What’s in a Name?

Some food names are pretty obvious in their origin – pancakes and BLTs, for example – but others seem unrelated to the fare in question. Many well-known dishes have celebrity origins, though the dishes have often become more famous than the people who lent them their names. As one might expect from cuisine named after celebrity figures, the histories behind some recipes are drenched in mystery and controversy, but how do you name menu items lacking in history and drama?

Origin Stories

What we now call Alfredo sauce was a fairly common mixture for potentially millennia, but it wasn’t until the last century that it actually got a name. Depending on the tale you’re reading, Alfredo di Lelio first made his version either in 1908 or 1914. The story goes he was looking to create a mild meal his pregnant wife could stomach and the white cheese-based sauce worked for her. Alfredo would soon add it to the menu of his eponymous restaurant, Alfredo alla Scrofa. In 1920, American actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford tried the sauce on fettuccine pasta. After being given the recipe upon request, they sent di Lilio an engraved golden fork and spoon in gratitude. In the following years, di Lelio sold the restaurant, then later opened another just yards away. To this day, both restaurants claim to own the original set of gold utensils as well as the “most authentic” fettuccine alfredo, but there’s no doubt which Alfredo they mean.

Credit for the creation of Crepes Suzette has been claimed by multiple chefs, but most accounts seem to align with that of Henri Charpentier, a French chef. However, Crepes Suzette came about long before he achieved fame for his cooking. Reports vary on whether he was 10, 14, or 16 years old when the dish was created, but Charpentier was working as a waiter at the time. While serving a party including the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII), he accidentally set the brandy in a crepe recipe on fire. The prince loved what the brief flare of flame did to the flavor, and asked Charpentier what the name of the dish was. As there was only one woman present, the dish was given her name, but accounts vary on whether Suzette was a visiting royal, the young daughter of a friend of the prince, or the prince’s mistress.

Dame Nellie Melba was an opera singer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, internationally known for her clear voice and diva tendencies. Melba reached such a level of fame that she was honored with multiple recipes bearing her name, all created by the French chef Auguste Escoffier. When Dame Melba fell ill and was unable to stomach a normal diet, Escoffier made a thin, dry, and crisp toast that the singer enjoyed, which eventually became known as Melba toast. Escoffier also created Peach Melba, originally called Pecheau Cygne, inspired by a swan-shaped boat that appeared in one of Melba’s performances.

Another dish named after a historical celebrity is pavlova, a meringue cake that is usually topped with fruit and whipped cream. The cake is named after famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, with various sources citing her fluffy tutu or her light movements as inspiration for the recipe. The history of the dessert has been the source of much debate, with notorious rivals Australia and New Zealand both claiming credit for its creation. However, recent research has indicated that pavlova was most likely invented in the United States and based on a German meringue cake recipe.

Menu Item Naming Conventions

While the instances above demonstrate that sometimes a product name comes about by pure happenstance, in most cases restaurateurs spend hours agonizing over product names while developing a menu. After all, a name can make or break a product. When Dunkin’ Donuts first offered its donut holes, sales weren’t great – until a trial of the product with the name “Munchkins” in three stores in Providence, R.I., proved much more successful. Likewise, in 2005 when Taco Bell introduced a CrunchWich, customers didn’t feel it fit in with the rest of the menu. A rename to CrunchWrap Supreme was much more successful and the item is still on the menu today.

Naming menu items can be a struggle, and choosing the wrong name can result in disappointing sales, but the following guidelines may help you whip up the right names for your products.

  • • First and foremost, stay on brand. For example, if your restaurant emphasizes fresh, healthy food, use descriptive language that evokes the lush, green imagery customers are looking for. If your restaurant’s brand evokes a sense of fun or whimsy, make sure your menu item names reflect that. For example, First Watch is known for its food being healthy and fresh, a message echoed on its menu with items like “Morning Market Veg.”
  • Keep current trends in mind when selecting names. Eating local is incredibly popular right now, so reflecting that on a menu is an easy way to boost sales. Consider naming an item after a famous local location or person, or use your region in the name. J.C. Holdway Restaurant, as an example, serves “Cruze Farm Buttermilk Potato Puree” and “Springer Mountain Chicken Wings.”
  • • Locavore menu items aside, naming products after a region is always a risk. The perception of a region may vary widely depending on where your business is located, which can make things difficult if you have plans to expand in the future. However, some regions are universally associated with a particular cuisine. “Southwest” will always denote bold, spicy flavors, while “Western” will usually make customers think of smoky barbecue flavors. One national chain that does a great job of this is Chili’s, where many menu items are named for Santa Fe, the Caribbean, and California.
  • Steer clear of subjective terms like “beautiful” and “perfect.” What is perfect to you may not be perfect to some of your customers.
  • • Where applicable, use trusted brand names. When you use a brand name that customers know, they feel they are more likely to enjoy the dish. Hard Rock does this with their Guinness® Bacon Cheeseburger. However, be truthful, or you might get called out.
Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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