As a schoolboy it wasn’t uncommon to return from school hungry and make myself a mayonnaise sandwich, two pieces of Sunbeam white bread slathered with mayonnaise washed down with a glass of milk. These days mayonnaise isn’t a regular ingredient on my plate, but along with mustard, I do keep a bottle in the refrigerator for those times when a visiting friend wants it on a sandwich, or a recipe calls for it. Despite my own take it or leave it attitude, and the so-called war against obesity, America is a country where good and bad cholesterol numbers are tossed about with the same frequency as Kim Kardashian’s problems, and where mayonnaise defies any trend toward healthy eating. As someone said, it’s the glue of salads and celebrations. Whether it’s full strength mayo, fat-free, low-fat, soy-based, organic, trans-fat-free or flavored, supermarkets are stacked with mayonnaise choices, and shoppers are emptying the shelves.
Mayonnaise began its spread around the world in the town of Mahón on the small island of Minorca off the coast of Spain. In its earliest form it was a simple condiment made of raw egg yolk and olive oil which the natives of Mahón called salsa mahonesa in Spanish and maonesa in Catalan. While expelling the British from Minorca in 1756 the French general Armand de Vignerot du Plessis sampled the salsa mahonesa of Mahón and liking it, took the recipe back to France.
French chefs adopted this sauce of Mahón as a high quality condiment and renamed it mahonnaise. By 1823 it was in use in England and had also spread to America where it was viewed as a French sauce difficult to prepare. The invention of an electric mixer solved much of that problem, and it was also made more popular by the spread of inexpensive bottled dressings. Richard Hellman was a German-born delicatessen owner in Manhattan who realized that there was a market for what had by then become mayonnaise. His wife’s recipe for ready-made mayonnaise was already a popular condiment in the deli, even sold in scoops for take out. This popularity led to Hellman selling it in bulk to other stores. He built a factory in 1912 and began producing and selling Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise in one-pound wooden “boats.” A year later he began packaging his mayonnaise in large glass jars. An increase in the popularity of cole slaw as a side dish is closely connected to Hellman’s Mayonnaise. The business was so successful that in 1917 he closed his delicatessen to devote himself full time to the mayonnaise business.
Known as Best Foods west of the Rocky Mountains, Hellman’s is the leading US mayonnaise brand with over fifty percent of the market share. As of September 2010, Hellmann’s accounted for 31.8 percent of the nearly $1.3 billion US mayonnaise market, with total sales of $401,204,800.
Oleg Zhornitskiy is a man who loves his mayonnaise and currently holds the world record for competitive mayonnaise eating—four 32 ounce bowls in eight minutes.
The postcard above is one from 1932 advertising Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise.