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The French – and Danish and Chinese – connection

April, 2010

Roger O’Connor wrote: “I have always wondered why Danish pastry is called Danish, as I have associated the rich confections with having an Austrian origin. This feeling was entrenched this summer while vacationing in Denmark. I noticed that Danish pastry there is called wienerbrød – ‘Vienna bread.’ Why the heck then do we call it ‘Danish’?”

If O’Connor had ventured into northern Germany, he may have discovered that Danish pastry is referred to in some locales as ein kopenhagener, “a Copenhagener.” If I had to venture a guess as to the ultimate provenance of the rich pastry, it would be that the Danes learned the process of baking from the Viennese many centuries ago.

None of these details, however, elucidates why the confection is called “Danish pastry” in most parts of the English-speaking world.

Some research uncovered that the term “Danish pastry” started to be used after a five-page advertising “article” titled “Danish pastry” appeared in 1920 in the July issue of the magazine National Baker. The ad credited the introduction of the term to an L.C. Klitteng, described as “consulting baker of the Isle of Laesoe, Denmark,” whose “Danish Pastry” was so ravenously received in New York that he decided to open the Danish Culinary Studio in New York to teach people “this art of producing high-grade pastry, either by practical demonstration or through a correspondence course.”

More mysterious, however, is why shepherd’s pie (referred to as “German shepherd” in my household) becomes pâté chinois when digested into French. After all, one is unlikely to find a dish composed of ground meat under a layer of mashed potatoes in your quintessential Chinese home or restaurant.

There is a provenance from China at play here, and surprisingly in our time zone. In the late 19th century, thousands of Quebecers migrated to the northeastern United States to work in mills and some settled in a town called China in the state of Maine. Those who returned to Quebec brought with them a recipe for shepherd’s pie, which they called “pâté chinois.”

Things become even murkier with French toast. The French designate it as pain perdu because it is usually composed of stale bread. In England, it is usually referred to as “eggy bread,” but at some point in the distant past, this high-cholesterol bread must have enjoyed a French connection. The first citation of “French toast” in the OED is from English cook Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery, written in 1660: “French Toasts. Cut French Bread, and toast it in pretty thick toasts on a clean gridiron, and serve them steeped in claret, sack, or any wine, with sugar and juyce of orange.” It would appear that residents of specific locales are very happy to ascribe the origin of this not particularly aesthetic-looking dish to others. A friend from India tells me that in Bombay it is called Madras toast and in Madras it is called Bombay toast.

Matters are not as complicated with the duo of frankfurters and wieners, which came into our language in the late 19th century because the foods originated in Vienna, Austria and Frankfurt, Germany, respectively.

Heated debates, however, have ensued as to the provenance of the word “hamburger,” which also comes into English toward the end of the 19th century. It derives from the city of Hamburg but there is a question as to which Hamburg. Most authorities assert that the hamburger first appeared in the United States in 1884 under the designation “Hamburg steak,” named after Hamburg, Germany. However, the burghers of Hamburg, N.Y., claim that the beef patty was invented there in 1885. According to local lore, its inventors were Charles and Frank Menches from Ohio, who ran out of pork at their concession at the Erie County Fair and substituted beef instead.

Howard Richler’s latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Life of Words (Ronsdale Press) will be launched April 14 at Paragraphe bookstore, 2220 McGill College Ave.



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