Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
I love mayonnaise. Love it. Like, eat it with a spoon, lick it off a plate, love mayonnaise.
Growing up, my family preferred Miracle Whip, the only real mayo alternative in the U.S. in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My mom seemed to think it was a “healthier” substitute. (It was not.) And because Miracle Whip is trash, I was understandably skeptical upon my first encounter with Heinz’s Salad Cream.
Not that I’d ever heard of the stuff before. Even today, it’s nearly impossible to find Salad Cream in the U.S. But, in the UK and some former British colonies, Salad Cream has been a household staple since World War I. It’s still so popular that, after Heinz threatened to change the product’s name to Sandwich Cream in July when they found that only 14% of buyers actually used the product on salads, the public outcry was swift and intense.
Salad Cream first entered my life in the years I spent working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in Belize. In my experience, anything even came close to resembling a salad in Belize—potato salad, coleslaw, raw veggies of any kind, even stewed beans and rice—was generously doused in Salad Cream.
This was a confusing time for me. Mayonnaise was mayonnaise, but Salad Cream was oddly satisfying in a way mayo never had been. Tangy, gelatinous, a disturbing shade of duckling yellow—it wasn’t just a condiment to spread on a sandwich but it turned a meager salad into a delight. Why was Belizean potato salad made with Salad Cream so much better than American potato salad? What kind of monster had I become by glopping Salad Cream into my beans?
Most important of all: from what distant heaven did Salad Cream fall?
For over a century now, Salad Cream has been quietly giving mayonnaise a run for its money in the United Kingdom. Appearing on shelves before mayonnaise was even produced commercially in Great Britain, Salad Cream wormed its way into the British stomach without competition. Frankly, mayo never had a chance.
Across the pond, Prussian immigrant Richard Hellman was the first to sell mayonnaise commercially at his New York delicatessen in 1905. His wife, Margaret Vossberg, made the condiment, which Hellman scooped out in dollops for customers to take home. It proved so popular that soon Hellman was selling the condiment in bulk to other New York stores.
Hellman might have been the mayo king, but he wasn’t the first to factory-manufacture a condiment. That honor fell to Henry J. Heinz, who founded his namesake company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1876. Heinz’s specialty was tomato ketchup, and in 1886 his condiment began showing up in UK markets.
By 1913, Margaret Vossberg’s mayonnaise had become so popular that Hellman opened the world’s first commercial mayonnaise factory, Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise. He quickly ramped up production in the United States, but it would still be several years before Hellman’s mayo made it to the UK.
It would have been logical for Heinz to capitalize off of the proven success of Hellman’s mayo by developing a mayonnaise of its own for the UK market before Hellman made it across the Atlantic. Instead, he decided to create the almost-but-not-quite-mayo Salad Cream. Homemade mayonnaise was already eaten in the UK, and the two products shared the same core ingredients (egg yolks, oil and vinegar)—so why didn’t Heinz go with a tried-and-true favorite? Why take the risk of developing Salad Cream? Heinz UK, who declined to comment on this story, is silent on its origins.
Without Heinz’s insight, the most convincing explanation bandied about among Salad Cream aficionados is that the food industry of 1914 was shaped by World War I. Official wartime food rationing didn’t begin until 1916 but, as the country mobilized for battle in 1914, the government passed the Defence of the Realm Act, which gave them the power to commandeer any supplies necessary for the war effort, including food. And they did. By the end of the war, Julia Irwin, Associate Professor of history at the University of South Florida, told MUNCHIES, “the conditions had become so terrible that people were scrounging for food,” surviving on things like turnip bread, which was just about as tasty as it sounds.
At the beginning of the Great War, most foods were still accessible but prices were rapidly increasing. And as prices rose, the mayo-loving working class could no longer afford the condiment’s ingredients. Suddenly, at the height of their mayo induced despair, something wonderful happened: Heinz’s Salad Cream hit the shelves. Thanks to its industrial processing and a recipe that included additives like sugar and mustard to a base of egg yolk, oil and vinegar, Salad Cream was more affordable than its homemade counterpart. As the war slogged on, even upper classes turned to the stuff as part of their “patriotic duty to replace more luxury staples with others,” notes Irwin.
After the Napoleonic Wars, a dubious product called butterine, a butter-like fat made from beef suet and milk, became fashionable from France to the United States. Crisco, the solid hydrogenated cottonseed oil, rose to popularity in the U.S. during World War I when butter became less easily available. And, as World War I came to a close, Salad Cream, too, bravely soldiered on in the kitchens of Great Britain.
But Salad Cream did more than just survive, it full-on thrived. And not just in the UK, either; Salad Cream began to show up in British colonies as far flung as Africa, Asia, and the Carribbean. Food stuffs have long been a tool of or justification for empire building, says Irwin, and while Salad Cream isn’t exactly tea or sugarcane or spices (all of which have led to nasty conflicts and hideous forms of exploitation), the condiment began to follow in the wake of the UK’s imperial conquests, showing up on salad recipes in places like the Falkland Islands and Nigeria. In his 2004 book Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, Martin Booth describes soaking his eggs in Salad Cream. And then there’s Belize, where anywhere raw vegetables go, so goes Salad Cream.
“Food follows not only imperial networks, but also networks of integration and migration,” says Irwin. So, while Salad Cream was a distinctly British condiment, in some Commonwealth countries it was easily appropriated and worked into local foods. In others, it shows up unevenly, if at all. (Salad Cream never managed to make inroads into Barbados, for example.)
So, maybe Salad Cream hasn’t taken over the world yet. To my great disappointment, it hasn’t even taken over the Commonwealth. But Heinz’s masterful World War I substitute remains beloved by the British, still going strong more than a century after it was first released.
As for me, I remain ever vigilant and on the hunt for the only condiment ever to make me second guess the superiority of mayonnaise.