Few refrigerator staples inspire as much devotion and distaste as mayonnaise. Beloved by some, called “the devil’s condiment” by others, mayo is nonetheless number one: market research firm Euromonitor reports that Americans spend $2 billion on mayonnaise annually, seconded by ketchup’s mere $800 million.
Clearly, there is more to mayo than meets the aioli. With summer picnic season in full swing, we delve deep to get the skinny on America’s most controversial condiment.
- Real simple
Pure, unadulterated mayonnaise is the product of just three ingredients: oil, eggs and an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. For perfect mayo every time, home cooks suggest adding a teaspoon of water to the eggs before emulsifying.
- Heated history
As with so many culinary phenomena (pisco, béchamel/besciamella), multiple nations claim mayonnaise ownership. Spaniards argue the spread was a casualty of the Seven Years’ War: when France took Minorca’s Port of Mahon in 1756, they brought home its namesake spread, salsa mahonesa, and reclaimed it as their own. Others contend mayonnaise was a French creation, named mahonaise for that same naval victory. Culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique is unsurprisingly on Team France, but argues that mayonnaise is a modern evolution of the term moyeunaise, which was derived from the Old French word for egg yolk: moyeu.
- Riches to rags
American mayo was originally a high-end ingredient, used by toque-wearing chefs to create haute dishes like Waldorf salad. Only after the industrialization of food production in the early 20th century – and the national distribution of the product brands like Hellmann’s – did mayo become the spread of the people.
- We are family
Other members of la familia mayonesa include aioli, a Provençal blend of garlic, yolks, olive oil and lemon juice; tartar sauce, a mayo-relish hybrid made with chopped dill pickles and white onion; and remoulade, tartar sauce’s French cousin.
- Bring out die best
Mayo behemoth Hellmann’s got its start in a German immigrant’s New York City deli in 1905. In 1932, culinary conglomerate Best Foods, Inc. acquired Richard Hellmann’s recipe and began spreading the stuff nationwide. Last year, Best Foods’ bottles accounted for 45.5% of the mayo market share. Runner-up Kraft Mayo held less than 24%.
- Tangy trailblazers
Boutique brands include upstarts like Sir Kensington’s, a New York-based brand launched by two Brown University grads in 2008. Cult favorite Kewpie, a Japanese version beloved by chefs like David Chang, began U.S. production in 1982. In 2010, it was Amazon.com’s top-selling mayonnaise. Kewpie differs from American mayonnaise by using straight yolks, instead of whole eggs, and employing an umami-rich blend of different vinegars.
- Fear factor
Mayonnaise haters on record include Rachael Ray and Barack Obama. While the DSM-V diagnostic manual has yet to classify the epic revulsion mayonnaise can incite as a mental condition, a quick Twitter search for #mayophobia reveals the breadth of detractors worldwide.
- Feed your head
Those with dry, damaged hair might already know that mayonnaise is a pretty effective deep conditioner. But the quantity of vinegar in commercial mayonnaise also makes it a good remedy for head lice.
- Condiment as canvas
Mayonnaise-loving chefs like Texas’ Tim Love (a Hellmann’s spokesperson) and Top Chef alum Fabio Viviani are fans of herbal infusions and use mayonnaise as an ingredient in marinades and sauces. At Food Republic, we are partial to tomatonaise and burger-ready red pepper mayo.
- Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution
Purists may scoff, but egg-free mayonnaise is on the rise. Start-up Hampton Creek Foods now sells its vegan spread, Just Mayo, in Hong Kong and at Whole Foods nationwide; U.K. brand Ocado’s egg-and dairy-free mayonnaise reported a 33% sales increase in just six months in 2013; and, last year, a Vanity Fair editor took to Slate to publish a 450-word love letter to Vegenaise. Fight the power.
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