French dressing: an American oddity

Frank on Food

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Frank Chlumsky

I can't imagine anyone who has ever eaten in a typical mid-range restaurant in America who has not experienced the taste of "French" dressing. It's that creamy, red/orange, tart-yet-slightly-sweet salad dressing that usually tops off a list of a half dozen or so salad dressings that any seasoned food server worth their salt could surely rattle off in their sleep. Here's a common scene, played out daily in such restaurants all across the country:

Waitperson: "What kind of dressing would you like?"

Customer: "What kind do you have?"

Waitperson (frequently with a sigh, often in a monotone): "We have French, Thousand Island, Roquefort/Blue Cheese, Ranch, Creamy Garlic and Italian."

Sound familiar? Sometimes the list is even longer, and sometimes the waitperson will warn you that the blue cheese/Roquefort will cost you extra. But just what is French dressing?

Look in any cookbook for a recipe, and you will undoubtedly find the ingredients to be nothing more than oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. The first recipe bearing such a title appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in 1900, and afterward it simply became the term we use to describe the most common type of salad dressing that the French put on their salad.

In France they call it vinaigrette. I can only attribute as a food oddity how our creamy, red/orange version, so commonly served in America, evolved from those ingredients into something so different yet with the same name. As of this writing it remains, to me, a mystery.

Accepting of this mystique and inscrutability, I have to say that I heartily enjoy a properly made vinaigrette, but I have a warm place in my heart for the creamy American version as well, with fond remembrance of the bottle of "Milani 1890 French Dressing" that used to grace our dinner table in my childhood home. Numerous other brands, such as Western, Kraft's Catalina, and Wishbone French dressing are familiar to us all and can readily be found on grocery shelves throughout the land. But where can you find a recipe?

Years ago, as a fledgling cook with a desire to make "American" French dressing from scratch, and unable to find a recipe in the cook books I was reading, I came upon an unlikely source that I later used with great success in the supper club that I owned in Wisconsin. Lo and behold, right there on a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup was a recipe for Tomato French Dressing. Its popularity with my customers was such that I did not dare alter it in any way. Here's the recipe, just as it has appeared on the label of this all-American classic since before the days of WWII. An American oddity.

 

Campbell's Tomato French DressingS

servings: 1 1/2 cups

1 can (10 ¾ oz) Campbell's condensed tomato soup
½ cup salad oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ teaspoon dry mustard

In a covered jar or shaker, combine ingredients; shake well before using, or mix ingredients in a blender

Variation Additions

4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup sweet pickle relish

Add any one of the "variation" ingredients if desired to branch out into something new.

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