We like our food presented in the most appealing way—from colorful ingredients, to aesthetic plating, and embellished menu descriptions (or Instagram captions). Half the enjoyment of food derives from psychological expectations and sensory stimulation, not just taste.
There's a difference between “hamburger with tomato, lettuce, ketchup, mustard, and pickles” and “grass-fed Angus beef on a toasted brioche bun, topped with heirloom tomatoes, butter lettuce, tomato jam, smashed mustard seed and pickled cucumber.” The second illustration is definitely more intriguing, but it could very well be the same hamburger.
How often is there a real distinction between the stilted names we give our food, and those names’ commonplace counterparts? Are we trying to make something ordinary sound better than it actually is?
Let’s get down to the gist of it: is there a difference, or are we just being pretentious?
Tomato Jam vs. Ketchup
The two incorporate nearly the same ingredients, but ultimately have completely different textures and tastes. Chalk that up to a difference in preparation and ingredient ratios.
Classic American ketchup (though it has a much longer, non-American history you can read up on) uses mashed, boiled and then heavily strained tomatoes, plus sugar, vinegar and other savory seasonings.
Tomato jam, on the other hand, packs in way more sugar and zilch vinegar. The tomatoes never get strained. Rather, they're coarsely chopped and boiled with all that sugar (and possibly pectin). Voila, you’ve got yourself some non-ketchup tomato jam.
The verdict: The distinction between the two is not pretentious.
Aioli vs. Mayonnaise
Both are emulsions of egg yolk, lemon juice/vinegar, and oil. By definition though, the Provence-born aioli must use olive oil, and must contain garlic. If you really get technical, a true aioli also requires grinding that garlic to a paste with a mortar and pestle.
I don’t think the majority of restaurants practice using the traditional Chinese medicine making tools, and probably opt for a more efficient food processor. We could probably guess that a lot of the time, they’re just serving a glorified mayonnaise. And as far as Google cares, “aioli” means “mayonnaise flavored with garlic.”
Chutney vs. Chunky Jam
Obviously, “chutney” sounds better than “chunky jam,” but is that what it really is? Well, it seems that a chutney can basically be whatever you want it to be, just as long as at its core, it’s a condiment made by boiling fruit and spices in sugar and vinegar—it needs that acidic tang.
To get into defining a true traditional chutney (an Indian condiment that could be made of anything from ground up mint to ground up peanuts—key word, ground up) is a whole different ballgame.
To simplify matters, the verdict: A chutney and jam are distinct, so that’s one less time that we have to bring up the word “chunky” while eating.
Demi Glace vs. Gravy
Demi glace, a common component in French cuisine, is a reduced sauce of equal parts veal stock (maybe beef or chicken in American cooking) and espagnole sauce (one of the traditional French sauces made from a roux, bones, beef, vegetables, seasonings, tomatoes, and reduced-like fluorine in the presence of lithium… ha). Gravy is made of the juices that run from cooking meats thickened with flour or cornstarch.
The verdict: Both may be rich, brown umami sauces served with steak, but there’s a big difference. This distinction is legit.
Pain Perdu vs. French Toast
“Pain perdu," French for “lost bread,” is made with the stale leftover baguette on a Frenchman’s table at the end of the day. This bread holds up better to long soaking times, 10-15 minutes, and is more fully imbibed with the spiced custard mixture. Then, that baby gets fried up.
If you’re making French toast the way I make French toast, (a slice of Wonderbread that you dip ninja-fast for fear of it falling apart... please don't do that, check out these recipes) neither of us has the right to be calling it a pain perdu. Neither do the chefs on Chopped who, whenever they get a piece of anything that looks like bread, make a “pain perdu” in the dessert round.
P.S. Ina Garten has a recipe for “pain perdu” that she only soaks for four minutes.
The verdict: TV chefs convicted of pretentious tendencies.
"Duck pain perdu with chocolate potato truffle" > "Duck French toast with chocolate potato truffle."
Polenta vs. Grits
One is considered high-class Italian food, the other homey southern comfort. So, what’s the difference between these two yellow mushes?
“Polenta” refers to the traditional Italian-prepared dish itself, not just the cooked corn ingredient. This preparation (which includes hours-long cooking times and lots of stirring) can apply to chestnut flour, ground rice, etc., though the corn version is what we’ve grown accustomed to.
True authentic corn polenta should be made from the Italian corn otto file, or eight-row flint, which has a hard starch center.
Corn grits of the south are made from “dent” corn, which has a soft starch center, and doesn't take as long to cook.
The verdict: The two are different, so a distinction is justified. But just realize the irony in the fact that polenta has historically been food for peasants. So… maybe we’re all implicated here.
Mousse vs. Pudding
Both are chocolatey, cold, creamy and delicious, but are they the same? Though the two use the same basic milk and sugar ingredients, “mousse” (French for froth, and thus implies aeration) gets its fluffiness from the introduction of whipped cream or beaten egg whites. Pudding is denser and gets its body not from airy cream or egg, but usually from cornstarch. The proof is in the pudding. Or here, at this informative link.
The verdict: It’s not pretentious to call a mousse a mousse, but don’t give me a Snack Pack pudding cup and call it a mousse because that’s just incorrect.
Ambrosia vs. Jell-O Salad
“Ambrosia,” derived from the Greek word for immortality, often appears as the food or drink of the Gods in ancient mythology. But we mere mortals know ambrosia as a varied slough of fruits mixed with coconut, mini marshmallows, Jell-O, whipped cream, etc.
No offense to Jell-O salad, but if I were one of the gods, it wouldn’t be my first choice. OK, so how in the world did Jell-O salad get this name? For all my searching, I couldn’t find an answer to this.
The verdict: It's a little big-headed of Jell-O salad to traipse around pretending to be a holy delicacy.
Petit Fours vs. Random Amalgam of Homeless Candies
If you order petit fours, you never really know what you’re going to get. They’re tasty, but just remind me of what my plate looks like after grazing the dessert table at a wedding reception.
Born in the 1800s, “petit fours” literally means “small oven.” With only a stone cabinet for an oven and no temperature control, people would set their coals ablazin’ and hope nothing burned. Once the coals were extinguished and the oven commenced its lengthy cool-down, the retained heat was enough to cook small pastries, which came to be petit fours.
There are four—how befitting—categories of petit fours: sec (dry cookies), glaces (marzipan with fondant or chocolate), frais (sponge and crème filled cakes), and deguises (fruits with sweet coatings).
The verdict: It sounds like anything goes with these, as long as they’re bite-sized and desserty. Maybe a slightly too frou-frou name for a mixture of unmatched leftovers, but not a misnomer.
Bratwurst vs. Hot Dog
We all know there’s a difference, but out of spite, I just need to emphasize this for all the times I’ve ordered a “bratwurst,” been overcharged for it, and then given a stupid hot dog. “All the times” being once, but that is still one too many.
You can read about each's history here, but bottom line: both are sausages, classified by ground meat encased in a skin or flattened into a cake. However, the differences: brat meat (commonly pork, beef, or veal) is usually fresher, purer, and ground to a coarser texture. Wursts are thicker and usually raw on purchase at the grocery store.
Hot dog meat (commonly pork, beef, or chicken) gets emulsified to a paste, and the dogs themselves are skinnier and pre-cooked at purchase. And, both use different spices.
The verdict: If your menu says bratwurst, I expect a bratwurst.
Napoleon Vs. Chef's Jenga
This is me fulfilling another vendetta I have against the world. I am fed up with people stacking random things on top of each other and then calling it by a fancy name, like a “napoleon” when in fact all you did was play jenga with your food.
A traditional napoleon is a cake made from layers of puff pastry and whipped or pastry cream. The genus of napoleons has expanded to include fillings of jam, custards, and almond paste. There are savory versions as well, which I can get behind as long as the scaffolding of the classic puff pastry remains.
But, as people have taken liberty with this highly inventive method of putting one food item on top of the other, apparently anything that you layer willy-nilly is now a napoleon.
Look, here’s Williams-Sonoma giving a recipe for a “vegetable napoleon.” It’s a pile of grilled vegetables, people.
The verdict: This is pure pretentiousness at its pinnacle.
Whoa, check out this napoleon of buns, lettuce, hamburger and onions!
Though this obviously hasn't been an exhaustive exposé, it seems that often the distinct name usually exists for good reason. Of course, you’re going to get those rip-off restaurants that try to pass something off as way classier than it is, and that’s just counterfeit, not the food's or the terminology's fault.
We can also admit that there are definite cases of us taking our stuff too seriously and dressing it up beyond its rights. But hey, why not? We deserve to feel fancy too. If you want to make Eggo waffles in the morning and claim it’s a classic Belgian breakfast, more power to ya.