Mayonnaise is the internet’s favorite condiment villain. The egg, oil, and vinegar emulsion is a symbol not only for blandness, but for whiteness and all its attendant cultural appropriation and entitlement. It symbolizes the whitewashing of culture. It looks like something extruded from a teenage pimple or a long festering wound. Plus, haters love to point out, it’s terrible for you. It’s all fat! And salt! And because of the eggs, it’s dangerous! If you leave a potato salad made with it out too long at your BBQ, everyone could get salmonella and then you’re literally a murderer. Do you really love mayonnaise enough to murder a Fourth of July party for it?
Yes, I do. And it’s worse than you think: I’ll serve it at the party and I don’t even actually love mayonnaise that much. I like it OK, and I think it’s a flavorful food enhancer. I also believe it plays an essential role in many sandwiches and dishes, and that it’s unfairly maligned and misunderstood. I like pasta salad a lot, and if you’re coming to my house this year, you’ll see a vat of the stuff.
That’s because, first of all, I understand mayonnaise is not actually a very effective murder weapon. As the FDA notes, the eggs in store-bought mayonnaise are all pasteurized and then mixed with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, which means that scientifically it’s very unlikely that a jar of mayo left sitting out a while will really develop salmonella or any bacteria, as that mixture is not a welcoming environment for microbes. It’s the fancy homemade stuff that’s a bigger concern because of the unpasteurized eggs. But even then, health experts say you’re more likely to get food poisoning from the chicken or pasta your mayo is dressing than the mayo itself. Some studies have even found that the acid in mayonnaise acts as a deterrent for bacteria, such that the more mayonnaise you put on your chicken salad, the less likely it is to spoil. (This makes historical sense, as mayonnaise belongs to a category of European sauces developed before the days of refrigeration to preserve food and enhance the flavor of food slightly past freshness.)
So if you’re on your high horse about mayonnaise because you fear poisoning people, get off it. Just don’t let your food—any of it—sit too long in the blazing heat.
But that’s not what the hate of mayo is really about, is it? The real issue, pioneering food researcher Paul Rozin says, has to do with mayo’s slimy consistency. “That texture is often disgusting,” the University of Pennsylvania professor wrote in an email. “Ketchup and mustard are not slimy.”
Avowed mayo haters agree, and they don’t just hate how that slime feels on their tongue—they hate how it looks, too. “I have a whole set of things I don’t like, creamy white products mostly. No cream cheese, no cottage cheese, no crema on any sort of Mexican anything; sour cream, no,” says Jenny Gotwals, the lead archivist at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library who co-founded the Wesleyan Anti-Mayonnaise League when attended the university in the 1990s. “But mayonnaise is its own special category of hell.”
Then there’s the fact that, well, mayonnaise kind of resembles bodily fluids. The condiment’s creamy whiteness makes Gotswals shudder audibly through the phone and makes my little brother, Ben Dreyfuss, declare mayo “sickening.”
A classic definition of disgust is “revulsion at the prospect of oral incorporation of an offensive object,” according to Rozin. Gotswals and my brother, and all the people whose faces twitch at the mention or sight of mayonnaise prove this: They’re grossed out long before they ever taste it. Seeing the jiggling goo is enough.
In Rozin’s research, he’s found that people are particularly repulsed by food that reminds them of bodies. For that reason, meat products have the power to elicit powerful disgust—especially if the meat product is strange or too similar to us in some way. Even with the best quality meat, we employ magical thinking to forget that it’s an animal we’re eating—cows become beef, for instance. Feelings about mayo also seem to touch on post-structuralist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s ideas about abjection, the horror one experiences when facing a breakdown between the self and Other—the classic example of which is starring at a dead human body and realizing that even as you’re alive, you’re also dying. “Anything that reminds us that we are animals elicits disgust,” Rozin once wrote. “Disgust functions like a defense mechanism, to keep human animalness out of awareness.” If humans remember they’re animals, they’ll remember they’re also mortal. And there is nothing more threatening or disgusting than confronting mortality.
People are particularly repulsed by food that reminds them of bodies. Why? Death. If humans remember they’re animals, they’ll remember they’re also mortal. And there is nothing more threatening or disgusting than confronting mortality.
Looking at it this way makes me understand why people who hate mayonnaise are so annoyingly vocal about it. They are adamant, furious, repulsed that anyone could feel differently than they do. “People who eat mayo should be locked up,” say people on Twitter. Last year, when an article came out saying that along with marriage, malls, cars, and fast-casual dining, millennials have also killed Big Mayo, people cheered.
But here’s the thing: Most of you mayonnaise haters out there are hypocrites and cowards. Most of you eat mayonnaise, but either don’t know it, or refuse to admit it. You eat it at restaurants, no doubt, since it’s an ingredient, like butter, that chefs love and use behind the scenes as a base for staples like Caesar salad dressing, or to add zest and moisture and umami to all sorts of things, like burger patties or grilled cheese sandwiches. Chefs love it because it is moist and flavorful—salty and earthy and rich—while being flexible and able to take on the characteristics of whatever you add to it. It’s a workhorse in kitchens.
You love it when it’s binding your crab cakes together. You’re all about it when it’s slathered on elote corn on the cob. Mayonnaise is often the thing holding the breading of your chicken tenders to the chicken. It’s that aioli dabbed on top of your $16 risotto ball.
Actually, let’s talk about aioli, a savory emulsion many people gleefully eat and pretend is not mayonnaise. Traditionally, aioli meant a garlic sauce—sometimes with just garlic and oil, sometimes with eggs added, too. The aioli you encounter out in the world today almost definitely includes eggs, and has roughly the same ingredients as mayonnaise (with the addition of garlic), except that usually aioli is made with unpasteurized eggs. Aioli also looks different. It’s thinner and grayer. This is mostly because unlike commercial brand mayo, which is made in huge industrial mixers, aioli is whisked by hand and therefore usually doesn’t achieve the uniform whiteness and smoothness that seems to upset so many people. But does adding garlic to something really change it completely? Aioli, like beef, seems to be a figment of human imagination.
My mayophobe brother sees aioli as watered-down mayonnaise. “If you add garlic or tabasco to mayo of course it will be less objectionable,” he says. “Just like putting arsenic in water makes it less objectionable than just straight arsenic.”
I brought up aioli as a gotcha. I was trying to entrap my brother into admitting that despite his on-the-record anti-mayo stance, he eats the stuff. I was planning to point out that he’s a hypocrite who’s been unfairly judging me my whole life for putting mayonnaise on BLTs when secretly he’s eating it mixed with anchovies in the form of Caesar salad dressing. But what I discover is that he’s acutely aware of this, and has severely curtailed what he eats in an effort to avoid that.
“I don’t want to be a hypocrite about my opinions about mayonnaise,” he says, listing off the foods he no longer lets himself eat now that he knows they may secretly contain mayo: Big Macs (“I loved the Big Mac sauce! But I now have to ask for it without it because it’s against my principles”); tuna sandwiches; crab cakes. I tell him he’s being a masochist, and denying himself something he likes for no good reason. “It isn’t masochism,” he counters. “It’s just accepting the flaws in my argument and then saying there are consequences to your beliefs.”
But what are those beliefs? If it tastes good, and if it’s mixed with something that changes the objectionable appearance, then what’s the hatred really about?
It’s about identity, and culture. Bring up the word mayonnaise (online or IRL) and it’s a reflex for people to exclaim, “I personally hate the stuff!” The possibility of being seen as a mayonnaise lover is too awful to bear. Loving mayo risks being seen as a version of the condiment itself: white, fat, and boring. This is a classic example of food preferences becoming moral judgements. If you like mayonnaise, what would that mean about you?
That you’re literally white, probably. Mayonnaise as a meme for whiteness is huge on the internet: “Mike Pence is so white he finds mayonnaise spicy,” is a ubiquitous example. But as a joke it goes back at least to the 1977 film Annie Hall, in which goy Annie has the audacity to order a pastrami sandwich with mayo rather than mustard—and the 1985 mockumentary The History of White People in America, which apparently features a white family that walked around their house holding their own jar of mayonnaise.
It’s not totally undeserved. Mayo was invented in France and when it emigrated with some French folks to America it landed first in Minnesota. And beyond its European provenance and its color, the other thing that makes mayonnaise the perfect signifier for whiteness is its ubiquity. White culture shrouds itself in a guise of mainstream-ness and attempts to be invisible; mayo is equally everywhere and nowhere.
But the first commercial mayonnaise was invented by a New York Jew, and though it’s not kosher to put mayo on a pastrami sandwich like Annie Hall did, mayo is a huge part of Jewish deli culture—whitefish or egg salad, anyone? Mayonnaise is also a key ingredient in African-American cuisine. Damon Young, editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothers, has written about the right way to make potato salad—and why he’s skeptical of how white people make it—but crucially, the recipe includes mayonnaise. Just not too much. Mayo is beloved in Japanese cuisine as well—especially the version known as Kewpie that adds monosodium glutamate.
When handled with care, mayonnaise is a delicious enhancer of flavor, a sauce that moistens and elevates all kinds of cuisines. It brings out the flavor of the things around it—be that turkey on a sandwich, smoked fish and onions in a salad, or a spicy tuna hand roll.
No one should be forced to eat it, of course. As my brother says, “It’s un-American to force mayonnaise on me. It’s un-American to force French things on an American!” But neither should those of us who like mayonnaise and all the dishes it enables be ashamed to admit it. At this year’s Fourth of July BBQ, instead of being scared of the mortality-reminding, glistening white goo, slather some on your burger bun in defiance of death, in celebration of freedom.