What Makes a Food "Deviled"?

Is it just so sinfully good?

Loaded Deviled Eggs
Photo: Greg DuPree, Food Stylist: Ruth Blackburn

We serve Deviled Eggs at gatherings, see cans of Underwood Deviled Ham in the grocery store, and enjoy Deviled Crab Melts all summer long, but have you ever stopped to consider why we call all these foods "deviled"?

The term is older than you might think, but the enduring popularity of recipes with the term in the title speak to just how devilishly delicious those dishes are.

What Does "Deviled" Mean?

According to The Oxford Companion to Food, "devil" is a culinary term that first appeared in the 18th century as a noun and then in the early 19th century as a verb, "meaning to cook something with fiery hot spices or condiments." The hot spices or condiments most often referred to the addition of mustard and cayenne pepper in a dish.

The term is derived from the historic depiction of the devil living in a fiery hell, much like the heat that mustard or cayenne could add to a dish. Today, we still use devil iconography to denote something as spicy. Just look at the labels on hot sauce.

Deviled dishes were popular throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, especially for seafood dishes, but today the term is mostly used to refer to deviled eggs or ham. In the 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking, you can still find old school recipes for other "deviled" foods, like deviled chicken spread or "devil seasoning," a spice blend to be used on meat or poultry before grilling.

As for deviled ham, it was invented in 1868 by the William Underwood Company when a worker mixed ground ham with some combination of chili peppers, cayenne, and mustard. In 1870 the company trademarked the devil logo used on their cans, and according to the Smithsonian, it is the oldest trademark for a food product still in use in the United States. The original devil on the packaged sported claws and cloven hooves. Today it is far more cartoonish with a beguiling smile.

What About Devil's Food Cake?

It appears this cake has nothing to do with the original term for "deviled" foods. The cake has conflicting origin stories, although many believe it originated in the South where the cake was made from beets and cocoa. In these early iterations, cocoa powder reacted with baking soda to produce a red, devilish tint to the cake. Today, red food dye may be added to modern recipes to give the cake the same reddish hue.

The first recipe for the cake is traced to the 1902 publication of a cookbook called Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Rorer, two centuries after the term deviled appeared in the culinary lexicon. By 1913, recipes for Devil's Food Cake began appearing in cookbooks across America. It was the counterpart to Angel Food Cake, which came first, and recipes for both cakes often appeared side by side in cookbooks. The pair are perfect opposites, with angel food cake being a light fluffy cake made with only egg whites and devil's food being a rich, dense, chocolate-based cake.

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