Russian dressing falling from grace

Russian dressing. DEB LINDSEY / Washington Post

In a battle few were watching, Russian dressing has seemingly lost to its bland and sweeter relative, Thousand Island dressing.

It was once the go-to condiment in a Reuben sandwich, but an examination of menus across the country shows that Russian dressing has all but disappeared from America's national consciousness. It also has largely disappeared from supermarket shelves and sandwich chains.

"I can tell you from the restaurant side, sometimes it's easier to just make things quickly understandable for the customer, to avoid wasting time explaining things," says Nick Zukin, coauthor of The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home and a caterer in Portland, Ore.

The two condiments are not interchangeable. Russian dressing recipes typically call for mayonnaise, chili sauce or ketchup, relish, horseradish, paprika and other seasonings, making it considerably spicier and less sweet than Thousand Island dressing, with its hard-cooked egg, lemon or orange juice, cream, and sweet pickle relish or olives.

Whatever Russian dressing is today, it is still a far cry from its earliest incarnation.

An early version of Larousse Gastronomique, according to a 1957 article in the New York Times, listed these ingredients for Russian dressing: mayonnaise, tinted pink with the poached coral and pulverized shell of a lobster, and simply seasoned with salt and fresh black caviar.

While such ingredients would give Russian dressing a rarefied air and probably push it further into obscurity, that recipe is under debate by food historians. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, the name probably refers to Russians' love of pickles, as pickles or relish are often added to the dressing.

What is generally not under debate is that Russian dressing was an American-made concoction and that James E. Colburn of Nashua, N.H., should receive credit for its invention.

Colburn spent the early part of his career working in a meat market before hanging his own shingle in 1906 for wholesale groceries and meats. It was during that time that he "hit upon an assembly of ingredients, which he named Russian salad dressing," according to a 1927 biographical sketch. Soon, he was selling the dressing to retailers and hotels across the country, earning "wealth on which he was enabled to retire."

Thousand Island traces its roots to (and is named for) the region between northern New York state and southern Ontario, Canada. There is evidence that the wife of a fishing guide in Clayton, N.Y., Sophia LaLonde, was the first to make the dressing in the early 1900s. It quickly became a popular offering at inns and hotels in both the Thousand Islands region and in major cities.

It has remained the more popular choice for a long time.

"We do sell much more of our Thousand Island than we do our Russian, with our Thousand Island enjoying much wider distribution," says Tom Murphy, the brand manager for Ken's Steak House Dressings, one of only a handful of companies that still produce both varieties. He said that sales of the company's Russian dressing are concentrated in the Northeast.

So, why the shift away from Russian? Our nation does have a tradition of shunning foods associated with countries that fall somehow out of favor here; witness the German-city-derived "hamburger," which became known as a "liberty sandwich" after World War I.

Also, as the traditional East Coast Jewish delicatessen seems to be supplanted by an ever-increasing number of fast-food chains, so goes the Russian-dressing-slathered sandwiches the deli served.

There are still some, however, looking to keep the option alive.

"When we opened, one of the goals was to make a really great-tasting corned beef sandwich," says Laura Wonch, a sous-chef at Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich. "So we started our Reuben with Russian dressing."

Given its popularity in the Northeast, it should come as no surprise that Russian dressing is also the preferred topper on the New Jersey sloppy Joe sandwich. This is not the ground beef-in-sauce concoction, but rather a triple-decker cold-cut affair with cred as a regional delicacy. The Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange claims to be the birthplace of the sandwich, and today offers many varieties.

When it comes to salads, however, Los Angeles cookbook author Jeanne Kelley says the heyday of Russian, Thousand Island and other traditional, thick dressings like creamy Italian and blue cheese might be past. Vinaigrettes are now the vehicle of choice to bring out the flavors of greens.

Ultimately, with variations of both Russian and Thousand Island floating around the culinary world, both being widely interpreted on personal levels, is there really a difference?

"I'm a cynic about some of these things," says Zukin's coauthor, Michael C. Zusman. "To me, the major difference is marketing. Thousand Island tells a better story."

Russian Dressing

Makes about 1 cup or 8 servings

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon prepared (white) horseradish or peeled, freshly grated horseradish root, patted dry

1 teaspoon hot paprika

2 tablespoons finely chopped pickles (may substitute pickle relish)

1 clove garlic, minced

1. Combine the mayonnaise, ketchup, horseradish, paprika, pickles, and garlic in a food processor; pulse until well combined.

2. Transfer to an airtight container; refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 day before using.


- From All About Beer magazine editor and cookbook author John Holl.


Per serving: 120 calories, no protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 270 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.