Last month, pastry chef Dominique Ansel rolled out a new item at his Manhattan bakery. He took croissant dough, shaped it into a doughnut, deep fried it, and filled it with Tahitian vanilla cream. Then came the master stroke: He dubbed his croissant-doughnut hybrid the “cronut.”
New York’s diners—and food bloggers—were entranced. Soon there were long lines of trend-spotting customers hoping to taste the latest culinary sensation. In a matter of weeks, cronuts became New York’s most precious commodity, spawning a black market on Craigslist and selling for as much as $35 above the $5 counter price.
“Cronut” is a lexical blend, or what Lewis Carroll called a “portmanteau,” in which, as Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice, “there are two meanings packed up into one word.” In French, “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau, combining “porter” (“to carry”) and “manteau” (“cloak”) to make a name for a cloak-carrying suitcase.
The cronut itself is effectively a portmanteau as well, fusing two great tastes that taste great together. Portmanteaus seem to hit a sweet spot both culinarily and linguistically. Like the old “X meets Y” movie pitches (“Oblivion” is “The Matrix” meets “Wall-E”!), a portmanteau can offer us something new that is nevertheless based in two completely familiar things. The current popularity of “cronut”-style blending suggests that in both language and cuisine, we can stomach novelty as long as the components are recognizable.
Food portmanteaus seem to have a branding power that other cutesy concoctions lack. Compare the “cronut” to Ansel’s previous signature pastry: the “DKA,” for “Dominique’s Kouign Amann.” (“Kouign amann” means “butter cake” in Breton, a language spoken in northwest France.) But the DKA, though delectable, never caused the frenzy of the cronut.
When did portmanteaus become so alluring? Lewis Carroll was an early proponent, introducing such words as “chortle,” combining “chuckle” and “snort,” but the age of the portmanteau really began in the 20th century, when you could eat your brunch (breakfast + lunch) with a spork (spoon + fork) while making a guesstimate (guess + estimate) about a ginormous (giant + enormous) number. It remains perhaps the most popular method of new word formation in English, from slang (“chillax,” “geektastic”) to business jargon (“webinar,” “advertorial”).
Food portmanteaus in particular are popping up faster than you can say “tofurkey.” On his website, Barry Popik, an expert on the origins of food terms, has culled a bumper crop of new blends. For instance, Jess Kapadia of the Food Republic blog recently shared her recipe for the sandwich fixing “tomatonaise,” which consists of “super-ripe tomatoes food-processed, or immersion-blended, with mayo.” Meanwhile, Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Chef,” introduced Huffington Post readers to the “eggocado,” a baked egg inside an avocado.
Those may be new entries, but portmanteau terms—and dishes—have been used to sell food for decades. Perhaps the most famous American portmanteau is one now so common we don’t even recognize it as such: cheeseburger, which dates back to at least the 1920s. By searching the Los Angeles Public Library’s menu collection, Popik was able to find an example of “cheeseburger” from 1928, at a Los Angeles diner named O’Dell’s. Soon there were other “hamburger” blends, such as the “chickenburger” and “baconburger,” until “burger” came to be understood as a standalone word. (Of course, the older “hamburger” was not actually made up of “ham” + “burger”; it took its name in the late 19th century from the German town of Hamburg.)
A few decades later, a marketing whiz named Edward Gelsthorpe masterfully turned food blends into successful brand names. He came up with the juice blend Cran-Apple for Ocean Spray in 1964, at a time when cranberries were typically consumed only at Thanksgiving. Detaching the “cran-” from “cranberry” and grafting it onto other fruit names was a profitable move, and the company went on to produce Cran-Grape, Cran-Cherry, and Cran-Pomegranate, among others. As branding expert Nancy Friedman has noted, you can even get a “crantini” (cranberry martini).
Nowadays, Gelsthorpe’s blending legacy can be seen in such mass-market brands as Pizza Hut’s “P’Zone” (pizza + calzone), Starbucks’ Frappuccino (frappé + cappuccino), and Burger King’s “Croissan’Wich” (croissant + sandwich). Even in the hipper realm of a boutique bakery, Ansel apparently realized he had a brand bonanza on his hands. He trademarked the word “cronut”—and wisely so, since copycat bakeries immediately began rolling out their own hybrid treats. A Melbourne bakery has a “dossant,” a Washington, D.C., bake shop is selling “doissants,” and in Oakmont, Pa., you can buy an (oddly accented) “doughsánt.” Still, none of these portmanteaus are quite as delightful to say as “cronut.”
Given the exuberance of the American palate, there’s always someone trying to push food portmanteaus even further—as with several dishes that combine not two words and foods, but three. There’s the notorious “turducken,” a turkey stuffed with a duck that has in turn been stuffed with a chicken. A few Thanksgivings ago, the chef and humorist Charles Phoenix created “the dessert version of the turducken,” a three-layer affair involving cherry, pumpkin, and apple pies baked inside cakes, and known as a “cherpumple.” And on the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard’s mother serves up the ghastly-sounding “turbriskafil” (turkey + brisket + gelfite fish) for Thanksgiving.
Getting into the spirit of things, one Huffington Post commenter said about the cronut, “I can’t wait for the Croducken.” Just as you’d guess, that’s “a duck, stuffed into a chicken, stuffed into a croissant.” Surely, it’s just a matter of time.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.