When I was a kid, I had this inexplicable obsession with cheese sandwiches. Maybe it was the popular Wonder Bread of the time (a slice of which could be reduced down to a compact dough ball with minimal effort). Maybe it was fondness for the Tillamook cheese my mother always had on hand; the sandwich merely serving as an edible container. Surely it was because they were super-simple to make. Whatever the reason, cheese sandwiches would’ve been utterly dry-mouthed and unappealing without the essential third ingredient: mayonnaise.
The easy guess here is you have mayonnaise in your refrigerator. Go check. Even if you don’t, you have the ingredients to make your own: eggs, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice (blended together at high speed and allowed to set). The fancier versions of mayo add in some spices. Your particular brand probably lives quietly in the refrigerator door or towards the back of one of the shelves, alongside several other condiments. But the more I learn about mayonnaise the less inclined I am to group it together with the basics like ketchup and mustard.
West of the Rockies where I grew up, the standard brand of mayonnaise was always Best Foods. When I moved east of the Rockies later in life, the name changed to Hellmann’s but the label, the jar, and ingredients were exactly the same. That was always an oddity to me – until I learned Best Foods acquired Hellmann’s after both brands were solidly established. Rather than drop one for the other Best Foods just kept them both. Same product, same packaging, different name. [Note: those of you in the southeastern U.S. may prefer Duke’s Mayonnaise – a distant third in sales. At least Duke’s tastes distinctly different than these fraternal twins.]
Mayonnaise has one of those prolonged evolutions you could care less about, including its debatable origins. Several moments in European history claim ties to its invention. The most credible story (or the most romantic – take your pick) has the French winning the Seven Years’ War in 1756, and the victory dinner including a fish course, but no cream to make the tartar sauce. The chef improvised with eggs, oil, and garlic instead, and voila: mayonnaise. Further, the dinner took place in the Spanish port city of Mahon, so the sauce was dubbed “mahonnaise”. Elegant name, no?
But for a few uses I can take or leave mayonnaise. In addition to my childhood cheese sandwiches I only use mayonnaise for tuna salad, potato salad, or cole slaw. I never put mayonnaise on a burger (do you?) It’s ketchup on my French fries not mayonnaise (apparently that’s a “thing” with some of you). It’s drawn butter on my artichokes (again, not mayonnaise). And speaking of the cheese sandwiches, I recall my mother packing school lunches with bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. Meat and mayo on the bread – that was it. No Tillamook cheese, no lettuce or tomato, no pickle on the side. There’s a harsh simplicity to bologna and mayonnaise. In other words, I hated the combo (and maybe that’s why mayonnaise only gets “a few uses” in my world now).
After my wife and I met, I discovered another refrigerator regular besides Hellmann’s: Miracle Whip. You could say Miracle Whip masquerades as mayonnaise (same look, same wide-mouthed jar) but the taste is decidedly sweeter. Check out MW’s ingredients and you’ll discover a clone of mayonnaise… but with a healthy dose of high fructose corn syrup (sugar). I like the tangy taste of Miracle Whip but I can’t help thinking mayonnaise is the healthier alternative. Credit Kraft Foods though, who debuted their “less expensive alternative to mayonnaise” at the Depression-era 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Almost a hundred years later MW’s a staple condiment, and the Miracle Whip-or-mayonnaise debate lands in the same conversation as Coke vs. Pepsi, Uncle Ben’s vs. Minute (rice), and Aunt Jemima’s vs. Log Cabin (syrup).
If you’re like me, at some point in this post your sub-conscience drums up the 1982 romance “An Officer and a Gentleman” (If not, you’ve missed a great film). If you’ve been to Ireland you probably know County Mayo in the northwest corner of the country. Better yet, go visit the town of Mayo on the northeast coast of Florida. A few years ago Mayo changed its name to Miracle Whip as a publicity stunt. Okay, that tops all other “mayo” references I can come up with.
As little as I dip into my mayonnaise jar, I’ve seen plenty of expiration dates. It might behoove me to make my own instead. Eggs, oil, and vinegar, with a little salt to taste, whipped at high speed. Sounds American easy-as-pie. But call it mahonnaise, okay? Then you’ll have something sounding more like what the French cooked up all those years ago.