I enjoy stories of how foods travel and get named and then often re-named as they mutate to fit changing tastes. One of my favorite documentaries in recent years was The Search for General Tso which traces the origin of the famous dish while uncovering the history of Chinese immigration to the US in the process.
(Spoiler alert: there actually was a General Tso, and that was his favorite dish)
The United States has its fair share of bizarre food names that are so unbelievably common it takes a foreigner to point them out. And in the spirit of celebrating oddly-named foods, I’ve decided to recall an evening with my friend Kana, whose name comes from the Thai word for ‘kale’, and step you through the same conversation we had that so eloquently commenced with the question: ‘why hot dog?’
So but, why hot dog?
Me: I had a vague idea; a baseball game, Coney Island, German sausage, but none of those references pulled out a deeper meaning. I had to investigate.
The most ready explanation is great: at a New York Giants baseball game in the 1920s a cartoonist sketched a sausage seller who was selling dachshund sausage, but when writing the word, he found he couldn’t spell dachshund and so the vendor had no other choice but to call out ‘hot dogs, get your red hot dogs’!
Unfortunately though, that’s not true. The truth is more obscure.
Sausages on a roll were called hot dogs possibly as far back as the 1860s. The name may have begun on college campuses and they were probably called dogs because the filling of the sausage was often rumored to be either dog or horse meat. This, as most of you know, is the most iconic of all American foods.
Please note that dog or horse meat is not used in the production of hot dogs.
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The sloppiest of them all
Next up, why sloppy Joes?
Me: Loose meat sandwiches are a staple food in the Midwest and many think the sloppy Joe got its start in Sioux city, Iowa. There seems to be no definitive origin story but the one I like the best is set in Havana. A place called José García Ríos’ Havana Club where expats, including Hemingway, drank. They served liquor, ground beef sandwiches, and iced seafood which got the floor wet and mucky and therefore was given the nickname sloppy Joe’s.
Then came along scrapple.
Me: As usual, I had no idea.
Also known as pork or livermush, scrapple came with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Originally called Panhas which as far as I can tell are pan-fried rabbit guts, but in its American version is usually made with pork scraps. The name scrapple is a derivation of the German panhaskröppel butchered up and Americanized to scrapple.
An amphibious take on things
Why is it called ‘Toad in a Hole’?
Kana thought the name for a breakfast I often make, toad in the hole, is so cute that we tried to find out where this came from.
Me: If you don’t know what toad in the hole, it is a simple meal where you make a circular hole in a piece of bread, put that in a frying pan, and crack an egg into the hole. There is no definitive origin for the name, or even a definitive name for the dish, as we found about ten including ‘gas house eggs’, ‘one-eye jacks’, and most popularly and lamely ‘egg in a basket’, which most of you will probably better identify with.
In conclusion, as you can imagine, it was a short-lived conversation with not too much information to go on. Just as old wives’ tales and superstitions go hand-in-hand, language and food have a pretty intimate relationship.
Can you think of a few more food-related examples and guess or remark on their origin? Help us continue the conversation!