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Condiment Confidential
by Elliot Essman
"Americans can eat garbage," wrote Henry Miller, "provided you sprinkle it liberally with a condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish." Miller spent a great portion of his long life in Paris, where he undoubtedly learned to appreciate subtle flavor combinations to complement his pungent opinions. If he were alive today he would be amused, perhaps enraged, to learn that many Americans value their condiments more than they do the foods the condiments are designed to enhance. Take salsa and chips as an example. Are the chips really that important?

The Association for Dressings and Sauces (the existence of which proves that no food product class is without an advocate) recently commissioned Chicago-based research firm Synovate to survey one thousand Americans on their condiment preferences. Salsa tied for first place with ketchup (the condiment that originally made Henry Miller see red). Mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and bottled salad dressings were also popular, with mustard making a respectable showing. The Survey went beyond mere numerical usage tabulation; it attempted to link personality traits to condiment preference.

Salsa lovers may well be "spicier" as individuals than ketchup pourers. Salsa is most popular in the West, where 25% of those surveyed named it their favorite condiment. Salsians described themselves as more extroverted and sociable compared to consumers in general. They tend to be motivated, competitive, and athletic; these are the risk takers.

I've always felt that a good salsa, or any good product based on chilies, should be hot enough to put hair on your chest (if you are male) or burn any off (if you are female), but the survey didn’t distinguish between levels of heat. I would think it safe to assume that lovers of "real" salsas, like my favorite, Albuquerque-produced Pedro's, fit this admirable profile to a greater degree than do consumers of “wimp” salsas. But I am straying from science, so let's move on to mayonnaise.

My sister, Susie Essman, who is a comedienne and television actress, uses "mayonnaise" (along with "white bread") in her stand-up routine as a metaphor for conservative, un-ethnic (and hence probably not very interesting) people. Perhaps this judgment is severe, but one thing is certain: women are more likely to prefer mayonnaise than are men. (I was careful to phrase this sentence correctly, though I am sure there are women who would readily trade a man for a quart jar of Hellman's.) Among the mayonnaiseans, a good half described themselves as "introverts." They are less likely to be risk takers, athletes, or engage in competitive pursuits.

Barbecue sauce--as if there were only one barbecue sauce, but that is another subject--appeals to men more than to women. With the exception of the Northeast, barbecue sauce is uniformly popular throughout the country. Barbecue sauce appeals to a large percentage of the 18 to 24 year old age group. These people are likely to describe themselves as extroverted, creative, motivated, athletic, and witty.

Before we further delve into the American sauce psyche, it is noteworthy that the three condiments we've already discussed have been presented in reverse order of their ease of making at home. Barbecue sauce takes a lot of mixing and boiling; a miscalculation can get sticky. Homemade mayonnaise can be delightful, but it's a "serve-immediately" affair. Salsa, on the other hand, is a no-brainer; it's a shame not to try your hand at it. You get to adjust the heat yourself. You'll probably want to adjust my recipe down a notch.


One half cup tomatoes, diced, drained of excess liquid
One half cup onion, diced
One quarter cup red bell pepper, diced
One garlic clove, finely chopped
One jalapeño, stemmed, finely chopped
Two teaspoons fresh cilantro, chopped (or one teaspoon dried)
One teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped (or one half teaspoon dried)
One quarter teaspoon chipotle powder
Coarse sea salt or margarita salt to taste

Remove seeds from jalapeño before chopping to reduce heat if desired. Use a habanero instead if you really want to make a statement. Mix ingredients. Refrigerate an hour before serving.

Bottled salad dressings are a big condiment category, and they don't all end up topping salads. The survey found that salad dressings are popular among women, among the 18-24 age group, and do better in the Northeast than in other areas of the country. On the average, consumers keep three bottles of dressing on hand. Salad dressing devotees are the most reserved and self-disciplined of any condiment cohort. Many spend their time in creative pursuits like crafts and photography.

Mustard, which pre-dates most of our other condiments in culinary history, tends to appeal to the 35 and older crowd, though nearly all groups keep mustard on their list at some level. Mustardians tend to be family oriented, ambitious, self-disciplined and somewhat shy. Men and women choose mustard about equally, and mustard consumption is fairly evenly distributed along geographic lines.

Though hot sauce devotees may have strong opinions, there is no questioning the fact that they are extroverted, risk-taking (almost by definition) and sociable. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 who live in the South or West prefer hot sauce to any other condiment.

Finally, there's horseradish. These devotees are most likely male, aged 55 or older, living in the Northeast or Midwest, family-oriented, and sociable (but not in the "life of the party sense").

Not content to out-Freud Freud with their admirable survey, the Association for Dressings and Sauces continues to blaze condiment ground with their surveys and online quizzes. People who prefer Ranch salad dressing (the most popular), they find, are typically health-oriented younger adults with kids; they dress neatly but without much of an eye to style. The Italian dressing user, on the other hand, dresses to impress. French dressers are likely to be shy, while the Thousand Island and Blue Cheese cohort take care of the sociability and wit. How you apply your dressing also matters: "Toppers," who pour their dressing on top of the salad and eat it without mixing, tend to be shy. “Mixers,” who mix their dressing into the salad so as to carefully coat every item, are much more sociable. Then there are "dippers," those few (11%) who keep their dressing to the side and dip each forkful into the dressing right before eating. Their key traits are spontaneity and independence. You never knew!

You needn't use the tired line "what's your sign" any more. "What's your salad dressing" will do, now that the Association has determined all twelve zodiacal salad dressing preferences. Aquarians, being team players, prefer the popular Ranch dressing. They tend to be “mixers.” Pisceans are risk-taking individualists and prefer Italian dressing. The sign of Aries is the most health conscious (and salad-eating) of them all, calling for low-fat vinaigrettes. Taureans, as befits the sign of the bull, favor Ranch. The changeable sign of Gemini, it is no surprise, can't commit to any particular dressing or method of application. People born under the sign of Cancer, ruled by the moon, are often "dippers" who prefer Blue Cheese dressing. Leos are evenly split among Italian, Blue Cheese and French dressings, but they have a strong tendency to be "mixers." Virgos, likely to be "toppers," are big salad eaters, preferring Ranch. Venus-ruled Libras, a careful, risk-averse group, are "mixers," with a penchant for Italian dressing. Scorpios, who prefer Italian also, are the great "dippers" among the signs. Sagittarians, like all who prefer French dressing, are likely to be "toppers." Finally, variety-loving Capricorns enjoy all types of dressings, pour it on in every conceivable way, and keep an average of four dressings on hand.

I was indeed born under one of the twelve signs, but I'm not telling. I confess to being a "dipper" when I am out in a restaurant, but at home, I own precisely no bottled dressings. Bottled dressing manufacturers, even the "health" brands, must add emulsifiers to keep their products shelf stable for long periods of time. I prefer to make a fresh dressing from scratch, good for the salad I put on the table that evening. As to condiments, I do confess that my several brands of hot sauce are never far from my grasp, that I hate ketchup, love mustard, and use mayonnaise for my tuna salad sandwiches. I also favor a number of condiments that weren't on the survey: soy sauce, aromatic bitters, Worcestershire sauce, and Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce. Based on this data, please feel free to make as many conclusions about my personality as you like. Top -- Food Articles Home

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