A lot – nay: a veritable ocean - of rubbish has been written about Mayonnaise in the cookbooks of this sorry world. About where it comes from, how it ought to be made, who invented the name on what inane occasion, and worst of all: how it may be improved by tearing its bowels out. As promised: we will get to that latter chapter of Nixing Mayo in a week or two. But for now I merely wish to go back to basics, and discuss with you the Origins of the Golden Sauce.
Grandpa Géronime, with whom you didn’t wanna mess!
Cookbooks are notorious nonsense-mongers. They have no scruples and care not about Truth. Take, for instance, such an innocent and picturesque fiction as the following from The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer-Becker (Indiana, 30th edition, 1971): “The making of a perfect mayonnaise is the Sunday job for Papa in France and rivalry for quality between households is intense”. This, dear reader, is an observation which can only be written down with a straight face by someone who has never ever seen the workings of a French family from the inside, except in a Jacques Tati movie. Admittedly, my own Grandpa Géronime (as you surely know: I am half-French on my mother’s side) knew how to whip up a more than decent Mayonnaise when the spirits caught him. But then: he was a natural. He whipped his wife, his sons, my mother and me at the least occasion and I can assure you that his belt was as capable as his whisk. But the notion that the old man would go hopping out of the house, carrying a bowl of freshly made Mayo to show off to the neighbours, is so very absurd that, on pain of a heart attack, I must do my best not to get the picture into my head! Why: he’d take a shotgun into their kitchen before he’d give their children a crust of bread! As a matter of fact, during the war…. But that’s another story, and I shouldn’t stray too much from my subject.
So who invented Mayonnaise, that Divine and Golden Sauce, and whence its name? Ay, get yourself three cookbooks, dear reader, and you will end up with four fine explanations, each one of them irrefutably true. The most current, and most bizarre story, tells how The Sauce was first invented during Marshall Richelieu's 1756 siege of Port Mahon on the Balearic island of Minorca. One day, the army cook discovered there was no food left in the pantry to feed his roughly 20,000 red-blooded soldier boys, except that he still had - yes, how did you guess? – some Oil and some Eggs. What could he do, dear reader, but grab a mixing bowl, and invent Mayonnaise? This he then served to the starving army, who - satisfied with the fare - happily ran off to bash in Hispanic heads and lop off limbs, and do all those other charming things that soldiers engage in. After which the now popular sauce was duly called after the site of the siege: Mahonnaise, hence Mayonnaise after a little Rococo French scrambling.
Well, No!! Not at all! Not in the freaking least!
Let us perform a small exercise of empathy. Let us just imagine you were a cook, and you had oil and eggs, and a threatening famine on your hands among 20,000 brutal, savage, heavily armed mercenaries… Then what, I wonder, would you do? Yes, of course: you'd cook them an ample supply of fried eggs and omelettes! You wouldn't go wasting all that healthy, filling egg-white, only to serve your customers a dish which they did not know, might not like, and – we can be pretty sure of this - would not know how to appreciate!
And now imagine that you were one of those hungry heavily armed bloodthirsty soldiers, and – coming to the kitchen - got onto your plate some non-descript yellow goo, while you were expecting a nice big juicy steak? What would you have done? Exactly: you would have taken out your broadsword, chopped around a little, and eaten the cook! And thus, the secret of that new-fangled recipe for yellow slush would have disappeared forever into the oblivion of an army's bowels!
French troops at Port Mahon coming in for lunch at the kitchen
To put it differently: this story stinks and I do not buy it (the more so, since it makes no mention anywhere of mustard, pepper, salt, or lemon... And what cook in his right mind would even DREAM of making a Mayonnaise without those essentials?)
No, dear reader: this is not how it went. Nor am I much impressed by the alternatives. Take the fairly similar fib found in the New Basic Cookbook by Mss Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (New York, 1989). On page 24 these two ladies scribble that ‘during the reign of Henri IV of France, a sauce that had no other name than “cold sauce” was popular. One day, the Duke of Mayenne refused to leave his chicken salad with cold sauce to go to battle. France lost the battle, but the sauce, now named mayonnaise after the duke, became legendary.’ A likely story! It is, after all, a famous time-proven habit of the French to call their most glorious accomplishments after their most dismal defeats… (as is shown, for instance, by their use of the word Water-Loo for toilets)!
Enough! Let me cut through the crap! The fact is that we do not know who was Our Benefactor, that Edison of the Kitchen, that Einstein of Gastronomy, to whom we owe the invention of Mayonnaise. Why in the world is that so hard to accept? Of some of the most glorious inventions of human kind – the wheel, writing, the missionary position – we ignore the creators; while other, less pleasant ones – the condom, the guillotine and the Kalashnikov submachine gun – enjoy a known paternity. Who cares, I say; as long as we give daily thanks to the boy or girl who first whipped oil into an egg yolk, and knew he or she was on to something!?
As for the name of the Golden Sauce, it must be granted that the etymological dispute has not yet been definitely settled. The word Mayonnaise, to the best of my knowledge, derives from the old medieval French for ‘egg yolk’, namely: Mayeu (or Moyeu). Hey, how about that? That might make some sense, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, there are some arguments against this, one of them being that the spelling Mayonnaise is not attested before 1807 (when medieval French had gone out of fashion); another that until deep into the 19th century, the sauce was also referred to as ‘Magnonnaise’, which on phonological grounds pretty much excludes ‘mayeu’ as a root. Be that as it may, when in the darkness we must grope, I still prefer the Yolk Theory to all alternatives, such as the laughable one that derives the word from the southern town of Bayonne (a theory which to my immense surprise is particularly popular among culinary authors born in… Bayonne!), or the lamentable one proposed by the great Carême, who in his standard five volume cookbook, could do no better than to propose that Mayonnaise came from the verb ‘manier’, i.e. ‘to handle, to twiddle, to fiddle around’.
HEY, BUT WAIT, I hear you clamour, dear reader. What kind of cookbook is this, Maître? One of words only? One without food? Have you forgotten you owe us a recipe for the weekend, so that we may Impress Through Simplicity our guests and our loved ones?
No, my friends, I have not forgotten! I am – as you should know by now – an upright man, the real thing, the genuine product: a Democrat, a Socialist, a European, and a Cook. So I will not disappoint you, and I offer you here the promised recipe. One which will surprise you, which may make history, and which is in perfect keeping with my little exposé above. To wit:
Nuggets of Deep-fried French Chef in Breadcrumbs
To make this savoury dish, you will need the following ingredients and tools:
1 plump French cook. The best specimens reputedly come from the region of Isle-de-France, where they are lovingly bred for use in restaurants like Maxim’s and Le Meurice. The best ones are called François and weigh about 170 pounds. Take care: fresh French Chefs should not be kept close to bottles of alcoholic beverage, which spoils them; or to a typewriter, which may result in an unwanted cookbook.
A deep fryer with new oil
2 spoonfuls of wheat flour and 1 egg per kilo of meat
An ample amount of simple supermarket breadcrumbs
A plastic bag
Ask your butcher to chop the meat into small pieces (roughly table-tennis ball size). Scrub the pieces well (French chefs do not always come as clean as desired). Make a mixture of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a little cumin and some ginger powder. Sprinkle this over the pieces. Let the meat sit a while.
Coat the pieces with flour. The easiest way to do this is by putting a good spoonful of flour into a small plastic bag. Drop one or two of the pieces of meat into the bag and toss around. Repeat the process until all chunks are coated.
Crack the egg into a bowl. Whip up until fluid. Drag the chunks through the egg and then through breadcrumbs. Set aside and let the breadcrumbed chunks dry for about an hour. One coating of breadcrumbs is usually enough, but if you wish, you can repeat the process. There are knowledgeable cooks who prefer to do the second coating with a mixture of egg and breadcrumbs, which turns out thicker and more stable.
Heat the oil slowly. Remember that the meat must be cooked all the way through, without the breadcrumbs turning black! So aim for a temperature which just sizzles. Calmly deep-fry the nuggets until golden. Serve with a dip like light mayonnaise (no kosher prohibition against dipping pieces of French cook in his own Mayonnaise is known to me, and I’m an expert on ancient languages and civilizations).
An early variety of French Chef Nuggets cooked on a bamboo grill
(From: Les Victimes de la Gastronomie, Anonymous, 1566)
Nota Bene: I am aware that among my readers there are overly sensitive housewives who object to the eating of foie gras, baby veal and French cooks. What can I say? Except in the bedroom, one should never induce the average housewife to be adventurous. To those of my readers who belong to this lot, I can only say: You don’t know what you’re missing, dear… But if you must, you may substitute the French Chef with a good plump chicken. It will not come out the same, but it will spare you that man-eating feeling you wish to reserve for Hubby.