10 Food Idioms Explained: What the Hell Does ‘Piping Hot’ Mean?


Easy as pie?

Our common speech is littered with food-derived aphorisms, metaphors, and other figures of speech. Some, like “wolfing down a meal” and “that guy’s a vegetable,” are rather obvious, but there are others that seem inscrutable, where not enough of the original idea remains. Here are 10 food idioms that maybe need some explaining. [Note: This is a very inexact science. Feel free to disagree.]

1. Piping Hot — This expression was used as early as late medieval times, referring to the steam that shot out of a spouted tea kettle, a device in use at least since ancient Mesopotamia. In other words, “piping hot” means “boiling hot.” Chaucer used the expression in 1386, as quoted by wiki.answers: “Wafres pipyng hoot out of the gleede” (“Waffles piping hot out of the fire”). On the other hand, when Shakespeare used the word “piping” two centuries later as an adjective, he was referring to bagpiping.

2. Done to a Turn — It sounds like this refers to our contemporary practice of turning certain grilled foods (e.g., pancakes and hamburgers) with a spatula. But the phrase is much older, originating in the Middle Ages, when meats were cooked, not in ovens or on barbecues, but on spits turning over an open fire. Hence, “done to a turn,” meaning within one turn of being perfectly cooked.

3. Easy as Pie — Making pies is hard work, which is why this expression seems contra-logical. You’ve got to prepare the shortening, measure and mix and roll out the dough, painstakingly fit it perfectly into the pie plate, and that is before you even start to make the filling. And, yeah, you can add such further time-consuming tasks as latticing the top. So what gives with the expression? Well, apparently the original was something like “Easy as eating a piece of pie,” which gradually shortened to “Easy as pie.” Ditto with the similar expression, “Piece of cake.”

4. Rolling in Dough — Dough, of course, is a slang expression for money, and “rolling in dough” means that you’re wealthy. But what is the underlying meaning? It seems straightforward enough that, if you have enough dough, you could literally roll in it like a kid might roll in a stack of autumn leaves. But the expression may refer to baking practice, in which doughs like those of the croissant had their butter rolled between the layers as a step in the making of the pastry. In fact, “rolled-in dough” is what such pastries are called today.

5. Salad Days — While many food idioms in common usage occurred spontaneously over a long period of time, some have a specific point of origin. Such is the case with “salad days,” meaning “in one’s prime,” which was an expression invented by Shakespeare in one of his latest plays, Anthony and Cleopatra (1606): “My salad days/When I was green in judgment: cold in blood/To say as I said then!”

What did punky Cleopatra have to do with the expression “salad days”?

Here are three forks in the road.

6. A Good Egg — Calling someone a “good egg” is a straightforward-enough agrarian compliment, though somewhat diluted by the fact that good eggs far outnumber bad, so much so that an actual bad — or “rotten” — egg is a rare occurrence among chicken eggs. Perhaps this is supposed to down-modify the meaning of the expression, so that it might be interpreted as bland, along the lines of “He’s a nice fellow.” Note, this joins many other “egg” expressions, including “bad egg,” “egg-head,” “scrambled,” and “egged on.”

7. Fork in the Road — This term is used to described a Y intersection, where one road turns into two. So why “fork in the road”? Doesn’t a fork have four (or sometimes three) tines, which would indicate a road that split into more than two routes? Well, the original forks were not used as dining utensils, but as implements to hold meat while carving, and thus had only two tines. Such forks were used in Greek and Roman times, but the usage in “fork in the road” is probably of medieval vintage.

8. Chopped Liver — We’ve all heard the disgruntled question, “What am I, chopped liver?” It refers to the fact that chopped chicken liver, whether in Ashkenazi or Italian cooking, is a side dish, and one that is easily upstaged by a main course. It’s often said when the speaker is feeling ignored, and it has a sort of Borscht-Belty sound of self-parody about it.

9. Full of Beans — English boasts lots of idioms based on legumes. If someone is a bookkeeper or accountant, she’s a “bean counter.” If someone tattles on someone else, he is said to “spill the beans.” But what about “full of beans,” which is used when a person is flamboyantly full of himself. The origin of this expression is harder to determine, though one website identifies it as having arisen about 100 years ago as a result of the practice of feeding horses beans, which apparently made them high-spirited.

10. One Smart Cookie — “Cookie” — originally a Dutch term — has wormed its way into all sorts of slang expressions. To “toss one’s cookies” means to throw up, while “tough cookie” is a person with admirable tenacity. “Smart cookie” seems to be of fairly recent vintage (some say the 1940s), but whether “cookie” refers to the sweet baked treat, or to cooks themselves, is lost in derivational murk. Any ideas?