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Pizza-flavored ranch dressing is excessive — just the way we like it

In a recent campaign stop at an Iowa City pizza parlor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was interrupted by a woman making her way through the crowd. “Sorry, I’m just trying to get some ranch,” said Hanna Kinney, and in an instant, an Internet folk hero was born.

These days, it seems as if we’re all just trying to get some ranch. The dressing, which has long vacillated between derided symbol of American caloric excess and nostalgic favorite, is on the upswing once again. “Haters, it’s time to come back to the ranch (dressing),” proclaimed a recent Wall Street Journal headline. A September 2018 New York Times story deemed America “Ranch Nation.” A New York pop-up called the Museum of Pizza last November counted Hidden Valley Ranch as one of its corporate sponsors. A cookbook with 60 recipes incorporating the dressing was published in September.

Is it millennial nostalgia? A wearied resignation to mayonnaise? A stressed-out nation eating its buttermilk-dipped feelings? Ironic appreciation for the lowbrow condiment turned earnest?

Hidden Valley's new Blasted Dipping Sauces are reminiscent of the '90s, with flavors like zestier ranch, bold buffalo, and ranch-dipped pizza. (Video: Grace Raver/The Washington Post)

When we talk about ranch, we’re actually talking about class anxiety. It’s a dressing and a metaphor. Ranch is “the kind of topping serious chefs correctly disdained for decades as extravagant and trashy,” wrote Ben Adler in a 2016 Washington Post essay titled “Ranch dressing is everything that’s wrong with America.” Despite its West Coast roots — yes, Hidden Valley Ranch is a real place, outside Santa Barbara, Calif. — it’s unabashedly Midwestern. It actively sabotages any noble goals you had in choosing to eat vegetables by covering them in caloric fats. And it’s the perfect ingredient for fat-shaming scolds like Adler (he calls out “a shocking number of inexplicably skinny young people” for eating pizza with ranch) to lord over the unenlightened ranch-eating masses with sneering statements, like declaring ranch “the culinary equivalent of setting your air conditioner to 62 degrees or driving a Hummer.” (Eating meat is worse for the environment.)

When people are snobby about things that a lot of Americans like — see: “The Bachelor” and McDonald’s — it can be about more than just that show, or restaurant, or flavor. It’s wrapped up in our judgment of the people who like that thing, and the place that they hold in our socioeconomic hierarchy. Correlation is not causation. But populism is back in politics, and, lately, some “trashy” ranch is taking up more space in the grocery aisle.

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It’s all very good news for Hidden Valley, which is capitalizing on the latest wave by releasing three new flavors of its classic dressing. The new “Blasted” ranch dressing comes in bold buffalo wing, ranch-dipped pizza and “zestier ranch,” boasting “2 x the zesty ranch taste,” though I’m not sure exactly how one measures ranchiness on any quantifiable scale. Suffice to say, it’s an extra ranchy ranch.

That dressing of buttermilk, garlic and herbs has come and gone in phases, and when it comes back, it’s usually as a joke. A cool chef might put a housemade version of it on their menu as a sort of retro wink — like how some top-rated restaurants serve Miller High Life, the “champagne of beers.” But then people order it because they love ranch, and before you know it, other chefs are doing it, too, and then the media comes calling with “Ranch is back” stories — just like this one. Ranch is to food as normcore is to fashion.

Besides, the ’90s are back in style. And in the ’90s, Hidden Valley had flavored ranch dressings, too. And the word “Blasted!” with its Guy Fieri-esque punch, feels distinctly of that era. There were “flavor-blasted” Goldfish crackers, berry blue blast Go-Gurts, and Gushers fruit snacks were “a fruity blast.” Zesty, too, is a hollow word that is often paired with ranch. What is zest? Zest is lively, lively is a blast, blasted ranch is zesty, zesty is meaningless.

So, I will tell you: The extra zest in this Hidden Valley “Blasted” zestier ranch, I think, is just more onion and garlic. It is a stronger flavor, but not in an unpleasant way. The buffalo ranch is spicy, if you believe ranch dressing is capable of being spicy. It makes a good dip for chicken wings, naturally, but it also denies you the hot-cool contrast of a blue cheese or a regular ranch. Still, it is a solid flavor combination.

The pizza ranch — and let’s just say that Blasted pizza-flavored ranch dressing might be the most American condiment there is — has a hint of tomato sauce and smells strongly of oregano. When you taste it, you might have the peculiar experience that some people get from cheap Parmesan cheese, or certain other stinky cheeses, which is: It toes the line between tasting like something good, and also a little bit like vomit. This quality is not as pronounced when you put it on actual pizza — but you could also just put regular ranch on your pizza and avoid the possibility altogether.

As for the question of whether ranch belongs on pizza: Look, you should do what makes you happy. It would not be a great idea, I’d say, to top a fancy chef-made pizza, or a Neapolitan pizza, with ranch. But a piece of crappy frozen pizza? Honestly, it’s pretty good! It’s excessive. It’s “trashy.” It’s zesty, it’s blasted, but most of all: It’s American, for better or for worse.

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