Two Theories About How Thousand Island Dressing Came to Be
It was the best of dressings, it was the worst of dressings; it has an origin story that is, frankly, in some dispute. The story of how Thousand Island dressing — that creamy-sweet salad-and-sandwich-topping mix of mayonnaise, ketchup and a handful of other ingredients (though recipes vary) — came to exist is a tale of two theories.
Both origin sagas, recently explored on NPR’s Morning Edition, share a locale: the Thousand Islands, a string of, actually, 1,864 islands, according to the official count, clustered around the border between the United States (northern New York) and Canada (Ontario). Stretching for about 50 miles along the St. Lawrence River, near the tip of Lake Ontario, the archipelago is touted by the local tourist bureau as a “sightseer’s paradise.” And the area, boasting breathtaking natural beauty, has apparently been a vacation destination for people of (ahem) means, as well as a fisherman’s haven, for a long time.
That’s where the two different theories about who invented the beloved orange-ish dressing, outlined by NPR, come in.
Theory 1: Around the turn of the 20th century, George Boldt, the proprietor of New York City’s storied Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built a sprawling, super-deluxe summer manse — Boldt Castle, now a tourist attraction — on an island in the area for his wife, Louise. One day, while Boldt was out adventuring nearby on his yacht (steam-powered, natch) and ready for lunch, his onboard chef and trusted steward suddenly discovered he had neglected to bring along the dressing for their salads — so he whipped up a little sauce with a few ingredients he had handy: mayo and ketchup, along with pickle relish, chopped egg, Worcestershire sauce and maybe a few other odds and ends. Thus Thousand Island dressing was introduced to the world.
Theory 2: At about the same time or maybe a bit before the event behind the Boldt-chef theory would have taken place, a woman named Sophia LaLonde used to make a Thousand Island-like dressing for her husband, a fisherman named George LaLonde, with whom she owned a restaurant in Clayton, New York. George shared the dressing with his fellow fishermen and with an actress named May Irwin, who frequently vacationed in the Thousand Islands. Irwin loved the dressing, got the recipe and gave it to … the Boldts. In 1972, Sophia’s original recipe for her “sauce” was found in a safe at the LaLondes’ restaurant, The Thousand Islands Inn, by its then owner, fisherman Allen Benas, who bottles and sells it at the local upscale grocer today.
Which theory is true? Chef and food historian Ben Davison suggests the answer may be both, telling NPR that the late 19th century was a high time for salads on the East Coast, thanks to breakthroughs in refrigerated transport that meant iceberg lettuce could be shipped all the way from California. It’s possible that both the Boldts’ chef and Sophia LaLonde independently thought to combine mayonnaise (which, Davison notes, can offset the bitterness in the bitter greens with which the trendy iceberg lettuce was often mixed) and the already popular condiment ketchup.
Fascinating, mysterious and definitely worth considering over a wedge of lettuce — properly dressed, of course.