In a battle few were watching, Russian dressing has seemingly lost to its bland and sweeter relative, Thousand Island dressing.
It was once the go-to condiment in a Reuben sandwich, but an examination of menus around the country shows that Russian dressing has all but disappeared from America’s national consciousness. It also has largely disappeared from supermarket shelves and sandwich chains.
“I can tell you from the restaurant side, sometimes it’s easier to just make things quickly understandable for the customer, to avoid wasting time explaining things,” says Nick Zukin, co-author of “The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home” and a caterer in Portland, Ore. “Even if you made what was essentially a Russian dressing, you might call it Thousand Island just to avoid headaches.”
The two condiments are not interchangeable. Russian dressing recipes typically call for mayonnaise, chili sauce or ketchup, relish, horseradish, paprika and other seasonings, making it considerably spicier and less sweet than Thousand Island dressing, with its hard-cooked egg, lemon or orange juice, cream and sweet pickle relish or olives.
“I would think the bolder nature of Russian dressing would actually appeal to a modern palate that has grown up with Thai food and Mexican food,” Zukin says. “The baby-boomer Midwestern and Northeastern palate that needs everything to be mild is quickly disappearing, as far as I can tell. It may be, too, that more people are just familiar with the term ‘Thousand Island.’ ”
Whatever Russian dressing is today, it is still a far cry from its earliest incarnation.
An early version of Larousse Gastronomique, according to a 1957 article in the New York Times, listed these ingredients for Russian dressing: mayonnaise, tinted pink with the poached coral and pulverized shell of a lobster, and simply seasoned with salt and fresh black caviar.
While such ingredients would give Russian dressing a rarefied air and probably further push it into obscurity, that recipe is under debate by food historians. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, “some food writers claim that Russian dressing got its name because it once contained caviar, but that is unlikely.” It says the name probably refers to Russians’ love of pickles, as pickles or relish are often added to the dressing. Craig Claiborne, on the other hand, wrote in the New York Times Food Encyclopedia that it was his “belief” that the earlier versions did contain caviar.
What is generally not under debate is that Russian dressing was an American-made concoction and that James E. Colburn of Nashua, N.H., should receive credit for its invention. Exactly why he called it “Russian” is not certain: Some say it was because of the caviar, while others say it’s because the dressing was designed to top a Russian-inspired salad known as Salad Olivier.
“To have conferred upon the epicurean tastes of a great body of people a delicacy at once as refined as it is permanent in its popularity is not to have lived in vain; rather it is to have added to the joy of living,” begins a biographical sketch of Colburn in “New Hampshire Resources, Attractions and Its People, a History,” by Hobart Pillsbury, published in 1927 by Lewis Historical Publishing, which declares Colburn “the originator and first producer of that delectable condiment known as Russian salad dressing.”
Coburn spent the early part of his career working in a meat market before hanging his own shingle in 1906 for wholesale groceries and meats. It was during that time that he “hit upon an assembly of ingredients, which he named Russian salad dressing,” according to the biographical information, which does not name the ingredients. Soon, he was selling the dressing to retailers and hotels across the country, earning “wealth on which he was enabled to retire.” He did just that, in 1924, and died three years later.
“As he rests on his laurels,” the biography continues, “he is conscious of having done his part well in conferring a blessing upon the people who have learned the art of eating well.”
Thousand Island figures in the annals of American eating in a variety of ways. For a long time it was believed that the secret sauce that graced the Big Mac — two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickle and onion on a sesame-seed bun — was simply Thousand Island. It’s pretty darn close, as proved by a video posted by McDonald’s in 2012 in which the chain’s executive chef is shown making the sauce.
Thousand Island traces its roots to (and is named for) the region between northern New York state and southern Ontario, Canada. While some hotel chefs in Manhattan and Chicago claimed to be the originators, there is evidence that the wife of a fishing guide in Clayton, N.Y., Sophia LaLonde, was the first to make the dressing in the early 1900s. It quickly became a popular offering at inns and hotels in both the Thousand Islands region and in major cities.
It has remained the more popular choice for a long time.
“We do sell much more of our Thousand Island than we do our Russian, with our Thousand Island enjoying much wider distribution,” says Tom Murphy, the brand manager for Ken’s Steak House Dressings, one of only a handful of companies that still produce both varieties. He said that sales of the company’s Russian dressing are concentrated in the Northeast, and that from an ingredient perspective, there isn’t a profound difference between the two. He describes Ken’s version of Russian dressing as having a bit of a deeper orange tinge, and maybe a bit spicier.
So, why the shift away from Russian? Our nation does have a tradition of shunning foods associated with countries that fall somehow out of favor here; witness the brief rebranding to “freedom fries” following France’s unwillingness to join the allied war effort in Iraq after 9/11. Or the German-city-derived “hamburger,” which became known as a “liberty sandwich” after World War I.
Although still offered atop or on the side of a salad at restaurants, both Russian and Thousand Island dressings are most commonly used as a sandwich spread, most notably on a Reuben. Here, too, it’s likely that a cultural shift has taken place. As the traditional East Coast Jewish delicatessen seems to be supplanted by an ever-increasing number of fast-food chains, so goes the Russian-dressing-slathered sandwiches the deli served, with a pickle on the side.
There are still some, however, looking to keep the option alive.
“When we opened, one of the goals was to make a really great-tasting corned beef sandwich,” says Laura Wonch, a sous-chef at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich. “So we started our Reuben with Russian dressing — arguments about the whens or whys of its origin story still continue — because we knew it was traditional.”
Given its popularity in the Northeast, it should come as no surprise that Russian dressing is also the preferred topper on the New Jersey sloppy Joe sandwich. This is not the ground beef-in-sauce concoction but rather a triple-decker cold-cut affair with cred as a regional delicacy. The Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange claims to be the birthplace of the sandwich and today offers many varieties, with the original featuring ham, tongue and Swiss cheese.
When it comes to salads, however, Los Angeles cookbook author Jeanne Kelley says the heyday of Russian, Thousand Island and other traditional, thick dressings like creamy Italian and blue cheese might be past. Vinaigrettes are now the vehicle of choice to bring out the flavors of greens, from delicate lettuces to the family of mustard greens. Thicker dressings, she says, are often overwhelming; they are “more fitting for the wedge of iceberg salad, where it’s more about eating the dressing than eating the vegetable.”
Wonch agrees. “Russian dressing is outstanding paired with an assortment of ingredients and contexts. It’s fantastic to dip vegetables in,” she says via e-mail. “We used it as a jumping-off point for dressing when we were adding a Cobb salad to our menu and have used it straight up in a salad we featured topped with spicy Bruce Aidells’s tasso ham.”
Russian dressing might appeal to palates looking for extra flavor. One way to coax out the ingredients would be to pair it with beer. With the diverse styles being produced in the United States these days by more than 3,000 breweries, there is no shortage of flavorful ales and lager. The heat of the dressing’s paprika can be tamed by a roasty cream stout or an India pale ale, with citrus notes to combat the horseradish kick. A bready Munich helles lager, with its earthy noble hop character and subtle sweetness, would complement the taste and crunch of the dressing’s pickle.
Ultimately, with variations of both Russian and Thousand Island floating around the culinary world, both being widely interpreted on personal levels, is there really a difference?
“I’m a cynic about some of these things,” says Zukin’s co-author, Michael C. Zusman. “To me, the major difference is marketing. Thousand Island tells a better story.”
Holl is the editor of All About Beer magazine and is the author, most recently, of “The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes From Your Favorite Brewpubs & Breweries” (Storey, 2013). He’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.