Last week, the internet erupted after Hidden Valley announced that the company would begin selling kegs of its famous ranch dressing, just in time for the holiday and sporting seasons. While people far and wide launched into celebration, I could hear my mother making vomiting sounds, the sounds she reserved when witnessing someone ruin a salad or perfectly acceptable chicken wing with the glaring addition of ranch dressing. The sounds she made when anyone mentioned ranch dressing—or any white condiments, for that matter.
Friends usually laugh when I tell them I’ve never eaten ranch dressing, but it’s true—I’ve never eaten ranch dressing. Or blue cheese dressing. Or Thousand Island. Or cream cheese. Or a lot of cheese, so long as it’s white. On their own, I’ve ingested only scant quantities of sour cream, Greek yogurt, gooey dips, mayonnaise, buttermilk, and even regular milk.
As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my mother banned white condiments and most white non-solid foods from our household because, she said, they were disgusting. I never questioned my mother’s tyrannical decree over my culinary coming-of-age—adults made the rules and offered little explanation. Plus, there was something vaguely unnerving about those white spreads. Ranch smelled like a sock. Blue cheese, a rotting opossum. I remember opening a vat of sour cream and taking a good whiff, nearly fainting from the olfactory blowback. I trusted my mother on this one.
But as I got older, friends and boyfriends began looking at me askance when I requested mayonnaise-less and cheese-free sandwiches in restaurants. Or salads, minus the goat or blue cheese crumble.
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“French dressing?” a friend once observed. “What’s the matter, don’t you like ranch?”
“Ugh,” I scoffed, forking a wedge of iceberg slathered in orange sauce up my mouth. “I’d rather die!”
That’s when I realized I was different— we were different—and so for years I carried this secret food shame: How could anyone understand that my mother, a persnickety Southern woman, had raised her children in a home free of white foodstuffs? Yes, my brother and I enjoyed ice cream and whipped cream and yogurt even, but we shared the belief that something sinister lurked inside everything from savory white sauces to a tub of cottage cheese.
Perhaps most difficult to explain is that I’ve eaten, and my mother even regularly utilized, some white foods. Milk, for one, as she loves her coffee. (My brother and I still detest it, though, after being force-fed powdered milk in elementary school.) And she regularly employed mayonnaise for deviled eggs or tuna salad. While contradictory from what I’d originally been taught, I adapted to this sliding scale of white condiments. Mayonnaise— safe when disguised by other ingredients and therefore less of a visible threat. But this fear of white sauces bled out into everything. At my worst, I refused to ingest even egg whites. During my smoking phase, I laughably eschewed white-filtered cigarettes.
Of course, this was no way to live. Who wants to be the annoying person at the restaurant dictating a litany of dish changes to the server? Or worse, who wants to send back the sandwich because the chef forgot to leave off the mayo as requested? When I moved to Boston for grad school, I was ecstatic to escape the South and begin a new life. To ride the subway. To eat in real, fancy, big city restaurants. I wanted to grow as a person and that also meant growing my palate. I started small—chicken Caesar salads. Then I worked my way up to fish and chips and its companion, tartar sauce. Today, I can proudly boast that I eat both Caesar dressing and tartar sauce —not heaping globs of it, mind you, but sparingly. Still, this is what progress looks like.
When I comb through my childhood injustices, I’m most upset about one thing: Cheese. People love cheese, people crave cheese, but not my family, and not me: I decry a brie, find no joy in goat. I want to love cheese, all cheese, but it’s still difficult for me to enjoy a white dairy product on its own. Unless accompanied by an array of nuts, jams, and finely shaved meats, I luxuriate only inside a crude cheddar, the waxy sheet of mozzarella on a pizza, a neutered parmigiano reggiano.
A few years ago, I casually mentioned to my therapist that white condiments were verboten in my mother’s household.
“But why?” he asked. “Why only white condiments?”
“They smell bad? They’re … creamy and they look disgusting? I honestly don’t know, really.”
He jotted down some notes. “I think there’s a lot she’s not telling you,” he announced, sensing something Freudian at play. “Do some homework and ask her. Get back to me.”
Three decades on this planet had passed for me to even consider that something might’ve happened to my mother to spark this lifestyle. So, one evening, I asked her: Why, pray tell, are we like this? My mother confessed to me a story about attending a girls’ sleepover, its fabled pranks: the hand in water to make you pee, the permanent marker across the face. Silly cruelties not meant to scar. Except my mother, asleep with her mouth open, was spooned a hearty dose of mayonnaise by her supposed friends. The revelation was anticlimactic for me—“A prank, mom? Really?”—but recalling this incident some 50 years later still made my mother shudder.
And yet the great irony of my life today is that I do a lot of freelance food writing in Boston. Restaurants regularly invite me to savor their menus, and I order dishes and sit with the fact that I still mostly conform to my mother’s preposterous culinary guidelines because this is the only life I’ve known, an existence handed down by a woman who will eternally despise all white spreads, dressings, and dips with an evangelical fervor. You can take the girl out of North Carolina, but a keg of ranch dressing is still disgusting.
On a recent dinner date, the server presented us with an amuse-bouche of caviar atop a buttermilk crema-stuffed doughnut blini. My date looked at me funny. I’d just confessed that I was willing to eat anything—weird pig parts and eyeballs, even!— except for ranch dressing and most white condiments, that is. I stared at the doughnut blini on the plate. I knew what white evilness lurked inside. I took a deep breath, then put it in my mouth.
My date laughed. “It hurt you to eat that, didn’t it?”
“Just a little,” I said. But I choked it down anyway.