THE GREAT RED BEAR OF SANDWICH SPREADS
by Jon Good
Russian dressing is like the shadowy politician making deals in the back rooms of the czar’s court. It’s the subtle mediator between the strong, almost crude flavors of the beef, sauerkraut, and rye, adding barely perceptible – but necessary – notes of sweet, spicy, and aromatic. Its subtlety doesn’t end with flavor, either; it lubricates the sandwich, providing moisture entirely different from the thin brine of sauerkraut or lip-smacking collagen from the corned beef. Without it, the Reuben would not be capable of rising to the pantheon of named sandwiches.
But like that shadowy diplomat, Russian dressing is enigmatic. It’s entirely an American invention, but named after a foreign country. Despite its undeniable Jewishness, it’s primary component is mayonnaise, the most Goyische of all condiments. Furthermore, other than that one above ingredient, few people can say for sure what’s in it. And how the hell is it different from Thousand Island, anyway?
Russian dressing is a salad dressing inspired by that corner of the culinary world where “salad” means “chopped up things suspended in mayonnaise,” the same place that gives us potato salad, egg salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, and cole slaw (which is Dutch for “cabbage salad”). Such creations share a common ancestor with our more common lettuce-based salads: a dish at least as old as ancient Rome known as herba salata, which is Latin for “salted vegetables.” Clever cooks realized that the vegetables splashed with brine would taste even better if they added spices and oil, and salad dressing was born. Eventually, any ready-to-eat food in a flavorful brine came to be called a salad, like bean salad, Greek salad, and German potato salad.
Centuries later, when the Russian aristocracy developed a taste for both French cuisine and decadence, they replaced their briny salad dressings with mayonnaise-based ones. The result turned out to be delicious, and caught on throughout Northern Europe. Around 1900, recipes for “Russian salad” started turning up in American cookbooks and newspapers. Initially, these were lavish affairs that incorporated lobster, aspic, whipped cream and purée of red caviar into the mayo, but such recipes were soon adapted to a middle-class budget. Caviar gave way to red chile sauce to keep the color, which eventually was supplanted by ketchup as it became more popular. Chopped lobster became chopped whitefish, and then chopped onions and pickles. The aspic and whipped cream were left out entirely as the trend of serving food in jello-like molds fell out of fashion.*
Jewish delis, which employed and served immigrants from Russia and its neighbors, undoubted had these types of Russian-style salads around, but exactly how their dressings made it onto a sandwich is not known. Perhaps someone behind the counter scraped the last bit of chicken salad onto a sandwich, decided it was substantial, and supplemented it with some pastrami; maybe someone was preparing the dressing for a macaroni salad and thought it might be good on some rye bread; or perhaps the dressing from a side dish got leaked out of its delivery container and was absorbed by the adjacent bread on its way to a tenement on the Bowery. Regardless, the combination was delicious, and soon became a standard option at lunch counters throughout New York.
George Bolt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, once had a fancy salad served with Russian dressing while vacationing at a friend’s home in the Thousand Islands. He liked it so much he tried to get his chef at the hotel to recreate it, and the result mayonnaise-based dressing incorporated chopped hardboiled egg, diced bell peppers, and powdered sugar. This was dubbed Thousand Island dressing, and was similar enough to be confused with the original. If there is a general distinction between the two now, it is that Thousand Island is sweeter, and contains chopped egg and bell peppers.
Modern, store-bought Russian dressings are a pretty sad lot, loaded up with chemical stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives. They taste like crap. But fortunately for us, a home-made recipe is not terribly difficult:
Mix thoroughly in a bowl:
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 2/3 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
- 1/3 cup finely chopped pickles (kosher dill or full sour)
- 1 clove minced garlic
- 1 tbs lemon juice
- 1 tbs Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbs Sri Racha hot sauce
- 1 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
That’s it! It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it possesses the power to turn a good sandwich into a truly radiant sandwich. And it stays true to its historical roots, using both chili sauce and ketchup for color, as well as the slight fishiness of Worcestershire sauce to remind us of its old-world origins.
*Aspic, which is gelatin made from meat stock, used to be a very showy ingredient, as it signified that one could afford enough meat to make it. The amount of aspic used to set a molded dish would typically be collected from several weeks’ worth of meat, and to serve it was a sign of respect for one’s guests. In 1932, when mass-produced powdered gelatin became available, jellied dishes lost their exclusivity, and thus their trendiness.
Jon Good is a chef, science editor, and troublemaker living in Brooklyn, NY. He is about to launch the a blog providing supplemental information and discussions for the newest edition of C.A. Tripp’s The Sexual Matrix. http://thesexualmatrix.wordpress.com/