Recently, the topic of caramelized onions came up in a conversation which led me to wonder when that phrase came into common use in restaurant reviews and menus, recipes, and cooking literature. You probably know that in current cooking vocabulary, especially online recipes, the term "caramelized onions" is now very commonly used for several methods of slowly cooking onions until they melt into a very small quantity and turn a color from deep gold to deep brown. But I was sure that the term was not always used for those methods -- I felt that it had appeared some time after I started cooking. In fact, I have learned, the usage originated some time in the 1980s. Here's how I found out.
|Caramelized onions from a google image search.|
To begin my efforts, I tried google search and google book search to find references to caramelized onions at specified dates, going earlier and earlier. I also searched my own memory. For example: Julia Child's onion soup recipe in the original Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- first published in 1961 -- describes a process of cooking onions slowly with salt and sugar. However, the book does not use the term "caramelized onions." Under "caramelized," the index has only "caramelized almonds." *
When I ran out of ideas for online searching, I recalled that in the book Word by Word, lexicographer Kory Stamper mentioned that you could write to Merriam-Webster and get answers to questions about words. So I did. Filling in a form on the Merriam-Webster website, I submitted the following query:
Question: When did the term "caramelized" first apply to cooking onions? I can find it in New York Magazine articles by Gael Greene in the late 1980s, but online searches (google, google book search) don't seem to turn up instances prior to that -- maybe one reference. I don't think Julia Child, for example, used the term in her early books when cooking onions that way.I'm gratified to report that I received a very interesting answer from Emily, Associate Editor, Merriam-Webster Inc. (Her full name was included, but I don't know if it would be ok to post it here.) She emailed me:
Hi. Your message was forwarded to me, and I am happy to reply. You have asked an interesting and complex question. We are never able to identify exactly when a word was first used, especially because words are often used first in spoken language before they are written. It can be even harder to pin down a new or shifting sense of an existing word. We trace the earliest known use of "caramelize" in general back to 1842, but, as you have observed, the use relating to browning onions developed much more recently. In our own extensive citational database I found instances of this use dating back to 1980.
That said, we do have one earlier citation that may reveal a shift towards this new use. (Note the British spelling.)"The sugar helps caramelise the onion, but do not allow it to catch and turn black."
"A Sweet Breath of Garlic"
by Jane Grigson
May 12, 1974
I hope that this information is helpful.I found it rather exciting to get email directly from the Dictionary, at least from one of the writers of the dictionary! What a great service. And I was relieved to find out that my impression was correct: the term "caramelized onions" did come into use in my lifetime. This was not my imagination and not an example of the "recency illusion."
* Mastering the Art of French Cooking: onion soup, p. 43; caramelized almonds, p. 583
|If today had been Wordless Wednesday, I would have just posted this image of an azalea about to bloom in my garden.|
But it's Wordy Wednesday here at my blog, so I also talked about words.