10 #StupidCommonNames for Food and Their Origins

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Have you ever wondered why some foods do not at all resemble their name? This is a long and storied tradition in many cultures. Here’s our selection of particularly interesting misnamed foods (at least to our modern sensibilities) and some explanations as to why they received such a confusing nomenclature. #StupidCommonNames, indeed.

Bear Claw

It’s easy to scare a young child by offering them a bear claw, but it’s really harmless—the bear claw is a danish-type pastry shaped (more or less) like a bear’s paw, complete with three to four individual “claws.” Often filled with almond paste, it’s drizzled with a sugar glaze, and it is quite sweet. It was created in 1942 in San Francisco. Is it a coincidence that the California state animal is the grizzly bear? We think not.

Boston Cream Pie

This is a cake—not a pie. Boston Cream Pie, consisting of two layers of sponge cake filled with vanilla custard and covered with a chocolate glaze, is associated with Boston’s Omni Parker House Hotel, which claims ownership over the creation of this dessert; they’ve served it since 1856, when French pastry chef Sanzian invented it. It likely was called “pie” instead of “cake” because it was common in mid-19th century New England to bake a cake in a pie tin rather than a cake pan.


Despite the name, it has nothing to do with ducks—the geoduck is actually a kind of edible burrowing saltwater clam found along the west coast of North America. Its pronunciation (“gooey duck”) is a bastardization of the Lushootseed word gwíd?q, meaning “dig deep.” It is one of the largest species of clams in the world, looks prehistoric, and, yes—phallic.


This is most certainly not cheese in the conventional sense here in the 21st century; there is no dairy involved. However, headcheese—which is a 19th century American term for a type of cold cut—is a product that is pressed, like cheese. It is made by cooking the head of a pig (often with the ears and snout) until the meat falls of the bone. Then the meat is chopping up, spiced, and pressed into a compact loaf along with the gelatinous cooking liquid, which solidifies into aspic. This meat tends to be very fatty, which encourages everything to better bind together while pressed. It is then cut into slices and eaten, often on sandwiches and for breakfast.

Jerusalem Artichoke

Don’t be fooled—this not-artichoke does not come from Jerusalem at all. In fact, it’s the tuber of the sunflower plant that has origins all over the Americas. The best explanation is that when the plant was brought back to Europe from the New World, the Italians began to cultivate it and believed it to resemble the taste of the popular globe artichoke. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole and no doubt over time and trips of the English-speaking tongue, girasole became the more familiar “Jerusalem.”

Pork Butt

This cut of meat easily fools the novice cook. Yes, it’s pork, but it is actually from the shoulder and does not come from the pig’s behind (you’ll find the ham there). The “butt” part has to do with how it was stored in 18th century America—such a valuable cut of meat was packed into casks known as “butts.”

Spotted Dick

This one always gets a few giggles from the sophomoric crowd, but it has nothing to do with what it sounds like. Spotted Dick is a cylindrical steamed suet pudding studded with raisins or currants—that’s the spotted part. In the 19th century, the time of its origin, “dick” was the casual name for pudding in England.


Pity the person who orders sweetbreads and expects some kind of pastry. “Sweetbreads” is the common name for the thymus gland (and sometimes the pancreas). The history behind the name is a little fuzzy, but it is generally thought that these bits of offal are called “sweet’ because they are sweeter and richer than muscle meats, and “bread” was once “braed,” an old English word for “flesh.”

Welsh Rabbit

Vegetarians, rejoice: there is no rabbit in Welsh Rabbit; it’s actually a variation on a grilled cheese, a kind of cheese toastie. One explanation for the name is that “Welsh” in the 17th century meant (in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way) something that was “less than,” or a sub-par substitution (in this case, cheese for rabbit), and that a Welshman who was too poor to afford rabbit would replace it with cheese. Another explanation is that the Welsh valued harder English cheeses since the soil acidity in Wales lent itself to making softer cheeses. They loved to roast the cheese and mix it with beer, wine, mustard, and/or spices, and spread it on toasted bread. There is evidence that the toasted cheese part of this dish has been in circulation since Medieval times, but “Welsh Rabbit,” and ” Welsh Rarebit”, as a named dish was recorded in 1725.

White Chocolate

For many chocolate lovers, “white chocolate” is a serious let down. Developed in the 1930s by Swiss company Nestlé, it doesn’t resemble chocolate in taste or sight, though modern science has achieved for it a pleasant mouthfeel. The only “chocolate” aspect of white chocolate is cocoa butter, but that’s not even a requirement. The USDA defines it as “the solid or semiplastic food prepared by intimately mixing and grinding cacao fat with one or more of the optional dairy ingredients.” Inexpensive imitations substituting vegetable oils or dairy fat for the cocoa butter can’t be labeled “white chocolate” and often go by “white chocolate coating.” In the past, white chocolate has been promoted as health food, even though it’s the dark cacao solids that offer the much-touted health benefits.

Meg Cotner was trained as a harpsichordist and now writes about food and culture; she is the author of Food Lovers’ Guide to Queens. Her weaknesses are crispy french fries, cold panna cotta, salted chocolate cake, and warm pan de bono. You’ll often find her Instagramming what she prepares in her kitchen, from roast chicken to ryazhenka. She lives and works in Astoria, Queens.

Boston cream pie photo by Kimberly Vardeman CC BY
Spotted dick photo by Mike Mozart CC BY