly different meaning, such as vinaigrette.
I think I will start the Society to Save Old Food Words.
From henceforth, my salads will be dressed with oxoleum.
Quotation for the Day.
To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist – the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know exactly how much oil one must put with one’s vinegar.
Where do I sign up?
Oxoleum sounds rather industrial don't you think? I don't believe I could write that on a menu... Salad of poached King Prawns served with Orange Sesame Oxoleum. Hmmm...
I LOVE that word - oxoleum... It's deliberate and exciting (makes one wonder about wax-buildup, at first!) but I join your group, gladly, and shall forevermore flavor my salads with oxoleum... Bien! Come visit when you can...
Hey! Found you through Kitchen Retro, and thank goodness... because I just finished reading all the way through Kitchen Retro's blog, and if I didn't have you, what would do at work?
I really dig the blend of factual research and cool recipes!
Feel free to drop by my lair and taste the crazy if you have a spare moment.
Thanks everyone, the new old-word group sounds like it is off to a good start.
InTolerant Chef. You are right, it does not have quite the right ring to it, in association with modern-sounding recipes at any rate.
Sharlene - I think it sounds intriguing, but as InTolerant Chef says, I am not sure if it would sound appealing to restaurant customers.
Marcheline - I am delighted that my blog fills in your work day :)
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