Of all the antiquated dessert trends in the history books — puddings of all shapes and sizes; candies made from sorghum and molasses; molded Jell-O as the height of sophistication — the one that’s just itching to make a comeback, in my opinion, is naming desserts after celebrities. What could be a better way to pay everlasting tribute to your favorite pop star or actress than by immortalizing them in namesake confectionary form? I can see it now: a one-of-a-kind Lady Gaga genoise, or maybe even a newfangled type of lava cake named after Jennifer Lopez.
If you’re looking for a velvety, refreshing treat to enjoy while dreaming up desserts worthy of our modern-day sirens, look no further than peach Melba — that classic combination of poached or fresh peach halves, vanilla ice cream and sweetened raspberry sauce — named after famed Victorian operatic soprano Nellie Melba.
Born just outside of Melbourne, Australia, in 1861, Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell was a gifted musician from a young age, performing for the first time in public at the age of eight and soon thereafter — upon being hailed as a musical prodigy by the local press — dedicating herself to a singing career. But an artist’s path is never that simple. After a series of professional dead-ends on her home continent and a particularly unfulfilling marriage, Nellie arrived in Europe, eventually making her way to Paris to study under the tutelage of famed German mezzo-soprano Mathilde Marchesi. The growth and progress Nellie showed after being taken under Marchesi’s wing meant that she could finally make her operatic debut in an 1887 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. It was a smashing success, but perhaps more importantly, she performed in the opera under a new stage name: Nellie Melba, a suggestion of Marchesi’s that paid homage to her home city of Melbourne. (And in case anyone was curious, yes, Melba toast was also named after the golden-throated soprano.)
By 1892, Nellie was a star in Europe, performing regularly at Covent Gardens in London. Before and after performances, she frequently dined at the Savoy Hotel, where legendary chef and restauranter Auguste Escoffier was busy codifying the very definition of “haute cuisine” and often naming dishes after his spotlight-loving regulars. (Other namesake dishes of Escoffier’s include fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt — strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet in honor of the French stage actress — and salad Réjane after beloved vaudeville legend Gabrielle Réjane.)
The legend goes that Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to see her perform in Lohengrin, a Wagner opera that draws inspiration from the medieval tale of the swan knight: a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel. During a post-opera celebratory party hosted by the Duke of Orléans at the Savoy Hotel, Escoffier served Nellie an ornated dessert comprised of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver timbale perched atop a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish pecheau cygnet: “peach with a swan.”
Some years later, when Escoffier and César Ritz opened the Ritz Carlton across town, the ever-enlightened chef decided to drizzle sweetened raspberry sauce atop the peach-and-vanilla ice cream combination, adding the perfect piece de resistance to the dessert. Around the same time, Escoffier officially christened it the peach Melba. “Much as Eve tasted the first apple, I tasted the first peach Melba,” Nellie wrote in her 1925 autobiography, Melodies and Memories.
Peach Melba was a smashing success due, in large part, to Nellie Melba’s widespread popularity, gaining so much notoriety as a “society” dessert that it is mentioned in Edith Wharton’s 1905 masterpiece, House of Mirth. In the (admittedly depressing) scene, the book’s protagonist Lily Bart begins to understand that her once-gilded place in high society is quickly unraveling during a particularly contentious dinner of upper-crust ladies who can’t decide on dessert. “It was over in a moment; the waiter, menu in hand, still hung on the choice between Coupe Jacques and Peche a la Melba, but Miss Bart, in the interval, had taken the measure of her fate,” Wharton writes.
The dish’s notoriety around the turn of the 20th century also brought about quite a few copycat chefs across Europe who attempted to create their own spin on Escoffier’s juicy, creamy masterpiece. But the chef would entertain no spin-offs, riffs or deviations. “Pêche Melba is a simple dish made up of tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream and a purée of sugared raspberry,” he is noted as saying. “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.” The only addition Escoffier would potentially allow is a sprinkling of fresh almond slivers across the top for a bit of nutty crunch.
The ever-fussy Escoffier certainly wouldn’t have been thrilled to learn that decades later, at the beginning of Prohibition, United States government agents went undercover to the Emery Bird Thayer tearoom in Kansas City, Missouri to try and discern why the restaurant’s version of peach Melba was selling so well. The secret? The sneakily clever cafe had been making the dish so chocked full of liquor that it clocked in at a whopping 18.5% alcohol by volume.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, peach Melba saw a dinner party revival among more adventurous home cooks, growing so fashionable as an after-meal treat that raspberry Melba sauce was commercially bottled and sold in grocery stores. (Escoffier wouldn’t have been too happy about this expedient development, either.) And even though we might not be adding the likes of Nellie Melba to our playlists and mixtapes these days, the dessert she inspired is the sort of timeless gastronomic delight that has a place on generational tables long after its era of creation.