The inexorable rise of identity condiments has led to hard times for the most American of foodstuffs. And that’s a shame.
I write this in the dead of summer, always a bittersweet season — why is it we got summers off from school for all those years but don’t get summers off from work? — but doubly depressing these days, when I find myself suffering from picnic panic. The hot, languid weather brings with it a series of outdoor family events for which, as a tribal elder, I’m charged with providing provisions. Lately, though, I’ve had my feet cut out from under me. For years — nay, decades — my contributions to the Hingston clan’s Memorial Day and Fourth of July and Labor Day gatherings were no-brainers: I made what my mother once made. She was such a good cook that when she died prematurely, my husband and I typed up and photocopied (quaint, I know) a booklet of her recipes, tried-and-true favorites on which she built her formidable culinary reputation. When the holidays rolled around, I simply re-created one of her delicious dishes and toted it along.
Along about a decade ago, though, I began to notice I was toting home as much of my offerings as I’d concocted. My contributions were being overlooked — or shunned. Why should this be? Mom’s extraordinary potato salad — fragrant with dill, spiced by celery seed — went untouched on the picnic table. So did her macaroni salad, and her chicken salad, and her deviled eggs. … When I carted home a good three pounds of painstakingly prepared Waldorf salad — all that peeling and coring and slicing! — I was forced to face facts: The family’s tastes had changed. Or, rather, our family had changed. Oldsters were dying off, and the young ’uns taking our places in the paper-plate line were different somehow.
I racked my brain for the source of this generational disconnect. And then, one holiday weekend, while surveying the condiments set out at a family burger bash, I found it. On offer were four different kinds of mustard, three ketchups (one made from, I kid you not, bananas), seven sorts of salsa, kimchi, wasabi, relishes of every ilk and hue …
What was missing, though, was the common foundation of all Mom’s picnic foods: mayonnaise. While I wasn’t watching, mayo’s day had come and gone. It’s too basic for contemporary tastes — pale and insipid and not nearly exotic enough for our era of globalization. Good ol’ mayo has become the Taylor Swift of condiments.
My mom was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, born in the era in which huddled masses clambered ashore at Ellis Island, their pockets stuffed with kielbasa and chorizo and braunschweiger and makanek and lap cheong, and were processed in the great American assimilation grinder, emerging to dine happily ever after on Hatfield hot dogs and potato salad. Her entire life, she worried about sticking out, about not fitting in. She was self-conscious that her parents spoke with accents; she worked like a tiger to haul herself out of South Philly via Girls’ High and Temple, where she met my dad, whose American heritage stretched a few decades further back and whose people came from the British Isles, the omphalos of bland food.
America in the 1950s was full of strivers like Mom, desperate to forget family legacies of latkes and boxties and bramboráky, poring through the pages of Family Circle and Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day for stars-and-stripes recipes that repped their newfound land. They wanted all their strangeness to dissolve into the sizzling pot of Crisco that crisped their french (not French) fries. Granted, it’s profoundly unfortunate, in esculent terms, that the nation’s newcomers fixated on foods from England and Ireland and Scotland. But women’s magazines back then were almost exclusively edited by Wasps.
Besides, the impetus seemed righteous. In a world torn asunder by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two World Wars, our citizenry needed to come together, be united, rally behind a collective vision of what it meant to be an American: You lived in a single-family house, you drove a station wagon, you wore bowling shirts and blue jeans, and you slathered mayonnaise on everything from BLTs to burgers to pastrami on rye. How do you think “Hold the mayo” became a saying? There was always mayo, and if you were some kind of deviant who didn’t want it, you had to say so out loud.
My son Jake, who’s 25, eats mayo. He’s a practical young man who works in computers and adores macaroni salad. He’s a good son. I also have a daughter. She was a women’s and gender studies major in college. Naturally, she loathes mayonnaise. And she’s not alone. Ask the young people you know their opinion of mayo, and you’ll be shocked by the depths of their emotion. Oh, there’s the occasional outlier, like Jake. But for the most part, today’s youth would sooner get their news from an actual paper newspaper than ingest mayonnaise.
The origins of this contentious condiment are hotly debated. Is its name derived from the city of Mahon on the Balearic Island of Menorca, where the Duc de Richelieu’s chef, unable to find cream for a sauce to celebrate his lordship’s successful siege during the Seven Years’ War, substituted an emulsion of eggs and oil? Or is it a bastardization of “Bayonnaise,” from the Gallic town renowned for its tasty hams? Whatever; either way, the dressing had crossed the Atlantic by 1838, when chichi Manhattan restaurant Delmonico’s offered both lobster and chicken “mayonnaise” on its menu. Mayo spread (hah) to the more common man after the invention of the mechanical bread slicer, just in time for sandwiches to be tucked inside brown bags and unwrapped in the lunchrooms of the nation’s factories. Mayonnaise at this point was still mostly handmade, whisked up by wives as needed. But the culinary horizon was shifting.
In 1912, the German-immigrant owner of an Upper West Side deli, Richard Hellmann, began to sell mayonnaise packed in jars decorated with three blue ribbons, according to culinary historian Andrew Smith. These jars differed from those of Hellmann’s condiment competitors in one vital way: They had wide mouths, enabling customers to get big-ass spoons inside. Sales were so successful that two years later, Hellmann sold his deli to open the first in an ever-growing series of manufacturing facilities devoted to Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise.
At one point, when Hellmann and his wife were in Europe to research product distribution, travel agents urged them to sail back to the U.S. on a shiny new ship, the Titanic, that was making its maiden voyage. They took a smaller ship instead. And thank God, because Hellmann’s was the only mayonnaise my mayo-doting dad ever ate. More than a hundred years after its creation, Hellmann’s still sells more than half the mayonnaise in the nation. It is, Ari LeVaux wrote in Slate a few years back, “the standard by which all others are judged.” LeVaux interviewed a professional taster who, he says, considers Hellmann’s “a member of an exclusive group of products that are so refined and sophisticated that it’s hard for the average palate to break them down into their component flavors.” You don’t taste egg in Hellmann’s, the taster explained. You don’t taste oil, or vinegar: “All the flavors blend together. They’re balanced. Nothing sticks out. Everything is appropriate.”
Nothing sticks out. Mayonnaise isn’t bland; it’s artfully blended. It’s an evocation of the era I grew up in, of the homogeneity of that old, dead American dream.
One of the reasons for mayonnaise’s early popularity, according to public health historian David Merritt Johns, was that it served to disguise flaws in the ingredients it coated — potatoes past their due date, flabby cabbage, tuna that was less than pristine. Young people like my daughter somehow seem to have extrapolated this masking function from condiment to culture; for them, mayo quite literally whitewashed America’s immigrants into eating dull food. And newer generations are refusing to meekly fall in line with a culinary heritage that never was theirs. Instead, they’re gobbling up kefir and ajvar and chimichurri and gochujang again.
They’re also shunning their parents’ preferred restaurants — Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays — to seek out more authentic fare. Old-school eateries, in turn, are diversifying in their search for new customers. Just this year, Red Lobster rolled out a waffles-and-lobster option, and Red Robin launched a vegan burger. You don’t put mayo on a vegan burger. McDonald’s has debuted a Signature Sriracha Burger, joining KFC, Wendy’s, and Subway in signing on to the sizzling Thai sauce’s moment in the sun. You didn’t see Huy Fong Foods start a schmear campaign against the cultural appropriation of that.
But what young people really, really love to hate on is mayonnaise. Back in 2013, BuzzFeed ran an article titled “24 Reasons Mayonnaise Is the Devil’s Condiment.” (The writer called it “slime of Satan.”) Just three years later, BuzzFeed ran another piece, “23 Things You’ll Only Understand If You Fucking Hate Mayo.” By a different author. There was no overlap. Drew Magary penned a piece for Bon Appétit with the headline “Big Mayo Will Destroy Us All.” A movie called The Mayo Conspiracy won the Best Comedy Feature at the 2015 World’s Independent Film Festival. It concerns the gradual uncovering by a journalist of a mayonnaise cartel that plans to take over the world.
Clearly, there’s something more to this river of resentment than a miscible mixture of eggs and oil. And it’s obvious to me that this condimental divide can be traced to young folks’ rejection of what they sneeringly consider a boring white food. Do you think 23andMe and MyHeritage and all those other DNA testing companies are flourishing because people want to find out their ancestors came from Aberdeen? Hells, no; they wannabe from Marrakesh or Manchuria or Malawi. It’s the same with condiments. I’m not part of the elderly mayo masses; I’m turkey and Swiss on ciabatta with tzatziki, chipotle spread and a little basil pesto. That’s who I am, dammit. My sandwich, my self.
Granted, there are other theories regarding mass generational mayonnaise rejection. Some experts say the dislike springs from the fact that mayo jiggles. You may have noticed youth’s similar circumvention of gelled salads. (My mom made a dynamite one with black cherry Jell-O, walnuts, olives, canned cherries and small balls of cream cheese.) Others posit that mayonnaise is reminiscent of bodily fluids and therefore, as Penn psychology professor Paul Rozin has suggested, too disgusting to ingest. Kendra Pierre-Louis got right down to it re mayo in Popular Science:
Its viscous quality is the sort of thickness that you’d get from fluid oozing out of a rotted carcass, as anyone who has ever poked a rotted squirrel with a stick can attest. … And the creamy appearance of mayonnaise isn’t dissimilar from what would emerge from, say, a popped zit.
This is bullshit. This attitude comes to you from young people who willingly slurp down eight kazillion kinds of yogurt, not to mention raw fish and pork belly and, yo, detergent pods, so don’t talk to me about mayonnaise. The only reason for this raging mayophobia is a generation’s gut-level renouncement of the Greatest Generation’s condiment of choice.
But here’s the thing: The all-American condiment didn’t have to be mayonnaise. It could have been ketchup or mustard. Hell, it could have been horseradish, but it wasn’t. It’s not mayo’s fault that it’s been so successful — that it glimpsed a condiment breach and jiggled right on through. As Boston chef Scott Jones told Ari LeVaux, “The magic that sets mayonnaise above Coke and Heinz is that mayo is a perfect flavor carrier.” It just makes everything better. Need proof? Do other condiments have pale imitators like Miracle Whip and Just Mayo and Vegenaise? I don’t think so!
Hey, we’re all capable of growth, you know. I add a little fish sauce to my stir-fries these days. I have a bottle of Salsa Lizano on my refrigerator door. I thought young people today were supposed to be all about inclusion — about kindness and compassion and making other people feel welcome. So how about you include a little mayo in your picnic fare? Mayonnaise has been the building block for a thousand different tweaks in a rainbow of cultures: Russian dressing! Rémoulade! Comeback sauce, fry sauce, Kewpie, salsa rosada, mayochup … Just because something is old and white doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Look at Shakespeare. Look at me.
Then again, it may be too late to stanch the mayo-hate. America may already be too far gone.
While I was researching this article (what, you think I just pull this stuff out of thin air?), I came across some news that for one brief shining moment filled me with hope. An organization known as the Association for Dressings and Sauces, or ADS, took a poll that revealed something amazing. “MILLENNIALS LOVE MAYO!” the headline screamed. According to the ADS, older millennials — those ages 25 to 34 — are the most frequent purchasers of my mom’s preferred condiment, ahead of the next most frequent, which would happen to be my demographic, boomers ages 55 to 65. Granted, we boomers are all anxious to avoid the Mayo Clinic. But could a new generation really be primed and ready to take up Richard Hellmann’s torch?
Uh. No. Tucked well down in the report on the survey was this nugget, courtesy of ADS executive director Jeannie Milewski: “We were founded as the Mayonnaise Products Manufacturers Association. … ”
And had to change your name to stay relevant. Okay, Association for Dressings and Sauces. I see how it is.
The saddest part is, my mom’s macaroni salad is bangin’. You kids are only cheating yourselves by rejecting it. Besides, I’ve got news: That aioli you’re all so fond of? I hate to break it to you, but that’s just mayonnaise.
Published as “The White Stuff” in the August 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.