Word Odyssey: Sheep’s Feet in White Sauce

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It’s time to feed your inner nerd.

Restaurant. Here in the 21st century we take restaurants for granted. But restaurants didn’t exist in the Western world until the late 1700’s. There were taverns and inns that served food and drink to travelers, and you could take out baked goods from a bakery, but there was nothing like leisure social dining just for the heck of it. There wasn’t even a word for the concept, not until the restaurant was invented. The story of the origin of restaurant that I’m about to tell has been the accepted version for a couple of hundred years, but as is often the case with word origins that go back a ways, parts of it have been disputed in some quarters. Anyway, here we go…..

Since we’re talking about food, you might guess that the road to the origins of restaurants begins in France. You’d be right. In Paris in the 1700’s guilds held monopolies on the sale of prepared foods. Monsieur Boulanger wanted to sell prepared foods but he couldn’t afford the dues required by the guild. So he looked for a loophole. Boulanger claimed that his soup, sheep’s feet in white sauce, wasn’t merely food, it was a health restorative. The root meaning of restaurant is to restore, as in to restore health. So the sign advertising his little shop said “Boulanger vends les restaurants magiques”, meaning he sells magical restoratives.

The guilds sued Boulanger for infringement on their monopoly rights, but apparently the court liked sheep’s feet in white sauce because he was vindicated. The concept quickly caught on. Restaurants began popping up all over Paris, then spread throughout Europe.

I said that restaurants didn’t exist in Western society until their invention by Monsieur Boulanger. That’s true, but something like restaurants did exist in ancient Rome. They were called thermopolia. They typically had an L-shaped stone or tile counter with storage vessels sunk into the counter. Patrons would sit at the counter, scoop food out of the vessels, eat and socialize. When Pompeii was excavated, archaeologists found 158 intact thermopolia. But one big difference from restaurants is that thermopolia probably served mainly the poorer classes who could not afford a kitchen of their own.

Today of course we not only have restaurants, but many kinds of restaurants. We’ve got cafes which, as the word suggests, began as coffeehouses serving café, but later expanded into small restaurants. Cafeteria is Anglicized Spanish meaning “coffee store”. Bistro suggests a small, intimate restaurant, and they usually are. You can usually get food in a pub, which is slang for “public house”. Likewise, they’ve usually got something to eat in a tavern, which began as a place to serve travelers. Speaking of travel, as an aside, today we associate travel with vacation and leisure. But travel is from the same French root as travail, as in hardship. Apparently bumping along mile after mile in open wooden carts in all kinds of weather wasn’t quite as luxurious as travel by planes, trains and automobiles.

But I digress. Tavern is from Old French meaning a shed made of boards, so you can imagine that back in the day taverns were about as glamorous as traveling itself. Nowadays even a tavern can be pretty upscale. And if you don’t like the food at the tavern, try a diner, a greasy spoon, a chophouse, a hashery, a hamburger stand, a luncheonette, a drive-in or a pizzeria!

And if the dish that changed how we dine has your mouth watering, here’s a recipe for sheeps feet in white sauce. http://www.recipefork.com/sheeps-feet/

Bon appetit!

Word Odyssey is a weekly column on words, their origins and the stories that go with them. It appears each Thursday on The Range.

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