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When is a scallop not a scallop? February 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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When it’s a scalloped potato. Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were enjoying scalloped potatoes last night, a cherished comfort food, with its creamy, potato-y interior and crispy exterior (think mac’n’cheese done right, but with more body and less assertive cheese flavor, assuming you even add cheese). As I served up our plates, I began to wonder why the dish was called “scalloped” potatoes, since it doesn’t include scallops and the potato slices don’t have scalloped edges (think madeleines). I was determined to get to the bottom of this!

My own theories were: A) that the dish was named for a popular technique of cooking scallops at the time, transferred to the potato dish; B) that the original dish had thicker slices of white, peeled potatoes that reminded its creator of scallops; or C) that the creator of the dish was a marketing genius who managed to give the humble potato the cachet of expensive seafood by giving the dish a clever name. (Much as in the case of Waldorf Salad, which sounds a lot more highfalutin than apple salad, or Caesar salad, which sounds a lot more appetizing than a bowl of romaine lettuce, or, say, Buffalo wings, which transformed the cheapest, most unwanted piece of the chicken into a prized appetizer.)

Much as I was drawn to theory C), I felt it was the least likely of the three to be true. In fact, I actually think that it’s a combination of A) and B): that the potatoes in cream sauce reminded the creator of the dish of scallops prepared the same way. I hoped that my good friend Google could resolve the issue, but for once, it failed me. (And to think, just yesterday it had helped me identify some mystery seedpods I’d found on a recent trip to Penn State as coming from the Kentucky coffeetree. You’d think this would be easy by comparison.)

Theories abounded about the origins of the name, scattered with expressions of loathing for the dish and even assertions that it was made with breadcrumbs. (Shudder!!! These people must also bread their mac’n’cheese, for shame.) The responses were all over the map, and I could find nothing definitive. Some responses said the potatoes in the dish resembled scallops, and some said they were prepared the same way as a scallop dish. Others claimed the word came from escalloped, a technique for cutting thin, small rounds from meat. One source cited the earliest known reference to the dish, British circa 1883, where a diner was complaining that he’d ordered scalloped (presumably creamed) potatoes but was served potatoes in a tomato sauce instead.

Yeesh. What’s a scalloped potato lover to do? Ignore the origins and just eat your scalloped potatoes, say I. But please, don’t put breadcrumbs on them. And if anyone reading this has a definitive answer, I’d love to hear it.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Comments»

1. William - February 14, 2013

I have another source of scalloped potatoes. My thought process has never looked at your options. I look at the word and its origin.
Once source I found says it comes from the Old English word collops. Collops meant to slice thinly. That would mean the dish came from England.
Sigh, there is also a chance that it is derived from Old French. There are some that disagree.
Like the tootsie pop, the world may never know.

Good sleuthing, William! I’d be happy to accept the word “collop” as the origin of scalloped potatoes; it makes a lot of sense. (Also that it would be an English dish, given the ingredients.) I should check my Colonial cookbooks and see if it was popular in the Colonies, and if it had already transformed into “scalloped” at that point, and my Victorian cookbooks to see if it hadn’t made it here until then. Somehow, I can’t quite picture Victorian households referring to their potatoes as “colloped” when “scalloped” sounds so much more upscale…


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