For nearly two centuries, French has lorded over the culinary scene. We “sautee,” “julienne,” and “chiffonade” all in accordance with whatever rules the best French chefs codified into culinary technique at the turn of the last century. From “mise-en-place” to the 5 mother sauces every chef’s culinary training is filled to bursting with French culinary pedagogy. For nearly a century, French cuisine WAS haute cuisine.
The pervasiveness and prestige of French cuisine and culture took interesting shapes. In America, this meant that almost every menu presented, especially in more expensive restaurants, was littered with either French sayings or simply presented completely in French.After all, it was only to be expected that if you were dining at the Waldorf Astoria in 1899, you would speak French.
And so, it has always been my assumption that whenever a French word is used differently in French and English, the French word must be the original and we simply translated the word incorrectly.
As an all-too-pedantic language major I would rant about how silly Americans were in calling an “entrée” a “main meal” when OBVIOUSLY it meant “appetizer.” After all, “entrée” derives from the word “entrer” “to enter.” Not for me, that bowl of Spaghetti you’re calling an entrée. No siree. My entrées were quiche, salad and other light “appetizer-like” meals.
In my hubris, I had forgotten an essential lesson for any linguistics class: languages are a reflection of the complexity and ambiguity of the human mind and words adapt their meaning as attitudes and definitions change. Perhaps not so long ago the French and American definition of entrée were not so far removed from one another.
One needs only to turn to the King of Chefs, Escoffier himself to realize the folly in my unsubstantiated ravings. Escoffier published his world-famous Guide Culinaire in 1903 as a cookbook and a textbook on cooking that is still the main point of reference for any chef. Within this book, Escoffier dedicates nearly 200 pages to entrées. It starts with the following description:
From the title alone it becomes clear that our use of entrée may not in fact be so far off from its original meaning. The title can be roughly translated as “general principals on how to braise, pan-sear, sautée and poach.” He then goes on to explain how to cook the various meats that could be considered entrées among them are: poultry, white meat, beef, mutton, lamb, and venison. May I note, no mention of quiche, light dishes or whatever else you would associate with the word “appetizers” today.
That’s because until very recently, entrée meant one thing: a slow-simmered saucy meat dish whose merits I can only praise without end.
To investigate this a bit further I looked at the Almanach des Gourmandes from 1904 which lists page after page of menus from the best restaurants in Paris.
In other words: calf sweetbread, chicken roasted in a dutch oven/casserole, Tournedos, Lamb, Turkish chicken pilaff, and lamb ribs
In other words: Egg dishes, beef dishes, veal dishes, mutton dishes
Again and again they are mainly saucy meat dishes.
As you scroll through the menus provided in Le Almanach des Gourmandes, over and over each menu follows the same distinct pattern:
- Potages – Soup
- Poissons – Fish
- Rots – Roasts
- Legumes – Vegetables
- Entremets – Palate Cleanser
- Desserts – Desserts
Elaborate feasts almost always follow a certain structure what is interesting is how little the order of our dishes have changed over the centuries. To explain the origin of the name “entrée” we must look much farther back than the origins of restaurants as we know them today to the banquets and feasts of the Renaissance. To those blatant demonstration of wealth and power where 1000s of hens, geese and pigs were butchered to be paraded in front of royalty. To a time when pies were filled with live birds, roast chickens were gilded and fire-breathing roast swans and peacocks, were re-dressed in their own plumage.
As is presented in the book The Language of Food from which I drew much of the structure and information for this post, a 16th-century feast as noted in Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France consisted of these distinct stages:
Bon pain (Good quality bread)
Bon vin (Good quality wine)
Entrée de table (Table entrée)
Autlre entrée de table pour yver (Another table entrée for winter)
Issue de Tables (Table exit)
Within this structure the entrée was considered the first course usually consisting of some sort of hearty sauced meat dish. While the Issue de Table would indicate the end of the meal.
In the coming centuries, soup moved farther and farther up on the menu, but the entrée kept it’s definition as a meaty saucy dish that was served before a roast. Keeping true to their dedication to the French language, this was reflected in the English and American menus up to the 1950s as you can see below.
Sometime after WWII, however, the French and English definition began to differ from the American definition of entrée as menus moved away from more complex 7 course menus to three course menus consisting of: 1. Appetizer 2. Entree and 3. Dessert in America and 1. Entree 2. Plat and 3. Dessert in France.
As such, each country adapted a different element of the original meaning of entrée. Because the French still understood the direct connection between the word “enter” and “entrée” it kept the original meaning of “an entry plate” which today usually consists of a “light” dish. However, given the distance between American English and French, Americans remained with the idea that an “entrée” is a dish of substance that can be considered a first dish, but more often can be defined as a main meal as well. Through this interpretation, little by little the definition of entrée began to incorporate fish dishes, vegetarian dishes whatever else might be considered a main dish.
So next time a friend (probably an overly pedantic language major) beleaguers you on the great misunderstanding of an “entrée” remember that languages change and develop, and nothing, except perhaps the appreciation of a good meal, is certain when talking about linguistics.