Salad : Unfashionable Dressings: Which Thousand Islands?


When was the last time you walked into a fancy foodie restaurant, ordered a salad and were asked which dressing you wanted? A national tradition may be dying.

Outside of burger huts and steak houses, the salad world today is ruled by mesclun mixes and light vinaigrettes. So, before the colors fade, let’s pause a moment and contemplate the pantheon of American dressings--Thousand Island, Russian, green goddess--in all of their pink, orange and green glory.

In the early part of this century, these fanciful concoctions were the epitome of swell. But those were different days and different salads. Salads then were the height of elegance, the inventions of master chefs who were as proud of their inventions as any designer of haute pizzas.

If that sounds funny, remember that these dressings were intended not for bowls of mixed greens, but for salades composees , elaborate constructions of cold fish, vegetables, meat and fruit, the workaday descendants of which we know today as egg, potato, chicken and tuna salads.



In the 1923 pamphlet “Fancy Salads of the Big Hotels,” published by the Hotel Industry press, you can find everything from the decent-sounding tomato a la Maryland (a tomato stuffed with crab meat dressed with Thousand Island) to pommes Medici (a hollowed-out apple stuffed with pineapple, celery and maraschino cherries and dressed with mayonnaise and whipped cream).

“The fish and meat salads, with the heavier Mayonnaise, are suitable for luncheon, supper, high tea and those Bohemian feasts which begin at the mystic hour of midnight,” wrote Olive Green in her 1909 cookbook “One Thousand Salads.” “As the piece de resistance of a reception or wedding supper, or even at the home dinner table in summer, where no other meat is served, the fish or meat salad with Mayonnaise holds an honored and proper place.”

Lettuce salads were certainly known, but how popular they were is difficult to say. Almost every cookbook of record included instructions--sometimes quite elaborate--on how to prepare a green salad. On the other hand, if salads were truly commonplace, you wouldn’t think that much advice would be necessary.


Indeed, there is some evidence of a cultural aversion to green salads among certain groups. One anecdote has the chancellor of Harvard University, on seeing a green salad, thundering: “You serve me a plate of weeds? What am I, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s asses?” (Diners who remember the early days of mizuna may sympathize.)


Whatever the attitude toward green salads themselves, there was a unanimous opinion as to their dressing. “Under no circumstances add anything to the dressing other than oil, vinegar, pepper and salt,” wrote Thomas Murrey in his 1884 cookbook, “Murrey’s Salads and Sauces.”

And he wasn’t talking about just any oil and vinegar, either. In a lengthy discussion that would do credit to any 1990s foodie, Murrey comes down squarely in favor of virgin olive oil and tarragon vinegar. What’s more, he advises the addition of herbs and wild flowers to the salad itself.

In the late 1800s, there was also a craze for salad dressings made without oil. These “boiled” dressings were made partly for dietary reasons, but also because good oil--not oil from the right part of Tuscany, but merely oil that was not rancid--was rare in an era of limited transportation and refrigeration.

“The ‘boiled dressings’ are not salad dressings,” wrote Green, who nonetheless included more than 50 recipes for them in her book. “Contrary to a notion widely prevalent in the rural districts, salads cannot be made without oil.” A typical Green boiled dressing calls for thickening water with cornstarch and mixing it with mustard, sugar, salt and vinegar.

Of course, this fad was bound to fade.



“I first conceived of writing a book on salads in 1870,” wrote Murrey, “one of the principal reasons being that I could not only prepare a very good simple salad, but could also make sixty-three different compounds without using oil, and called by me at that time salad-dressings.

“A reporter learned of my hobby, and after interviewing me wrote a column article on the subject which had the effect of increasing the value of the collection--in my eyes--50%.

“But something was wrong; and it took me some time to realize the fact that complaints of dyspepsia were universal after partaking of one of Murrey’s salads, prepared without oil to satisfy the whims of a few who had tasted bad oil at one time and imagined all oil to be bad.

“In my despair I added pepsin (an extract from the stomachs of calves and pigs that was believed to be a digestive aid) to the dressing. This worked for a while, but by degrees I began adding a little oil to these mixtures, and, although young, I soon saw the absurdity of preparing a salad without oil. I burned the valuable collection and adopted this motto: No oil, no salad.”


Still, traces of boiled dressing remain. When you taste sweetness in mayonnaise, or when you’re served a white paste called salad dressing, what you’ve got is one of its descendants.

The simple dressing of oil and vinegar used to be called French. An attempt to track the history of that pasty pink stuff that parades as French today turned up not a trace, though it could be related to something called “tomato soup French” that began to appear in the 1950s.

Other dressings are better documented. A search for the original Thousand Island turned up recipes dating back to 1916. It was apparently invented by a Belgian chef (one source has his name as Rheums, another has it as Theo Rooms; a call to the Drake turned up a turn-of-the-century chef named V.O. Rooms) at the Blackstone hotel in Chicago. There, it was called, appropriately enough, the Blackstone dressing. When Rooms switched to the Drake Hotel, he took the dressing with him, though he found it politic to change its name. Thousand Island refers to the abundance of chopped garnishes that are folded into the base--a mayonnaise spiked with chili sauce and lightened with whipped cream.


It was fairly close to the slightly later Russian dressing, with which it is still frequently confused. A look at the ingredient list shows the similarities: Thousand Island is mayonnaise, chopped sweet red and green peppers, onion, chili sauce and chopped hard-boiled egg. Russian has mayonnaise, chopped sweet red and green peppers, onion and chili sauce. (What is particularly Russian about this is unclear. It could be related to salade a la Russe --a salad of chopped vegetables--or it could be simply that the dressing is red. Though would respectable people really want a Bolshevik dressing on their tables?)


Trying a few old recipes, however, revealed more differences than meet the eye--or than one might have guessed from eating modern bottled versions. The amount of chili sauce is one (Russian has much more). The nature of the mayonnaise base is another. While Thousand Island is based on a light (texturally, anyway) combination of mayonnaise and whipped cream, Russian is made from mayonnaise extended with olive oil. The first is creamy, faintly pink and mild, the other is a more vivid orange-red and pungent.

The origins of green goddess dressing are as well known as Russian’s is obscure. It was invented during the 1920s at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel in honor of the actor George Arliss, who was appearing in British critic-turned-dramatist William Archer’s play “The Green Goddess.” Though other versions have been developed, the original is a wholly wonderful thing, tangy with anchovies and richly herbal from a combination of parsley, green onions, chives and--most tellingly in a good version--fresh tarragon.

Ranch dressing, another popular California-based concoction, came along much later. According to Los Angeles food writer Colman Andrews, the combination of buttermilk, mayonnaise and dried herbs was invented during the 1950s at a Santa Barbara-area resort called Hidden Valley Ranch and became so popular that a package of seasonings was developed to send home with guests. Yes, there really was a Hidden Valley Ranch, though it was little known to the general public until Clorox bought the name in 1972 along with the recipe for the special dressing. Today, Hidden Valley Ranch products account for roughly 20% of all commercial dressings sold, with ranch providing the bulk of the sales. In fact, ranch is probably the only one of these dressings that was used on lettuces from the very start.

The introduction of the refrigerated rail car just after World War I led to the popularization of the modern crisphead lettuces such as iceberg, which ship well but taste, basically, like stiff water. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of flavor, heavier dressings began to move onto green salads by the mid-20s.

On one hand, it takes a mighty green to stand up to a heavy mayonnaise-based dressing. On the other hand, it takes a mighty tasteless green to require one.


From Helen Evans Brown’s “West Coast Cookbook” (Little, Brown: 1952).


3 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 green onion, green part only, chopped

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 tablespoon minced tarragon

1 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar

1 tablespoon finely cut chives

Combine anchovies, green onion, parsley, tarragon, mayonnaise, vinegar and chives in bowl of food processor. Puree until dressing is smooth and flecked with light green. Makes about 1 cup dressing.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

60 calories; 132 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.04 gram fiber.


Fines herbes is a standard seasoning mix used in French cooking. For this dressing, we used a little more than one teaspoon each of minced fresh basil and thyme, 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary and 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives. Adapted from “Fancy Salads of the Big Hotels” (The Hotel Industry: 1923).


3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon capers

2 tablespoons fines herbes

In small bowl combine mayonnaise, capers and fines herbes. Makes about 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon dressing.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

66 calories; 61 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.14 gram fiber.


Adapted from Marjorie Heseltine’s “The Basic Cook Book” (M. Dow: 1933).


1/3 cup oil

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons crumbled Roquefort cheese

In small bowl or stoppered bottle combine oil, vinegar, onion and salt and pepper. Stir until well combined. Add cheese and stir, combining into dressing. Makes about 1/2 cup dressing.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

84 calories; 169 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; trace carbohydrates; trace protein; trace fiber.


Adapted from Marion Harris Neil’s “Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes” (David McKay: 1916).


1/4 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons chopped sweet red peppers

1 tablespoon chopped green peppers

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped

1/2 teaspoon minced chives

2 teaspoons chili sauce

2 teaspoons tarragon vinegar

In bowl whip cream until stiff and doubled in volume.

In medium mixing bowl combine whipped cream, mayonnaise, sweet red and green peppers, egg, chives, chili sauce and vinegar. Stir until just combined. Do not overbeat, or egg will dissolve into dressing. Makes about 1 1/4 cups dressing.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

38 calories; 52 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; trace fiber.


Adapted from Janet M. Hill’s “Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Dainties” (Little, Brown: 1930).


1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon vinegar

Dash salt

1/4 cup chili sauce

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped sweet red peppers

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped green peppers

In medium bowl gradually add olive oil to mayonnaise, beating constantly until smooth. Add vinegar, salt, chili sauce, paprika and sweet red and green peppers. Stir well to combine. Makes about 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon dressing.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

59 calories; 108 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.01 gram fiber.