How Some Food Terms Started

According to history, there may be a good reason you are as happy as a clam.

According to history, there may be a good reason you are as happy as a clam.

Common expressions tap into history, thanks to cultural influences

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – You may have wondered how words and expressions like prix fixe, lollypops, chicken a la king, and easy as pie came into being.

At any rate, we found ourselves feeding on a few refreshers.

The Mansion Grand, featuring Alissia’s Cafe, on the rim of Great Kills Harbor, revisited some vestiges, thanks to a 1985 book called “Why Do We Say It?” published by the Castle division of Book Sales, Inc.

The compendium covers history, clichés, vernacular uses like “dough,” and more. We were especially taken with entries relating to food, so we thought we’d run through an assortment.

Allspice: A kind of pimento that is dried and ground is named for its tasting like a mix of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Apple-Jack: An old belief that apple cider would not ripen and become potent until St. John’s Day (June 24) led to names like apple-John and apple-Jack.

Apple-pie order: The expression comes from nappes pliees, French for folded linen.

Bus boy: From the Latin omnibus (for all), the omnibus, or bus, boy is one who does this and that and everything else, for all.

Chicken a la king: England’s Edward VII was said to have ordered a chicken dish prepared to his own recipe.

Chowder: Credit the housewives of Brittany for adapting the French word chaudiere for the cauldron in which they made chowders. The word was shortened chaud, meaning hot.

Dough (slang for money). Just as American kids would head for a candy or ice cream store after class, English schoolboys would visit a bake shop, spending pocket money on “dough.” This then became a word for the money itself.

Easy as pie: Originally “as easy as eating pie,” this enjoyment was considered no trouble at all.

Etiquette: At the court of France, visitors who might not have known proper behavior were given a ticket-like card of instructions. From this the French devised etiquette for rules of social behavior.

Fat’s in the fire: When there is trouble ahead, this ominous expression comes from fat spilling from the frying pan, causing flames to leap up and the potential for burns.

Grapefruit is named for the grape-like clusters in which this fruit grows on trees.

Happy as a clam: The complete expression adds “… at high tide.” Content to be left alone, clams presumably are happiest at high tide because it’s during low tide that they’re harvested.

Horse radish: “Horse” once meant coarse. The horse radish resembles the common radish except for its course texture and strong flavor.

Jordan almond: Going back to Middle English in Chaucer’s time, the jardyne almaunde, or cultivated almond, differs from one in the wild.

Lager beer: The German word for storehouse is lager.  Barrels of lager beer are stored for aging.

Lollypop: In northern England “lolly” means tongue. A piece of candy popped onto the tongue became a lollypop.

Porterhouse steak: Porter was a New York tavern keeper whose Porter House was known for steaks. On one occasion, he ran out of them and sliced some sirloin he had saved for roasting. He broiled a piece, which was savored as delicious. And so porterhouse steak was added to the menu.

Pound cake: Old recipes specified ingredients by the pound: A pound of this, a pound of that, etc.

Sandwich: John Montague, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, in the mid-18th century loved to play cards to the extent that he wouldn’t take time to eat. He solved the dilemma by putting thin layers of beef between slices of bread.

Table d’hote: Alternatively substituted nowadays as prix fixe, the French term means table of the host. In the Middle Ages, guests sat at the table of the host, receiving whatever was offered and paying for the entire meal, no matter what they ate. Table d’hote came to mean a complete meal at a fixed price.

The Mansion Grand, featuring Alissia’s Cafe, regularly offers a prix fixe menu.

Tip: In English inns and taverns patrons would drop a coin into a box for the waiters’ benefit. The box had a small sign that said “To Insure Promptness.” Later, just the initials prevailed and “TIP” appeared on the box.

Turkey: Guinea fowl from Africa were first imported to England by way of Turkey. When the native American bird was introduced, it was confused with the African species and given the same name. When a distinction eventually was established and the names were differentiated, “turkey” wrongly – but lastingly – labeled the American bird.

Welsh rabbit/rarebit: The name of this dish encompassing a savory cheese sauce served hot over toast is subject to a bit of debate, some of which is the Welsh part. One answer is that the Welsh were especially fond of cheese. Another cites an expression in England when Welch connoted foreign or inferior. Supposedly the Welsh substituted cheese for rabbit meat to create an inexpensive meal. Most sources concur that rarebit is a corruption of rabbit, the latter being used first.

Zest: In its Greek form, zest meant a piece of orange or lemon peel, adding zest to food. From this evolved a meaning of enthusiasm, as in a zest for life.

About the Mansion Grand, featuring Alissia’s Café

Overlooking the panoramic vista of Great Kills Harbor, the Mansion Grand, featuring Alissia’s Café, is a popular Staten Island, N.Y., destination for catered banquets, Italian/Continental a la carte dining, and gourmet prix fixe dinners from $19.95.

The iconic establishment, once known as the Marina Grand, is located at 141 Mansion Ave., in the community of Great Kills.

For reservations, additional information, or inclusion on the Mansion Grand/Alissia’s Café email list of special offers, call 718-605-9200, or log onto