Not Martha

Melba Toast has a surprisingly romantic history

melba toast crackers (because I did not have melba toast, forgive me)

Over breakfast last week Scott and I found ourselves wondering about the origins of Melba Toast. Why Melba Toast? I have no idea, I think we were eating pancakes at the time. Turns out Melba Toast has a very romantic origin, romance! fame! scandal! all play a part, at least from it’s originators. Wikipedia take it away:

It is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the stage name of Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell. Its name is thought to date from 1897, when the singer was very ill and it became a staple of her diet. The toast was created for her by chef and fan Auguste Escoffier, who also created the Peach Melba dessert for her. The hotel proprietor César Ritz supposedly named it in a conversation with Escoffier.

This part of history isn’t something I studied so I was delighted to read about these huge personalities. Dame Nellie Melba was a soprano and a major diva and gained a lot of scorn from her friends and colleges with her acerbic personality. She toured the world to sing, she made recordings and was on the radio in the very early days when almost nobody had a radio to listen to, she had affairs, caught a fever in Egypt, had a facelift (I did not know they existed in the 20s), gave farewell tours for nearly a decade and her face is on the Australian 100 dollar bill. What a lady.

Escoffier and Ritz have fascinating stories too, well, more fascinating than I suspected. They worked together at the Savoy until they were implicated in the disappearance of £3400 worth of wine and spirits. They then opened the Ritz hotels in Paris and London and attracted all the rich and famous as clientele, they went on to open hotels and cook for royalty and, it appears, generally lead fabulous lives. Escoffier established the system by which all our restaurant kitchens run. I love this anecdote from The Times, found on Wikipedia: “Colour meant so much to Escoffier, and a memory arises of a feast at the Carlton for which the table decorations were white and pink roses, with silvery leaves – the background for a dinner all white and pink, Borscht striking the deepest note, Filets de poulet à la Paprika coming next, and the Agneau de lait forming the high note.”

Alright, history lesson concluded.

· comments [7] · 08-10-2010 · categories:food · things I think are neat ·

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rose // Aug 10, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Funny, I was looking for some melba toast yesterday at Whole Foods. I plan to make Bittman’s tomato jam this week and thought melba toast with a little cheese (goat? feta?) would be a perfect base for it.

  • 2 Scraps // Aug 10, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Reading Escoffier’s cookbook is an interesting experience and the food is both incredibly simple and insanely complex at once. His fried egg is nothing like we think of fried eggs, and fried eggs topped nearly everything.

    My favorite (of the ones we did during French Classical) was the dish that was a large crouton, supreme chicken, asparagus, crawfish tails and the fried egg. You cut down through all the layers at once and the egg yolk created the sauce for the dish.

  • 3 April // Aug 11, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Have you ever eaten at Escoffier’s at the CIA in Hyde Park, NY? He would be proud to have his name on that restaurant. It is run by the top teaching chef’s in the country and the student’s cook on a nightly basis. The Pan Fried Dover of Sole – indeed pan fried in butter at tableside – is the best fish I have ever eaten! (Julia Child’s recipe!)

  • 4 Patr // Aug 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Peach melba! Must make it this weekend – the peachs here in TX are delish right now. Thanks for the post and stirring my memory for the recipe.

  • 5 Tori // Aug 13, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Thank you for sharing. Knowing the story behind products we use and/or consume really makes it easier to form a love and appreciation for them. This is a great story.

  • 6 Clearly Composed // Aug 14, 2010 at 11:35 am

    That’s sweet. I will smile at the melba toast next time I see it. :)

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