Fricassee of Words – The Big Cheese

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

158 - blog - foley
The Big Cheese ~ Peter C. Foley – Mayor – Olean, NY – Three terms between 1902 and 1923.

The Big Cheese & Cheesy

Meaning – The Big Cheese refers to an important person or the leader of a company or group.

The expression Big Cheese is purely American and, despite its frequent use to connote a high-ranking position in the corporate world, its origin truly takes root in the kitchen and refers to the cheese itself, not the master or mistress of the house.

Just as we chose to part from the ways of our Anglo-European cousins (and the Romans before them) and drive on the right side of the road, so did we make our American cheese different from what was common for same cousins; American cheese was reputed to be larger. A large cheese, literally, was thus associated with wealth, for it clearly indicated access to an abundance of milk.

Thus at first The Big Cheese referred not to a person, but to the privilege of wealth or fame. The first such reference is found in O. Henry’s “‘Unprofessional Servant” (1910):

“Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into fame in sixteen minutes.”

Interestingly, the term “cheesy” originally had an altogether different meaning from current usage. The Slang Dictionary, published 1863, defines cheesy as follows: “Anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous.”

The earliest recorded evidence of the use of The big Cheese when referring to a person appears in The Olean Evening Times (NY), in a 1922 piece written in honor of the Mayor of Olean’:

Foley, say there, Foley, with your hair of reddish hue
And your Irish smile, begorra! *
Blarneyed them into meeting you.
The big mayor of Olean fair,
You’re the big cheese on the scene.
Foley, tell us, Foley, is your city song
The Wearin of the Green?

Note the good mayor’s last name, which, interestingly, matches that of our very own Big Cheese, chef Jack Foley!

* Begorra: Old Irish euphemism for “by God!”

Read More Fricassee of Words Articles

Explore the Jeffersonville Pizza Department Menu if you like cheese, big!

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