Stupid Question ™
Dec. 9, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: What do they call English muffins in England, Brazil nuts in Brazil, French toast in France and Italian dressing in Italy?
A: In any nation of the world, this menu would be called “one disgusting breakfast.” However, for specifics:
The round, flat, split bread we call English muffins are generally called “crumpets” in Britain. A “muffin” in Britain is the same cupcake-type thing we usually mean when we say “muffin.” (Except that it’s also British slang for “vagina.”) American “English muffin” makers don’t even attempt to sell their product in England.
However, “English muffins” were invented by an Englishman—the immigrant Samuel Bath Thomas, who set up shop in New York City in 1880.
Why didn’t he call them crumpets? Because, like many food terms, “muffin” and “crumpet” have shifted in meaning over the years and within dialects. Thomas’ English muffins were inspired by items sold door-to-door in 1800s England by a “Muffin Man.” It’s clear that in Britain, “muffin” once meant (and in some dialects, may still mean) “round, flat, split bread.” Likewise, “crumpet” has referred to many different bread items over the past 300 years, and still has slightly variant meanings across different parts of Britain.
In any case, it seems likely that Thomas had to call his product “English muffins” to distinguish them from America’s cupcake-type muffin.
Most Brazil nuts come from the Brazilian state of Para. In the official Portuguese language, a Brazil nut is called a castanha do Para, and in Spanish, castaña de Pará. Castanha and castaña both literally translate as “chestnut”; when used with the modifiers do or de (meaning “of”), they generically mean “nut.” Therefore, castanha do Para means “Para nut.”
What we mean by “French toast”—bread soaked in eggs and milk, then grilled or fried—is called pain perdu in France. It translates literally to “lost bread,” since the recipe was invented as a way to redeem stale bread. Pain perdu appears frequently on New Orleans menus.
“French toast” itself has other meanings in Britain, usually referring to bread which is buttered before being toasted or grilled on one side.
American “Italian dressing”—a strong mix of oil, clear vinegar, garlic and spices—would probably be known in Italy as “an exaggerated crudity.”
Actual Italian dressing is so basic and common it’s simply called condimento (“condiment” or “dressing”). It consists of olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt (with pepper often provided, but optional). Oil is the dominant ingredient, with vinegar and salt added to taste. (The traditional Italian salad is called insalata—literally, “something salted.”)
There are no bottled dressings in Italy. People possess (or are provided with) these ingredients, then make their own.