Return to the Ranch

Connecting the Dressing Dots between Hidden Valley, Napa Valley, and Decatur, Georgia.
ranch dressing

I was 25 when I overdosed on ranch dressing, that kitschy combo of mayonnaise, herbs, and buttermilk or sour cream. The year was 1989. I had eaten one too many salads of iceberg and shaved carrots, drenched in a torrent of anemic white nothingness. I had dunked a dirty barnyard of chickens—one butter-and-cayenne-swabbed wing at a time—into countless thimbles of blandness. Ranch was too much with me. Blue cheese, the bad boy of the White Dressing School, beckoned.

A decade and a half passed. I returned to the fold while seated at my father’s kitchen table. Struggling, like many a parent, to get my son to embrace the lettuce-and-cucumbers ideal, I noticed that, when my father cracked open a jar of store-bought ranch, my son dug deep into the roughage. So I followed his lead. Ranch, I learned, hadn’t gotten any better. But it seems that absence makes both the palate and the heart grow fonder.

More recently, I’ve noticed that chefs have been reacquainting themselves with ranch, too. And improving on the formula in the process. I’m not going to play the catalog-the-wild-ranch-iterations game. For that, you can consult this dispatch from Ideas in Food, or this article in Slate. (Homer Simpson plays a leading role in the latter.)

And if, after perusing those pieces, you don’t recognize that ranch has made a comeback, then consider this dinner dispatch from Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. Even the mighty Thomas Keller has embraced the possibilities: “The waiter presented the entire roasted abalone, which looked like a caramel-colored river rock. He then took it back to the kitchen where chewy/tender slices were arranged on a rectangular plate with a swipe of French Laundry Ranch dressing, a scattering of sea beans and bright orbs of peeled cherry tomatoes.”

On the other coast, my editor Christy Harrison raves about the ranch at “The Farm on Adderley, a place in Brooklyn that does the whole local-seasonal thing.” Closer to my home, John Currence of City Grocery, in Oxford, Mississippi, has been known to run a special of what he calls frog wings, which are, of course, frog legs, fried and doused in the manner of chicken wings, served with a side of buttermilk ranch.

Now that I’ve called it to your attention, I’m betting you’ll notice any number of ranch revivals. A couple weeks back, I sampled what may well be the best. I was at Cakes & Ale, a relatively new restaurant in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.

Billy Allin, the chef and owner (along with his wife, Kristin), once worked down the street at Watershed, where Scott Peacock has won national acclaim—and a Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast—for his honest riffs on locally sourced Southern cookery.

Cakes & Ale applies the same formula in a more worldly, less provincial way. That means a short appetizer roster that includes two standouts: arancini (rice fritters) flavored with fennel pollen; and okra, sliced longways, fried to a shattering crispness, and served, yes, with a bullet of buttermilk ranch that reminded me, somehow, of a decidedly American riff on Greek tsatsiki dressing.

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