Issue 202, page 1

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes)

Spotlight on...

The Danes

Today (February 11) on the National Public Radio (U.S.) program Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, the host Peter Sagal wondered about the origin of the term Danish [pastry]. This occurred during a discussion of the Iranian government's plan to start calling Danish pastry something else in protest against the recent Danish cartoons of Mohammed that have offended so many Muslims.  It got us to wondering about Danish pastry, too.

Most sources (including the OED) claim that the term first turns up in the U.S. in Webster's dictionary of 1934 as Danish pastry.  However, we have found a source from 1907: Paul Richard's Pastry Book.  This was written by a Paul Richards (yes, even in 1907 they were confused about using apostrophes to denote possession!) and published by Hotel Monthly Press of Chicago.  It is in the appendix, which is thought to date from 1908, that Mr. Richards mentions the following on page 169:

Danish pastry is made of rich coffee cake dough, which was formerly known as yeast raised puff paste, or as French, or Vienna coffee cake doughs. Of late years the pastry has become more widely known and made popular by the name of Danish pastry, and the methods of slow working doughs have been changed to more progressive methods, using a larger quantity of yeast, which permits the doughs to be made and the butter to be rolled in at once.

So there does exist an earlier date for Danish pastry!  However, while this establishes an earlier date for the term, it does not help us much with the etymology, other than telling us that the dough was formerly known as Vienna coffee cake dough.  Nevertheless, this does comport with other information we have come across on this topic. 

First, you should know that in German, a Danish pastry is called a Kopenhagener, Copenhagen being the capital of Denmark.  However, in Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark, what we in the U.S. call danish is known as wienerbrd, or "bread of Vienna".  Hmmm.

The popular story is that, in the 18th (some sources say it was the 19th) century, Danish bakers went on strike.  The reason for this strike is most often given as follows: journeymen bakers usually lived with the master baker under whom they were training.  They received room and board as part of their compensation.  However, these journeymen bakers wanted to be able to live on their own, so they demanded increased pay.  This, of course, led to a strike and a resulting shortage of bakers in Denmark.  Bakers from other countries were brought in to assist, and these included bakers from Vienna.  The Austrian bakers brought with them their special recipe for sweet pastry which included the addition of butter (or other fats) and resulted in a light, flaky product.  It was a hit in Denmark, and it spread to other countries from there, taking the adjective Danish with it, though in Denmark it retained its connection to Vienna.

This story is repeated time and again, though precise dates and names are not given, except in one version of the story we found, where the "royal Danish baker Christian Ludvig Olsen" is named.  He worked with his baker father, but decided to broaden his horizons and went to Germany, or so the story goes.  In Cologne he met the Austrian baker Wiessel.  Wiessel's first name is not given.  When Olsen returned to Copenhagen in 1834 (oooh, an actual date!) to take charge of his father's bakery (presumably his father had died), he was determined to bring international bakers to work for him in order to provide Danes with new styles of baking.  Some years later he did just that, and among the first foreign bakers he brought into Denmark was his friend Wiessel of Austria.  And it is perhaps implied (though not stated) that this Wiessel brought the recipe for "Vienna bread" with him, and it was adopted by Danish bakers and altered to better suit the tastes of the Danes.

We have not been able to find any historical references to Olsen or Wiessel.  What seems likeliest is that no one baker can be credited for delivering the Vienna style of pastry-making to Denmark.  Instead, for perhaps no other reason than to look for better work, Viennese bakers went to Denmark or Danish bakers went to Vienna, and the Viennese pastry made its way to Copenhagen, where the Danes perfected it into what many of us today call Danish pastry.  It is likely that this happened some time in the 19th century, based on the timing of the apparent entry of the term Danish pastry into the American lexicon.

Interestingly, we found the Danish baker strike story in a discussion of the development of the sweet bread known as the kringle.  The story smacks more and more of a mixture of fact and fiction from various sources.

Barry Popik, a contributor to the OED and American Dialect Society (to name a few), has a web page which gives excerpts from various sources regarding Danish pastry in New York.  His earliest citation is from 1920, and while the Richards citation* above predates that, it is still good evidence for the OED to alter its earliest citation (from 1934).  The sources that Popik cites also refer to L.C. Klitteng, who founded the Danish Culinary Studio in New York City and who is credited with popularizing Danish pastry in the U.S.  One of the excerpts notes that Klitteng came to the U.S. in 1915.  He may have helped popularize the pastry, but it was already here as of 1908, based on the Richards excerpt.  To further complicate matters, a Herman Gertner is, in a 1946 New York Herald Tribune article, given credit for popularizing Danish pastry in New York; a 1962 obituary for Gertner also gives him that credit.  The Herald Tribune article claims that Gertner bought the recipe from one Lane L.M. Kleiting at the turn of the century (we wonder if "Lane" = "Dane" with a typo; we suspect, as Popik does, that L.M. Kleiting = L.C. Klitteng).  We did find excerpts from a periodical called Baker's Helper that support this.  In a 1920 piece from that periodical, the story of L.C. Klitteng's association with Gertner is recounted, and it is also noted that, prior to that association, Klitteng made Danish for the wedding of Woodrow Wilson.

The story of Klitteng and Gertner does not really shed any light on when the term Danish pastry first arose in English, but we have at least gone back further than the 1934 date being cited by most dictionaries.

There is another use of the term Danish in the realm of food which we wanted to investigate.  It is Danish blue [cheese].  The OED's earliest reference is from a cook book of 1948.  We were already familiar with the basic story behind Danish blue.  The Dane Marius Boel started making a Roquefort-style cheese in the early-20th century.  He was not allowed to call it Roquefort, as that name is allowed only for cheeses made in Cambalou, France. The cheese therefore became known as Danish Blue, or Danablu, the latter being the "protected" name of that particular cheese -- Danablu must be made in Denmark in order to take that name.

*All of the excerpts we found regarding Danish pastry which predate 1934 may very well have been collected by Barry Popik; they are located in the Linguist List archives ( where author's names/e-mail addresses are masked (for the sake of security and privacy).

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  If so, take a moment to let us know by making a donation.  Just click the  button!  

Looking for more information on words?  Why not browse our book store?

  Shop at  


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright 1995-
2006 TIERE
Last Updated 02/25/06 12:02 AM