Fact or Fiction: Ethnic Food Origins

I’m going to take a break from debunking conspiracy theories and false flags to talk about one of my other favorite pastimes: eating. Whether it’s fried, baked, fried, grilled, fried or served with a dipping sauce after being fried, food is one of my great pleasures. So to combine my love of eating with my love of research, I’ll be examining the real origins of some of the most common foods named after their supposed country of creation.

French Toast – For me, brunch begins, continues and ends with thick bread dipped in eggy goodness and cooked with butter. And judging by history, I’m not alone. Evidence of French toast’s existence goes back to the 4th or 5th century Roman cookbook Apicius, where it was a way of using up stale bread. The French name for French toast actually translates to “lost bread” and it’s been known by a host of other names throughout history. In America, the dish was made popular by, you guessed it, French immigrants. Hence the name it’s best known by here. And contrary to the popular myth, French Toast was not developed by a Mr. French in America in the 1700’s.

English muffin – A popular butter delivery vehicle for those of us who don’t have time (or household staff) to make French toast, English muffins do appear to have originated in Victorian England. Cooks would fry up leftover bits of bread dough to feed the servants. Soon, the new bread caught on with the upper crust (so to speak) and the ubiquitous muffin man was going house to house selling them from wooden trays. They’ve been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. And they aren’t to be confused with American-style muffins, which are just muffins.

French toast: neither French nor toast.

French toast: neither French nor toast.

German Chocolate Cake – Fine meats and cheeses are well-known products of Germany. Coconuts are not. In fact, the coconut chocolate cake named after Germany takes its name from an American who developed a sweet baking chocolate, which hit the market in 1852. One hundred years later, a Texas homemaker popularized a cake recipe using that chocolate, adding coconut and pecans. What was the name of that great, chocolate-making American from the 1800’s? Sam German, of course. When the apostrophe dropped off his Baker’s German’s Chocolate product, a legendary dessert was born.

Danish – Like many other sweets, the Danish didn’t originate in the country that lent it a name. The traditional Danish pastry is actually Austrian in origin, brought to Denmark in 1850 by that country’s bakery chefs, who were tasked with filling in (sigh…) for striking Danish bakers. The Austrian chefs weren’t familiar with pastry techniques of Denmark, so they substituted their own recipes. The new treats caught on with the public, and even though the strike ended, the popularity of the Danish didn’t. As a nod to their true origin, the people of Denmark refer to them as “wienerbrod” – Vienna bread.

Swiss Chard – A bitter, leafy green vegetable that’s experienced a surge of popularity in the last decade, Swiss Chard may be healthy and versatile, but it’s not from Switzerland. Adding to the confusion, it’s been known by a variety of names in numerous cultures, being lumped in with everything from beets to spinach to kale. What we know as Swiss chard probably originated in Italy, where it was given the name “Swiss” to differentiate it from the more popular French variety of root vegetable. Why it wasn’t simply called “Italian chard” has been lost to history.

Russian Dressing – You need something to put on that Swiss chard, so why not some thick, piquant Russian dressing? Just don’t look for it in Russia, because it’s not from there and has nothing to do with the Motherland. Invented in the US in the early 20th Century by New Hampshire grocer James E. Colburn, this ketchup and mayonnaise combination most likely takes its name from the caviar that it was often paired with in its early incarnations. And yes, it’s different from Thousand Island Dressing, which usually contains hard-boiled egg. And is also not Russian.

Korean BBQ – Sometimes when I go out, I turn the tables and cook my own food! And my favorite way to do that is with a hot stove and some thinly sliced marinated beef. But is Korean barbecue really Korean? It certainly is, with its origins probably dating back to the ancient Koguryo Kingdom, circa 37 BCE –668 CE. The typical bulgogi restaurants we now know, with their table grills and variety of thin meats, didn’t become a staple in Korea until after the Korean War, when middle-class Korean families had the means to dine out, but since then, it’s gained popularity around the world, especially in the US.

Mongolian barbecue: neither Mongolian or...I'll stop.

Mongolian barbecue: neither Mongolian nor…I’ll stop.

Mongolian BBQ – So called “Mongolian barbecue,” featuring thinly sliced meats and vegetables thrown onto a large griddle, stir-fried and served with dipping sauces, has nothing to do with Mongolia and little to do with barbecue. It was developed in Taiwan in the early 1950’s, and marketed by restaurant owners as a throwback to “Mongol traditions” of warriors cooking hunks of meat on a shield over an open flame. However, there’s no evidence that Mongols ever did this. Instead, they subsisted on a mix of provisions looted from their foes, local game, dried milk and the meat and blood of their own broken-down horses. Needless to say, this combination has not caught on in the strip malls of American suburbia.

Canadian Bacon – We end our culinary tour where we began: with brunch. But as with many of the other foods we’ve discussed, different cultures have different names for different types of the same thing. And Canadian Bacon is no exception. What we know from the menu at Denny’s actually began as side bacon (not the usual back bacon) imported from Canada into the UK. It was covered in ground peas to preserve it and called peameal bacon. The English added additional flavor by smoking it. The new bacon was marketed as being from Canada, hence the name. American Canadian bacon has never been rolled in ground peas, Canadian Canadian bacon isn’t smoked, and peameal bacon isn’t actually made with pea meal, as corn has become much more plentiful. So if you ask for Canadian bacon in Canada, you’re going to get bacon from Canada, not Canadian bacon.

Confused? Hungry? I wouldn’t blame you for being either.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
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7 Responses to Fact or Fiction: Ethnic Food Origins

  1. Peter G Brooksbank says:

    America and Britain, someone once said two nations divided by a common language and it would seem food also.

    My favourite would be Indian the subcontinent variety not American food. It started to find its way into the British psyche in the days of the Raj and was a firm favourite in the British army by world war one. My favourite curry is a Patia, sweet sour and very hot or a Vindaloo, also vary hot.

    Patia is a parsee dish brought to India by the Zoroastrians who fled to India from Muslim persecution in Persia during the 7th–8th centuries.

    All these dishes commonly known as curry vary tremendously depending on where you eat them but I am lucky enough to be able to travel to India to get my fix once a year.

    I see that there is a curry house in New York as it was featured on Man Verses Food, should I ever go toNew York I will look it up.

    For now I’ll just make do with the great British fish and chips, with mushy peas of course.

    Finally talking of bacon the best I have had in Britain is air cured, hung and almost black. It’s getting harder to find the real thing from small independent butchers but the intense flavour is well worth the effort.

    Bon appétit.

  2. Thomas says:

    How about Swedish meatballs? Or Hamburger?

    • I actually had a bit about Swedish meatballs, but cut it at the last second because the piece was getting too long. And I think there’s a second post to be found in this material, for sure.

  3. Jamie Raadt says:

    The French name for stale bread translates to “lost bread”, the French name for French toast, “pain d’or”, translates to “golden bread”.

    Great article! Thanks!

  4. mud says:

    Skeptoid cooking gets a brief airing every now and then. I’d hope that a skeptical thread on this will continue.

    On swiss chard, australians referred to this as spinach and generally still do. Its a little confusing as normal spinach gets sold under different names denoting some origin.

    I’d add to Thomas’ post and ask for “spaghetti bolognese”.

  5. Dave says:

    I worked at Papa John’s during and after college and if you ask for “Canadian bacon” on your pizza, you’re going to get ham. 🙂

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