Buttering up the humble pie: the origin of food sayings

Discovering the origin of spill the beans

I delve into the culinary curious world of foodie idioms, finding out why we use them and where they came from…

The English language certainly gives us plenty of food for thought. Phrases and expressions associated with the culinary arts are in use every day without us even noticing – but have you ever given any thought to exactly why you should ‘bring home the bacon’? How might you ‘cut the mustard’? And can you make a ‘pig’s ear’ of ‘a humble pie’, or even ‘spill the beans’ for that matter? While we know not to take these metaphorical musings literally, where did they come from originally?

“These phrases appear in conversation all over the English-speaking world every minute of the day and we take them for granted,” says Albert Jack, writing in his book Red Herrings & White Elephants (John Blake Publishing, 2007) “Have you ever heard someone say they had a bone to pick with you or they could smell a rat, and wondered what an earth they were talking about? No, probably not, because we’ve all grow up knowing what these phrases refer to.”

Here, I tuck into the savoury (and not so savoury) origins of our most common foodie idioms…

Spill the beans = to give away a secret

A reject from a Heinz advertising brainstorm? Perhaps not – but this phrase is thought to have originated from the boardroom rather than the dining room. “A tradition that began in Ancient Greece for electing a new member to a private club was to give each existing member a white and brown bean with which to cast their votes,” writes Jack. “The white bean was yes and the brown meant objection. The beans were then secretly placed in a jar and the prospective member would never know how many people voted either for or against him. Unless, that is, the jar was knocked over and the beans spilled…”

That takes the biscuit = something that has exceeded the bounds of expectation (in a good, bad or sometimes sarcastic way)

Although this phrase doesn’t refer to the person caught with their hand in the cookie jar, it is thought to have U.S origins. “It probably comes from the American phrase ‘that takes the cake’ (with cake and biscuit being interchangeable), and in the Deep South in the 1920s this referred to a winning performance by a couple at a cake walk,” says Judy Parkinson, author of Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas (Michael O’Mara, 2009). “A cake walk was a dance that took place at gatherings on slave plantations and the winning couple would be rewarded with a large cake. “However, there is evidence to suggest that ‘taking the cake’ was synonymous with victory as early as the 5th century when cakes (or biscuits) were small pyramids of grains and honey. In Ancient Greece, the most vigilant man on a night watch was rewarded with cake and in The Knights Aristotle wrote: ‘If you surpass him in impudence, then we take the cake’.”

Butter someone up = to flatter someone in order to get special favours

Crumpets, new potatoes, sweetcorn… slathering any food in a good dollop of freshly churned butter is a recipe for success so it’s easy to see why this phrase caught on, but in fact it’s thought to have come from the ancient Indian practice of throwing small balls of butter or ghee at statues of the Gods in order to be granted higher powers. Another theory hints at a link with the long history of carving sculptures out of butter (Tibetan monks use yak butter to make New Year symbols for example) with the ‘buttering up’ part thought to come from the story of Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova, who came to his patron’s attention as a humble kitchen boy when he created a ‘butter lion’ for a lavish banquet.

Pig’s Ear = to do a bad job

While nose-to-tail eating is certainly catching on in Britain, you’d be hard pressed to find pig’s ears in any top-notch restaurant – and it was the same in Medieval England it seems. “The phrase dates back to the Middle Ages when it is said that the only part of a pig that could not be eaten or used in any way was the ear,” writes Jack. “Therefore, any craftsman or apprentice making something ineffective or unusable was considered to have produced a ‘pig’s ear’.”

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander = behaviour that’s acceptable for one person should be acceptable for another

“Implying that men and women should be treated fairly and equally, this old phrase appears to promote sexual equality before anyone realised it was the right and proper thing,” says Parkinson. “But ‘sauce’ is also a French word from the Latin ‘salsus’, meaning ‘salted’ and, as sauce also means cheek or impertinence, perhaps it relates to the salty piquancy of an old fashioned sauce that might accompany a roast goose – or gander.”  

Bring home the bacon = to bring home money or a salary from a job

This expression is reputed to have originated from Great Dunmow in Essex, when the church promised a flitch, or side of bacon, to the man who could swear to wedded bliss and pledge he hadn’t argued with his wife for a year. Thus, those men who could put up with their ‘trouble-and-strife’ for 12 months would be rewarded for their forbearance by ‘bringing home the bacon’! While it’s a nice story, it’s more likely this phrase dates back to the common practice of having pigs as top prizes at country fairs.

Flavour of the month = temporarily fashionable

Think cronuts (half doughnut, half croissant), or the latest, greatest super food – last year it was chia and kelp, now it’s deep fried insects. “This phrase actually comes from one of the most enduring advertising slogans of the last century, originating in the American ice cream parlours during the 1950s,” says Jack. “To encourage customers to try different flavours and increase the sales of less popular types of ice cream, parlours would lower the price of a certain flavour for a month long promotion, and that month’s cheap ice-cream would be widely promoted as the ‘flavour of the month’.”

To eat humble pie = to make a humble apology or to climb down from a firmly held position

“An ‘umble pie’ dates back to medieval times,” says Parkinson. “So ‘humble’ is most likely a play on the word ‘umble’. In fact, the word was once ‘numble’ and it comes from the French ‘nomble’ meaning a deer’s offal – heart, liver, and entrails – considered a delicacy by some.”

She adds: “It has been suggested that umble pie was only fit for the lower orders, with the lord of the manor dining at the high table on venison, while the servants had to make do with chopped umbles in a pie. But I’m not sure about this Upstairs, Downstairs interpretation because Samuel Pepys refers to umble pies in his diary, writing on July 5, 1662: ‘I having some venison given me a day or two ago, and so I had a shoulder roasted, another baked and the umbles baked in a pie, and all very well done’.”  

Cutting the mustard = to succeed, meet expectations

This is another phrase that appears to have a more literal than metaphorical meaning, and is thought to come from the East Anglian practice of cutting mustard crops with scythes. As it was hard work with a blunt tool you would ‘not cut the mustard’, but with a sharp tool and good skill, you would be more successful – hence ‘cutting the mustard’. Other schools of thought suggest it related to the thick crust that formed on top of the mustard when it was made, which would need to be cut off. But then, it’s also possible it came from the same root as ‘pass muster’ or ‘muster out’ – military terms for discharging from the armed forces after an inspection that ensured you measured up.

Gone to pot = no longer any use, or a person not as fit as they used to be

“A reference dating back to the 16th century shows that cuts of meat which, in those pre-refrigerated days, were on the verge of hardening and were no longer edible, would be chopped into small pieces and cooked up in a stew-pot,” writes Jack. “Therefore, meat beyond its best would be described as having ‘gone to the pot’.”

First published in Great British Food

I'd love to know what you think about this!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.