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What’s the Story, John Dory? The People Behind the Food Names

When I wrote recently about Christmas foods of the southern hemisphere, I mentioned the New Zealand/Australia specialty called pavlova. The meringue dessert was named for the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who toured the two countries in the 1920s.But what about other foods—was there a Madeleine b...

Madeleines


When I wrote recently about Christmas foods of the southern hemisphere, I mentioned the New Zealand/Australia specialty called pavlova. The meringue dessert was named for the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who toured the two countries in the 1920s.

But what about other foods—was there a Madeleine behind the madeleine? Did a physician formulate Dr. Pepper? Here's the scoop on a few eponymous foods, both commercial brands and common names, and whether they are real or fictional:

John Dory: The origin of this fish name is slippery. It sounds like it was surely named after a person but, according to Larousse Gastronomique, the English name is a corruption of its French nickname, Jean-doré. This was in dispute even a century ago; others contend it comes from the Spanish janitore, because St. Peter was the "janitor or porter" of heaven. The fish's other name, after all, is St. Peter's fish. VERDICT: UNCLEAR

Madeleine: These petite sponge cakes may have sparked sweet memories in Marcel Proust, but no one seems to clearly remember whom they were named for. One account, put forth by Larousse Gastronomique, is that it comes from a duke in 1755 who was so taken with the cakes that he named them for the French peasant girl who had baked them. VERDICT: REAL, MAYBE

Dr. Pepper: Alas, there is no medical genius behind this popular soft drink, although it did begin in a drugstore. According to the company, Dr. Pepper was invented in 1885 by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton in Texas. Even the company isn't sure where he came up with the name. VERDICT: PROBABLY NOT REAL

Sara Lee: A bakery entrepreneur, Charles Lubin, named his line of new line of cheesecakes after his eight-year-old daughter, according to the Sara Lee Corporation. Although she later appeared in commercials for what eventually became a whole range of baked goods, she has never worked at the company. She is now a philanthropist focused on supporting the education and advancement of women and girls in science. VERDICT: REAL

Betty Crocker: That nice red-suited lady on the box of brownie mix, on the other hand, was a figment of a marketing executive's imagination. According to the Center for History and New Media, the company that eventually became part of General Mills decided in the 1920s that it would be friendlier if baking queries from customers were answered by a person. Her persona was assumed on radio by various voice actresses, and her illustrated portrait on the packaging changed seven times over the years. VERDICT: FICTIONAL

Uncle Ben: The Straight Dope, which must have read an earlier version of the company's website, says the converted rice brand was named after a well-known African American rice farmer who died in the 1940s. The current Uncle Ben's site tells the company history in the form of a first-person memoir that combines a grain of truth with a little creative license— "I must say I was flattered when they asked to portray my likeness in the work," writes long-dead Ben. VERDICT: REAL BUT EMBELLISHED

Aunt Jemima: Not Ben's wife, as I imagined as a child, Jemima was as artificial as the maple flavoring in the breakfast syrup bottles she still appears on—though, like Betty, she was portrayed by different women over the years, according to the website. Jemima has had some extreme makeovers since her debut in the 19th century, in an effort to rid her of her stereotypical "mammy" baggage. VERDICT: FICTIONAL,
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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