-- House Stuff
-- Heat Dream
Artwork and Photography
-- Mistry Trees
-- Let it Begin
“Narcissists I’ve known have had unusual eating habits or appetites, including eating match heads, dry cake mix, chicken bones, raw meat, dog kibble, egg mash, bits of paper, wood pencils; some binge or gorge on ordinary foods, others seem always to be on one or another self-imposed, self-invented eccentric dietary regime.” —from “Narcissistic Personality Disorder – How to Recognize a Narcissist” by Joanna Ashmun.
Although my father’s proclivities in eating changed a little through the years, there was a constant accompaniment to every lunch and dinner and most breakfasts. So unvarying was the accompaniment of mayonnaise to every meal that my father referred to the unctuous white goo as “the staff of life.” My father grew up in Louisiana and loved the creole foods of his home state. His father taught him how to cook and make sauces, and he passed that knowledge on to me. I still make a flat omelet, which was one of his weekend specialties. My father’s father also taught him how to make mayonnaise, but ultimately, a store-bought version of this amorphous foodstuff would fire the culinary imagination of Fred.
At every meal, a full-sized jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise was always within easy grip of his right hand next to his water glass (and/or icy glass of Tab), and the application of it went far beyond the conventional spreading on a sandwich or a cracker. Mayonnaise, for my father, was a ubiquitous binder—a kind of basic component that, in combination with other sauces or alone, provided an unwavering theme—a gustatory drone string in the symphony of Freddish gourmandism. Blended with A1 or Heinz 57, it was the perfect complement for steak. Mashed into black-eyed peas and formed into the consistency of a paste, it became a grayish, brownish, whitish amalgam ideal for the surface of a saltine cracker. And it had to be Hellmann’s—Kraft was just not acceptable. At a restaurant, the worst faux pas a waiter could commit was to bring a dish of Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise. Fred would crinkle his nose, look down at it, and turn down the corners of his mouth in disgust just thinking about Miracle Whip. “It’s sweet,” he would intone as he cringed. Yes, Hellmann’s mayonnaise was important, and one of the fun facts I recall from a childhood cross-country driving trip to California was that Hellmann’s mayonnaise was called Best Foods mayonnaise on the West Coast. This revelation made California seem all the more exotic and beguiling, and so, on arrival in the Golden State, one of our first stops was to buy a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise, which was duly passed around the car so that the label, with its Hellmann’s colors, but different name, could be inspected and admired. On another family trip, this time through South Louisiana, we passed a roadside sign that read “St. Landry Parish.” In later years, my father would often refer to St. Landry as the patron saint of mayonnaise, so even from his mayo-smeared perspective, he could discern that his affinity for the thick, slick slather was on the extreme side.
At one point, I think it was sometime in the seventies, one of his nephews informed him that the Götterdämmerung of Hellmann’s mayonnaise was imminent—yeah, Hellmann’s would be produced no more. This news flash induced immediate and complete existential panic in Fred. Without a moment’s delay, he descended on area grocery stores, stocking up on case upon case of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, which he guarded zealously in a makeshift post-mayonnaise-apocalypse storeroom far in the recesses of our house. (This was mayonnaise wartime, after all.) Cousin Rick, ever the deadpan prankster, had succeeded in one of the better practical jokes that could have been played on Fred, and I did not learn that it was a joke until decades later.
No doubt thoroughly pissed off by the trickery, Fred, with his former anchorman gravity, immediately launched an intra-family public relations campaign to inform my sister, my mother, and me that he had received the news regarding the imminent demise of Hellmann’s mayonnaise from highly reliable sources, but that, albeit these sources had been credible in the past, there had somehow been a miscommunication, et cetera, et cetera… Anyway, he insisted that he had been prudent in stocking up, given the information upon which he was relying, and we accepted this report as the truth and moved on. Some twenty years or so after the incident, I learned that a good laugh was had by many outside my immediate family unit over Cousin Rick’s fabulous doomsday for Hellmann’s practical joke.
A few years ago, before a family Thanksgiving celebration at my aunt’s house in the Texas Hill Country, my parents and my aunt and a few others were eating at a Mexican restaurant that got high marks from the denizens of the cedar-sprinkled hills of Kerrville, Texas. The picante sauce was a bit harsh for Fred, and, although this restaurant was considered quite good, he was dismayed at the prospect of consuming such a fiery condiment. But then, eureka! A klieg light blazed in his culinary imagination. He remembered the small to-go packets of Hellmann’s that he always carried with him in his coat pockets and promptly ripped them open with the vigour of a skydiver pulling the emergency cord of a malfunctioning parachute. Recounting it to someone later, I heard him say, “So I mixed it with the hot sauce,” (dramatic pause) and exultantly cocking his head and gesturing dramatically with his right hand, he intoned, “and it was just perfect!” Mayonnaise, the healing elixir, had mollified the otherwise overpowering Mexican food and had elevated it to a level of Freddish gastronomic ethereality.
“How was it that the packets of Hellmann’s mayonnaise found their way into his pockets?” you may wonder. On every trip to a fast-food or take-out restaurant, he’d raid the condiments bar and greedily stuff his pockets with little mayonnaise packets—insuring that he kept an ever-available stockpile of Hellmann’s on his person in case of mealtime emergency—like the one at the Mexican restaurant in Kerrville.
The thickening of his arterial walls, although a constant preoccupation and frequent topic of conversation, never caused him the least pause for reflection regarding his mayo-philia—such was the priority of what he referred to as “the staff of life” in his daily dietary regimen. In fact, no one in the family paid much attention to dietary modification in the face of serious health issues. My aunt was in town for a heart-related vascular procedure, and Cousin Chris and his wife Donna were in Houston too, so we all decided to have a family dinner. The meal of choice, chosen with absolutely utter unself-consciousness, was chicken fried steak, which everyone, my aunt included, devoured with insouciant relish and single-minded abandon. One weird thing: there was no mayonnaise near the chicken fried steak. Perhaps the blending of mayonnaise with cream gravy was too reprehensible even for the Mayonnaise King of Tanglewood to abide.
In later years, Fred’s mayo-philia increased, and he began to spread his mayonnaise across a world of cuisines. It was a kind of predictably formulaic fusion cuisine. On one side was the entire varied panoply of international and/or ethnic cuisines, and on the other was the reliable monotone of Hellmann’s mayonnaise—proffered ala Fred. Just think, for instance, how well a glob of Hellmann’s would work at bringing under control the spice of a fiery lamb vindaloo were it whisked deftly into the dish’s sauces by the accomplished mayonnaise-mixing hand of Fred.
My father recounted to me one of his great multicultural Freddish fusion conquests that involved a modicum of culinary warfare. He and my mother were dining at a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. The waiter brought the food to the table and retreated to a nether corner of the establishment. Before diving into the little red pork ribs and egg rolls and moo goo gai pan, Fred’s tabletop laser vision found its mark in a saucer of Chinese hot mustard. You know the stuff—the super fiery condiment that one is obliged to mix sparingly with the sweet sauce to render its extreme piquancy palatably appealing. Well, as I said, the offending over-spiciness of the mustard drew Fred’s attention as if his gaze were a heat-seeking missile homing in on an Al-Qaeda safe house. And, immediately after he had acquired and locked on the target, he said he shot his arm across the table, grabbing and quickly retrieving the saucer of Chinese mustard. He related that he then produced a couple of emergency mayonnaise packets from his sports jacket and began to whisk their contents into the east-meets-west, or, really, east-meets-Fred dipping concoction.
This foray did not play out without consequence. A waiter who was lurking in the shadows in the corner of the room was, according to my father’s account, not as disinterested in the goings-on at my parents’ table as his distance from it might have suggested. On catching sight of the lunchtime sauce foul, the bewildered corner-lurking waiter burst from his quasi-clandestine monitoring post and sprinted directly across the room to the Freddish tableside, and then (again, according to Fred) here’s how the interchange went down:
Fred: “So the waiter comes running over to the table and says (Fred trotting out his best right-off-the-boat Chinese waiter accent), ‘No, you cannot do that! It is against our restaurant policy!’”
And then Fred recounted his reply with the verbal swagger of an old-time, packet-toting Texas mayonnaise slinger:
“So I told him, ‘Screw your policy! This is my policy!’”
And when he related how this exchange played out, he seemed supremely self-satisfied—as if he had established yet another national/ethnic beachhead for the global Freddish mayo-mixing juggernaut—proving that not all moments of the fusing of cuisines were happy meetings. As in the larger world of affairs, some culinary shifts were the result of victory and defeat in battle. The showdown at the Galleria-area Chinese restaurant was surely a prime example of this less-than-amicable dynamic. Nevertheless, doggedly undeterred, Fred continued intrepidly to prosecute his relentless pan-cultural mayonnaise jihad, refusing rest until an entire globe-full of cuisines was covered with great globs of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and whisked into Freddish culinary nirvana.
I think it a fitting coda to this reverie to indulge in a digression on how my father pronounced the word “mayonnaise.” It used to irk and amuse my grandmother (my mother’s mother, to be fair—who was from Oklahoma—not exactly a beacon of haute cuisine) that Fred always called mayonnaise “my-naise.” I think it was a corruption of the French pronunciation of “mayonnaise”—bastardized since my father’s grandfather, with his mayonnaise-thick French accent, forbade anyone in the family from speaking French. Anyway, Fred always called it “my-naise” and, in retrospect, I think that his pronunciation of the dense condiment was thoroughly appropriate, for “my-naise” was truly and thoroughly his—the constant mealtime accompaniment, the great mollifier of the piquant and binder of disparate foodstuffs and textures, the all-purpose, fungible blending agent that provided continuity and thick dimensionality to the daily dietary regimen of my father, who, though he lived most of his life in Texas, never relinquished his romance with the sauce his father taught him how to make so many years ago in the Pelican State. If there is a chapel or meditation room at the Hellmann’s mayonnaise plant, I am considering asking them to hang a portrait, or at least a photograph, of my father spreading his self-exalted food product—the apex of the Freddish food pyramid—on top of a crisp saltine cracker in one of its apses, side chapels, or alcoves.
About the Writer
A native of Houston, Texas, Gardner Landry graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1985 with a B.A. in English, magna cum laude. A multiple ADDY Award-winning copywriter, he has also created names and taglines for numerous organizations. Gardner’s work has appeared in Cream City Review and is forthcoming in Border Senses. His play SpottedHyena.com was a finalist in the 2004 Tennessee Williams One-Act Play Competition of the New Orleans Literary Festival. He is currently writing a series of personal essays and a wacky novel.