Who Invented Thousand Island Dressing?

By Matt Blitz |
Thousand Island Dressing

© Evi Abeler

While its reputation may not be as bad as Ranch's, there's a belief in some circles that Thousand Island dressing is unsophisticated. While we can't speak for everyone's taste buds, how a dressing that's essentially ketchup, relish and mayo came to be associated with a chain of islands that were primarily a vacaction destination for the super wealthy is actually somewhat of a mystery. There are two predominate legends, but the truth likely falls in the middle - like Thousand Island dressing in a good Reuben.

No matter what dressing legend you believe, they both start in the beloved vacation spot of the Gilded Age elite - upstate New York's Thousand Islands. Today, we may not think of places like Clayton or Alexandria Bay as particularly exotic, but at the turn of the 20th century, millionaire industrialists like George Pullman, the Kellogg family, Henry Marcus Quackenbush and George Boldt all owned homes in the Thousand Islands region. At a time when there were no airplanes and automobiles were in their infancy, traveling far distances for a vacation was out of the question. Located 370 miles from New York City, the 1,864 islands in the St. Lawrence River that sit between New York and Canada and make up the so-called "Thousand Islands" were a perfect, idyllic summer destination. To this day, many still remain privately owned by the wealthy families who bought them over a century ago.

The first tale begins exactly at the turn of the century. In 1900 George Boldt, the man who had recently opened New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel, planned a surprise for his love Louisa. Escorting her onto his private yacht, they sailed down the St. Lawrence River. Through the mist, an island came into view. On it, an enormous castle in mid-construction intended as a gift for her. What's more, through the building of docks and moving of soil, the island was in the shape of a heart. Later, Boldt he would add dozens of hearts to the castles' interior and exterior.

Excited and in love, the two would sail to visit the construction site often over the next few years. On one of these trips, Boldt asked his chef Oscar Tschirky to join him on the yacht to prepare a meal. As the legend goes, Tschirky put together a salad but had forgotten the dressing. So, using whatever he had onboard, he quickly whipped up a concoction of mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce and one hard-boiled egg. Boldt and Louisa loved the improvised dressing and named it after the region that would play host to their love nest for years to come - Thousand Island Dressing. However, sadly and suddenly, Louisa died in 1904 just before construction on the castle was completed, Boldt suspended construction and never set foot on his heart-shaped island again. But the dressing that he and Louisa loved endured. Tschirky became a chef at the Waldorf Astoria and took his recipe with him, serving it up to millions of salad and sandwich eaters at the famed New York hotel.

This is the most dramatic Thousand Island dressing origin story, but it may not be true. In 1972, local fishing guide Allen Benas purchased the historic Herald Hotel in Clayton, New York (which he would rename to the Thousand Islands Inn). While sifting through the clutter, he came upon a safe with a single sheet of paper labeled "Sophia's Sauce." Showing it to his cooks, they told him it looked like a recipe for Thousand Island dressing.

Sophia Lelonde was a hard-working innkeeper and cook who was married to a fishing guide named George at the end of the 19th century. Together, they owned the Herald Hotel. Cooking for George and the people he took out on fishing trips, she would whip up quick lunches, including sandwiches and salads with her self-named sauce. The wealthy elite who visited Clayton loved the dressing and were known to bring bottles back home. According to Benas, this included famed silent movie actress May Irwin. Known most famously for having the first on-screen kiss in Thomas Edison's "The Kiss," Irwin often visited the Hearld Hotel. She was also known as a tastemaker and a socialite who would share food from her travels with friends. As it so happens, her friends included George and Louisa Boldt.

Both of these stories likely hold some truth about the invention of Thousand Island dressing. According to food historian Ben Davison on the podcast "Backstory," at the time, eating salad was a sign of being wealthy due to it being difficult to get fresh, greens. Due to transportation problems, most vegetables that didn't grow naturally in the area were wilted and crushed on the way to dinner plates. In New York, what grew naturally were bitter herbs like endives and chicories. So, dressings were made to mask their flavor. Mayonnaise, in particular, was used to cut through the bitter greens. Davison theorizes that versions of a similar dressing were being made across the island at the same time. What we know as Thousand Island dressing today may simply be a combination of several different recipes.

Whatever its origin, the dressing has become the not-so-secret of McDonald's special sauce and a favorite option on a Ruby Tuesday's salad bar. And that's something to celebrate.

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