Elsewhere in Slate, David Merritt Johns explains the history of mayonnaise, Ari LeVaux tries to find out why Hellmann’s is so good, and Katherine Goldstein argues in favor of a surprising mayonnaise alternative.
Near where I work there is a deli with a basket on the counter piled high with mayonnaise packets. They’re complimentary: If you buy a sandwich, you can take as many as you want. I know that decent folks nab just one or two, but I have a hard time sticking to that amount. I prefer four: two to lubricate the bun, and two reserve packets for use ad libitum on bites that demand an extra squirt of condiment. I find that if there’s mayo left in one of the reserves after the sandwich is gone, I can slurp it directly from the packet.
I slurp covertly, of course: I’m ashamed of my four-packet-a-day habit, which, if I’m being honest, typically involves a fifth packet. One day a friend espied me clutching a turkey and cheese, its half-eaten face white and glistening, as my free hand applied more sauce. “You are disgusting!” she said.
She was right: I have a mayo problem. But as my shame faded, I began to wonder: Was the problem really mine, or was it hers? Ketchup and mustard—our nation’s uncontested condiment king and queen—elicit no ire. But mayonnaise, an egg and oil spread whose 100th birthday under the label Hellmann’s arrived in September, is a source of endless controversy: BuzzFeed ran an article recently calling it “the devil’s condiment,” and Jimmy Fallon, Rachael Ray, and President Obama are all on record as mayo haters. What accounts for this condimental controversy? Why are we so divided over mayonnaise?
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“Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies,” goes one version of the old Milton Berle joke. The joke works on two levels: It may be that the Jew is dying out of horror at a clueless deli patron, since everyone knows corned beef goes with mustard and rye. Or it may be that the Jew is dying because she herself has chosen mayo and white, and therefore is no longer a Jew. In either reading, the mayo critique is clear—Keep your slime off my food!—a protest that critics of the sauce would make ever more emphatically as the 20th century wore on.
You wouldn’t guess from Berle’s joke that he himself took his corned beef with mayo on white, a preference he attributed to a nomadic showbiz youth fueled by pit stops at railroad lunch counters in the 1920s. But for many Jewish Americans who came of age in that era, the frequent combination of white mayonnaise, white bread, and white gentiles created a lunchroom culture clash in which they were on the losing end. “They would make fun of me because they would be eating their sandwiches on white bread,” recalled Fred Okrand, who grew up in Los Angeles. “And I remember feeling ashamed, somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren't.”
In the postwar years, however, Borscht Belt comedians turned this insult on its head. Well-sensitized to the fault lines in the American condimental landscape, and inspired by the seemingly boundless zeal for mayo expressed by a nation of molded-salad-obsessed housewives, these comics made the mayo-munching majority a target for gentle ridicule. To Mel Brooks, a Midwesterner was someone who “drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes, and mayonnaise.” Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’ ”
These jokesters formed the advance guard in a burgeoning late-20th-century anti-mayo movement. Woody Allen underscored mayo’s goyish qualities in both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; humorist Harry Shearer profiled a family of pasty Midwesterners who maintained personal mayonnaise bottles in his 1985 mockumentary The History of White People in America. The menu at Katz’s Deli, Manhattan’s famous smoked-meat joint, bowed to the anti-mayo comedic-industrial complex by warning pastrami seekers to “ask for Mayo at your own peril.” By the 21st century, the condiment’s link with square, fair-skinned peoples was such that in the 2002 comedy Undercover Brother, learning to like mayo was one of the eponymous protagonist’s key training tasks for passing as a “tight-butt white man.” (For more mayo mockery, don’t miss Meshugene Men.)
Of course, this ethnic-comedic anti-mayo campaign did not exactly make a lot of sense. Despite its milklike appearance, mayonnaise is kosher and in fact holds a time-honored place in Jewish cuisine; Katz’s Deli happily sells mayo-rich egg salad and Russian dressing. Jackie Mason, in an email, hypothesized that the complicated relationship between Jews and mayonnaise was probably a consequence of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.”
A more fundamental—and deadly serious—threat to the hegemony of mayonnaise would come from public health advocates—who, like the comedians, insisted the nation’s appetite for the sauce had simply gone too far. By the 1960s scientists were sounding the alarm that eating too many cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs was perilous for the heart. In 1970 the New York Times, responding to reader requests for advice on “foods that do not clog the arteries,” described a typical lunch for heart disease epidemiologist Jeremiah Stamler: “A sliced turkey sandwich, no butter, no mayonnaise, coffee with skimmed milk, and melon.” Health anxieties over mayo expanded further with reports linking raw egg consumption to salmonella poisoning.
Out of these ingredients congealed the organized anti-mayo movement. The flagship organization, the Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club, was launched in the late ’80s by Honolulu-based writer Charles Memminger, who declared his intention to combat the “evil empire of slime.” A few years later, in 1991, a dozen college students at Wesleyan University formed the Wesleyan Anti-Mayonnaise League (WAML). The League formed to protest the daily appearance of large tubs of mayo in the college’s cafeterias, which, according to WAML founder Jenny Gotwals, “would get SO GROSS sitting out all day.” (Gotwals included a pledge to “never bring tuna or mayonnaise into our home” in her wedding vows.) In 2006 marketer Craig Horwitz launched the web site HoldThatMayo.com. “When you order a BLT, there’s no ‘M’ in it. … It should not be the default. That’s our political position,” he explained.
A graph of historical appearances of the phrases “hold the mayo” and “hold the mayonnaise” in the Google Books database offers a glimpse into the rise of the mayo opposition, and reinforces the impression that anti-mayonnaise ideology is mainly a late-20th-century phenomenon. (And one that is associated, at least temporally, with emerging concerns about the risks of dietary fat.)
However, there is evidence that mayonnaise was dividing eaters long before people started fretting over cholesterol. “Much modern depravity … I attribute to the unholy cult of Mayonnaise,” intoned the British writer Frank Schloesser in 1905. “At its best it is simply a saucy disguise to an innocent salmon or martial lobster,” wrote Schloesser, adding that the sauce’s effect on food was reminiscent of “an old actor painted up to look young.”
What do these century-old barbs suggest? Is it possible, as mayonnaise haters contend, that there is some offensive element intrinsic to the sauce itself that gives rise to mayophobia?
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