for a few years now.
An uber popular salad topper in the United States, it’s on the menu in nearly every American-style coffee shop, restaurant or diner. Also, Thousand Island dressing is like meat loaf or deviled eggs because everyone seems to have a favorite variation.
As a child, the first version I learned had only two ingredients—ketchup and mayonnaise, blended to completion with a whisk. Later I added a tablespoon or so of green pickle relish for extra sweetness and contrasting color, and a few years after that, a smattering of sour cream or cream, or both. A thicker approximation of this, I think, is what comes in condiment packets when ordering a hamburger.
These days, my most-liked Thousand Island recipe is more complex than what I made as a kid—but putting it together is time well worth it.
From The Settlement Cookbook, ingredients include finely grated onion and one chopped hard-boiled egg, as well as minced green bell pepper and heavy whipping cream. Only a tablespoon of ketchup goes in, but two tablespoons of chili sauce, along with a sprinkling of paprika, gives the dressing its signature pink hue. Other online recipes call for tomato sauce or paste, dill pickles and even almond milk.
Where I live in Oregon, there’s even an adored Chinese restaurant version, called pink sauce.
Mayonnaise isn’t an ingredient, but it does feature a full cup of sugar and twice as much vegetable oil. I recently made a different Asian inspired take called yum-yum sauce, which has the mayo and ketchup combo, but adds butter, onion powder and rice vinegar. Thinned with a bit of water, this sauce is superb on salad as well as ground pork and chicken.
Given the many ways to enjoy Thousand Island dressing, it’s probably not surprising that no one really knows who first invented it, or even where it was originally served.
But according to a 2012 segment on CBS’s Sunday Morning, there are three possibilities.
The two most repeated legends come from the same place, an area known as the Thousand Islands. Located between northern New York State and Canada on the St. Lawrence River, the moniker comes from the numerous tiny islands dotting this part of the water—to be precise, exactly 1,864.
For many, this fact is reason enough to assume that the dressing had to have made its debut here. Carrying the idea
a step further, some fans believe the itsy-bitsy pieces of pickle or chopped bell pepper found in most Thousand Island recipes represent an homage to the locality.
The first and more detailed story from the region focuses on wealthy hotelier George Boltd, who summered on the
St. Lawrence with his family in the late 1800s.
It was said that Boltd’s wife Louise very much enjoyed Thousand Island dressing while dining on their yacht. After her sudden passing, Boltd honored Louise by bringing the recipe to the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where he served as manager. From there, the topper gained national prominence.
The second tale comes from the town of Clayton, New York. The proprietor of the now-closed Thousand Islands Inn there says that after he bought the over 120-year-old hotel, he decided to rummage through its ancient office safe. There, written in the careful penmanship so often seen a century ago, he found what he calls the first, and still secret, Thousand Island dressing recipe, author unknown. Some swear this find was penned by the wife of a local fishing guide, but there’s no surefire information to back this up.
Story number three is the most ho-hum, merely saying the dressing debuted in 1910 at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago where it was invented by a chef named Theo Rooms. In a bit of a twist, the Settlement Cookbook has a Blackstone dressing recipe, which has some Thousand Island ingredients but adds a different flavor profile by including olive oil, vinegar and pearl onions.
Ultimately, where this most American of salad dressings was first created will likely always remain a mystery.
Given that I’m a researcher and reporter, I wish I knew more.
Still, as long as I can break out a head of crisp iceberg lettuce and top it with my homemade Thousand Island dressing, I’ll have to be content with what is known.
For now, that has to do.