Reviewing a restaurant called The Marrow this past Tuesday, the New York Post observed, “Many choices — starters $12 to $16, mains $24 to $33 — are dense with butter.” The latest issue of Cooking Light magazine, on my coffee table, has an article called “Skillet Mains.” Reviewing a book in its February 2013 issue, Library Journal says the author “shares recipes for breakfasts, mains, sides, snacks, drinks, and sweets.”
I started hearing main as a sort of familiar nickname for “main course” a couple of years ago. I had the sense that it was a NOOB, and it is, but before that it was an Australianism. A roundup in the (Melbourne) Sunday Herald Sun in April 1991 notes about various restaurants: “Mains about $10”; “Mains about $10”; “Mains from $7.50”; and “Mains such as kang daeng (red beef curry with coconut milk) from $11.95 to $14.95.”
The New York Times, in a 1994 travel piece about Queensland, gave the word the telltale quotation-mark treatment, indicating that it was unfamiliar to the author but commonly used by the locals: “The standard ‘mains’ are an eclectic selection, from a vegetable couscous to Thai-style green chicken curry and beer-battered fish and chips.”
Possibly the word gained currency in Oz because of the way the local accent can stretch out its vowel. But that is speculation. What’s clear is that it had arrived in Britain by 1996, when the New Statesman noted of a restaurant, “The set-price menu offers three starters, three mains, and three desserts.” Mains didn’t show up in The Times (the London one) till 2003, but quickly became the accepted term in its restaurant reviews. The New York Times didn’t adopt it (in describing a domestic restaurant) until 2008, when it described a San Francisco restaurant as having “hearty mains like Miyazaki filet mignon ($48) or loin of kurobuta (pork) with eggplant dengaku ($20).”
Enough for now. For some reason, I feel like I need a snack.