Our next mother sauce is tomato sauce.  In Italian, the tomato is pomodoro, so pasta pomodoro is a pasta dish made with tomatoes.  Can you guess what the word origin of pomodoro is?  If you remember the earlier post on the pomme de terre you might be able to.  If you break pomodoro into parts you get pomo d’ oro or…apple of gold! There is a whole huge history of etymologies surrounding the apple that I’ll get to in a later post. Today we shall tackle the tomato, which has a whole history of its own.

In Mexico they say jitomate (pronounce he-tomat-ay) for tomato.  This rendition is probably closer to the original word.  Jitomate comes from Classic Nahuatl (pronounce something like na-wat) and means swollen navel (xitomātl, “navel” + and tomātl “tomato”).  Tomato without the ‘xi’ prefix simply means swollen.

Most if not all other Spanish speaking countries say tomate.  The reasons I found for this were not consistent. Please let me know if you have a theory on that.

The tomato was probably originally from Peru, but the Spaniards learned of it in Mexico.

When the tomato was brought to Europe, either by Columbus or Cortez, it was immediately recognized as a member of the nightshade family.  It is true that the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, but in Europe there are many very poisonous nightshade plants.  Many Europeans thought that the tomato was most likely poisonous, too.

In many parts of Europe it earned the name wolf peach because in German folklore witches and sorcerers used poisonous nightshade plants to turn themselves into werewolves.

Tomato sauce as the name for the mother sauce doesn’t have much of an interesting history – it’s called tomato sauce because it has tomatoes in it.  Duh.


“If you wish to make an apple pie

“If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

– Carl Sagan

Friday quiz

What’s your favorite food word? What’s it’s origin?




Let’s look at a word I stumbled across yesterday, vignette.  We will return to the mother sauces shortly. Vignette sounds a lot like vinaigrette, and I wondered, “Could there be a connection between a literary sketch and a salad dressing?”  So, I did some research.

Originally, vignette was a decorative design, a fancy twirling tendril of a grapevine.  Commonly, it would adorn the border of a picture in a book.  Later vignette was used to describe the picture itself, particularly pictures with blurred edges.  Now vignette has become a metaphor.  It describes a short work of writing that, like a picture, captures a snapshot of time. 

Vinaigrette is the diminutive form of vinaigre, vinegar in French.  The diminutive endings in French are –et / –ette so a small book is a livret and little Anne becomes Annette.  This is similar to the –ito and –ita endings in Spanish.  Vinaigre literally means aigre – sour, vin– wine.  So, yes, the answer is that vignette and vinaigrette are both diminutive forms of wine words. How French of them. 


While adobo is probably the closest thing to the official sauce of Spain, epagnole is the sauce named after the Spanish.  Confusing?  The French mother sauce, espagnole, translates to Spanish.  How this sauce was named after the Spanish is debatable.  One version of the story, and the only one that makes any sense to me, was published by Louis Diat, the inventer of the vichyssoise.  He says in his book, Gourmet’s Basic French Cookbook,


“There is a story that explains why the most important basic brown sauce in French cuisine is called sauce espagnole, or Spanish sauce. According to the story, the Spanish cooks of Louis XIII’s bride, Anne, helped to prepare their wedding feast, and insisted upon improving the rich brown sauce of France with Spanish tomatoes. This new sauce was an instant success, and was gratefully named in honor of its creators.”


I’m not terribly impressed with the uncertain history of espagnole sauce.  I did however notice that espagnole is the mother sauce of sauce aux champignonsChampignons are mushrooms in French.  Champignon sounds a lot like champion to me.  And they are indeed related.  The common root word is Latin campus, which means field.  A champion is someone who fights in the field (of combat) and the mushroom grows in the field.



A mother sauce is like a continent.  It is big and encompasses a lot of variation, but ultimately, all sauces lend their birth to their mother.  Well, that’s the case for most sauces.  Some sauces, like the gypsy coulis, are without a country or a continent.  But most French sauces fall under the umbrella of one of the mother sauces.  The 5 mother sauces are BETH-V, béchamel, espagnole, tomato, hollandaise and velouté. 


Béchamel was the name of a man before becoming a sauce.  Béchamel was a financier and chief steward to Louis XIV.  During his time, many cream sauces were made by adding cream to stock; Béchamel preferred the version that started from a roux.  The sauce was given his name because he was such a fan.  The Duke of Escars commented, “That fellow Béchameil has all the luck! I was serving breast of chicken à la crème more than 20 years before he was born, but I have never had the chance of giving my name to even the most modest sauce.”

Dutch words

Aardvark, bazaar, booze, aloof, bazooka, Brooklyn, caboose, cookie…see a pattern? Double vowels in a word point to Dutch origins. Now you know!




Cantalupo was the original version of our word today.  Cantalupo is an Italian word, but we know the French version, cantaloupe.  Cantaloupe = canta (sing) + loupe (wolf). Hmmm… why?

Cantaloupes were introduced from Armania to the countryseat of the Pope, a region known as Cantalupo, just outside of Rome.  Cantalupo was were wolves gathered and sang, so they say.  The name stuck as the melon traveled the world, even though the melon itself has no relation to wolves or singing.  Often foods are named after the place they came from. Can you think of an example of this?

“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”


The seeds and oil from sunflowers are a wonderful source of nutrition. In English we say sunflower, in French it’s tournesol and in Spanish they say girasol. One of these words is superior to the other words in describing this plant. Which one is it?

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