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?
* * *
“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?
* * *
In late September I attended a mayonnaise-themed picnic hosted by Hellmann’s to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company’s mucilaginous muck. The firm had constructed the longest picnic table in the history of the planet on Pier 84 in New York City to celebrate its special day, and in the ardent hope that a Guinness world record might accompany its richly anticipated mayo-infused super-moist chocolate birthday cake.
A cheerful twentysomething in a Hellmann’s T-shirt passed me a box lunch containing a mayo-infused burger, mayo-smothered pasta salad, mayo-lubed corn on the cob, and a mayo-moistened cupcake. I asked her if it was awesome to work at the Hellmann’s event, since I assumed she got to eat as much mayonnaise as she wanted. She was a bit off-message: She admitted she thought mayo was disgusting. “I think it’s just when I was little I didn’t like things that were white,” she said.
What does it mean to say that something is disgusting? It is a surprisingly juicy question, and one that has stimulated a gush of scholarship in recent years. Research into human disgust suggests that substances of animal origin, such as poop or mucus, are more commonly offensive than plant matter. Disgust theorists often explain this pattern by noting that rotten flesh can harbor deadlier microbes than moldering plants. (The grossout response presumably serves to protect us from noxious things.) Research conducted in the U.S. suggests that slimy, gooey, filmy, mushy, and squishy things may arouse disgust. In the 1990s Army researchers concluded that the most widely disliked food item was liver.
Mayonnaise contains an animal product, it is reminiscent of pus or semen, and it is remarkably slimy and jiggly. And anti-mayo campaigners do seem to agree that the condiment’s gloppiness is central to its repulsive powers. “I have consistency issues in general,” admitted Gotwals. Horwitz also denounced the condiment’s terrible viscidity, and called the emulsification process by which it achieves its peculiar density “black magic” and “Satanic-type stuff.”
But vanilla ice cream and pudding are also jizzlike slimes, and they arouse little animus; ketchup is cherished despite its likeness to blood. And scholars have long noted that revulsion can rarely be reduced to sensory factors alone. Charles Darwin commented on the social aspects of taste in his 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.”
Darwin’s observations hinted at an idea upon which revulsion scholars generally agree: Disgust is largely a cultural phenomenon. Infants don’t seem to experience it. Tiny children will tolerate unholy decay odors, and experiments show many will happily eat imitation feces (made with stinky cheese) or quaff glasses of juice in which (sterilized) grasshoppers bob like ice cubes. From centipedes to boogers, the grossout response is a learned one. Its latent purpose is often to distinguish friend from foe, and pass judgment on the habits of others. (To wit: As one informant bluntly told me, “Let’s be honest: Mayonnaise is a fat man’s food.” Or consider this quote from HoldThatMayo’s Horwitz: “If you’re looking for the real fringe, it’s the people who like Miracle Whip.”)
If mayonnaise haters are not born but made, does this mean they could be reprogrammed to covet the sauce? Could mayonnaise even shed its image as a humble condiment—a stigmatized food type, since they can only be eaten in small quantities before taboo ensues—and be recast as a standalone snack? Anti-mayo activists will surely recoil at the suggestion. (In a 2012 Bon Appétit blog post, one mayo detractor begged, “STOP trying to force me to un-hate it … I don’t force my love of Jamiroquai on anyone else.”)
But Rachel Herz, a smell scientist and author of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, thinks it can be done. Food meanings can change dramatically, notes Herz, who believes that the consumption of insects as food will soon take off in the U.S. (“I think in another 10 years you might be having mayonnaise on your cricket sandwich,” she says.) If mayonnaise could recapture the trendiness and luxury status it once held—perhaps via a renaissance in hip restaurants or an association with glamorous people—the haters might well change their tune, Herz says. “People will be like lining up to get those little packets and squirt them into our mouths,” she said with a giggle.
Even for a confessed packet slurper like me, this was hard to swallow. But the recent opening of a successful artisanal mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights suggests that a minor mayo movement is indeed stirring. And at the Hellmann’s event, there were unmistakable hints that a mayo makeover may be underway. “A lot of people don’t know about sandwiches with just mayonnaise only,” said NBA All-Star and Hellmann’s promoter Paul Pierce, now with the Brooklyn Nets. No meat, I asked? “Straight-up mayonnaise only!” Pierce said. And then there was celebrity chef Mario Batali: “It’s more than a condiment, my friend. Condiment is where it was born, and that’s where it lives. But using it as a main ingredient in baking and cooking is where its future is.”
Talk about disgusting: My stomach did somersaults in the face of this shameless saucy salesmanship. This turned out to be the rare mayonnaise topic upon which an avowed advocate of the sauce—yours truly—and a mayo hater could firmly agree. “Just the thought of that is revolting,” said Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club founder Memminger, when I asked how he felt about the idea of mayo as a main course. “It’s a slimy, horrible alleged food.”