With Cinco de Mayo just behind us, you’d think it would have provided effortless inspiration for today’s article. But, as you might have guessed by now, we also like to play with words (by the way, we’re well overdue for a Fricassée of Words). So, allow us a light twist on the theme as we embark on a Cinco de Mayo… naise tour. Here’s a brief history of Mayonnaise in five acts.
ACT I – We are so used to the classic Mayonnaise jar that we can pick it out in a grocery store shelf lineup from the far end of the aisle. It is an icon and it feels all American. Some even believe that the name was made to sound French merely to add personality to the otherwise bland-looking sauce. Not so. Mayonnaise is French. Or at least, it is believed to have been concocted by the Duke of Richelieu’s personal chef for a celebratory feast following the capture Port Mahon in 1756. The port in question is located on the island of Minorca, on the Mediterranean Sea. While the island belongs to Spain, the chef was French.
ACT II – While it is certain that a true French chef would have had the wherewithal to concoct a good sauce from a few simple ingredients, it has been argued that the recipe already existed on the island and was simply borrowed. It is a well-documented fact that conquerors are among the most prolific propagators of food and culture. The name added a touch of ownership (not much in way of copyright laws back then). Most of all, it honored the victory at Port Mahon.
ACT III – Another argument arises regarding the origin of the name Mayonnaise. The victory at Mahon is not in dispute in this case. “Moyeu” was the word for yolk in Old French. It stands to reason that a sauce whose main ingredients are eggs might be named accordingly. Also, unlike most sauces, mayonnaise is not cooked. It relies solely on a blend of ingredients, with no other processing besides stirring. Old French for blending or stirring is “manier.” The rest, it is said, may have been pure typographical and pronunciation errors.
ACT IV – The first noteworthy mention of Mayonnaise in the US occurred in New York’s gourmet diner Delmonico’s, around 1837. French chefs introduced the sauce to this continent. The menu at Delmonico’s offered two signature dishes with a Mayonnaise sauce: Chicken Mayonnaise and Lobster Mayonnaise.
ACT V – The iconic Mayonnaise jar would be born early at the turn of the century. German immigrant Richard Hellmann (rings a bell?) opened a deli in New York in 1905. His wife’s Mayo gained overnight fame with their customers. So much so that they asked to buy it right off the kitchen. The jar was the logical and necessary next step. Hellmann created a label and popularized the famous blue-ribbon design. The invention of the mechanical bread slicer, around 1928, provided yet another avenue for Mayonnaise to enter mainstream food choices.