I Am Melba!

Though you wouldn’t think something as simple and unassuming as melba toast actually had to be invented, it was. And not by just anybody. Melba toast was invented by the greatest chef of all time for the greatest prima donna of all time: an Australian soprano by the name of Nellie Melba. Melba’s real name was Helen Mitchell, but she changed her name at the urging of her voice tutor to something a little more…showbiz. She took “Melba” as her stage name, which was a contraction of the name of her old home town, Melbourne.

Though she was from Australia (in fact she was the very first internationally-known female soprano from that continent), she rose to prominence singing at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, London. During her engagements there she stayed, often for extended periods, at the Savoy hotel where the chef was a mustachioed French fellow by the name of Auguste Escoffier.

In the year 1897 Ms. Melba took sick. So much so that she was forced to limit her diet to toast and not a great deal else. For some time Escoffier had been preparing an extra-thin, double-toasted toast at the Savoy which he called toast Marie, named for Marie Ritz the wife of the Savoy’s owner, Cesar Ritz (yes, that Ritz). However since the toast became nearly synonymous with Nellie Melba that year, and given Melba’s super-star status, Ritz decided to change the name to Melba toast. Though he probably spent a few weeks on the couch for that one, every woman who was anywoman was soon eating his hotel’s extra-crisp toast.

Dame Melba (which became her title when she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918) certainly didn’t mind the publicity. In fact by that time she was well accustomed to referring to herself in the third person. “Melba will take tea in her chambers this afternoon”, “Melba wishes to be left alone”, “no one takes a bow on the same stage with Melba!”. When asked where she got off referring to herself that way her reply was simply: “I am Melba!” And that, as they say, was that.

13 thoughts on “I Am Melba!”

  1. Now that’s a Diva. She was glamorous and larger than life back in her days. A show person knows the importance of PR image! The Melbourne government named a tunnel after her a few years ago. Not as cool as a toastie though.

  2. Escoffier’s also created another other tribute to Nellie Melba – peaches Melba, a combination of peach, raspberry, vanilla ice cream and almonds. Wonderful flavors!

  3. I have to say, that headdress looks like something from an early Doctor Who episode. Still, she manages to carry it off with a great deal of panache.

  4. Hi Joe, have been following you for a while now. Love your posts.

    I saw an article on seriouseat.com today about bialys. Have you ever made them before? Would be great if you could teach us how to make them.


    1. I would be very happy to do that, Carmy! Once I’m done with the pecan pie I shall attend to those, as I love them.


      – Joe

  5. Joe, if you haven’t already read it, allow me to recommend The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (doubtless available at your local library, bless it). No need to be familiar with the rest of the Discworld series to follow the plot, by the way.

    TLC includes a hilarious spoof of the development of the Peach Melba in it which is not to be missed.

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