Dictionaries define condiment as a seasoning or relish for food. Depending on one’s geographical and ethnic origins, some people include herbs, and salt and pepper in the condiment family. For the purposes of this discussion, salt and pepper will be considered a given.
When it came to the boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there were primarily three condiments that were pervasive nationwide: ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. To be sure, there were differences region to region; hot sauce contributed to the American diet from Louisiana and salsa to the Southwest (we’ll come back to that later), but to understand the desire for building an American cuisine after the War, those three condiments ruled the roost. Likewise, fish dishes had tartar sauce and shrimp cocktail was not the same without cocktail sauce, but those were both based on mayonnaise and ketchup, respectively.
An emulsion of eggs, oil and some type of acid such as vinegar or lemon juice mixed with seasonings, mayonnaise in some form has been around for hundreds of years. Mayonnaise began being sold in stores when Hellmann’s, a brand well known to boomers, began selling it in 1912. Primarily used as a sandwich dressing at first, by the 1920s, mayonnaise was a key ingredient in salads such as potato salad, crab or tuna salad, and fruit and nut salads such as the Waldorf. It was an essential ingredient in making other types of dressings as well, such as tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing.
The 1950s and ’60s were an era of “creative” salads — from Jell-O molds to fruit salads and more — and mayonnaise found its way into most of them. As a precursor to an Instagram world, the recipes were often supplied by Kraft Miracle Whip and Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, the industry leaders. Food shortages during the Depression and rationing during WWII saw mayonnaise being substituted for oils and butter in many recipes, including chocolate cake. By the early 1950s, Hellmann’s dominated the market and was instrumental in distributing these types of “traditional” recipes on their jar labels. The condiment had moved from the lunch menu to every aspect of dining, from breakfast to lunch, dinner and dessert.
Heinz dominated the ketchup market in the 1950s and ’60s, with the Hunts brand coming in a distant second. The American hamburger was fast being identified as all-American with the franchising of McDonald’s, then Burger King and others, and ketchup was considered entirely necessary to finish a beef burger. Hot dogs had, from decades earlier, purists in the “never ketchup” camp, with those preferring only mustard on their hot dogs. On the other hand, if you lived in the Midwest, piling on both ketchup and mustard, plus onions and sweet pickle relish, was pretty common. The East Coast (Philadelphia in particular) added cheese sauce, and the West Coast (Los Angeles) and the Southwest added chili as far back as the end of the Civil War. Chili, in addition to mustard and ketchup, became a bigger condiment addition to first hot dogs, then hamburgers, in Mister Boomer’s area.
Mister Boomer recalls making burgers at a Burger Chef for his first job. To dispense the “company-correct” amount of ketchup and mustard on each burger, he used a contraption that looked like a burger-sized metal ring that resembled the belt strapped to prisoners’ heads going to the electric chair in the movies. The ring was suspended on an aluminum pole, with two clear tubes, one yellow, one red, leading up the pole to jets fixed to a bar within the ring. Mister B took the bottom bun and placed the burger on it, then in an upward motion, pushed the burger upwards under the metal ring. The ring, when triggered by the upward motion, squirted the mustard and ketchup onto the burger, forming the perfect yin-yang dabs of mustard and ketchup. If the burger had cheese on it, the mustard-ketchup combo was added in the same manner, only on the cheese instead of the meat. If a customer did not want one or the other (a rarity), the chosen condiment was squirted by hand from a squeeze bottle.
Of the three top condiments of the boomer years, ketchup was by far the favorite of Mister Boomer. He put it on everything from scrambled eggs to all types of lunch meat, from olive loaf to ham, to steaks, pork chops and beyond. Mister Boomer’s mother, like most boomer-era moms, placed a layer of ketchup on top of her meatloaf. Baked in the oven, the ketchup layer formed a sweet, tomato-ey crust that became Mister B’s favorite part of the dish.
It is believed by food historians that mustard, first cultivated in India, is more than 6,000 years old. From there it spread throughout Asia and the Mediterranean. The Romans brought it to Europe when they conquered Gaul. Some say Benjamin Franklin himself brought a type of Dijon mustard to the U.S. from France at the time of the American Revolution. So certainly, mustard was not new to the condiment world when the boomer era began.
The most popular brand of mustard in the boomer years was French’s, reported to have captured half of the market. Known for its sharp flavor and bright yellow color, it was sold in jars from its introduction in 1904 up until French’s stopped selling the product in glass jars in 1991, replacing glass with plastic squeeze bottles. In 1974, French’s introduced the first squeeze packet, which enabled fast food companies to offer the condiment on a to-go basis.
Boomers will recall, with some nostalgia, pulling mustard from a French’s jar with a butter knife. In Mister B’s household, the mustard was kept in the door of the refrigerator. Brother boomer liked mustard much more than Mister B. His sister, though she also had a preference for ketchup on her fried bologna sandwiches, would on occasion smear on mustard instead.
Salsa and more
In 2013, tomato-based salsa replaced ketchup at the top of the preferred condiment list, a spot it held for 60 years. In Mister Boomers opinion, the changes in tastes are indicative of two things: the countries of origin for immigration had shifted from the Mediterranean and European immigrants of the boomer years to Hispanic countries, as well as Asia and Africa; and secondly, the adoption of foods — and condiments connected to those foods — that have been elevated to the status of all-American cuisine has expanded. Prior to the boomer years, all-American cuisine included hot dogs and apple pie. During the boomer years, Italian food was added to hamburgers and French fries to represent a national food identity. Today, pizza consistently comes in as the top choice of “American food,” and tacos and salsa are fast becoming labelled as American cuisine.
Which of the top three condiments — mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise — reigned supreme in your household, boomers? Today, what do your children and grandchildren prefer?