Fourth of July: The Steaks of Summer

Summer + holidays = memories, and so we hop into the wayback machine.

Parlez-vous “French dressing”?

I was well past 30 before I could handle French dressing on my salad.

Nothing against the French—although a history teacher I had in England taught us that “the French are always revolting.” (He presented it as a mnemonic for 19th century history, but somehow I think the comment was meant to be more all-encompassing than that.) No, my avoidance of French dressing had nothing to do with les enfants de la patrie and everything to do with one particular Irish-American. Namely my mother.

My mother was not what you’d call a cook. This is a woman who, given a huge freestanding KitchenAid blender as a wedding gift, sat the machine in a corner of the kitchen and used it as a filing cabinet. Whenever you needed an important document, you’d find it in the mixing bowl.

My mother abandoned her wifely cooking duties as soon as she saw an out—passing them to my father when I was about 13. From that point on, the only thing I remember her making was reservations.

Which is why it was so odd that my mother managed to find herself in charge of one of the major social events of the summer: the club’s annual steak dinner. Steak—well, that was straightforward enough, and the men took charge of grilling it. The rest of the menu was my mother’s domain: Potato salad—50 or so pounds of potatoes that my cousin and I boiled and pared while still steaming, mixed with dozens of pounds of chopped onions. Cole slaw (someone else must have made that, or I’d surely have indelible memories of chopping cabbage). And salad—topped with my mother’s special “French dressing.”

I put that in quotation marks so as not to offend the good people of France. “French dressing” as translated by my mother was a proprietary blend of two ingredients: ketchup and mayonnaise. (All together now: Merde!)

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with combining ketchup and mayonnaise. I know (and love) people who can think of nothing tastier in which to dip their French fries. And more power to ’em. But they call their concoction “ketchup and mayonnaise”—which, remarkably enough, it is. They don’t impugn an entire nationality, nor do they pretend it belongs on salad.

So that’s what passed for globalization back in the last quarter of the 20th century: “French” dressing, made by an Irish-American, served up to a bunch of New Englanders. We’ve come a long way, baby. Happy 4th.