The Hermeneutics of Mayo Haters

shrimp-with-quite-tooIn an article entitled “How Millennials killed Mayonnaise, boomer Sandy Hingston wonders why, at her summertime family gatherings, few eat her formerly prized, mayo-slathered macaroni salad, Waldorf salad, or deviled eggs. In the face of generational change she notices what no longer appears on the condiment table:

I racked my brain for the source of this generational disconnect. And then, one holiday weekend, while surveying the condiments set out at a family burger bash, I found it. On offer were four different kinds of mustard, three ketchups (one made from, I kid you not, bananas), seven sorts of salsa, kimchi, wasabi, relishes of every ilk and hue …

What was missing, though, was the common foundation of all Mom’s picnic foods: mayonnaise. While I wasn’t watching, mayo’s day had come and gone. It’s too basic for contemporary tastes — pale and insipid and not nearly exotic enough for our era of globalization. Good ol’ mayo has become the Taylor Swift of condiments.

Well, I’m far from being a millennial but this comparison to Taylor Swift is unfair to Swift. Millennials may not have much income these days but they nevertheless have good taste.

Hingston can’t quite figure out why mayonnaise is no longer popular arguing that “mayonnaise isn’t bland; it’s artfully blended. It’s an evocation of the homogeneity of that old, dead American dream.”

That’s faint praise. After considering several implausible explanations for mayo’s demise, she settles on identity politics:

The only reason for this raging mayophobia is a generation’s gut-level renouncement of the Greatest Generation’s condiment of choice.

Ah no. The reason for the demise of mayonnaise is that it masks the flavor of anything you put it on, an effect made much worse when mayonnaise fans insist on shoveling gobs of it on even the most delicate of flavors. I had a fresh seafood sandwich the other day that could have been beef or liver, or beef liver for that matter, it had so much mayonnaise on it.

And as Hingston points out this was its purpose:

One of the reasons for mayonnaise’s early popularity, according to public health historian David Merritt Johns, was that it served to disguise flaws in the ingredients it coated — potatoes past their due date, flabby cabbage, tuna that was less than pristine. Young people like my daughter somehow seem to have extrapolated this masking function from condiment to culture; for them, mayo quite literally whitewashed America’s immigrants into eating dull food.

Yes they did and if mayo fans are now paying for it, well it’s a well-deserved comeuppance. They don’t call it the food revolution for nothin’.

4 comments

  1. Fresh mayonnaise made in a blender at home can be a revelation, and I never liked mayo in a jar for all the reasons cited. The fresh stuff is decidedly different, though I would never make it for myself.

    A similar masking effect can be said of salsa (despite the infinite characteristics of salsas and chutneys from all over the world), any hot sauce even soy or fish sauce.
    The condiment can easily dominate the taste of the ingredients.

    Butter, salt and black pepper, if used with restraint, and/or lemon if you must, can be modulated more easily and can be more harmonious.

    For those of us who do not like a riot of flavors in one bite competing for our attention with little synergistic effect, there is nothing like minimalist seasoning for fresh ingredients carefully prepared and cooked with minimal intervention. I think it is called Italian cuisine.

    I know it sounds heretical, but nature is pretty amazing if you are allowed to taste it neat. Combinations can be exciting too, but not at the expense of balance.

    As in wine, less intervention creates remarkably distinct flavors and nuances that can be very exciting. Unless your palate is blown out by capsacin.

    You don’t have to eat with me! But there is little place for wine to compete with the more volatile chemicals of condiments. Perhaps Riesling can get a toe into the meal
    with that kind of pyrotechnics. I prefer beer.

    As an aside, in an Eric Asimov article featuring the wine pairings of sommeliers and buyers of the most upscale Indian restaurants in Manhattan, they all seemed to frown on beer. It was such a good palate cleanser it ruined the burn for most aficionados.

    For the rest of us weaklings, a good crisp beer can be quite refreshing when there is no Riesling around and can make you just as happy. But then the rest of us weaklings will order tandoori and not vindaloo.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree about freshly made mayo. it’s much better, but it still covers up flavors. I am a bigger fan of salsa. I actually find that heat stimulates the palate and for me it doesn’t mask flavors if there is not too much of it. Salsa doesn’t coat the palate like mayo does so I find it less troublesome as a condiment. But you’re right about trying to pair wines with condiments. Except for Riesling it’s difficult. But beer pairings I just don’t get. Beer does cleanse the palate but I seldom find much synergy between beer and food.

  2. If you think of the way an unoaked, non-chardonnay white wine, like an aged chenin blanc or a white Rhone from a good year and a good producer has affinities for food without having a lot of fruit, the synergy can happen.

    The flavors dance around the absence of overt primary fruit and fill some flavor voids in the food. In a way, beer is neutral, and can be a better foil for the food because it does not compete but is still refreshing. The effervescence is essential…almost like lemon on fish for some people. It has a brightening effect on the food.

    1. My comments above were regarding beer. The synergy between beer and food is much less fruit connected, but connects to the vegetal, herbal and floral aspects of the food. Much the same way non-chardonnay wines like riesling and chenin and a proper tokay pinot gris do.

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