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For the Love of Mayonnaise

Published in Gourmet Live 11.03.10
Rick Bragg sings the praises of this key condiment in Southern food—and shares some surprising uses for mayo, including his mother’s mashed potatoes

I always wondered where the magic came from. It being my mother’s mashed potato recipe, I just assumed it was love.

I have had them in a thousand meat-and-threes, spooned out by ladies in hair nets and orthopedic shoes, and in a thousand perfect bistros, dusted with parsley or parmesan.

None were as good as hers, conjured in her battered pot in the pines of Alabama.

I asked her secret.

“Just butter, milk, salt and pepper,” she lied.

I know she lied because I tried it, homesick, in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, other places. I almost lit Cambridge on fire, trying to create what that old woman had.

But when I was done, it was always, well, pedestrian.

Her potatoes were creamy, perfect, with real butter pooling in small lakes. Lumps were for tourists. Skins were for Philistines. These, cliché or not, melted on your tongue, with just a little extra, a lingering taste of ... what? I could duplicate everything but that.

Then, lurking just outside her kitchen one Thanksgiving, I saw. It was not some magic turnip, or some deep woods spell.

It was just a damn condiment.

After mashing, salting, peppering and adding whole milk and what seemed a half pound of butter, she opened the refrigerator and reached for a quart jar of mayonnaise.

She took one heaping spoonful, for about a gallon or so of mashed potatoes, and whipped it in, meticulously, so that there would be no more than a hint, that touch, on any fork.

I eased back into the shadows, to leave her with her myth.

I should have known.

Only we would put mayo in our mashed potatoes, and mistake it for love.

***

This is a story of tragic romance.

I love that condiment, love it the way Odysseus loved Penelope, Samson loved Delilah, Lancelot loved Guinevere. I know, as they all must have known, that this will not end well, but I am not ashamed.

When I am on my deathbed, probably from a lifetime of bad cholesterol, I hope someone gives me a little packet of Hellmann’s, or Kraft, or Duke’s, or Bama, so I can slip it underneath my pillow like a scrap of scripture or a family photo. It will comfort me, I believe, as darkness falls. Then again, someone could just make me a sandwich.

***

My wife, who knows everything, says there are two kinds of people in this world. First, there are people like her, mustard people, who wake up in the morning and run five miles, or at least talk about how they used to. They wear clothes ordered from catalogs, the ones that show people hiking, fly fishing, or paddling a canoe, usually beside a Labrador puppy. They eat flax and what appears to be horse feed and swear they like it, and would no more let whole milk pass their lips than hemlock. They have never had high blood pressure, except when talking about their feelings. They have never had gout, which they even like to say, but can eat a whole pound of dark chocolate without ever having to check their blood sugar. They will tell you with a straight face that sometimes they just forget to eat.

Mustard people make their doctors happy, with arteries as slick as the inside of a drinking straw, and make their children sad, by putting carrot sticks in lunchboxes, with apple slices as a special treat. They like to vacation in Colorado, and Wyoming, and the holy grail of mustard people, Portland, Oregon – really any place with hills they can walk up and down, or gorges they can plunge into on their mountain bikes. They like smoked salmon, rare tuna, and are wholly responsible for keeping the turkey population of this United States whittled down to a manageable level, one whole-grain, mustard-accented, boring sandwich at a time.

And then, there are the rest of us.

We wake and drive five miles, to eat pancakes. With any luck, that will be the only meal of the day at which we will not have mayonnaise. We like L.L. Bean catalogs, too, but only because they offer most of their clothes in XXL, and we like their running shoes, which we wear to Popeye’s, and the mailbox–if it is not too far.

We would not get near a canoe even if it was the only thing we could hide under during a lightning storm. We like to vacation in New Orleans, where you have to go uphill to drown, where every flat, easy street seems to dead end into a platter of shrimp rémoulade, fried eggplant drizzled with béarnaise, or fried oyster po’ boys slathered in ... well, you know.

At home, we like any fish that comes with a side of tartar sauce, and if we are going to have a sandwich it will likely be roast beef and cheddar on an onion roll, with mustard and mayo, and we do not even mind some lettuce, tomato and hot Spanish onion, as long as the whole thing is buried under an avalanche of Zapp’s Hotter ’n Hot Jalapeño potato chips, and served with a quart of Barq’s Root Beer or sweet iced tea.

Because, you see, we do not hate on the mustard people, at least not as much, or as often, as they sneer at us.

They make us feel like we are the Great Unwashed, and equate our love of mayo with other poor life choices, like an unsound 401K, or dating a stripper with a tattoo of the Dark Lord Voldemort.

My wife looks at me, a jar of mayo in my hand, with something very near disgust.

“Why don’t you just have some mustard?” she asks, in that tone that really means, Who are you, and what have you done with the man of my dreams?

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