Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the Beauties of Mayonnaise

As you'd imagine in a culture that loves it some mayo, my anti-mayo crusade didn't go over well with some readers - including Saucyman contributor Charles Seluzicki. I will have more to say about the subject in the next post - then the Mayonnaise Flame War of Ought-Ought-Nine will be over, but for the time being here is a spirited defense of Mayo:

Saucyman has made his feelings about mayonnaise quite clear and it is not my place to dispute them. We all carry such predispositions with us and the reasons are many: there is no accounting for taste. I adore mayonnaise and ate Mrs. Hellman's (Best Foods brand on the West Coast) from the time I was a child. This brand had my mother's unquestioned allegiance. In this she stood in good company. James Beard, Jacques Pepin, Chris Kimball and a host of others have given it glowing mentions. No other brand has ever matched it and Miracle Whip, to my mind, is an obscenity. Mayonnaise was the sandwich spread that I used more than any other and I can report a spirited exchange with my ex father-in-law when he challenged my use of mayonnaise on a ham sandwich, an act which left him dumbfounded the first time he witnessed it, genuinely perplexed. I had done something completely unimaginable.

Years later, I would experience the joys of homemade mayonnaise and count it equal, yet quite different, in my affections to Mrs. Hellman. The first recipe that I used was from my now battered copy of THE JOY OF COOKING, revised by Irma Rombauer's daughter Marion. Two interesting details that escaped my attention until later were that one should never attempt to make mayonnaise during a rain storm (it does not work) and that mayonnaise was, at the time, 300 years old, a sauce created for a seafood dinner after the French victory over the British at Port Mahon- thus the name- in the mid-18th century. Apparently the sauce became so popular that Richelieu himself claimed responsibility for it. There is clearly the need for more research on all this but it appears that aioli and other regional varieties of mayonnaise came after, not before, the creation of mayonnaise. The venerable OED, it should be noted, does not locate the use of the word in print until the 1840's and describes its origins as French and otherwise unknown.

Richard Olney begins his section on aioli in SIMPLE FRENCH FOOD with a short sentence: "Aioli is garlic mayonnaise." His description of making aioli with a marble mortar and wooden pestle is memorable in its simplicity and his description of making aioli in a blender, unflinching:

"The blender has now invaded the Provencal kitchen...a blender aioli is lighter, air having been whipped into it, and the flavor is altogether different, the violence- how, I do not know- destroying the fruit of the olive oil; nor is the body voluptuously oily, as in the hand mounted product, but dry and flat." The question of mayonnaise clearly evokes strong feelings.

Escoffier calls mayonnaise a "'mother-sauce'" and sources many delightful and familiar sauces in the basic recipe. The use of it -and I am attempting to address Saucyman's closing words on alternatives to the use of mayonnaise- should be distinguished from the abuses that the "white death" wrought on his blossoming Midwest palate. I delight in a fine mayonnaise, mixed with fresh herbs and covered with aspic, on cold poached salmon; I am horrified by the notion of using it as a condiment on a hot dog. Until very recently, the idea of eating it with french fries turned my stomach and then I had superb Belgian-style french fries with garlic mayonnaise and was beside myself with the discovery of a new taste. To use mayonnaise in a Caesar salad is an unthinkable distortion of how the same or similar ingredients combine to make a proper end result. I think of children in the South- Eudora Welty spoke of this distant time- who would have contests over whose mother made the best tomato sandwich, home grown, on home made bread, with home made mayonnaise. The perfect summer lunch.

Charles Seluzicki

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Seluzicki,

You are some kind of genius. Thank you for the gorgeous Olney quote.

Now to gang up on Saucyman by invoking Freud: If mayo is indeed the "mother sauce" what kind of repression/self hate is going on here?