19 March 2016

The Man Who Invented Honey-Mustard Salad Dressing

The origins of so many foods, recipes, and condiment mixtures are lost in the mists of time. How would anyone have discovered the edibility of an artichoke? Where did the recipe for Caesar salad really come from? And was it Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, or Jonathan Swift who famously wrote “Twas a brave man who first ate an oyster.”

Of course, some legends have a beginning, even if it can’t be completely substantiated. Caesar salad probably really did originate at Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana. The ubiquitous Chocolate Chip Cookie may not have originated from the recipe on the Nestle packet, but that certainly represents a valid claim of origin. Tabasco hot pepper sauce supposedly has a formula as closely held as Benedictine liquor (where only three monks are alleged to know the complete recipe of more than a hundred herbs and flavorings).

My ex-father-in-law, Dan Ryan, worked as the chef at the San Clemente Inn in Southern California in the 1970s and ’80s. If memory serves, he’d bounced around the So Cal restaurant world for years, as do many in the business.

Dan was one of the most curmudgeonly people I’ve ever met. Maybe not so much grumpy, actually, but indifferent to people, preferring kitchens, books, and painting. I still have two cactus-flower still-life paintings of his. My ex-wife was, as I, an only child, and once a month we’d spend a weekend with her folks, and once a month with mine. Since Dan was a cook, I got on fine with him and at least occasionally had things to talk about.

Dan especially loved to cook eggs Benedict for breakfast, although he knew (and his wife Beth frequently reminded him) that it wasn’t the best meal for his heart and health. Beth was a fine cook, but on our visits she almost always deferred to Dan.

From spring through fall in Southern California, fruit and vegetable stands would appear on every corner. I still remember the best price I ever saw on Avocados – 20 for a dollar, along the back roads of rural San Diego County. So, of course, salads were served with nearly every meal. (Back then, I felt that California’s only real claim to culinary invention in America was the salad bar.)

On one of our earliest visits, Dan offered “something new I’ve been playing with at the restaurant.” He called it Honey-Mustard Salad Dressing. For me – having grown up on “Roquefort” (really blue cheese) and Thousand Island salad dressings from a jar – this was exciting. Bright yellow, spicy and sweet at the same time, I loved it. Needless to say, we wanted the recipe.

The next time we visited, we were presented with a rumpled photocopy of a stained, hand-written list of ingredients that began with the words, “5 gallons of mayonnaise.” We were on our own to scale that beast down to manageable-sized proportions.

Today, the San Clemente Inn still stands, but the restaurant where Dan was the chef has vanished. There is still a restaurant at the inn today, but it seems to be an undistinguished “American” hotel restaurant/cafĂ©/diner called Adele’s. (In fairness, Adele’s was apparently voted “best breakfast in San Clemente” in 2007.) And the Inn itself has become what appears to be a timeshare resort. There does not seem to be honey-mustard salad dressing on the menu today.

Although recipes can’t be copyrighted, commercial formulas can. Yet today there are dozens of different honey-mustard salad dressings on the grocery shelves. I hope, somewhere, Dan Ryan is smiling, happy that his (probable) invention is being enjoyed by so many diners.