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BACK AT THE RANCH: SAGA OF A DRESSING CONTINUES

Earlier this year, I wrote about the origins of that ubiquitous contemporary condiment known as “ranch dressing,” noting that it had been invented at the Hidden Valley Guest Ranch in Santa Barbara after World War II.

Shortly after my column on the subject appeared, I received a long letter from Alan Barker of Los Angeles, who lived and worked at the ranch from 1959 to 1963, adding quite a bit of colorful detail to the story. I’ve been meaning to run excerpts from his letter since that time. I hereby do so:

“The dressing was invented in the mid-'50s,” Barker writes, “not right after the war. It was concocted by Steve Henson, who opened Hidden Valley as a sort of country club, nightclub, dude ranch in the mountains. He and his wife Gayle built it from a much smaller existing ranch with money they had made in Alaska in the plumbing business. The ranch was not received well and promptly went broke. During my stay, we lived on peanut butter sandwiches and leftovers from parties thrown there by UCSB fraternities and sororities.

“Steve was a muscular, hard-drinking, tale-telling cowboy sort. He charmed most who came to the ranch. There were 20 different stories of how he captured the bear whose skin hung in the foyer. If I recall correctly, he found the bearskin in the local dump where he got most of the ‘Old West’ decor that littered the ranch. Gayle cleaned, cooked as many as 300 steak dinners a night when the ranch was leased out for a party, and played the organ to entertain guests at night. They were the two hardest-working, most unwilling-to-give-up people I have known. Gayle once said that she married Steve ‘because I couldn’t get rid of him . . . and he beat up all my other boyfriends.’ There was a daughter, Connie, and a son, Nolan--who was my best friend during those years.

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“The dressing, which was originally mixed with buttermilk and mayonnaise, had no name at first. We ate it on everything from steaks to, in a comical moment, ice cream. The guests at the ranch first began asking for jars of it to take home for themselves, and then wanted larger quantities for their friends. They took it in liquid form in mayonnaise jars. The impracticality of this led to packaging the mix as a powder.

“The ranch had no resemblance to the cutesy farm pictured in the commercials (i.e., for the modern-day version of the dressing). The only animal left was a dog. The bar and lounge, which Steve had designed, ran the length of one end of the building. Sitting at the bar in the evening, you looked past Steve in his sunken bar-tending pit, through floor-to-ceiling windows over the pool and down a canyon to the lights of the city. It was striking.”

Think about that the next time you’re ladling up ranch dressing at your local salad bar.

WHAT’S NEW: Shanghai Palace is now open on Wilshire near Robertson under the direction of Tommy Kuan and Tommy Kuan (yes, you read that right, and no, they’re not related), former manager and executive chef, respectively (or is it the other way around?) of the popular Shanghai Diamond Garden on Pico. . . . Cocola is new downtown, serving bar-and-grill-type food in an atmosphere fraught with Art. . . . The Mancuso family, longtime operators of Mancuso’s restaurants in Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Palm Desert, have just launched a new Mancuso’s at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa. . . . New dishes and/or menus: The Stouffer Concourse Hotel, just east of LAX, offers “Seafeast,” a seafood buffet, Friday through Sunday evenings from 5 to 10 p.m. The price is $14.95 each for adults, $7.95 each for children. . . . L’Olivier in Tarzana now serves a “country French” prix-fixe dinner every Sunday--olives, baguettes, cold appetizers, onion pie, soup, salad and choice of three main courses with accompanying vegetables (and pasta), and dessert--all for $15.50 per person. And “seconds” are allowed. . . . The Crocodile Cafe in Pasadena has added several new items to their bill of fare, among them a chicken salad with broccoli in what is said to be a “mild but meaningful” roasted garlic mayonnaise. . . . And Papaya’s at the Amfac Hotel in Westchester proposes a prime-rib dinner, with soup or salad, for $5.95 each, nightly from 4 to 10.

EVENTS: The third annual “A Taste of the South Bay” festival takes place Monday at the Redondo Beach Community Center. Some 30 local restaurants will offer samples of their cooking. Tickets are $15 each and proceeds go to three local charities--Cheer for Children, the Redondo Beach Salvation Army Meals on Wheels program and the Volunteer Center. . . . Verdi in Santa Monica holds a “Night in Tuscany” Thursday. A four-course Tuscan dinner, wine, Italian-language entertainment (including “popular Neapolitan songs"--always a part of my evenings in Tuscany), tax and tip are all included in the $55-per-person tariff.


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