I had always been a ketchup man. Nothing else went with a burger or a heaping pile of fries. In high school some of my friends preferred mustard as their dipping sauce, which seemed eclectic to me. Did they not understand the importance of ketchup? It was the American condiment. But never, was mayonnaise considered. Mayonnaise was limited to things like grilled cheese, and the unnatural cafeteria fried fish logs, if its more preferred cousin, Frisch’s tartar sauce wasn’t available.
It wasn’t until my first trip to Belgium in college that I learned the true bliss of using real mayonnaise to dip frites or fries. It was Eurrailing around with a buddy of mine studying at Exeter College, when I learned from his university friends that mayo is the only choice given at late night frite stands. This was after a particularly raucous night of partying in Brussels. And, it’s fatty deliciousness, along with the starchy potatoes they accompany are a great hangover cure. For kids in their early twenties with off-the-chart metabolisms, it has no bad affects. Who was worried about heart-healthy condiments then?
Belgians take their mayo very seriously. A 60 year old royal decree actually governs what’s in it. Belgian mayonnaise must contain at least 80% fat and 7.5% egg yolk. For those looking for a high fat diet, I think this applies. Belgians eat an estimated $1.2 Billion in mayo a year, surpassed only by a small handful of other nations.
And Belgians put mayo on everything. Almost every town square from the Flemish speaking north coast to the mountains of the French speaking south has a potato shack serving frites piled with mayo. There’s even a 2013 dance-pop song by Belgian star Stromae called “Moule Frites” or mussel fries, paying homage to the national condiment. Some even put it on stewed apples with sugar. Even the Mannekin Pis, the urinating boy fountain that’s a symbol of Belgium, was dressed eating frites with mayo. About the only thing Belgians won’t put mayonnaise on is their waffles and pancakes.
World disorder has put a mark on mayonnaise since its beginning. Its origin has been tied to an assault on the Spanish island of Minorca in 1756, when French forces, led by the Duke of Richelieu, seized the Port of Mahon. For the victory after-party, the duke’s chef wanted to make a sauce with cream and eggs. Having no cream, he used olive oil instead, and voila, ‘sauce mahonnaise’ was born.
Another legend gives the nativity story in the town of Bayonne in southwest France – ‘sauce bayonnaise’. French culinary encyclopedias say it’s based from the old French word, “moyeu” meaning egg yolk. Some Spaniards even claim the French copied their recipe. There’s a lot more olive oil in Spain than France.
But Europe’s cut throat condiment market is pushing Belgian mayo producers to push for loosening standards and lowering costs for producers. Non-Belgian European rivals are permitted to sell mayo with a mere 70% fat and only 5% yolk, which is cheaper to produce than the royally-decreed Belgian kind.
Belgian chefs aren’t taking this dressing down of the fat in their mayo very well. Some have said comparing higher fat Belgian mayo to lower fat Euro versions is like comparing a farm raised chicken to a factory hen. Belgian’s Deputy Prime Minister Kris Peeters has met with both sides to try to quell the controversy. He was even sprayed with mayo in public by antigovernment protesters in 2014, who don’t like the idea of taking the fat out of their national condiment. Mayo is always unhealthy. The Belgian producers just want to make it less expensively to compete with non-native mayos infiltrating their market.
The U.S. also has its standards, although much less fatty than the Belgian version. Since 1977 U.S. mayo must contain only 65% vegetable oil and some egg yolk. And, there’s been controversy here too. Last year, Unilever, the maker of U.S. leading mayo brand Hellmann’s last year sued a startup company, Hampton Creek Foods out of San Francisco, for a mayo they produce that replaces egg yolk with Canadian yellow peas for implying it’s product was mayo even though it didn’t adhere to the U.S. labelling definition. Unilever dropped the case after floods of complaints they were bullying a startup.
Some foods were not meant to be low fat or heart healthy. And to ardent Belgians, that’s mayonnaise. Threaten to take the fat out of their national condiment, and you just might have a flotilla show up ready to invade your port!