In defense of mayonnaise

Published February 21 2018
Updated February 21 2018

It weighed heavy, spread across my soul like a creamy white burial shroud. I would never admit it, not in a million years.

My husband wondered, what was on the chicken? He ate it willingly, then enthusiastically.

"I can never tell you."

I sat quietly for approximately 13 seconds before I said, "Fine, I’ll tell you."

Mayonnaise! It was mayonnaise! Desperate for a way to make our midweek chicken breast taste less like waiting in line at the DMV, I grabbed the jar of mayonnaise from the fridge and unscrewed that familiar plastic top. I mixed a glob (the technical unit for mayo measures) with Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and slathered it on the chicken. After a ride in the oven, it came out brown, crispy, melty. It was good.

"It’s mayo."

"Ew," he said, and kept eating.

In a world where so many people are aspiring gourmets, mayonnaise is often a humble hobo, sold BOGO in giant tubs and relegated to potato salad prison. Its slightly more sophisticated cousin is aioli. Aioli lands on menus in places of honor, next to patatas bravas, grilled artichoke and wedges of organic endive. But aioli is essentially mayonnaise with garlic, and aioli knows it.

RELATED: A closer look at aioli, mayo’s upscale friend

People feel all types of ways about mayo, and I look forward to your letters. It’s not particularly healthy. It’s not pretty. It’s alarmingly monochrome, and it’s wiggly.

Those who love mayonnaise tend to be pretty brand-loyal, from Duke’s to Blue Plate to Hellmann’s and beyond. I’m impartial to brands (I usually buy Kraft, is that okay?), but I do like the kind made with olive oil. Some purists wag a shameful finger at this.

Those who hate mayo really hate it. A 2017 Popular Science story posited that mayo is a warning, that being disgusted is nature’s way of keeping us from eating something that could kill us. The story goes on to compare the texture of mayo to things last seen in a Saw movie.

You know, fine. Everyone has a thing. I think kimchi tastes like socks. I’m not trying to get anyone to sit in a Barcalounger and eat mayo by the soup spoon.

But consider the possibilities. What is mayo, really? It is an emulsion of eggs, oil and vinegar, sometimes with water and some sugar. These are all items cooks use regularly. And when cooked, the peculiar smell and signature taste fades away, and all that’s left is "mmm, brown."

Mayo turns out to be a great cooking agent, a helping hand in batters to make cakes and brownies rich and yummy. Some folks swear by using it on the grill. Alton Brown has even suggested adding a dollop to scrambled eggs.

Speaking of eggs … One night, I had a few brown bananas to use, but was fresh out of eggs. What is kind of like eggs? Ding, ding, ding. Honestly, there was so much mayo in this recipe I almost abandoned ship while mixing it. It was not pretty. The results, though, were perfect little brown banana domes. I brought the muffins to work. I reveled in telling colleagues that they were made with mayo, after they had already raved. The expressions ranged from existential crisis to fugue state.

After fiddling with a few online recipes, I’ve become enchanted with a four-ingredient mayo quick bread that, when eaten straight out of the oven with butter, jam or honey, is a really good dupe for a biscuit.

But, behold my hottest tip: Use it on the outside of your grilled cheese instead of butter. The spreading process is a revelation, and the payoff is a perfect, even, crispy crust.

Many of you are sitting at home remarking that your Southern grandmother was doing this before it was cool. This is correct. Hit the internet and find recipes passed down from generations, confirming that Meemaw has known about mayo for quite some time and probably just wasn’t telling you. That’s because grandmothers are smart, and part of getting through life is knowing when to hold back.

In 2010, writer Rick Bragg celebrated mayo in a beloved Gourmet story. His mother was hiding mayo in the family mashed potatoes and never told anyone. He wrote:

Her potatoes were creamy, perfect, with real butter pooling in small lakes. Lumps were for tourists. Skins were for Philistines. These, cliche or not, melted on your tongue, with just a little extra, a lingering taste of … what?

Of what, indeed.

Exactly one night after I had shaken my husband’s world with the news of our dinner’s dark secrets, I came home and found him making a meal. He was spreading mayo on the leftover chicken breasts.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] Follow @stephhayes.