All Hail Mayonnaise
Thinking of a non-fiction book called SLATHER IT ON: 15 CONDIMENTS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD. Editors, make me offers.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) October 9, 2013
And just in case anyone thinks I couldn’t do it, here’s a piece I did in 1999, in which I crowned mayonnaise as the Condiment of the Millenium:
Mayonnaise. What, you thought I was going to give it to catsup? Catsup is vile stuff, I tell you — originally made from fish brine. Yes, fish water. Enjoythat on your fries. These days in America catsup refers exclusively to the tomato variety (thus the lame “Isn’t ‘tomato catsup’ redundant?” crack from the ill-educated posing as the ironic), but in the rest of the world, you’ll find catsups made from mushrooms, oysters and unripened walnuts. And here you thought catsup couldn’t get any worse.
Well, okay, you say, but maynonnaise isn’t any better. Off-white and pasty, it’s an ill-flavored goo that’s somehow managed to nudge its way into our food supply. Its provenance is unreliable; most of us know it’s made from eggs, but we couldn’t tell you the process, except to suggest that the eggs that are used to make mayo are being karmically punished.This is what you get for carrying salmonella in the last life.
And then there’s the consistency: Not quite a liquid and not quite a solid. It’s like humiliated gelatin. There’s actually a scientific word for materials in this state — thixotropic — and mayonnaise shares this state with quicksand and drilling mud. And you wouldn’t want to put either of those on your sandwich.
Granted. Mayonnaise can be a horrifying concoction. With the possible exception of headcheese (the normally discarded parts of animal carcasses, suspended in their own disturbingly sinewy aspic — big in Scandanavia, which goes to explain the unusually high suicide rate) there is no single foodstuff as nauseating as warm mayonnaise. My gag reflex goes to DEFCON 3 just thinking about it.
And yet. Mayonnaise has a secret — indeed even noble — past. Like Eastern European royalty, ejected from their palaces by the glorious peoples’ revolution and forced to live the remainder of their lives in genteel poverty in a New York hotel, hocking their jewels headpiece by brooch, their princelings attending — the horror! — public schools, mayonnaise has come far, far down in the world. There was a moment, not entirely shrouded in the mists of time, when mayonnaise was a celebrated sauce, and not just some glop designed to ease sandwiches through peristaltic motion.
The time was 1756. The place: Mahon, a city on the Spanish island of Minorca. The occasion: The capture of the city by the forces of Louis-Francois-Armad de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and the expulsion of the hated English from that place (what were the English doing on a Spanish island? Hey, it’s Europe). After a hard day beating the crap out of the English, Louis decided it was time to celebrate and ordered his chef to whip up a feast.
The chef decided to make a cream sauce for the meats he was making, but then discovered, to his horror, that there was no cream to be found. Sacre bleu! Showing the improvisatory spirit that can only be brought on by sheer panic, the chef grabbed some eggs and some vegetable oil, put them together, grabbed a wisk, and begun to pray. The result: Mayonnaise, named for the captured city.You decide whether God truly answered that prayer.
The French, perversely, celebrated the discovery, and used it for the basis of a number of sauces and dishes. Mayonnaise verte, with puréed green herbs. Sauce rémoulade, with anchovies, pickles, and capers. Chaud-froid, created when mayo meets aspic. Sauce aoli from Provençal, where the secret ingredient is garlic — and love! It was the taste for aristocratic palates — at least until those palates were severed from the rest of the digestive system during the French Revolution.
Mind you, even today, you can still find mayonnaise used for its first and most elevated purposes. But those moments are few and far between. Most mayonnaise will suffer a far more prosaic fate. Some will be tarted up as a salad dressing, perhaps Russian (so named because the first versions featured caviar), or Green Goddess. It’s like mayonnaise in drag. There’s no shame in it, though, and at least it’s far better than being slathered on a Whopper somewhere on Interstate 10, where your fate is to be consumed in wolfing bites by a speed-ragged trucker who would think that Chaud-froid is that penis-envy dude, were he to think of it at all. Which he wouldn’t.
Oh, yes, mayonnaise has pride. You think of it only as a thick, gummy paste designed to hold your Wonder Bread in place, but it’s known better days. It was meant for finer things than to be a Belgian dipping sauce for french fries (really, what the hell is wrong with those Belgians?). It is painfully aware that adding a dash of paprika during a late stage of processing does not, in fact, make it a “mirace whip.”
And yet, it suffers in silence, accepting your derision. It knows it’s not your fault. The American educational system has no place for the secret history of mayonnaise. It’s accepted its fate with dignity. Mayonnaise does not weep for what could have, should have been. It’s happy just to do its job, quietly. Go ahead and use it in your macaroni salad. Sure, it’s no lobster mayonnaise. But beggers can’t be choosers.