Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Saga of Thousand Island Dressing and the Original Recipe for it!


I just came back from the Thousand Islands, a natural wonder that occurs where the Great Lakes pour into the St. Lawrence River.  These islands range in size from tiny outcroppings in the river to islands where there are farms and dozens of families living on them year ‘round.   Most, however, are home to seasonal summer homes accessible only by boat.  There are well over a thousand of them, 1864 to be exact, scattered along a fifty mile downstream stretch from Kingston, Ontario.  To qualify as an island, the land must be above water level all year round, have an area of at least one square foot and support at least one living tree.  Those islands that are not a part of the province of Ontario are all located in New York State.  Boat tours leave from both sides of the border, pointing out the homes of the rich and famous, who summered here at the turn of the 19 th century.  Among those is one of the greatest rock piles I’ve ever seen, Boldt Castle.  It’s the subject of much legend and romance.  And it’s part of the intrigue surrounding Thousand Island Salad Dressing.         

Boldt Castle 

Recipes for Thousand Island dressing are not quite as numerous as the islands themselves but they do come close.  Some use tomato paste.  Some throw in chili sauce, ketchup or Tabasco.  But it wasn’t hard to find the original recipe for the dressing, which has none of the above.  Amazingly, the very well known Inn where I stayed did not serve anything approaching a proper Thousand Island  dressing.  Instead they serve a version from Kraft that has nothing to do with the original.  For shame indeed! (Click this link for a review of where I stayed ).  Once I got over the disappointment that a local restaurant could not put together this amazingly easy and wonderfully rich dressing, I couldn’t wait to make my own. The dressing was everything I’d hoped: rich and creamy, full of old fashioned flavor, a wonderful topping to a chilled wedge of iceberg lettuce.  To the lettuce I added some halved grape tomatoes and a hearty sprinkling of crisp bacon.  About the only thing missing from my version of the salad was Boldt Castle and the story of the Thousand Island dressing.        
Sophie Lalonde

Legend has it that a woman named Sophia Lalonde invented a salad topping to serve to her husband and fishing guide George’s clients. The islands are home to Muskie, a game fish that is as much prized for its fight and its size as for its flavor.  Once the fishing is over, the traditional Shore dinner is held.  It’s a rather amazing plate that's put together for this dinner: French toast with maple syrup, salt potatoes, corn on the cob, Bacon and bread and red onions and battered and pan-fried fish.  Finally there’s a tossed salad. It was to this salad that Sophie Lalonde, who lived on the US side of the islands, in Clayton, New York, added her dressing. 
May Irwin and the silver screen's
first kiss.
According to local lore, an American actress named May Irwin and her husband, were bowled over both by Mr. Lalonde’s fishing expertise and Sophia’s dressing.  May Irwin has the distinction of being the actress in the first movie kiss. But her second accomplishment, giving Thousand Island Dressing its name, is what she is even better remembered for.  It’s said that the green sweet pickle, the black olives and the red peppers stood in for the islands themselves.  With some degree of logic, Ms. Irwin christened the concoction after its birthplace. 

Things get slightly murky when a man named George Boldt appears.  Boldt was penniless Prussian immigrant whose meteoric business success included building and owning the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The  wildly nouveau riche Boldt arrived in the Thousand Islands on his yacht, accompanied by his wife Louisa.  They immediately made plans to build the most elaborate of castles, a great stone monument to themselves.  Features included a replica of the Arc de Triomphe and the Alster Tower, a giant fortress that Boldt commissioned to look like fortifications on the Alter River of his native Prussia. Most unfortunately, Louisa Boldt died at age 45 before the castle was completed.
George Boldt, inconsolable at her loss, abandoned the place altogether.  But before he did, one version of the story has his yacht's chef throwing the dressing together because it was all he had to work with. Nonsense. I believe that was just to cover the fact that they stole Sophie Lalonde's recipe.   This version is far more likely: May Irwin introduced Boldt to Sophie Lalonde’s dressing, which he in turn introduced to his Chef, the famous Oscar of the Waldorf. Oscar put it on the hotel menu and from then on, Thousand Island dressing became one of the most popular salad dressings of all times.        

Now here’s the recipe.  I used the most basic of pantry items to make it.  Supermarket sweet pickle relish and those terrible canned black olives, which were surely the only ones available in Upstate New York in the 19 th century.  No Kalamatas here, although I couldn’t help thinking they would have been wonderful.  It’s nothing like bottled Kraft. It’s not McDonald’s special sauce.  And it differs from Russian Dressing which is made with ketchup. Thousand Island never should be. The calorie count is almost exclusively from the mayonnaise.  I use Hellmann’s Olive Oil Mayo, which comes in at 60 calories a tablespoon. I can hardly call this salad calorie-conscious because I served it with those with crispy bacon bits.  This is the original recipe and the proportions are such that you could likely feed all the diners at the Waldorf with ease.  So I’ve also printed one that’s half the hotel size. Served as a lunch or light supper, accompanied by some crusty bread or whole grain rolls, this would be superb. Here’s the recipe:

Original Recipe for Thousand Island Dressing
Time 20 minutes plus chilling time ( which I didn't think was particularly necessary.)  Yields 16 servings for the entire recipe, 8 for the half recipe, which follows at the end of the instructions.

         3 eggs
         1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
         1 tablespoon white sugar
         1/4 cup white vinegar
         1 pinch ground cloves
         1 quart mayonnaise
         3/4 cup sweet pickle relish
         1/2 cup chopped black olives
         1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1. Place eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring water to boil and immediately remove from heat. Cover and let eggs stand in hot water for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from hot water, cool, peel and chop.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the chopped eggs, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, vinegar, cloves, mayonnaise, relish, olives and red pepper until evenly blended. Chill and serve spooned over fresh greens. Store in the refrigerator.

To make half the amount above.
1-1/2 eggs
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 teaspoons white sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 pinch ground cloves
2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
1/4 cup chopped black olives

1/4 cup diced red bell pepper


  1. As I'm living i Denmark, I can't just buy "sweet pickle relish". Could you suggest a recepie that resemples the product you use?

  2. Dear Jens, I am so pleased that you want to make this recipe. If you have any kind of sweet gherkin, you can chop that up and use it. I believe you have something called "remoulade" (sweet Danish pickle) which you could easily substitute. When I first ran across 'remoulade', it puzzled me a bit because a Remoulade is a particular sauce here. I hope this helps and please let us know how it turns out. Held og lykke!

    1. Thank you for your prompt reply. Does the sweet pickle relish only contain pickled gherkins or are there other ingredients as well?
      There is a Swedish relish called ”Bostongurka” (Cucumber from Boston) containing pickled cucumber, red bell pepper, onion and mustard seeds. ( Is it similar to the relish you are using?
      Danish sauce remoulade is made from finely chopped British piccalilli ( and mayonnaise, although the industrial version is made from some sort of pickled cabbage and mayonnaise, turmeric and curry. ( I don’t think that it can replace the pickle relish.
      I will try to make this recipe. It’s exiting and quite different from the “Thousand Island Dressing” recipe I am using now, and it then might turn up on my blog as well. ;-)
      PS. Sorry for my poor English.

    2. All the sweet pickle relish contains, according to its label, is cucumbers and peppers sugar and vinegar. I think the "Bostongurka" sounds like a pretty close match. And honestly, never apologize for your English. It is far superior to my Danish! Held og lykke and please come back and tell us what you think.

    3. Very interested in how this turned out for Jans! I hope you hear back soon.

    4. Dear Jyll, If you click on Jens name, you will go to his site. Since I have not heard how it worked out, feel free to ask him yourself! And if you have a moment, let us know! All best, Monte

    5. Hello Monte-
      I took a while, but now the Thousand Island recipe is on my blog:
      As you can see, I have made the salad with cold-water prawns - a typical use of the Thousand Island Dressing in Denmark. I have adjusted the recipe to an even smaller size. It tastes wonderful, but a little to heavy for everyday use :-)

    6. Dear Jens, So pleased to see your post. Just wish I could comment on it in Danish--not my strong suit! I hope your readers enjoy your post. As you can see from the further comments on this page, it's been quite controversial. It
      has attracted a lot of attention. Happy summer to you Jens and wish you much success with your blog! Monte

  3. Monge,
    You have parts of the history of Thousand Islands Salad Dressing, kinda close, but it was in fact created by the owner/chef of the Thousand Islands Inn, in Clayton, NY. The national news, and other news magazines, have covered the history, and interviewed the current owners. The original, authentic recipe is a secret, and has never been offered to the public. Growing up here in the Thousand Islands, you have listed some ingredients that would never be put in the dressing - no sugar, no cloves, no black olives. I don't know who gave you this recipe, but it is only someone's facsimile.

    1. Dear Chubby Bunny, As I pointed out, recipes for Thousand Island Dressing are almost as numerous as the islands themselves. The recipe I settled on came from Oscar of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. This was the hotel the Boldt's of Boldt's castle owned. This is the recipe that Oscar supposedly stole from Sophie Lalonde. I doubt a chef as famous as he was could leave well enough alone and undoubtedly changed it in some fashion. You may well be correct that sugar, cloves and black olives may have been his additions to the original. And I must say I do like the romance of the black bits of olive standing for the islands themselves. Thanks so much for your comments. I love hearing from readers like you.

    2. Oh, Chubbybunny. It has been historically proven that Sophia pioneered the recipe, and it is even on display at Thousand Islands museum. Perhaps one should get their facts straight before Internet trolling

  4. Hi Monte,

    What a fantastic article! You obviously put a lot of time and energy into this post. I simply adore the recipe and shared it, along with a link back to your post, over on my blog. (see link below.) Keep up the awesome work. I'll definitely be back.


    1. Dear Melissa, I wondered where all the renewed interest in this particular post came from and when I checked, I went straight to your wonderful blog. Isn't it amazing how this continues to be a controversial recipe so many years after it first appeared? And how adamant a discussion it is. I was staying on the Canadian side of the Islands otherwise would have tried to go to the 1000 Islands Inn in Clayton. Thanks again, Melissa and come back soon. Monte

  5. Thanks for this fun read, Monte. I stumbled across your blog and though I've read many versions (including yours and chubbybunny's claims that she has the accurate history--how can we be sure?), I like your version. :) A good story! And I like that no matter if it's authentic or original, we can create whatever we like to suit our tastes. Food/recipe history is so varied and deep (with folks calling theirs the best, the original, etc. or calling another person's recipe "wrong" or inaccurate. Pish! I love to see all versions and how folks make something "their own." :) Off to dig further into your blog since I so enjoyed this post!

    1. Dear Foodlove, Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I do appreciate it more than you know. I am fascinated with food history and often write posts 'with a side of history'. And I too am totally intrigued by 'comments', particularly those who have so drastically altered a recipe that it bares no resemblance to the one they are commenting on. Here's a link to my absolute favorite of that genre...
      Hope you enjoy it and thank you again for coming by! All best, Monte

    2. Monte, thank you for the excellent article and recipe. Another great salad dressing that has mysterious origins is Green Goddess. The Captain's Table in Mandan, North Dakota made a version that was absolutely divine but sadly they closed their doors a few years ago. Theirs was a mayonnaise and sour cream based concoction. If you could find the original Green Goddess recipe I'd be one happy partially frozen No-Daker.

    3. Dear W, Tomorrow is your lucky day! I am just about to publish your request: Both the original recipe for Green Goddess dressing and the story behind it. Thank you so much for taking the time to write and I hope you will share this post with all your friends in Mandan who miss The Captain's Table. All best, Monte

  6. I am so glad you enjoyed this article. It was one of my favorites too. I love a challenge and I will take you up on yours. Food History is one my favorite subjects. So I'll get to it! And to make you feel slightly better, the high today in NYC is 21 degrees so we are also partially frozen.

  7. This is the bomb dressing served in the northwest with a wedge type salad topped with fresh dungeness crab!
    My family loves this dressing. And thanks for the story of the "Thousand Island's". Makes it taste that much better!