While it’s hard to imagine a Southern picnic without mayonnaise, the creamy condiment originated in Europe. It’s exact origin story is bit hazy. It was either created in the mid-1700s when a French chef aghast at the lack of cream during the Seven Years’ War, patiently combined oil and egg yolks into a whipped sauce. Or it came from Spain where it was called salsa mahonesa taking its name from the Port Mahon, on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Either way, it was the French who popularized the sauce, incorporating it into salads, pairing it with lobster, and generally making mayonnaise a go-to kitchen staple.
After mayonnaise conquered France, it spread to England, Germany, and eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. According to Slate, by 1838, one of the fanciest restaurants in Manhattan, Delmonico’s, offered their well-heeled patrons either chicken or lobster drenched in mayonnaise.
By the late 19th century, home cooks followed in the footsteps of that anonymous French or Spanish chef and made batches of mayonnaise out of oil, vinegar, and eggs in their own kitchens for years to transform eggs into deviled eggs, potatoes into potato salad, and improving sandwiches in lunch bags everywhere. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge did for mayonnaise was Ronald Reagan did for jelly beans, when he claimed that his Aunt Mary’s homemade mayonnaise was his favorite food.
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It wasn’t until 1912 that people could start buying mayonnaise in stores, making it even easier to keep in the pantry. That was when a German immigrant named Richard Hellmann began selling jars of mayonnaise made with raw egg yolks, vegetable oil, vinegar, and small amounts of salt, sugar and seasoning at the deli he owned in New York. According to Andrew F. Smith, a mayonnaise historian of sorts, the jars he sold it in, bedecked with blue ribbons, that were large enough to accommodate a spoon, perfect for scooping mayonnaise into Waldorf salads.
In May of 1914 Hellmann updated his packaging. He trademarked the brand name “Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise” and updated his packaging to include re-useable glass screw-top canning jars emblazoned with the Hellmann’s Mayonnaise name. By 1917, business was so good that Hellmann was able to close his delicatessen and wholly devote himself to pushing mayonnaise.
As sales grew, so did Hellmann’s distribution plans. First he licensed the product to a manufacturer in Chicago in November 1919 and as his mayonnaise empire grew, Hellmann decided to become an American citizen, which he did on July 29, 1920. Now an American success story, he opened a mayonnaise factory in San Francisco in 1922 and “the largest mayonnaise factory in the world” in Long Island City, New York, all to keep the mayonnaise flowing.
Hellmann’s was not the only commercial mayonnaise on the market. In fact, out in California, Best Foods had its own popular mayonnaise. However, west of the Rocky Mountains, Hellmann’s reigned supreme because it was first and arguably the best. Plus, as Smith points out, Hellmann’s was better at advertising, marketing their mayo on newspapers and magazines. In 1922, they put out a cookbook called titled The Chef’s Standby; Blue Ribbon Recipes to ensure that chefs knew the many, many opportunities to incorporate mayonnaise in their daily diet. The cookbook included recipes like Asparagus Salad, Pineapple Isle Salad, Crab Meat Salad, Nut Sandwiches, and, of course, Thousand Island Dressing,
In 1927, Postum Cereal Company (which went on to become General Foods) bought Hellmann’s company. Hellmann served on the board of General Foods for several years and over the years, they acquired more companies and merged with others. By 1932, Best Foods and Hellmann’s were owned by the same company. Because Hellmann’s had such a devoted following, the owners decided to keep both brand names. To this day, Best Foods Mayonnaise is sold west of the Rocky Mountains and Hellmann’s is sold east of the Rocky Mountains. The two brands account for approximately 45% of all bottled mayonnaise sold in the U.S. The company has changed hands several times and is now owned by Unilever, which bought it in 2000.
Hellmann passed away in 1971, at the age off 94, survived by his widow, two sons, two daughters, 15 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and a whole lot of mayonnaise fans.