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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Ranch Generation

June 13, 2017

I dozed off for a few minutes and Ranch dressing was crowned the king of all American condiments.

I was a ketchup kid who grew up in the condiment-barren ketchup generation. Ketchup reigned supreme for most of the 20th century. It was red, it was cheap, and it was manly. Salsa made a nice run in the 1990s, but was never able to surpass ketchup. Sriracha is moving up fast these days. But none of those can top the popularity of Ranch dressing with today’s youth. We are living smack dab in the middle of the Ranch Generation.

Seriously, I live with two teenagers— leaders both, of the Ranch Generation— and one of them would bathe in the stuff if it were an option. They use it as a dip for fries, as a spread on chicken sandwiches and wraps, and as a dip for pizza. I am not joking on that last one. One of my kids dips pizza into Ranch dressing, the other eats pizza with pineapple on it. I worry about the future of this country. I truly do.

I am waiting for the day when I attend a wedding, and in the corner, on a lace-lined tablecloth is an array of raw crudité, chicken drumettes, and potato logs all served on sterling silver platters surrounding a three-tier Ranch fountain. Trust me, if it hasn’t already been done, it’s coming to a Ranch Generation wedding near you.

Kids today use Ranch dressing on everything, except for what it was intended— salads.

For the one person, out there who might have been camping out in a culinary cave for the past half century and is not clued into the Thousand Island of the 21st Century, Ranch dressing is a buttermilk and mayonnaise-based dressing that has a combination of herbs and spices such as salt, dry mustard, onion, garlic, chives, parsley, dill, black pepper, ground mustard seed, and paprika. The dry mix was originally sold in packets and one added buttermilk and mayonnaise in their kitchen. Now it’s available as a bottled product with varying levels of quality and taste. The dry mix is also used to flavor dips and spreads.

Ranch dressing was created around 1950 in the Alaskan bush country by a plumber named Steve Henson. In 1954, Henson and his wife opened a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California and named it, Hidden Valley Ranch. They served the dressing there and it became so popular they began selling the dry mix to customers, and eventually grocery stores. Two decades later the folks who make Clorox bought the company and began distributing it nationwide.

I had never heard of Ranch dressing until I began waiting tables at a restaurant in 1982. It was the house dressing at this restaurant because it was the only dressing they made “in house.” People would ask, “What’s your house dressing?”

“Our house dressing is Ranch,” I would have to say.

“But isn’t Ranch just a dressing like all of the others? What’s so special about that?” the customer would ask.

“Yes, but we call it our house dressing because it’s the only dressing we make in house.”

It didn’t matter what we called it. Seriously, we could have called it, “pale and gloppy, liquid death on lettuce” and it still would have still sold twice as much as blue cheese or any other dressing that restaurant served. Ranch hit Hattiesburg by storm in the early days of the Reagan administration, and it’s still the dressing-in-chief, today.

In 1992, Ranch dressing became the nation’s number one salad dressing, knocking Italian dressing off a perch it had been sitting on for decades. Truly a sad day in this columnist’s opinion.

People get snooty about Ranch dressing. I am not one of those people. When it is used as a salad dressing, I am OK with it. It’s when it sneaks over into the condiment arena that I begin to have a problem with it. Big city chefs shunned Ranch for years. Now I see it cropping up on menus, though usually with the name “Buttermilk Dressing.”

I will eat Ranch dressing on a salad occasionally. My go-to dressing is extra virgin olive oil and an aged balsamic vinegar, but if the oil and vinegar aren’t good quality (OK, so I’m a dressing snob), I’d rather go with another option. One of our restaurants goes through almost 20 gallons of Ranch dressing every week.

My go-to in the creamy dressing category is Green Goddess. Now THAT is an underrated dressing. Like Ranch, green goddess dressing is a child of the 20th Century. My parents were members of the Green Goddess Generation. That is truly the Greatest Generation.

OK, I just Googled “Ranch fountain” and it’s already a thing. Like a really big thing. Who knew? I hope to be paying for a wedding one day in the distant future, but I can guarantee that a Ranch fountain won’t be on the catering list.

“But Dad, you should try dipping your pizza into Ranch dressing.”

“Look, it’s never going to happen,” I say. “And besides, everyone knows that Catalina is the proper dressing for dipping pizza,” spoken like a card-carrying member of the Ketchup Generation.

I know I risk sounding like the grumpy old man, but seriously, lets cool it on the Ranch dressing for a while… and get off of my lawn!

View today’s recipe: Buttermilk Dressing


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