Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hold the Mayo

Vincent: ...you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
Jules: What?
Vincent: Mayonnaise.

Jules: Goddamn!
- "Pulp Fiction," by Quentin Tarantino

My relationship with mayonnaise began with all the promise of young love: Obsession, wild cravings, and, at last, a midnight rendezvous on the moonlit kitchen counter with a large spoon and a jar of Hellmann's®. I remember taking as large a spoonful of mayonnaise as a six year old girl could. My childhood affair with mayo ended somewhat violently that night, and if I dwell on the memory, I feel a bit woozy with regret. But time healed that culinary injury and I now name mayonnaise my favorite condiment. Although by the end of this piece that may no longer be the case.

The other day, my buddy Guy looked up from reading a menu description of a sandwich served with basil aioli and asked me, “So, when do we get to go back to just ‘mayo’?” The question made me wonder, have we reached a point in the evolution of diners where it is safe to assume that aioli equals mayonnaise in popular understanding? How different are they really?

Well, both are emulsifications – a temporary union between two substances that have nothing in common (water and oil, for example), brought together by a third substance (the emulsifier) (how’s that for a super hero name?) that helps the other two get along and can therefore create a sauce that is greater than the sum of its parts, but is still, by its very nature, unstable. What sounds like a stressful relationship is made more so by the fact that the oil droplets have to be whipped, beaten, pounded, shattered into a billion smaller droplets very slowly to allow the emulsifying agent time to do its work….

Without spending too much time describing the molecular structure of mayonnaise, think of a huge stack of clove-studded oranges piled up in a swimming pool filled with water. The cloves are the yolk’s emulsifying granules which break up and gamely surround the dispersed oil droplets – the oranges – sinking their oil-loving tail into the oil droplet while their positively charged “head” sticks out into the “continuous phase” (the water) of the emulsification and simultaneously repels the other droplets so the structure doesn’t collapse into a runny, oily pool. (The clove-studded orange provides a useful visual image, but it is a flawed analogy because the oranges would remain discrete objects with the removal of the cloves – they wouldn’t flow together to form a huge orange, even though that’d be cool. Instead, think of a screaming group of three-year-olds standing next to a pool. One by one, the group is separated into the pool where they are fitted with water-wings. It takes forever to split up the children, especially the sets of twins. Finally, the toddlers are all paddling around, unable to get too close to each other. That is an emulsification of children and pool, aided by the water wings. Remove the inflatable arm bands and the children cluster back together in their original state of being a screaming group.)

Aioli is traditionally made with garlic and oil, using a mortar and pestle, sometimes stabilized with bits of bread (as in the Greek skordalia), or potato (a situation in which the starch is acting as the emulsifier). In Spain, the Catalans put great store by their Allioli, which is perhaps the pinnacle of a garlic and oil emulsion, as it historically contained no other ingredients. According to one source, however, the time-consuming method of pounding the garlic and adding the oil drop by drop is falling out of favor in the modern world of the Cuisinart®, and egg yolks are starting to be used as a way of stabilizing the garlicky paste.

Mayonnaise is an emulsification of oil that uses eggs (really the yolks, which are themselves an emulsion of fat in water) to stabilize the final product. Unlike a charmingly rustic aioli, mayonnaise is eminently French, with all that that implies. Reading about the furious debate that surrounds the origins of the sauce, especially its name, spurs in me an almost irrepressible urge to end every sentence with some French flair: Some say the name comes from the French victory at Mahon (“Oo la la!”), others say the name “magnonaise” and claim it is a derivative of the French verb “to stir” – manier (“But how can zat be? Zere are zo many stirred sauces!”), while a third story holds that the name comes from the old French word moyeu, which means “yolk of egg.” (“Oui, oui! But ov courze!”)

All the restaurants I’ve worked for in the past decade make their own aioli (or mayonnaise), flavored with garlic, sometimes lemon or basil or chipotle (not all at the same time). But there was a time when I worked in houses that ordered mayonnaise in large quantities – the five-gallon container. On the big buckets that arrive at a restaurant’s back door, there is a warning about drowning hazards with a small drawing of a toddler tipping headfirst into the bucket; I can’t help but think, every time I see the picture of that clumsy, curly-headed child falling face-first into the bucket, that drowning in mayonnaise would be really awful, worse than drowning among pickles or blocks of feta cheese. Although the latter is a very close second.

In any case, the mayonnaise/aioli story is not without a narrative thrust – one can imagine the boat routes taken around the Mediterranean, and the ancient Roman’s proclivity toward planting olive trees and vineyards on every shore they landed upon was certainly an unforeseen benefit of imperialistic expansion. The world is criss-crossed with such migratory patterns of foods. These are the lines of history, exploration, and exploitation: not just the Roman’s spread of olive oil and vineyards, but also the Portuguese and Spanish bearing the chained-up flavors of Africa to the New World, and back again…

Guy looks up from his sandwich and interrupts me to ask where Miracle Whip fits into the mayonnaise-aioli story.

Well, okay. Let’s take a look.

As with the origins of the name “mayonnaise,” there seems to be some debate about the where the name “Miracle Whip” came from. Sources tend to agree, however, that this tangy emulsification hit the marketplace during the Great Depression, when folks could no longer afford the luxury of real mayonnaise. Miracle Whip® is going through a bit of a renaissance, right now, with advertising campaigns that highlight the fact that this “salad dressing” really isn’t for everyone. I’ve always liked ads like these, and it’s tempting to “Like” Miracle Whip® on Facebook™, even though I really don’t like Miracle Whip® in real life, especially not on french fries.

The migratory pattern of ingredients in this country is not unlike the spread of olive oil around the Mediterranean. So, the spread of mayonnaise in America began in New York City when a German immigrant named Richard Hellmann opened a deli. The popularity of his wife’s mayonnaise eventually led Richard Hellmann to open a mayonnaise factory (the American Dream!). A west-coast company called Best Foods® decided to jump on the mayonnaise spread-wagon, and voila! Hellmann’s® became the mayonnaise east of the Rockies, while Best Foods® held down the market to the west of the Continental Divide. Best Foods® eventually bought Hellmann’s® and, rather than try to force one brand on the entire country, the company retained the two names and tied them together with the Blue Ribbon familiar to all American mayonnaise eaters.

It is at this point in the story that I began feeling genuinely woozy, as though I'd kicked over a rock to reveal the squirmy things beneath it, and black helicopters will appear over my little house one night.

Large-scale corporate acquisition is not unlike the spread of the Roman Empire - just as Miracle Whip® belongs to the global behemoth Kraft®, Hellmann’s®/Best Foods® lives beneath the Unilever corporate umbrella.

Guy takes a sip from his cocktail and asks, “Unilever?”

Unilever is an enormous corporate empire, with a very friendly website, where they tell us that they are spending some time and money on things like Sustainability and Non-Evil Corporate Practices, for example, the large-font announcement that Hellmann’s® mayo is moving toward using only cage-free eggs. (There are some wild rumors flying around that Proctor and Gamble might acquire Unilever; you heard it here first.)Unilever places its origins in the late 19th century, when a guy named William Hesketh Lever invented a new kind of soap “to make cleanliness commonplace” in super-stinky Victorian England. Over the next one hundred years, Unilever acquired food brands such as Ben & Jerry’s®, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter®, Klondike®, Knorrs® and others. Unilever’s personal hygiene department went on to include not only Lever’s 2000®, but also Axe®, Suave®, Noxema®, Dove®, Vaseline® and more. What these products have in common, besides the oft-touted hair conditioning effects of mayonnaise, is that they are all manipulated fats and oils.

Closing my eyes I can see huge vats of products in various stages of emulsification, vats filled with tallow and gelatinous materials trucked in from rendering factories all over America. Some of this mixture will be poured off, fragranced, and formed into soaps. The rest of it will find its way into supermarket freezer aisles, salad dressing sections, and the spread area. In this nightmarish factory, the idea of a clumsy, curly-headed toddler drowning in a vat of mass-produced mayonnaise suddenly seems much less funny and much more like a Sinclairian metaphor for early 21st Century living.

Granted, this is a somewhat irresponsible oversimplification of the process, and I must confess that a recent midnight rendezvous with my small jar of Best Foods® produced a very delicious fried egg sandwich, but I may begin making my own mayonnaise. Step off the grid, as it were. I’ve tried this twice – the first time produced a vile, runny concoction that forced me to take to my bed for half an hour, the second time yielded a delicious spread, perfect for turkey sandwiches. As long as no one asks where the turkey comes from.

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