Main Course

The Real-Life Divas Behind Food Names from Melba to Margherita

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Mobsby, H. W.  The Queenslander [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mobsby, H. W. The Queenslander [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stacy Conradt recently researched a list of foods named after humans for “Mental Floss” magazine. That would be, for example, the Melba of Melba toast.

She discovered that Italian chefs have had a particular habit of naming foods after women they wanted to please and that German chocolate cake isn’t from Germany, but from a man named German.

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Melba Toast and Peach Melba: Dame Nellie Melba

Brendan Francis Newnam: Would you start by telling us about the Melba in Melba toast?

Stacy Conradt: Actually, personal preference, I think Melba toast is rather unappetizing and dry and bland.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s kind of boring.

Stacy Conradt: Yeah, right? It was inspired by an opera singer who is you know, obviously not dry and bland – quite a diva from what I hear. Her name was Dame Nellie Melba.

So there’s two stories on why why the chef created this toast for her. And one was because she was watching her figure and this dry toast was just, she thought it was the best thing to snack on. That was in 1897.

The other theory is that she was ill and the chef at the Savoy Hotel was actually a friend of hers and just created it to help settle her stomach before performances.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But there isn’t a theory that after her concert was so late, she arrived late to the kitchen and they only had stale bread?

Stacy Conradt: That is not a theory.

Margherita Pizza: Queen Margherita of Savoy

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. Well that leads us maybe on to the main course of our meal here. Let’s have a Margherita Pizza.

Stacy Conradt: So in 1889, the King of Italy, King Umberto I, and his wife Queen Margherita of Savoy were scheduled to go on vacation in Naples. It was a big deal, and one of the chefs there, a famous chef, Raffaele Esposito, decided he was going to create some special dishes for their visit. He ended up making three special pizzas.

And of all of the pizzas, the one that the queen just adored was one that looked like the Italian flag: basil for green, mozzarella for white, and tomatoes for red. And she just thought that was the absolute best dish she had had on the whole trip, and so he ended up naming it after her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow, all these years I’ve seen Margherita pizza pies, I never realized that they mimic the colors of Italy.

Stacy Conradt: You never look at it and thought “Italian flag, right there?”

Fettuccine Alfredo: Alfredo Delillo

Brendan Francis Newnam: No, well I guess I thought of maybe a pennant, like a pizza pennant, but I never thought of the Italian flag.

There’s a lot of Italian food actually on this list. Another one is the classic Fettuccine Alfredo, which is just everywhere and you never stop to think that hey, they’re actually probably was an Alfredo.

Stacy Conradt: Yes, and this one I think it particularly funny because it was inspired by a picky pregnant woman, which you know, so many people can relate to.

A chef named Alfredo Delillo was trying to please his pregnant wife, I think it was about 1914. And you know just typical of pregnant women, nothing sounded good, or she really wanted something that wasn’t available, so trying to make her happy he added a little something extra to his pasta sauce, which was just cheese and butter, which is pretty typical pasta sauce. What he did to make it special is he tripled the amount of butter, and she loved it, so we still eat it today obviously.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And cardiac surgeons around the world celebrate Alfredo.

Stacy Conradt: Yes.

German Chocolate Cake: Sam German

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well okay, those are some of our main dishes. Let’s move on to dessert. First of all, let’s have a slice of German Chocolate Cake that doesn’t come from Germany. Where does German Chocolate Cake come from?

Stacy Conradt: Yeah nothing to do with Germany. It was named after a man named Sam German. He invented this sweet chocolate baking bar, and I believe Baker’s Chocolate, the famous company, ended up buying it from him. And they called it originally Baker’s German’s Chocolate. And just over time the apostrophe-s just fell off when people were talking about it, and they started calling it German Chocolate.

That was 1852, but it didn’t really become a big thing until 1957, when the Dallas Morning Star published a recipe for German Chocolate Cake, and something about that just took off, and it became a national sensation, and now we have German Chocolate Cake.

Famous Amos Cookies: Wally Amos

Brendan Francis Newnam: For people who maybe don’t want cake, another cool dessert story is the story of Famous Amos. Now this isn’t necessarily the name of a type of cookie, but it’s a very popular brand. Tell us who Amos was.

Stacy Conradt: Not a professional baker by any means, he was actually a talent manager, and he had clients, big clients like Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy.

The way he wooed them to sign with him was that he would send them baked goods. And apparently the baked goods were so amazing that he talked actually Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy into loaning him money to start a cookie company and Famous Amos was born.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So when you were putting this together, are there any other patterns you saw?

Stacy Conradt: You know the opera singers actually just fascinated me because Melba was not Dame Nellie Melba wasn’t the only opera singer with good. Also Chicken Tetrazzini was named after an opera singer.

I wouldn’t think opera is necessarily a mainstream form of entertainment these days, so that people enjoyed it that much back in the day to have named famous dishes after them – I thought was pretty interesting.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That would be the equivalent of naming a dessert a Rihanna right now.

Stacy Conradt: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Or maybe a tart Miley Cyrus.

Stacy Conradt: I’m not sure I would eat that tart.