The origin of coleslaw

Coleslaw is one of those words frequently subject to folk etymology—just as people substitute chaise lounge for chaise longue, or expresso for espresso, people often replace coleslaw with cold-slaw. It is, after all, usually served cold.

What many people don’t know, however, is that this is in fact closer to the original form of the word. The word comes originally from Dutch kold-slaw, meaning “cold Slav”. The origins of this term lie in the murky depths of the late mediaeval eighteenth century, when Poles (although apparently Czechs and Slovaks were employed in times of scarcity) were frequently used as food in the low countries. They were herded either on foot across north Germany, or occasionally by ship past Denmark. Traces of many of the old “Pole roads” or Polnerwege can still be seen today. When they arrived in the Netherlands, they were usually domesticated by families, many of whom spent large sums of money on their Poles, and waited expectantly for days for them to be delivered. Only when the Poles eventually died of natural causes were they shredded and boiled, and served with mayonnaise, to make a delicious snack called heet-slaw, which was considered a means of honouring the family’s well-loved pet.

Over time, however, extremist groups began campaigning against this traditional practice; after war caused serious interruptions to the supply of even less favoured Slavs, the practice all but disappeared. A vegetarian alternative to the dish was prepared with cabbage (and sometimes carrots), and was usually served cold. It was, of course, called kold-slaw. The name can be compared with the term Welsh rabbit in English, which no longer contains real Welshmen.

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