My cute little hamlet, population 148, is holding a block party this weekend, and one of the events scheduled is a deviled egg recipe contest. I don’t think it was intended as a nod to Halloween’s celebration of the dark side, but it got me wondering: What, exactly, is so wicked about mixing hard-boiled egg yolk with mayonnaise and mustard? I could understand if they were so hot and spicy they evoked the fires of hell, but most of the deviled eggs I’ve had could hardly be classified as having more than a mild zippiness. Was the dish’s name coined by Puritans who thought adding anything remotely flavorful to food was the work of Satan? Furthermore, what about all those other foods with fiendish names, like deviled ham, devil’s food cake and fra diavolo sauce?
It turns out I wasn’t too far off—Puritans had nothing to do with it, but the term “devil” has been used since at least the 18th century to refer to highly seasoned foods, according to The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams. He quotes from the Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, by John Mariani (1999), who says, “Washington Irving has used the word in his Sketchbook to describe a highly seasoned dish similar to a curry. Deviled dishes were very popular throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, especially for seafood preparations and some appetizers.”
This definition would cover deviled ham, the most famous of which is the canned chopped ham spread sold by Underwood since 1868 (the company’s devil logo is supposed to be the oldest trademarked logo still in use). Underwood used to sell other deviled meats, including deviled tongue, but today the ham is the only demonic item in its product line.
In The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda Hesser includes an 1878 recipe for deviled crabs, saying that today’s deviled eggs are the mild-mannered cousins of deviled crab and kidneys, which “were meant to be spicy and bracing, the kind of food you had after a long night of drinking.” She also notes that in David Copperfield (the Dickens novel, not the flashy magician), “Mr. Micawber saves a dinner party by turning undercooked mutton into a devil,” covering the slices with pepper, mustard, salt and cayenne and cooking them well, then adding mushroom ketchup as a condiment.
Eggs notwithstanding, today the devil is most frequently invoked to imply a dish is truly tongue-searing—there must be dozens of hot sauce brands out there with names like Droolin’ Devil, Mean Devil Woman and Hell Devil’s Revenge. Dishes called chicken, shrimp or lobster fra diavolo—which means “brother devil” in Italian—show up on restaurant menus in the United States, but they appear to be an Italian-American invention, most food historians agree. In Italy, a similar spicy tomato sauce would usually be served with pasta, not meat, and be called pasta all’arrabiata, meaning “angry-style.”
There are also a number of foods that get their evil-sounding names to differentiate them from their angelic counterparts. In The Glutton’s Glossary, John Ayto writes that angels on horseback are a late-19th century British dish of oysters wrapped in bacon and grilled, and that devils on horseback are a variation made with prunes instead of oysters.
Devil’s food cake would seem to be another example of this, its dark, chocolaty richness a contrast to white, fluffy angel food cake. But on the What’s Cooking America website, Linda Stradley writes that devil’s food cake is actually a synonym for red velvet cake, which would suggest that it was the redness of the cake that evoked the devil. Today’s red velvet cakes usually get their vivid hue from food coloring, but the color was originally achieved through a chemical reaction between unprocessed cocoa and the acid in buttermilk.
There’s one more food I can think of with devil in the name, although when I first encountered it I never would have guessed it was a food at all. While traveling in Konya, Turkey, in the 1990s, my local guide took me to a bazaar. At one herbalist’s stall he opened a jar of something he called devil dung (he actually used a different word, but I try to keep things G-rated here) and told me to take a whiff. There was no mistaking how it got its name—this was some foul-smelling stuff. But my guide wasn’t able to come up with the English words to explain what it was used for.
It took me years, and the invention of Google, to figure out that this substance was actually asafoetida, also called hing, an herb used most frequently in Indian vegetarian cooking. I’ve never tasted it, to my knowledge, but its funky smell is supposed to mellow with cooking. As a bonus, it’s considered an anti-flatulent. In my book, that puts it firmly on the side of good, not evil.