Mayonnaise: An Apologia

Ketchup’s dark twin

America is united in its love of ketchup. There are minor areas of disagreement: some of us like a medium amount of ketchup, while others prefer to put on as much ketchup as the food item in question can sustain without dissolving; some (myself included) refuse to countenance the idea of ketchup on hot dogs; a small and powerless minority spells it catsup, although most of them will be dead soon. But these differences pale into insignificance in the face of our concord on the big issue, as a nation joins hands and sings ketchup’s praises in a giant chorus.

Mayonnaise, then, is ketchup’s dark twin — loved by some, reviled by others, setting brother against brother wherever it is spread.

The hostility that mayonnaise arouses is mysterious. It consists of egg, oil, and vinegar, all innocent staples of western cooking. And yet people don’t just dislike it, they take pride in disliking it. I have a friend who, in college, helped found the Weslyan Anti-Mayonnaise League. People who dislike mustard don’t feel the need to make a political position out of it.

This anti-mayonnaise sentiment has multiple causes; it’s overdetermined, as the shrinks say. (It’s not just that mayonnaise is fattening: plenty of people who inhale Ben and Jerry’s Fudge Brownie straight from the carton get grossed out by trace amounts of mayonnaise on their avocado-and-sprouts hoagie.) Some of it is snobbery, plain and simple: mayonnaise is too closely associated with the white-trash culture whose culinary apotheosis is Elvis, dead on the john from all those mayo-and-cream cheese pancakes. Some, I suspect, is mayonnaise’s faint but genuine resemblance to semen.

But some, it seems to me, springs from the condiment’s own elusiveness, the impossibility of pinning down its flavor. Ketchup tastes sweet and tomatoey. Mustard is sharp and, to varying degrees, spicy. Mayonnaise, that slippery customer, is harder to describe. The initial taste is vinegary, but rounded and smoothed by the egg. The opening tang fades but never quite vanishes as the creaminess takes over. And that’s why mayonnaise really comes into its own on a sandwich. Bread gets sweeter while you chew it, as the enzymes in saliva turn the starch to sugar. And mayonnaise is the Ginger Rogers to bread’s Astaire: it responds to bread’s two-step with some flavorful footwork of its own.

I’ve been thinking about mayonnaise a lot lately, and eating even more of it. On sandwiches like the following, it does more than decorate: it binds together disparate elements into a whole. Any one of them, wrapped in butcher paper and carried out into the world in a brown bag, makes a great lunch.

Pork chop sandwich, Wendy’s Cheesecake Bakery: The idea of a pork chop sandwich raises an obvious question, and the answer is that you simply eat around the bone in a big circle, leaving a little bone-shaped piece of sandwich at the end. The pork chop in question is lean and tender, and it’s fried in batter from Wendy’s equally fine fried chicken. This battered pork chop is served on two slices of sliced bread (by which I mean bread that was sliced in a factory somewhere) with lettuce, tomato, and a good thorough serving of mayonnaise. And while the fried pork chop is tasty, it’s the mayonnaise that welcomes it into the sandwich world. Also: how better to follow up a fried-pork-chop-and-mayonnaise sandwich than with a slice of first-class homemade cheesecake?

BLT, Boogaloo’s: The BLT is one of the crucial culinary memes of the past century: unique, delicious, almost impossible to ruin. (Berkeley’s Intermezzo manages it, thanks to paperback-sized hunks of untoasted and grainy bread, almost indigestibly chewy bacon, and mustard, of all things.) Although it doesn’t get title billing, mayonnaise is the BLT’s keystone — cooling the bacon’s saltiness, giving the vegetables some snap. Boogaloo’s cooks the bacon properly and gets the ratios right. A successful BLT raises theological questions: the idea that something so perfect could be made by stacking such simple ingredients makes me feel like one of those creationists who insist that natural selection alone could never have produced something as complex and useful as an eye.

Hot chicken sandwich, Dolores Park Café: Because it’s spread rather than squirted and therefore, unlike ketchup, applied by strangers, the perennial problem with mayonnaise is quantity. You order a sandwich and there’s mayo on it but not enough. You ask for extra mayo and they assume you’re some kind of pervert and slather on an absurd amount that overwhelms whatever else is on the sandwich.

That’s why I love the Dolores Park Café. The hot chicken sandwich consists of slices of chicken breast on a baguette with tomatoes, red onion, and cheese; what kicks it into the stratosphere is the homemade sweet aioli. (If people need to add garlic and use some fancy Euro word to feel OK about eating mayonnaise, I’m not going to get on their case about it.) There needs to be a fair amount of the stuff if it’s going to get in the ring with the chicken and melted cheese — and nine times out of ten, the quantities are perfect: just enough for trace amounts to ooze out the sides, not enough to get all over your hands. Take one to the park. Sit on the hillside and eat it while watching the afternoon light lend Mission High School’s colonial façade an impossible sharpness. Feel better about everything.