My life is ruled by this question: What can I put mayonnaise on today?
Of course mayo isn't in the forefront of my thoughts every single minute, but it is my subconscious reason for approaching the refrigerator when most people open its door for, say, deli turkey, eggs, bacon, cheese for a quesadilla, salami, arugula, leftover meat loaf, or a pickle - all of which, in my world, go splendidly with a cold emulsification of egg yolks, oil and a little acid such as lemon juice - a.k.a. mayonnaise.
Every day is Mayonnaise Day for those of us who love it, but for the rest of this nation, Memorial Day weekend signals the start of mayonnaise season.
Sales of commercially produced mayo begin to rise right about now and stay high until just after Labor Day for an obvious reason: Summer means picnics, and picnics mean potato, chicken and macaroni salads, sandwiches, (Oh, the BLT - it's nothing without mayo - at the height of tomato season!), dips and other concoctions that either require a dressing for "glue," or are enhanced by mayonnaise's flavor, moisture and smooth texture.
Calling mayonnaise a condiment, which connotes an ingredient attached to something of a higher order, slights it.
In fact, mayonnaise could be the star of a feature film because:
It has a past that includes good old American entrepreneurs, a hint of sexism, and a murky origin in a romantic locale, possibly during a war.
A New York delicatessen owner named Richard Hellmann did not invent mayonnaise in the early 1900s, even though he began jarring his wife's blend, which was destined to become ubiquitous in the United States, and eventually over much of the world. Note that his wife's name seems lost to history, adding the element of sex discrimination to the tale. (It bears the Hellmann's label in most of the United States, except west of the Rockies, where it's called Best Foods mayo.)
Food historians are uncertain about the "inventor" of mayonnaise, but there are several explanations of how the sauce got its name. All, of course, deal with the French, the progenitors of many classic sauces.
One explanation is that it is from the Old French word moyeu, which means egg yolk. Another says that mayonnaise was corrupted from bayonnaise, a sauce that was popular in the southwestern French city of Bayonne.
A richer mayonnaise history takes place at a French victory banquet in 1756 after the capture of Port Mayon during the Seven Years' War. As the story goes, the chef of the French Duke Richelieu either inadvertently created it, or concocted it because he had no cream for a standard sauce, and it took on the name of the port.
It got such a foothold in French cuisine that in the early 20th century, the chef Auguste Escoffier, in updating mother-sauce categories (from which many other sauces are derived) set forth earlier by Antoine Careme, added egg-based emulsions, specifically mayonnaise and hollandaise, to the classifications list.
It involves molecular rearrangement, and tragedy can occur.
Mayonnaise is not merely a mixture, it is an emulsion. Unlike sauces that have body because of the addition of starch or gelatin, mayonnaise is produced when fat droplets are dispersed throughout a mixture. This is achieved through the sometimes tricky, gradual introduction of liquid and surface tension delivered via a whisk. In addition, egg yolks contain lecithin, the best emulsifier.
One test of a good cook is making mayonnaise from scratch and keeping it from breaking down into its components. Thus, the making of mayonnaise gets its own chapter in some cookbooks and even shows up in books about food chemistry. (Take that, ketchup and mustard!)
It has international appeal.
For example, real Belgian French fries are served with mayonnaise and mayonnaise-based sauces. Throughout Mexico, corn on the cob roasted on a fire is rolled in mayonnaise before being coated with cheese. In Oaxaca, some stores carry 39 types, and people often just put a dollop on bread to eat as a sandwich. Grocery stores in Brazil carry jarred mayonnaise in many forms; added ingredients may be tuna or carrots, garlic or lime, cucumbers or onions.
It is a huge deal in Japan, among other countries, where one brand even has a type flavored with cheese. Mayonnaise was introduced to Japan in 1925 by QP Corp. Called Kewpie mayonnaise, it is identified by a drawing of a naked baby doll. Made with rice vinegar, it is tangier (less sweet), more savory and silkier than standard commercial U.S. mayonnaise. And it has been used as a condiment on vegetables, meats and sushi for years. But now it is the rage among young people who are putting it on rice.
There's even a word in Japan for people who love mayonnaise: mayolers. At the Mayonnaise Kitchen, a restaurant devoted to mayonnaise outside Tokyo, bar specialties include the Mayogarita and the Mayoty Dog, vodka-based drinks served in mayonnaise-rimmed glasses.
Mayonnaise reflects what is going on in society.
When once there was only commercial full-fat mayonnaise, with, yikes, 12 grams of fat and 110 calories, there is now reduced-fat and no-fat mayonnaise for those who don't mind the taste difference but worry about having a long life.
In addition, the glass jar that was ubiquitous for mayonnaise has faded into memory, with new plastic jars in shapes that fit better into refrigerators and squeeze bottles for those needing a quick hit.
Food scientists have also developed a way to make mayonnaise with cooked egg yolks to ease the worry that some home cooks have about eating raw eggs possibly tainted with salmonella bacteria. (See accompanying recipe). Commercially made mayonnaise contains pasteurized egg yolks, making this irrelevant.
Vegan versions are available in health food and Whole Foods stores.
Mayonnaise can play many roles but doesn't seek headlines.
When a potato salad, a crab cake, a macaroni salad, a deviled egg are excellent, do people credit the mayonnaise?
It is versatile.
Mayonnaise is a great hair conditioner and facial mask. It will remove road tar, gum and glue. Globbed on a paper towel and left for 15 minutes, it will remove water stains from fine wood furniture. Left on the hair for at least an hour, it smothers lice. Use it to shine up the leaves of house plants.
It is controversial.
For every 10 people who love mayonnaise, there is always one person who abhors it and considers anyone who likes it to be strange, or to have an eating disorder.
Just the other day my daughter told me, in a shocked tone, about a girl she knew who obviously had an eating disorder because she had been seen eating a tablespoon of mayonnaise, all by itself.
I didn't know what to say.
Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
Makes 1 9-inch, 2-layer cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1¼ teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup jarred mayonnaise (not salad dressing or nonfat; low-fat works)
1 1/3 cups water
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Whisk the flour, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer at high speed, beat eggs, sugar and vanilla for 3 minutes or until light and fluffy.
4. Beat in the mayonnaise at low speed until blended. Alternately beat in the flour mixture with the water, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Pour into prepared pans.
5. Bake 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the centers of the pans comes out clean.
6. Cool on wire racks for 15 minutes, then remove and cool completely before dusting with confectioners' sugar. Alternatively, frost with a vanilla cream cheese frosting or any favorite flavor.
Per serving (based on 10):
411 calories, 6 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 33 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 306 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Cooked Egg-Yolk Mayonnaise
Makes about 1½ cups.
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional
1 cup vegetable or other oil
1. Have ready a pie plate half-full of cold water and a few ice cubes, so you can cool the bottom of the hot skillet to prevent the warmed yolk mixture from curdling.
2. Combine the egg yolks, lemon juice, water and sugar in a small skillet over very low heat and stir constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula until the mixture just begins to thicken.
3. Immediately remove from the heat and set the pan briefly in the pie plate of water, then scrape the mixture into a blender and let stand until cooled, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the mustard, salt and cayenne, if using. With the motor running, add about ¼ cup of the oil one drop at a time. Once the mixture begins to thicken, add the remaining ¾ cup oil in a slow, steady stream. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate. It will keep up to 1 week.
Per one-tablespoon serving: 86 calories, trace protein, trace carbohydrates, trace sugar, 9 grams fat, 17 milligrams cholesterol, 41 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Mayonnaise, Shrimp, Pea and Bacon Salad
Makes 6 servings
½ pound fatty peppered bacon or lightly smoked slab bacon, diced
2 pounds fresh medium shrimp, shells on
2½ cups cooked peas
2 small dill pickles, diced
1 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Leaves of chicory (curly endive), butter lettuce, rinsed and dried
2 ripe tomatoes, quartered
3 large hard-boiled eggs, shelled and quartered
1. In a large, heavy skillet, render the bacon over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes or until it is crisp and golden brown, watching carefully to prevent burning. Drain the bacon on paper towels and set aside.
2. Place the shrimp in a large saucepan. Squeeze the lemon half over the shrimp and drop it in the pot. Add enough water to cover, bring to a boil, remove from the heat, let stand for 1 minute and then drain.
3. When cool enough to handle, shell, devein, and place the shrimp in a large mixing bowl. Add the peas and diced pickles, toss well and cover with plastic wrap; chill for 1 hour.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with the lemon juice, heavy cream, horseradish, salt and pepper.
5. Add the dressing to the shrimp-and-pea mixture; toss well.
6. Line a large salad bowl or 4 to 6 salad plates with the chosen greens; mound the salad in the middle. Sprinkle the diced cooked bacon over the top and garnish the sides with the tomatoes and eggs. Serve on wide salad plates.
Per serving: 752 calories, 52 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 53 grams fat, 398 milligrams cholesterol, 1,511 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.