Salad dressing is something that people like myself take for granted. Likely you, fair reader, are in the same boat. You want to eat healthy food and want something for your salad, so you go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of dressing for your lunch salad. Or perhaps you go to a restaurant and the waiter or waitress asks you want dressing you want, and you ask them about their house vinaigrette or other dressings. Yet this is not how things were during most of history. Even considering the history of the restaurant , salad dressings as we know them and buy them and consume them are not all that common. Dressings that one would think were very old indeed (like Ranch dressing, Caesar dressing, Italian Dressing, and so on) are, it turns out, not very old at all.
This struck me as very odd when I looked into it. Italian dressing, for example, was invented in Massachusetts in 1941 by a daughter of Italian immigrants whose husband was a restaurant owner. A few years later a competing brand came out of Kansas City, Missouri, which I grew up eating . Ranch dressing comes from the 1950’s, from someone who invented the dressing while working in Alaska and first introduced to the world in a dude ranch in Southern California . Caesar dressing comes from the 1920’s from Mexican restaurant owners in Southern California . Similar stories of restaurant chefs and owners and the invention of dressing during the late 1800’s and early-to-mid 1900’s fill our salad dressing aisles, with Russian dressing that doesn’t come from Russia and so on. There are a few threads that connect these different creations and that story is worth exploring and pondering upon for a bit, and so let us do so.
It is not as if salad dressing itself comes from that time period. One can find vinaigrette dressings going back long into history, but one did not find them bottled and sold. Rather, one imagines a situation like that in fine dining restaurants, where one goes to a restaurant and one sees the kitchen staff prepare the dressing on site by mixing the olive oil and vinegar and spices and then pouring it on the salad, similar to the way that one eats bread with olive oil and pepper, dipping the bread into the oil mixture. From time to time I enjoy mixing my own olive oil and red wine vinegar to make dressing. I suspect that is not a pleasure for myself alone, even if it is only an occasional one and not a regular habit. We must account, therefore, for the fact that while salad dressings and other condiments go back a long time, the way that we eat salad dressings is not the way that was most commonly known throughout history.
There are likely at least a few reasons for this. For one, it is likely that the eating of green salads on the scale that we like to eat them as well as the use of mayonnaise as a salad dressing base (common in most creamy dressings) required the reliability of refrigeration, so that the food would not spoil. There is no sense in bottling salad dressing if one cannot keep it for long periods of time so that they can be used. There is nowhere the dressing can be sold unless there are factories that are able to make the dressings in industrial quantities. So, unsurprisingly, the history of salad dressings is somewhat chaotic. Initially restaurants make their own dressings in vats or sell their customers bottles as well as salad dressing mixes in packets to be fully prepared at home. Later on these successful early restaurant-based dressings were largely bought out by larger food companies that saw the profit in expanding their portfolio of condiments to salad dressings.
Interestingly enough, American salad dressings appear to belong to one of two families. The dressings that I prefer are part of the vinaigrette family, and are based on olive oil and vinegar. There are a great many dressings in this family, including Italian dressing as well as Caesar dressing (which adds mustard and often anchovies, among other things). The other base of salad dressings in North America is mayonnaise, which serves as the base for creamy Italian, Ranch, Russian, and other related dressings. Some dressings, like Thousand Island, as well as the German style “spicy” ranch dressing, include tomatoes or ketchup as part of the salad base. Despite the variety of salad dressings, though, there are often very few materials that serve as the basis of dressings. Either they are a bit sour from vinegar and go down easy because of the olive oil or they are creamy because of mayonnaise. Americans are strange eaters of salad, it must be admitted, but the varied creators of America’s salad dressings deserve a great deal of praise from us for turning the topping of salad into products that can be appreciated by mass consumer audiences.
 See, for example: