The Risqué History Of How Stew Got Its Name

Stew seems as innocent as any dish could be, a wholesome family meal whose quaint name even evokes a sense of Americana. But it turns out that you might not want your parents at the table if you're talking about the origins of the dish, or at least, its name. The food itself has an ancient origin that predates its risqué moniker by many millennia.

One of the oldest written recipes ever discovered is a cuneiform tablet from the Babylonian Empire evidently instructing the reader to make lamb stew, per the BBC. The ingredients used at the time, which included barley cakes, garlic, and leeks, are all available today, and the methods used remain fundamentally unchanged some 4,000 years later. Frustratingly for historians, the tablets do not specify what proportions to use for any of the ingredients, so researchers must use trial and error to reconstruct the recipes, carefully minding the texture to ensure that their stew does not become a soup.

Stew once referred to a public bath or brothel

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the familiar dish of slow-simmered meat didn't get the name "stew" until 1756. The word had first emerged around four centuries prior, but it originally referred to something quite different. As Bon Appétit explains, etymologists trace the word stew back to the Old French word estuve, which referred to a cauldron, stove, or heated room. This word was rooted in the Latin extufare, meaning "evaporate," which was in turn borrowed from the Greek word typhos, meaning "smoke."

The risqué origins of stew's name lie in the final definition of the Old French estuve — a heated room. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, English speakers began using the word stew in the late 1300s in reference to a public bath house. Bon Appétit picks up the story from there, explaining that the name stew was eventually transferred from bathhouses to brothels, due to the nude link between the two. To make matters even more scandalous, the Etymology Dictionary adds that, even before the term referred to a meal, "stewed" was used to refer to a state of drunkenness. It's unsavory news for a savory dish.