A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with "deviled" eggs, ham, etc.?

October 12, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

What's the origin of "deviling" in food preparation, e.g., deviled eggs, deviled ham, deviled crab, etc.? When I bring deviled eggs to a picnic, am I unwittingly consigning my friends to an eternity of darkness? Or are they (the eggs, not my friends) merely sinfully delicious?

I'll address two questions here--the one you asked, and one you didn't. Yes, it's Bonus Time here at the House of Cecil, and you're our next big winner!

The word "devil" as applied to food first appears in 1786, when it was used to describe a "(highly seasoned) fried or boiled dish" (references 1, 6). From reference 1:

Devil . . . A name for various highly-seasoned broiled or fried dishes, also for hot ingredients. 1786, Craig "Lounger NO. 86 'Make punch, brew negus, and season a devil.'"

"Deviled" as a word first appears in 1800, when it was used in the phrase, "At half past two ate a devil'd kidney" (reference 2). According to the Oxford Companion to Food,

Devil--a culinary term which . . . first appeared as a noun in the 18th century, and then in the early 19th century as a verb meaning to cook something with fiery hot spices or condiments. . . . The term was presumably adopted because of the connection between the devil and the excessive heat in Hell. . . . Boswell, Dr Johnson's biographer, frequently refers to partaking of a dish of "devilled bones" for supper, which suggests an earlier use (reference 3). 

In America the use of "deviled" was known in the early 19th century:

Deviled . . . Any variety of dishes prepared with hot seasonings, such as cayenne or mustard. The word derives from the association with the demon who dwells in hell. In culinary context the word first appears in print in 1786; by 1820 Washington Irving has used the word in his Sketchbook to describe a highly seasoned dish similar to a curry. Deviled dishes were very popular throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, especially for seafood preparations and some appetizers (reference 4).

Today the word "deviled" is applied to a multitude of spicy dishes. There are other meanings, however. One source gives "deviled" as meaning "Food grilled or fried after coating with condiments or breadcrumbs. See also butter, devilled" (reference 5). Others point to the French diable or à la diablé, meaning "highly spiced." (Reference 5 also shows this usage.)

It seems clear the term "devil" doesn't mean your food is satanic, unless of course you use sea cucumbers or banana slugs or other demonic ingredients. 

Let's look further to see how "deviled" came to be applied to the two common foods you asked about: "deviled eggs" and the popular "Underwood Deviled Ham."

At its most basic, to have a deviled egg, you generally must have:

  • Spices (usually hot, such as pepper) used with eggs.
  • The eggs boiled and the yolks removed, and re-stuffed with a mixture from the yolk.

The first component, the use of spices or spicy sauces with eggs, goes as far back as the ancient Roman cookbook of Apicus, in which he reports that "boiled eggs can be seasoned with pepper" (references 7, 11). Stuffed eggs were first reported from around the 15th century. Reference 8 offers this recipe for ova farcta:

Make fresh eggs hard by cooking for a long time. Then, when the shells are removed, cut the eggs through the middle so that the white is not damaged. When the yolks are removed, pound part with raisins and good cheese, some fresh and some aged. Reserve part to color the mixture, and also add a little finely cut parsley, marjoram, and mint. Some put in two or more egg whites with spices.

References 9 and 10 also give recipes for stuffed eggs, with reference 10 being the first reference I could find that gave a recipe including mustard--probably the first documented occurrence of something close enough to be called "deviled eggs," according to the Food Timeline Website (reference 13). So we can guess that deviled eggs probably predated the 1700s.

Underwood Deviled Ham, a long-time favorite of mine, apparently was created in or around 1868 according to the Underwood Company, which tells us:

Around 1868, Underwood's sons began experimenting with a new product created from ground ham blended with special seasonings. The process they dubbed "deviling," for cooking and preparing the ham, was new. But best of all, the taste was unique.

Soon thereafter, the "Underwood devil" was born. In 1870, the Underwood Company was granted a patent on this now world-famous logo. Advertising showing the little red devil began to appear nationally as early as 1895. Today, the Underwood devil is the oldest existing trademark still in use in the United States (reference 12).

Now for the question you didn't ask: "Una, what about that devil's food cake that all the cool kids are eating nowadays? Surely that's at least somewhat satanic, right?" Well, yes, but only because it magically puts the Curse of Evil Inches on your tummy. A recipe for devil's food cake first appeared in a 1902 American cookbook called Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book (references 14, 16). However, in memoirs written in the early 1900s, a food writer named Caroline King wrote that her family was making devil's food cake in the 1880s-- the Food Timeline Website reprints the original recipe and commentary if you're interested in making it yourself (references 13, 15). Since this was written some time after the fact, it's debatable whether it's the true origin.

The "devil" in devil's food most likely refers to the cake's "sinful" nature, or possibly the fact that it is quite heavy relative to angel food cake. Another possibility arises from the fact that early versions of the cake were red in color. According to Linda Stradley of "Linda's Culinary Dictionary" fame:

Devils food cake is usually thought of in terms of dark chocolate, but originally it was red. This was thought to be due to a chemical reaction between early varieties of cocoa and baking soda, which also gave the cake a soapy taste. Today cooks, using modern processed cocoa, sometimes add a touch of red food coloring to bring back the authentic color.

And in fact an alternative name for devil's food cake is "red devil's cake."

Although I used and cross-verified many references, it's important to acknowledge the Food Timeline Website (reference 13) for giving me guidance and sources for tracking down the origin of deviled eggs, and both Linda Stradley's Website (reference 14) and the Food Timeline Website for assistance in the origins of devil's food cake. References

  1. Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd edition, entries "devil (n)" and "devil (v)"
  2. Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd edition, entry "deviled (n)"
  3. Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson (1999), pp. 247-248
  4. Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, by John Mariani (1999), pp. 110-111
  5. Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, by Arnold E. Bender and David A. Bender (1995), Oxford Reference Online
  6. Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by T. F. Hoad (1996), Oxford Reference Online
  7. Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, by Apicus 
  8. Platina's On Right Pleasure and Good Health, by Mary Ella Milham (1999).
  9. Good Housewife's Jewel (1596), edited by Maggie Black 
  10. The Accomplisht Cook, by Robert May (1685)
  11. "Food & Cooking in Roman Britain, History and Recipes," by Jane Renfrew, English Heritage (2001), page 41
  12. Website of the Underwood company, http://www.underwoodspreads.com/underwd_history.html 
  13. The Food Timeline Website, http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/foodeggs.html  
  14. History of Cakes, by Linda Stradley (2004), http://whatscookingamerica.net /History/CakeHistory.htm 
  15. Victorian Cakes: A Reminiscence With Recipes, by Caroline B. King, with an introduction by Jill Gardner (1986), p. 35-6
  16. The Food Timeline Website, http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/foodcakes.html#devilsfood 
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