History of Thousand Island Dressing

So did I grow up with Thousand Island dressing? Well yes and no. My brother quite liked it and would get it for his salads the special occasions my mother would take us kids to a restaurant. I will admit I was way more of a Ranch kid. It also was not a salad dressing that came into the house very much. I more experienced it later on when I tried my first Reuben. It has not been a dressing I thought much about until I started doing this blog.

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Who and where was Thousand Island Dressing created?
There are a few variations to the story of how this dressing came to be and how it got the name Thousand Island. In Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia (1985), a woman recounted a tale to Claiborne about the origin of the dressing. She said that sometime in the mid-1920s a Belgian couple was dining at her grandmother’s Lake Michigan resort hotel. After complimenting her grandmother on the food, the man mentions that he was the head chef at the Drake Hotel in Chicago and talked about Thousand Island dressing. He told the grandmother that he had invented the dressing after a trip through the Thousand Islands in New York state and when his wife saw all the lumps in the dressing she proclaimed that it looked like a thousand islands. Jean Anderson in her book The American Century Cookbook (1997) recounts the same story but does mention that the Chicago Drake Hotel will not confirm nor deny the tale.

1964KraftThousandIslandAd

Kraft Thousand Island newspaper ad from 1964.

The next one is the one I am probably more inclined to believe as it is the one that actually hails from the Thousand Island region of New York. In the early 20th century in Clayton, New York, a man called George LaLonde was a fishing tour guide for the Herald Hotel. After his tours, he would serve his guest a shoreside dinner. At these dinners, his wife, Sophie LaLonde, would serve a dressing made of mayo, ketchup, and pickle relish of her own making which quickly became a hit. Vaudeville actress and singer May Irwin was in attendance at one of these dinners. Some say it was May that named the dish while others say it was Sophie. Though it is supposedly May that introduced it George C. Boldt, the owner of the famous New York City hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria (where the Waldorf salad hails from), who loved it and added it to the menu thus introducing it to the masses.

The_Oregon_Daily_Journal_Fri__Sep_22__1916_

Mrs. Porter’s Thousand Island Dressing newspaper ad from 1916.

Real quick side note on May Irwin if you tend to be nosy like me and have to google the wiki page of everything and then do a quick YouTube search of the songs. The songs and style of music that she was known for are very racist.

What ingredients are in Thousand Island Dressing?
I have to agree with Craig Claiborne when he wrote that it is hard to find a definitive classic recipe for Thousand Island dressing. There are SOOOOOOOOOOOO many versions to find dating from the 1910s to now. Some versions are simply mayo and chili sauce mixed together to the more complicated. Though by the mid-century most of the dressings usually consisted of mayo mixed with chili sauce and/or ketchup with a bit of chopped onion or chives, eggs, and olives. Some did substitute the chili sauce for bottle French dressing. The popular way and fancy way to serve it for many years were to drizzle the dressing over an iceberg lettuce wedge.

1968 WishboneThousandIslandGroceryAd

Wish-Bone newspaper ad taken from a 1968 grocer ad.

When was Thousand Island dressing popular?
The dressing was super popular when it was introduced and is still part of our cuisine today but in a different capacity. A 1919 food column wrote about the dressing twice first calling it the “widely popular Thousand Island dressing”. The author added that “there has been no one recipe more sought after for the last eight years than that for the Thousand Island dressing” while going on to mention a 1913 recipe that was printed when the dressing “came into vogue”.

Popular mid-century food columnist Cecily Brownstone remembers in her 1966 column how eating salad with Thousand Island dressing in a train dining car was considered classy when she was a little girl. She also mentions the traditional way to serve it was to quarter a small head of lettuce while ladling out the “delicious Thousand Island dressing from a silver gravy boat”. Another 1967 article said that a “good Thousand Island dressing (is) hard to beat and the homemade varieties are especially good.”

1961Pfeiffer'sThousandIslandDressingAd

Pfeiffer’s Thousand Island Dressing newspaper ad from 1961.

Though by the 1990s and into the present the dressing became less of a dressing and more of a sauce or spread for burgers and sandwiches. Many now think of Thousand Island as an accompaniment to a Reuben sandwich or the sauce on a Big Mac (though there are disagreements if the Big Mac sauce is Thousand Island or not). Even a 2009 article jokes that no one in America uses Thousand Island as an actual dressing anymore. It is not even offered at many restaurants as a dressing choice. It is not even close to being America’s favorite salad dressing either. When Food Network did a poll on dressings, Thousand Island was not even in the top three. It fell behind ranch, Caesar, Italian vinaigrette, and blue cheese. Though it does supposedly have a strong and loyal following in Upstate New York.

Why should I make Thousand Island dressing?
I wasn’t sure I would like the homemade version with the chopped egg and the other mix-ins but I was pleasantly surprised. I agree with the above 1967 article that the homemade version is really good. It is a little sweet with a bit of tang and works well with iceberg lettuce. I know that iceberg lettuce has gotten a bad rap in the last decade but trust me. Also if you don’t like the idea of any of the ingredients that get stirred in the base then just omit it. That is what the home cooks of the past would do so be like them and make it your own.

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How do you make Thousand Island dressing?
I tried it both with the chili sauce and the French dressing and I did prefer the chili sauce. If you want it more like the bottled version then just use a blender to get a smoother texture. The salad in the pictures was achieved by quartering a small head of iceberg lettuce, ladling on some Thousand Island dressing and topping it with a few chives. I also halved some grape tomatoes to put on the side for some color.

Thousand Island Dressing

  • Servings: 8-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

One of the many ways one can make Thousand Island Dressing.

source: adapted from the Better Cooking Library Salad Cook Book (1964)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons chili sauce
  • 1 tablespoon chopped pickle 
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green olives
  • 1 hard boiled egg, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped onions or chives
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • Salt to taste

Directions

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and chill till ready to serve.


sources:
Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1997.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Salad Days on the Railroad”. Kentucky New Era. June 2, 1966.

Claiborne, Craig. Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia. New York: Wings Books, 1985.

D’Imperio, Chuck. A Taste of Upstate New York: The People and the Stories Behind 40 Food Favorites. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Eddington, Jane. “The Tribune Cookbook”. Chicago Tribune. May 15, 1921.

Eddington, Jane. “Thousand Island Dressing”. Chicago Tribune. June 15, 1919.

F.B. “New Islands in Thousand Island Dressing”. The American Cookery. Volume 28. January. 1922.

Gilbar, Steven. Chicken a la King and The Buffalo Wing: Food Names and the People that Inspired Them. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.

Gilbert, Janet. “Minding the Dressing and other Tips on Sellbydatus”. The Baltimore. March 29, 2009.

“Here’s How-We do It”. Glove-Gazette. January 5, 1967.

McNeese, Tim. Rivers in World History: The St. Lawerence River. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.

Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.

ads:
“Discover the Treasure in Kraft Thousand Island Dressing”. The Ottawa Citizen. August 1, 1964.

“Porter’s Thousand Island Dressing”. The Oregon Daily Journal. September 22, 19616.

“Wish Bone Thousand Island Dressing”. Sun Herald. July 17, 1968.

“5 cents off on New Pfeiffer’s Thousand Island Dressing”. Intelligencer Journal. March 8, 1961.

 

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