What and where a person eats, suggests togetherness with one community and dis-identification with another and is therefore a factor that affects all migrant communities. Consumption conveys an idea of public identity.
Food can also serve as a psychological stimulus by unlocking emotional childhood reminiscences. Such experiences have frequently been expressed creatively. There are, for example, the uncooked wrinkled French prunes for Tolstoy’s Ivan Il’ich or the famous “petites madeleines” for Marcel Proust’s Swann that recapture vivid images of early years.
When Mark Twain was touring Europe in 1878 he expressed his dislike for local ways of serving a beefsteak. In A Tramp Abroad (1880) he imagined himself a man exiled from his beloved national cuisine. He was haunted by a vision that he would never enjoy his favored food back home again. The author suffered an attack of taste nostalgia.
Medically, this wistful yearning had been recorded some two centuries previously. The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer in his Basel medical dissertation in which he introduced nostalgia as mal du pays or mal du Suisse (Swiss disease). Hofer observed the condition with mercenaries fighting in France and Italy who after an extended absence from home were pining for their native Alpine surroundings.
The word itself is a combination of the Greek nostos (return home) and the Latin algia (longing). Swiss researchers found that gastronomic and auditory stimulus were particularly prone to produce nostalgic sentiments after they experimented with young soldiers stationed abroad by feeding them rustic soups and thick village milk from home whilst listening to folk songs of the mountain valleys. Nostalgia is a taste, smell or tune as well as a yearning.
Wherever they settle, migrants bring their own eating habits and ways of cooking with them even if they have to be adapted to the new environment.
As with many gastronomic delicacies, the history or inventor of hollandaise sauce is unknown although the connection with the Netherlands is a strong one. Also known as “Dutch sauce” or “Huguenot Dutch,” it first appeared in the household books of Protestant refugees who had fled from violent persecution in Catholic France to the Low Countries.
They replaced virtually unavailable olive oil with sweet Dutch butter to produce their various egg-and-oil sauces. As so often, a lack or scarcity of ingredients forced the migrant to improvise and create new versions of once familiar dishes or sauces which were then, one way or another, recycled back into French cuisine.
Burgundy-born chef François-Pierre La Varenne was the foremost member of a group of master chefs who codified French cuisine in the age of Louis XIV. In 1651 he published his famous cookbook Le cuisinier françois. Soon after pirate editions appeared in the Netherlands and, published in 1653, The French Cook was the first ever cookbook translated from French into English.
The first celebrity cook, La Varenne supplied his readers with the earliest documented recipe for hollandaise sauce. He makes specific mention of “asparagus with fragrant sauce” which contains fresh butter, vinegar, egg yolk and nutmeg (the Dutch East India Company had a monopoly on the world’s supply of nutmeg at the time).
The history of mayonnaise is not clear either, but the origins of both sauces must run parallel.
Mayonnaise too dates from the mid-1700s. Both consist of three basic ingredients: an oily substance, an acid and egg yolks. The basic difference is the presentation temperature: mayonnaise is served cold and hollandaise warm. The French popularized mayonnaise, incorporating it into salads, pairing it with lobster and generally making it a staple. It quickly spread throughout Europe.
This was an era that saw the creation of mayonnaise-based sauces like aïoli, tartar relish, remoulade and any number of salad dressings. When migrants from Europe came streaming into America, they brought a passion for these sauces with them.
Mayonnaise & Migration
By the early nineteenth century, the word “mayonnaise” began to appear in German and British cookbooks dedicated to French cuisine. Talk of “mayo” quickly made its way to the United States, often on the lips of migrating chefs who were keen to introduce the “secrets” of their delicacies to a new range of clients.
In 1827, Italian-Swiss brothers Giovanni and Pietro Delmonico rented a pastry shop at 23 William Street, Manhattan. Three years later they opened a gourmet eatery named Delmonico’s. The brothers moved their restaurant several times before settling at 56 Beaver Street.
When the building was opened in August following the Great Fire of 1837, New Yorkers were told that its columns had been imported from the ruins of Pompeii. It became Manhattan’s most famous restaurant. By 1838 the eatery offered both “mayonnaise of lobster” and “chicken mayonnaise” on its menu.
It did not take long before American home cooks went mayo-mad. People prepared batches of mayonnaise out of oil, vinegar and eggs to use in their sandwiches (especially following the cutting-edge invention of the mechanical bread slicer in the 1920s), potato and tomato salads, Waldorf salads or deviled eggs.
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge confessed that a favorite treat for him was his Aunt Mary’s “heavenly” homemade mayonnaise. The President’s nostalgia this delectable sauce was a reflection of fundamental changes that were imminent in the American system of food production and the nation’s habits of consumption.
Handmade mayonnaise was fast becoming a rarity. Spurred by the condiment’s popular appeal and the spread of affordable refrigeration, hundreds of industrial manufacturers flooded the food market with packaged or bottled mayo.
Industrialist Richard Hellmann was born on June 22, 1876, in Vetschau, a small town about sixty miles south of Berlin. Having left school at fourteen, he worked as an apprentice in a local food market, before gaining further experience in the production and handling of foodstuffs in Halle, Hamburg and Bremerhaven.
Around 1900, the ambitious young man successfully applied for a job at Crosse & Blackwell, a leading British grocery company that produced canned and bottled edibles. Located at London’s Charing Cross Road, the firm had a long history of producing sauces and condiments. Having spent much of his time in the company’s kitchens, Richard became fluent in English and gained valuable experience in preparing and catering food.
In October 1903 Hellmann arrived in New York on his way to San Francisco where he had been offered work by the grocers Goldberg, Bowen & Co. He never moved on, and took a job at Francis H. Leggett on Franklin Street instead (he had distributed some of the firm’s foods in London when employed by Crosse & Blackwell).
In August of 1904 Richard Hellmann married Margaret Vossberg. She was the daughter of a migrant delicatessen owner and they had met each other when Richard was working in Germany as a youngster. The couple settled in West 78th Street. On weekdays Hellmann walked up Columbus Avenue to the 81st Street Elevated train entrance on his way to work at Leggett’s.
At some time in mid-1905 he noticed that the storefront at 490 Columbus Avenue, between 83rd and 84th Streets, was vacant. He and his wife rented the former tailor shop and opened Hellmann’s Delicatessen. The firm flourished and, eventually, they were able to purchase the building itself and the property next door.
Having turned his “mother’s recipe” into a best-selling bottled product known as Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, he became America’s unrivaled mayo-producer. In 1922, as sales soared, Hellmann ordered the construction of the “largest mayonnaise factory in the world,” a five story building at 34/8 Northern Boulevard in Long Island City, Queens.
In August 1927, Richard sold his company to Marjorie Merriweather Post, inheritor of the giant Postum Cereal Company (which would become General Foods) and the first owner-resident of Mar-a-Lago.
Ever since La Varenne combined asparagus with hollandaise sauce the dish has remained on the menu – “asperges en mayonnaise” still is an internationally acclaimed delicacy. In 1927, Hellmann’s company published a small cook booklet titled The Chef’s Standby in which all recipes contain Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise as an ingredient. A significant inclusion was that of Asparagus Salad.
Wherever Huguenot refugees had settled in exile, there seems to be a link with asparagus. On Falcon Road, Battersea, there still stands a public house known as The Asparagus. The pub’s name reflects an intriguing aspect of local London history.
Before the formation of Battersea Park and the extension of the railway near Clapham Junction, hundreds of acres of land were devoted to the cultivation of market gardens that played a crucial part in feeding the fast expanding metropolis. In Victorian times, Battersea contained 367 farm plots, many of which were noted for producing the best asparagus in the London area (they were sold in so-called “Battersea Bundles”). Huguenot refugees had been involved in their cultivation from the outset.
The Thirty-Year War that raged between 1618 and 1648 had a devastating effect on a great number of German States. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes large numbers of French refugees repopulated these regions. They were welcomed as fellow Protestants and proved themselves to be industrious participants in the rebuilding of a ruined economy.
Brandenburg received the majority of Huguenot refugees. At the heart of the Prussian Empire, the region was known as “Berlin’s vegetable garden.” A predominantly agricultural area, from the 1860s onward it became renowned for its thick asparagus (“Beelitzer Spargel” – the town of Beelitz has its own asparagus museum and an annual festival dedicated to the spear).
Hellmann’s place of birth in this rural region was (and remains) surrounded by fields of the vegetable. Richard’s nostalgic memory of his mother’s Brandenburg recipe inspired the creation of his New York based Mayo-Empire.
Illustrations, from above: Advertising piece for Richard Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, 1926; the eleventh edition of La Varenne’s Le cuisinier François (1680); Delmonico’s at Beaver and South William Streets in 1893; Richard Hellmann’s delicatessen shop (the owner standing in the middle); a ca. 1930 Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar; and thick “Beelitzer Spargel” (asparagus from Brandenburg).