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Noms de Plats

June 28, 2018

Here’s something that came up the other day, and I’m kind of curious to get your take on it.

But before we begin, you have to know that I don’t speak French at all. The only French I know is food French. Much like the only Chinese I know is food Chinese. Spanish, I can kind of muddle my way through, if I don’t mind sounding like an uneducated idiot.

It kind of really is amazing how people all around the world speak multiple languages, but most Americans can barely speak in their native tongue. And I don’t mean that to come off as some kind of intellectual snobbery. I butcher English almost every day.

So this is a question about language and food. For the sake of this argument, let’s stick to French. Because I’m assuming, if you are like most people, you’ll use some French names for French dishes, while being perfectly comfortable using the English translation for others.

I’m curious about why, and where do you draw the line. Let’s explore.

We’ll start with an easy one: french toast vs. pain perdu. Interestingly, “pain perdu” isn’t actually a French dish. It’s English. And unless you happen to speak English with an accent as thick as Maurice Chevalier’s, methinks people would look at you strangely if you tried to order french toast using French words.

On the flip side of the spectrum: grilled ham and cheese vs. croque monsieur

This one doesn’t entirely work both ways. At its heart, every croque monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese. But not every grilled ham and cheese is a croque monsieur. It’s just a little bit different, and has its own identity. And amazingly, I would not feel silly eating a croque monsieur with a fork and knife.

One can apply this idea to a lot of French dishes and their closest English translation. A croissant is a specific form of a crescent roll. By the same token, salad nicoise is a very precise composition of a tuna salad. And while there are countless fish stews, bouillabaisse is distinctly French.

Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated.

While it might sound snooty to call ice cream, “crème glacée” in the US of A, creme brulee feels pretty familiar. That said, if you wrote it as crème brûlée, you might be accused of putting on airs.

I suppose you could call a tarte tatin an upside down apple tart. But that would eliminate some of the fun from this delightfully named dish.

Yes, there used to be a time when all the fancy French restaurant menus in America were written entirely in French. If you didn’t know the words, obviously you were some kind of uneducated rube who didn’t belong in the first place.

I think we can all agree that is obnoxious.

But I don’t think it’s obnoxious for French restaurants to hold the line and call their French dishes by their French names. Using French words to list their ingredients on the other hand, could still be a little dicey.

If you don’t know what a croque madame might be, you can always ask. But most likely there’s a description on the menu. And if you can’t pronounce it, you can always point. Or you can do it like me, and just butcher the language with—or without—your sincere apologies.

Care to explore further dichotomies between French dishes and their American-named counterparts? The comments section awaits.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2018 10:43 am

    Baguette and pate seem to be pretty common words but snails are almost always escargot. I tend to think of Creme Fraiche as fancy sour cream even though they are different.

  2. KingOfBeacon permalink
    June 28, 2018 10:47 am

    I’m a huge proponent of using the correct pronunciations for foods. It’s disrespectful to the culture otherwise. Except with Italian food. Its Manicotti and ricotta, not mannigut or riggut. Just like Italians, there’s no G in it.

  3. June 28, 2018 11:47 am

    Pain perdu is not French toast. If you look at any French recipe you will see it is closer to pudding and eaten as dessert. More appropriate alternate names for French toast, according to Wikipedia, are “eggy bread, Bombay toast, German toast, gypsy toast, poor knights, and Torrija”. But I will continue calling it French toast because I love attributing “French” to things that are not French such as French fries or Frenched bones on chops.

    The real problem with French names for foods is there is no affectionate diiminutive as there is with red sauce Italian foods, cf. prosciut, mozell, cappy etc. Correcting that is a project that would seem to be in your wheelhouse.

  4. Lauren Darman permalink
    June 29, 2018 11:09 am

    Ham to me is always jambon – four years of HS French. A la mode – I assume it was French in origin. Also Vichy water is seltzer?

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