I love history…. including the history of foods…. and I got curious about mayonnaise… one of those things at the top of the list for summer salads.
Many have said that it was born in 1756 after French forces under the Duke de Richelieu laid siege to Port Mahon, on the Mediterranean island of Minorca, now a part of Spain, in the first European battle of the Seven Years’ War. The Duke’s chef, upon finding the island lacked the cream he needed for a sauce, invented an egg and oil dressing dubbed mahonnaise …after Port Mahon.
Here’s the rub: Another version of the story claims the chef learned the recipe from island residents!
A couple of generations later, a French gastronome sniffed that Port Mahon was hardly known for its haute cuisine. He asserted that French origin was more likely and that the sauce might originally have been called bayonnaise after Bayonne. By the 1920s, the Spanish were pushing back: a prominent Madrid chef published a pamphlet calling on his countrymen to reject the francophone term mayonnaise in favor of salsa mahonesa.
Even knowledgeable food writers cannot agree on the origin… and the debate continues.
Everyone agrees that the French popularized the sauce. Starting in the very early 19th century, the word mayonnaise (or magnonnaise) began to appear in German and British cookbooks about French cuisine. Migrating French chefs brought it to the States. By 1838, Manhattan’s famous restaurant Delmonico’s offered both a mayonnaise of lobster and a chicken mayonnaise.
Beginning in the late 19th century, elite diners went goo-goo-ga-ga for mayo-drenched potato salads and tomato salads… not to mention the instant success of the Waldorf Salad…created at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1896…not by a chef but by the dining room manager, Oscar Tschirky. The original version of this salad contained only apples, celery, and mayonnaise… no walnuts. Mayo’s superior binding capacity made it a natural for sandwiches… which became popular following the invention of the mechanical bread slicer in the 1920s. By 1923, President Calvin Coolidge even told the press that the one treat he could not bear to do without was his Aunt Mary’s heavenly, homemade mayonnaise.
The President’s nostalgia for his aunt’s luscious sauce was a reflection of broad changes that were afoot in the American food production system. Handmade mayonnaise was fast becoming quaint. With the spread of refrigeration and mayo’s popularity, hundreds of industrial manufacturers hopped into the packaged mayo market. “Mayonnaise, which had heretofore been considered a luxury, has now become a staple and a table necessity, not only in the homes of the rich but also at the workingman’s table,” observed an industry publication in 1937.
Fast forward to today… sadly, the mayonnaise made by the industrial manufacturers has become something to be avoided. Instead of the original principal ingredients of olive oil and egg, there is now a predominance of soybean oil and additives like sugar and disodium Edta and… wait for it… Natural Flavors! Whaaaa????
Fortunately, mayonnaise is fast and easy to make! Aunt Mary would be so jealous! Cooking schools insist that students learn to make it Aunt Mary’s way… using a whisk and a lot of muscle. If you have a food processor or an immersion blender, you can make it in minutes. Easy peasy. And, you can make it to taste…varying the kind of oils as well as the other ingredients…adding in herbs and garlic…oohh-la-la! Try serving garlic-y mayonnaise with steamed artichoke-
Grab my mayonnaise recipe here.