The Mayonnaise Belt

Posted on November 20, 2007 in Other writing

A version of this article appeared in a special edition of Copia (Vol. 6, No. 1), the biannual publication of the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. The issue dealt with food rituals and taboos.
The Mayonnaise Belt

     I was not reared in what I like to call “the Mayonnaise Belt,” though that broad band of slatherers seems to occupy most of the South, which I call home. It’s a rather amusing culinary obsession, given the likely origin of the sauce in France and Italy, two countries not predominantly represented in traditional southern cooking. But southerners are known to use condiments of all types, and therein its popularity lies. I seem to have a love/hate relationship with mayo, as though its ubiquity at southern rituals effects my pagan leanings.
     One college roommate of mine, from a small town on the South Carolina-Georgia border, was loath to the “white stuff,” which he dubbed “poist,” an onomatopoeia referencing the goop as it emerges from the jar of store-bought mayonnaise — a far cry from its French and Italian ancestors. He also used “poist” — word, not substance — in a sexual context.
     I never really minded a thin layer of homemade mayonnaise, unctuous and yellowed with the bright orange yolks of freshly laid eggs; there was always a jar of it in my mother’s refrigerator. It delicately underscored tomato sandwiches and was added to canapé toppings (“just until it spreads easily,” her recipe journal advises), but it didn’t even appear in devilled eggs (she used butter) at our house, even as our neighbors’ refrigerators boasted half-used half-gallon jars of Duke’s (the only brand, I’m told, with no sugar).
      It did appear, a healthy dollop of it, as a garnish for tomato aspic, offered as a harbinger of spring at the first warm luncheon. Think bridge club, garden club, or “circle”: this was the fifties and the food at ladies’ lunch was much prissier than cocktail fare in Connecticut. That mound of mayonnaise might be blushing, colored pink from ground shrimp bodies worked into the sauce, or it might even be tinted green with pungent watercress leaves if a cold roast meat were offered.
     Mother pushed culinary boundaries in our small town, making exotic breads and sauces long before Julia burst onto the television screen and into the nation’s kitchen consciousness. Rooted in rural Tennessee cooking traditions, her culinary repertoire always included the condiments that have forever defined the cuisines of hot and humid environments: chow chow and chutney, sauces and gravies, pickles and relishes, jams and preserves, conserves, jellies, hot peppers, and pastes. Rarely was a meat, vegetable, or fish served nude; ice cream was always accompanied by some fruity, fudgy, or minty concoction.
     Mayonnaise was held in high regard in our house, but it was made weekly, used sparingly, and served in its own right. Most southerners, it seems, think of it as necessary as salt or pepper. Pimiento cheese, for example, a pan-southern spread of grated cheddar, roasted pimientos, and mayonnaise, is spread thick on sandwiches, scooped up with celery sticks, and smeared on crackers by the tons daily across the region. Most of the spreads (once only homemade, now widely available in cup, pint, and quart tubs in nearly every southern grocer’s dairy case) today are as much mayonnaise as cheese; the cheese has been ground so fine that the sauce is indistinguishable from the cheddar. I shudder to even consider it. All that soy oil (developed in the thirties for paint and varnishes) whipped with oleoresin (you don’t want to know) until it’s as white as, well, white bread. Honestly, it gives me the creeps.
     “Of course, you couldn’t buy mayonnaise, and if you could, you wouldn’t.”
     Has it really been that long since Eudora Welty wrote that? I guess it’s understandable that, in a South without vegetable oils, another world of condiments would appear. But that raw cabbage, as cole slaw, once dressed simply with vinegar, and later with a boiled dressing (butter and cream replacing olive oil), now swims in an equal portion of commercial mayonnaise (and is rarely made in-house by the restaurants that serve it) is anathema to me.
     Welty continued, “Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper onto the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph.”*
     A triumph! A ritual! But, please, no poist!
* The Eudora Welty quote is from “The Flavor of Jackson,” her introduction to The Jackson [Mississippi] Cookbook. Copyright 1971 Jackson Symphony League.