In the 1940s, a young cook in Eagle Pass, Texas, faced a dilemma. The head chef had left, they were running low on ingredients, and people were hungry; he threw cheese and jalapenos on top of tostada chips, and Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya introduced his nickname to the English language. It may well have been a brave man who first ate an oyster, but that event is lost in the mists of history. Oysters Rockefeller, on the other hand, have a definite parentage; they were invented at Antoine’s in New Orleans and named after Franklin Roosevelt, to whom they were served. The recipe remains a guarded secret, although Chuck of the Gumbo Pages has taken a crack at reproducing it. Being a chef or bartender is one of the few professions I can think of — the others are biologist and astronomer — where you have a credible shot of naming something after yourself, your loved ones, or your patrons and having that name stick for generations. Mass-produced products, the Tabascos and peanut butters of the world, have their own histories. But when a product of genius (or desperation) comes out from a kitchen or from behind a bar, some lucky person is going to have a chance to make history. The Caesar salad was invented by Cesar Cardini, a Tijuana restaurateur, in 1924. Peach Melba and Melba toast were both named after Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, who apparently was unimpressed by chef Auguste Escoffier‘s liberties. Bananas Foster were a creation of Paul Blangé at Brennan’s in New Orleans, designed as a spotlight for bananas shipped through the Crescent City and named to honor a friend and colleague of Edward Brennan.
Drinks seem to have less documented history behind them. Who was Tom Collins? Who was the real margarita? It seems entirely plausible that the martini is named after Martini & Rossi vermouth, but no one seems to know for sure. Chuck of the Gumbo Pages has a brief history of the Sazerac, an early whisky-based cocktail, and his weblog, Looka!, links to a number of cocktail resources. Among them is CocktailDB, the early stages of an effort to build a database of published cocktail recipes; the idea is that so many online drink databases are just loopy that some degree of historical verification — even if it can’t say who created the drink — will help ensure quality. It may not work, but since 1777, Bass Ale has been using the world’s oldest trademark to help distinguish itself from competitors; if a little history helps ensure a better drink, I lift my glass in thanks.