Mayonnaise, the centuries-old technological wonder

Mayonnaise is popular in many countries, from the United States to Japan.
Mayonnaise is popular in many countries, from the United States to Japan. PHOTO: DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG

(BLOOMBERG) - Mayonnaise is a wondrous thing. It consists of eggs, vegetable oil and an acidic liquid, usually vinegar or lemon juice, but in its finished form is nothing like any of those three. 

This is true of lots of cooked foods, of course, but mayonnaise is not heated, just mixed. (Although eggs used in commercial mayonnaise are pasteurised, or heated, to ward off salmonella.) 

In its mass-produced form, it is a durable source of creamy goodness compiled of a gratifyingly short list (for a mass-produced food) of reasonably wholesome ingredients.  So with the news of the board exodus at eggless-mayonnaise maker Hampton Creek, it got me thinking: Mayonnaise must have been a huge technological breakthrough in its day.  And it was, sort of. 

The standard creation story, as told on the website of United States mayonnaise market leader Hellman’s, is this: “Mayonnaise is said to be the invention of the French chef of the Duke de Richelieu in 1756. While the Duke was defeating the British at Port Mahon, his chef was creating a victory feast that included a sauce made of cream and eggs. When the chef realised that there was no cream in the kitchen, he improvised, substituting olive oil for the cream. A new culinary masterpiece was born and the chef named it ‘Mahonnaise’ in honour of the Duke’s victory.” 

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Mahon is on the now-Spanish Mediterranean island of Minorca.

In 2010, food writer Tom Nealon dismissed this account as “ludicrous” and hypothesised that “salsa mahonesa” had evolved much earlier out of the ancient Mediterranean combination of garlic and olive oil known variously as allioli, alholi and aioli.

"Allioli had been around at least since Pliny wrote about it in the first century C.E., but it had always been extremely problematic – coaxing an emulsion out of oil, garlic and salt is, it is almost universally agreed, nearly impossible. This process had remained a Catalan secret for millennia for just this reason – it could hide in plain sight because it was the culinary equivalent of black magic. What had apparently happened at some point (probably during the Renaissance) was that someone had added an egg and an acid to the recipe. This changed everything – anyone with the simple, if unlikely, instructions could now make this wonderful sauce.” 

They could make it because the egg yolk works as an emulsifier that pulls together the oil and the water in the lemon juice or vinegar. As biochemist Shirley O. Corriher puts it in her book, CookWise: "Emulsifiers, with one end that is attracted to water and another that is attracted to oil, do two things – they coat the liquid droplets and prevent their joining together, and they change the inward pull (surface tension) of one of the liquids in the emulsion. That liquid loses its inward pull and becomes, so to speak, juicy, so that it can run between the droplets of the other liquid.” 

Now, just because some people along the Mediterranean coast may have stumbled into enabling this magical transformation during the Renaissance does not mean they understood it or immediately inspired lots of imitators. Though chemists do not seem to have really figured out emulsions until the 19th century, it was 17th-century French chefs who did the most to popularise the use of emulsions in cooking.

Before then, Georgetown University historian Susan Pinkard writes in A Revolution In Taste: The Rise Of French Cuisine, 1650-1800, Western European cuisine was built around long-stewed combinations of meat, vegetables, fruit and spices that sound a bit like Persian or North African food today. 

In 17th-century Paris, though, those who ran the kitchens of the wealthy began experimenting with a new kind of cooking that emphasised the flavour of individual meats and vegetables by cutting cooking times, decreasing the use of spices and using “buttery sauces that eschewed strong seasonings and aimed to let the character of the principal ingredient shine through”.

In Pinkard’s telling, this change was in part an expression of the great questioning of old customs known as the Enlightenment; in part a reaction to the fact that, thanks to the explosion of the spice trade in the first half of the century, even poor people could afford cinnamon and ginger now, so the rich needed to find a new way to differentiate themselves; and in part thanks to the new cooking technology that was the raised stove, which had begun appearing in French kitchens in the early 1600s and made it a lot easier to cook things requiring frequent stirring or other attention than a pot suspended over an open fire did. 

I also wonder if the arrival of forks, which began to make their way into Western Europe from the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century, and other implements suited to vigorous stirring played a role. 

The modern wire whisk was an invention of 19th-century Britain, but there are references to wooden precursors dating to the 16th century. You can make an emulsion a lot faster with a whisk than with a mortar and pestle.  

In any case, Francois Pierre, a chef to a French nobleman who wrote under the pseudonym La Varenne, provided recipes for multiple emulsified sauces in his hugely influential 1651 cookbook, Le Cuisinier Francois. One of them mixed egg yolks, an acidic liquid and melted butter into what La Varenne called sauce blanche – what we know today as hollandaise sauce. 

That is right: Hollandaise and mayonnaise are basically the same thing, only one uses butter and the other vegetable oil.  

So while I find Nealon’s account of the Mediterranean, aioli-based origins of mayonnaise plausible, it is also plausible that a well-trained, 18th-century French chef plunked down on a Mediterranean island without many cows could have come up with the idea of substituting olive oil for the butter in hollandaise sauce all on his own.  

Hollandaise was later classified by the famous cookbook author Auguste Escoffier as one of the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine. 

Mayonnaise did not make the list, although some people persist in thinking it should have. But while the other mother sauces are still mostly restricted to use in French dishes – with prominent exceptions such as hollandaise’s dubious dominance of weekend brunch menus in the US – mayonnaise went global. It is a key element of roast-beef sandwiches and some maki rolls. It is served with pickled herring and with French fries. And so on.  

Mayonnaise is the No. 1 condiment in the US, well ahead of ketchup, and the US is not even a global contender as far as per-capita mayonnaise consumption. The top spot is held by Russia, where mayonnaise goes with pretty much everything, and the rest of the top 10, according to Euromonitor, is heavy on Eastern European countries. 

But mayonnaise is also big in Japan, in Chile and in lots of other interesting places. Many of these markets seem to have become saturated with mayonnaise, in fact, with global consumption declining in recent years. But there is still China and India to conquer.

What has enabled this near-ubiquitousness of mayonnaise is something that was discovered around the turn of the 20th century. With proper precautions, you can put the stuff in a jar and have it stay creamy and safe to eat for months or even years. 

One key factor in this longevity is the vinegar or lemon juice, which tends to kill off any bacteria that might crop up. Another is the remarkable binding power of those egg yolks.  

Still, some people do not want to eat eggs, which is what Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo is about, using yellow pea protein and food starch instead. (It didn’t invent eggless mayonnaise but has marketed it more aggressively than anyone else.) 

Both Unilever and the American Egg Board have tried and failed to stop Hampton Creek’s product from being labelled as 
mayonnaise. I long found the name confusing since it is not “just mayo"; it is mayonnaise without the eggs. Then I learnt from a September 2016 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of the company that “it’s ‘Just’ Mayo as in ‘righteous,’ not ‘simply.’” 

The company’s argument is that growing peas uses up fewer resources and is more humane than raising egg-laying chickens. Which is true, but, what an insufferably smug name for a simple condiment. It also may be one reason Hampton Creek is struggling so much now. 

Making a better-tasting eggless mayonnaise seems like a worthy enough goal, but to get US$120 million (S$163.3 million) in venture capital, the company had to position itself as a breakthrough food-technology company that was going to disrupt the evil egg-industrial complex.  

As far as mayonnaise is concerned, though, the big technological breakthrough came several centuries ago, and the great culinary disruption just over one century ago. What is happening now is just, well, more mayonnaise on the BLT.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of The Myth Of The Rational Market.