We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat”, and it turns out that the same can be said for the words we use to describe our meals. From the Earl of Sandwich to Alice B. Toklas, the names of some of our favorite dishes are steeped in history and culture.
Take lunch, for example. We all know what it means, but where did the word come from? It’s probably a shortened form of luncheon, which likely derives from the English word lump. In the earliest instances of luncheon and lunch—the sixteenth century—both words meant a “hunk,” “lump,” or “thick piece” (of food) before they came to mean “a meal.” Luncheon in the sense of a midday meal first appeared in the written record in the seventeenth century. Lunch (the meal, not the hunk) is a Johnny-come-lately, not appearing until the nineteenth century.
But lunch isn’t the only word for a midday meal. Jane Austen was the first to apply noonshine to a midday meal, but it didn’t catch on with the general public. Nuncheon and its shortened form nunch, meaning “light refreshment” or “drink,” had been around for centuries before Austen used it, and nuncheon lives on in regional varieties of English in the United States and the United Kingdom. If you skipped breakfast, your meal might be brunch (a portmanteau, or blended, word made from breakfast and lunch). Or maybe you call a midday meal dinner (and an evening meal supper, from Old French super, “to sup, take liquids by sipping”).
Eponyms are another interesting way to explore food language. A sandwich is named after the eighteenth-century Earl of Sandwich. The story goes that the earl had a gambling problem, or rather, a problem with eating while gambling. How to hold the cards and eat at the same time? And no one wants a plate cluttering up the gaming table. So he ate his meat between two slices of bread while gambling. The Reuben sandwich may be named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer of Nebraska. Sometime in the 1920s or ’30s, while he was playing poker, he had the inspiration to concoct a sandwich made of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread.
The Cobb salad is named after Robert Howard Cobb, owner of the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. Caesar salad has nothing to do with Julius Caesar; it’s named for Caesar Cardini, a restaurateur who first made it in 1924 at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico. The Baby Ruth candy bar is probably named after Babe Ruth, the baseball player. And Alice B. Toklas brownies have nothing to do with Alice B. Toklas; they were named after her 1954 cookbook which contained a recipe for “Hashisch [sic] Fudge” from a friend.
So next time you sit down for lunch or grab a snack on the go, take a moment to think about where these words come from and what stories they tell about our past. You might be surprised at how much history is hidden in plain sight!