Mayonnaise has many mothers
NEW YORK - "Mayonnaise is ketchup's dark twin - loved by some, reviled by others, setting brother against brother wherever it is spread," wrote novelist Gabriel Roth in 2003. There are some who despise it "with the passion of a thousand burning suns," as one inflamed mayo critic recently attested on YouTube, while others adore it with piggish abandon.
While this blistering debate reached its boiling point only in recent decades, controversy has haunted the egg-based sauce from the very beginning. Originally, the disagreement was not about whether the condiment was good or bad, but rather who could claim bragging rights for its invention, France or Spain.
One origin story, repeated in countless secondary sources, holds that mayonnaise was born in 1756 after French forces under the Duke de Richelieu laid siege to Port Mahon, on Minorca, now part of Spain, in the first European battle of the Seven Years' War. The duke's chef, finding the island lacked the cream he needed for a righteous victory sauce, invented an egg and oil dressing dubbed "mahonnaise" for its place of birth.
Another version says the chef learned the recipe from locals. This creation tale later came under assault by a French gastronome, who sniffed that Port Mahon was not exactly known for haute cuisine. He felt that Gallic provenance was more likely, and that the sauce might originally have been called bayonnaise after Bayonne, a town famous across Europe for its succulent hams.
Other advocates of French authorship suggested the name came from manier, meaning "to handle," or moyeu, old French for yolk. By the 1920s, the Spanish were lashing back: a prominent Madrid chef called on his countrymen to reject the phony francophone "mayonnaise" in favor of "salsa mahonesa."
Food writer Tom Nealon is with the Spaniards.
"The fact that mayo doesn't show up in any of the initial 17th-century [French] recipe collections . . . does seem to confirm that the French didn't have the 'technology' for mayonnaise until the 18th century," he said.
But Andrew Smith, author of several mayo histories, is not so sure: "All of the early recipes say French. I believe it."
There's no question that the French popularized the sauce. Starting in the early 19th century, the word mayonnaise (or magnonnaise) began to appear in British and German cookbooks about French cuisine. Mayo then made its way to the United States, often on the lips of French chefs, such that by 1838 the gourmet eatery Delmonico's in Manhattan was offering both a mayonnaise of lobster and a chicken mayonnaise.
The salad provided the initial beachhead for mayo's colonization of American cuisine. Beginning in the late 19th century, elite eaters went bonkers for mayo-based potato salads, tomato salads, and Waldorf salads. The sauce was terrific for disguising flaws in vegetables, and its binding capacity made it a natural for sandwiches, which took off as a brown-bag staple with the invention of the mechanical bread slicer in the 1920s.
Other things were changing in the American food production system. Handmade mayonnaise was becoming quaint: Spurred by its popularity and the spread of refrigeration, manufacturers flooded the packaged mayo market. Hellmann's, a New York City brand with fat jars that could accommodate giant spoons, came to dominate the sector.
As an industry publication observed in 1937, "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."
Where it reigns to this day.