Tag Archive: food history


Mayonnaise: An Atrocity of War

[Note: I originally wrote this paper for a class in my culinary arts program, but had to use a way more boring title.  The rest of the paper is duplicated exactly, terrible final pun and all.]

As described by Labensky, Hause and Martel in “On Cooking”, Mayonnaise is a cold emulsion of egg yolk, an acid component such as vinegar or lemon juice, and oil. It is the foundation of a range of smaller sauces, including aiolis, remoulades, and a battery of salad dressings. However, its origins are apparently under hot dispute, with both France and Spain claiming rightful proprietorship.

The prevailing understanding has been that this controversial condiment was, in fact, a direct product of the struggle over turf. As described in David Merritt Johns’ article, “A Brief History of Mayonnaise”, “One origin story… holds that the condiment was born in 1756 after French forces under the command of Duke de Richelieu laid siege to Port Mahon, on the Mediterranean island of Minorca, now a part of Spain, in the first European battle of the Seven Years’ War. The Duke’s chef, upon finding the island lacked the cream he needed for a righteous victory sauce, invented an egg and oil dressing dubbed mahonnaise for its place of birth.”

Alternatively, Spanish chefs and historians argue that the sauce already existed in the Catalan country, and the French invaders were simply the first to name and claim it. Some of these explanations verge on conspiracy theory. In his essay “Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War”, Tom Nealon writes, “It’s now apparent that France, seeing Britain’s fortunes turning… had taken the opportunity to make a run for what the Spanish/Catalan architects of the sauce called salsa mahonesa.  Allioli had been around at least since Pliny wrote about it in the first century C.E., but it had always been extremely problematic — coaxing an emulsion out of oil, garlic, and salt is, it is almost universally agreed, nearly impossible. This process had remained a Catalan secret for millennia for just this reason — it could hide in plain site [sic] because it was the culinary equivalent of black magic. What had apparently happened at some point (probably during the Renaissance) was that someone had added an egg and an acid to the recipe. This changed everything — anyone with the simple, if unlikely, instructions could now make this wonderful sauce. War was inevitable.”

However, allioli (the linguistic root of modern “aioli”) is itself tied to back into France, originating from the dialect of Provence. As Sam Dean wrote in “On the Etymology of the Word Mayonnaise” for Bon Appétit, “The name means, literally, “garlic” (alh in Provencal) and “oil” (oli in the same), and has been made in southwestern France and northeastern Spain dating back, at least, to the time of Roman occupation.”

Clearly, the roots of mayonnaise are deeply imbedded in this region, regardless of which flag flies over it, or where that imaginary (and therefore infinitely permeable) line called a “border” is drawn. Until the development of a time machine, true bragging rights shall remain shrouded in mayostery.

Works Cited

Dean, Sam. “On the Etymology of the Word Mayonnaise.” 4 April 2013. BonAppetit.com. 15 October 2014.

Johns, David Merritt. “A Brief History of Mayonnaise.” 27 December 2013. Slate.com. 18 October 2014.

Nealon, Tom. “Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War.” 23 February 2010. HiLoBrow.com. 18 October 2014.

Sarah R. Labensky, Alan M. Hause, Priscilla A. Martel. On Cooking, 5th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2011.

Advertisements

A Little Academia Before Lunch

I was recently directed to Rachel Laudan’s “A Plea For Culinary Modernism“, by my friend and fellow culinary arts student, feminismbot.  I was a history major long before I started thinking about cooking for a living, and the intersection of the two fields always makes my heart tingle with joy.

I definitely recommend this article for anyone interested in the politics of food.  Which should be everybody.

Laudan does an admirable job of dismantling the romantic illusions about old food-ways, many of which are currently base-belief among large sections of the population, particularly among those who consider themselves foodies.  She addresses the myth that our ancestors ate a more balanced/healthy diet, the overwhelming social power imbalances and oppressions that were fundamental to the pre-industrial food and agriculture industries, and several other points.

This is what a strictly local, plant based diet gets you.

This is what a strictly local, plant based diet gets you. A family in Carraroe, Ireland starves during the potato famine, 1845-1850.

I’m not going to go out and pick up a Big Mac anytime in the near future, and I still intend to buy locally produced food when practical, simply out of a desire to support local farmers, but the overwhelming message of her essay is something I can get behind, and something that I feel meshes well with the ethos of this blog:  frozen, canned, and preserved ingredients can be good, and good food should be available to everybody.

Coming soon: an actual food post!