Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mayonnaise - The Elvis of American Gastronomy

The question was a fair one.  And it scored for my inquisitor a hit, a very palpable hit.  Did I, wondered chef-friend and colleague, Charles H., on a very recent day at work, spend my leisure time walking around my house in my underwear, listening to Elvis, scratching my ass, while eating mayonnaise straight from the jar?  Everyone within earshot of the question suddenly froze.  It was if Sergio Leone had just shouted “action” in a crowded kitchen, a word which cinephiles and fans of the great Italian director know means, in Leone land, exactly the opposite.  All activity in that kitchen of mine came to a screeching halt.  Cooks on the plating line stopped what they were doing.  Waiters stood in place.  Everyone with a knife swallowed and twitched, looking nervously between Chef H. and me, the likely combatants in this dust up, to see who might draw first.  That this particular question regarding my off-hour habits referenced both mayonnaise and Elvis Presley, coupled with the fact that the question was loudly posited over the din of a fiendishly frenetic kitchen by a two-hundred-fifty pound black man from the mean streets of inner-city Philadelphia; a man who, depending on the angle and light, could easily pass as the older love child of Mike Tyson and Chuck D. (Chef H., too, shaves his head for added menace), clearly set the occupants of that kitchen on edge, preparing them for sudden violence, readying them for blood.  But anyone who has spent time in busy kitchens knows the words fuck you (or their many variations) is often (though not always) a disguised expression of genuine love and admiration for a fellow culinarian with whom you have just emerged from that service-industry shit storm know as the weeds. 

By fucking with me in front of our entire staff, by calling public attention to the stark, even profound, differences in our origins and antecedents (his being dodging bullets and crack dealers; mine being a white farm boy’s pedigree from rural Missouri), Chef H. was expressing admiration for the way our two respective houses, front and back, were working together, and just how beautifully we, he and I—despite our obvious differences—could rock over 600 entrees in just under thirteen blazing, white-hot minutes of pure culinary rush.  We were, the question had decided, brothers in arms.
But just because Chef H.’s question had been fair, just because it had been a sublimated way to express happiness for the way we were dominating the culinary challenges laid before us, didn’t mean that he wasn’t fucking with me.  Fucking with me he most assuredly was (in the I’m-hugging-you-while-hitting-you way friends will take the piss out of one another), and in front of nearly one hundred cooks and waiters.  A comeback was required of me.  A retort.  A rejoinder.  A verbal parry to his thrust.  So answer this very pubic white glove across my cheek I must.  My first impulse was, I confess, to defend my love of all things Elvis.  The adoration I hold in my leaky little pump of a heart for Elvis Aron Presley, in all his incarnations, from skinny Hillbilly Cat to Elvis the Fat, transcendent and inglorious alike, is legendary among my friends (I wear the same obscure, Mississippi-made pomade in my hair, for instance, and lavish my own walls with deeply-non-ironic Elvis-on-Velvet portraiture) and my Elvis man-crush has long made me an object of ridicule and source for speculation for what is clearly (to the Freudians in my peer group) a form of homo-erotic hero worship.  But the prospect of decrying (or defending) the latter-day virtues of a bloated, jump-suit-wearing, pill-popping, Cadillac-driving piece of Tupelo white trash seemed, in that moment, somehow less important than defending the reputation of the single ingredient I consider central to the still-vital, still-unique gastronomic identity of the American South, and the one ingredient most important, in my opinion, to the continued evolution of everyday American cooking.

It’s mayonnaise, yo, and it’s as important to American home eating as Elvis is to American popular culture and music.  It’s the love in your sandwich; it’s the ice in your drink, and just like Elvis, it’s everywhere, man.  Its staggering ubiquity, its near omnipresence, renders it nearly invisible to most American eaters.  People simply aren’t aware when they’re eating it, unless the dose be too heavy.  There remain, today, but three really good mid-scale, widely distributed (kinda, sorta) purveyors across the American South who are making the stuff far, far better than any of their Yankee brethren are up North.

I know what you’re thinking.  Mayonnaise is the foodstuff mouth-breathers.  Gastronomic knuckle-draggers.  Culinary close-talkers.  American eaters whose hillbilly palates could not detect any difference between, say, a really good sabayon and the white stuff they pipe into a Suzy-Q if the life of their riding lawnmowers depended upon it.  But nothing could be more heterodox to the truth.  To have food historians tell it, mayonnaise comes from Spain—not from the trailer parks of Mississippi or Missouri, thank you very much—from the town of Mahon on the island of Menorca in the neighborhood of 1756, mas o menos.  The Spanish called it mahonesa, but our name for the stuff is derived (or so it’s thought) from moyeu, the Old French word for egg yolk.  Whatever its etymology, wherever it’s place of birth, I call mayonnaise the defining American food ingredient that has elevated (with the discovery of Vitamin D in the early-1920s and advent of large-scale poultry farming, but that’s another story), the protein, starch, and vegetable sources of work-a-day people of the American Southeast from their base ingredient status to that exalted heights of being deviled, and of matriculating to the supreme status of being called a sa-a-lad (in the three-syllable manner of a Charleston church lady).

Mayonnaise is what cooks call an emulsion.  In technical terms, it forms when one ingredient with a “monolithic” molecular arrangement (that’s Harold McGee’s term, yo) is shattered by beating another incompatible ingredient into it that contains a fat compound (think oil and water).  The molecular composition of this emulsifier lowers the surface tension and allows droplets to form a creamy emulsion (again, on a molecular level, so if you beat a teaspoon of oil into mayonnaise, you’ll create roughly 30 billion droplets, ibid).  Mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of these oil droplets suspended in an amalgam of egg yolk, lemon juice, and water.  As an emulsion, it’s packed with oil droplets; nearly 80% of its volume is oil (ibid).  At its inception, mayonnaise was made in tiny batches inside home kitchens as a flavor agent and fat source for the culinary elite.  But the early part of the 20th century saw mayonnaise being mass-produced for the po-boys and egg salad sandwiches of the average Crescent City laborer.  Mayonnaise added fat, depth of flavor, and, well, moisture to the hitherto arid interiors of the southern lunch pail.  And suddenly it was everywhere across the South.  Hero of the potluck.  Rock star of the church social.  Mayonnaise was put on everything, in everything, and just like that, the tyranny of the dry sandwich was over.  Southern cuisine was forever changed.  Miraculously, a few of those early producers are still with us—three by my count—and their contributions to southern culture (well beyond just the gastronomic realm, I say) remain as revolutionary to the everyday eating of southerners as does the musical insurgency launched from 706 Union Street by that swivel-hipped kid with the long sideburns and predilection for gold lame.   

Blue Plate.  It’s the quintessence of New Orleans sandwich making.  A po-boy without it out would be unthinkable.  A heresy.  A crime against all that is good in the world.  Beyond delicious, Blue Plate Mayonnaise is emblematic of the city is has come to represent.  Having arrived in 1927 the Crescent City as a carpetbagger from up North (the culinary offspring of one Mrs. Schlorer of Philadelphia), Blue Plate has endured its share of travail over the years.  Its narrative seems to beg for accompaniment from an old Bessie Smith tune played on a tone-deaf piano.  Times were good for Blue Plate in 1929, when they ramped up production in a warehouse in Gretna, Louisiana.  Better still was 1941, when Blue Plate moved across the Mississippi to mid-city New Orleans.  But in 1960, Hunt-Wesson Foods of California acquired Blue Plate and it’s southern soul suddenly seemed put at hazard.  Things looked grim.  Soon salvation arrived in the form of one William B. Reilly, southern gentleman to all, who acquired Blue Plate as part of his family’s much-beloved Luzianne food line, and Blue Plate came home to Louisiana, where it remains today.  (Weirdly, though:  Lee Harvey Oswald worked there the summer before he gunned down JFK.)  I order mine by the four-pack, from Amazon, and rejoice every time a box appears on my doorstep, with a taste of NOLA secreted inside.  My neighbors think I’m insane. 

JFG.  That’s what this mayonnaise is called.  JFG.  A cynic would have you believe the name of this mayonnaise was created by that same marketing wunderkind who dreamed up the name Product 19 to describe that oh-so-delicious breakfast cereal of the 1970s.  But no.  JFG is named for James Franklin Goodson, who founded a coffee company in 1882, and who started making mayonnaise in 1919.  JFG is made in Knoxville, Tennessee, and for that reason alone you should buy it.  It tastes like Knoxville.  It’s the mayonnaise of a Tennessee river town deep in Appalachia, and it’s the closest thing to Miracle Whip a real mayonnaise will ever—successfully—come (due to the sugar).  Amazon also pimps JFG as well, so between shipments of Blue Plate, I’m buying this stuff by the case.  Don’t tell my neighbors.  They already think I’m nuts.

Duke’s.  The gold standard.  The best mayonnaise I have yet tasted straight from the jar.  It’s certainly the “eggiest” of this trio, and it’s total absence of sugar somehow makes Duke’s—for this eater, at least—the most “southern” mayonnaise of them all.  Discovering Duke’s is like hearing “Baby Let’s Play House” for the first time.  It’s like having the Sun Sessions all up inside your mouth because its flavor profile is so unmistakably and deeply southern.  First created in the home kitchen of Mrs. Eugenia Duke in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1917, as a condiment for the sandwiches she served the doughboys stationed at nearby For Sevier, the stuff is still made in Greenville, now under the corporate tutelage of the C.F. Sauer Company (headquartered in Richmond, Virginia), who make a damned fine mayonnaise in their own rite.  Open my fridge on any day of the week, and there is a jar of Duke’s smiling back at you like some golden ray of hope.

I know you can make a better mayonnaise at home.  I do.  I also know you can make a better cupcake than what Tasty Cake sells.  And I know you can source better fruit than what’s contained inside a can of Libby’s Fruit Cocktail.  But sometimes better is not the point.  Sometimes better means accepting a product or ingredient on its own terms—why it exists, from whence, and for whom.  I am convinced, in my heart of hearts, that a simple jar of mayonnaise represented—to generations of southern cooks—a harbinger that life was getting better, even easier, insofar as their emulsified fat now came premade in a glass jar, and that to apply the contents of that jar to a mound of chopped protein or slice of day-old-bread, was to improve that ingredient, exponentially, with a single, simple pass of the butter knife.

I spoke none of this to Chef H.  I bit my tongue and let the insult stand.  I let my waiters, my cooks, take me for a punk.  But I will have my revenge.  You know I will.  It will come on Christmas.  In Chef H.’s stocking will be a jar of southern mayonnaise and a CD:  50,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong.  And if he’s not careful, if he decides to cross over to the dark side and walk a mile in this Missouri farm boy’s shoes, it just might be Chef H. who finds himself walking around his own house at midnight, listening to the Hillbilly Cat croon, spooning mayonnaise straight from the jar.