Dressing Down 

The creamy truth about Montana’s condiment of choice

If condiments were conquerors, it would be king. You see it everywhere, from the poshest eatery to the diveyest diner. Fondue forks and greasy spoons alike delight in its opaque, divertive, ivory flatness. When you think about it, in fact, all of Western American cuisine seems to have been designed to complement its cool, creamy, vaguely flavorless flavor. And nowhere is this more true than in Montana.

Far and away, the defining element of Rocky Mountain cuisine is ranch dressing—the one accouterment that has become the predictable endgame to almost every meal this side of the divide. In these parts, that means that no matter what you’re into—whether it’s chicken-fried steak, brains and eggs or conglomerate-cooked gardenburger—someone at your table is going to ask for a side of ranch. Why? Well, it turns out, we weren’t the only ones who asked.

We talked to a number of folks far and wide—by way of that invisible network of tin cans and strings known as the Internet—about the West’s favorite dressing, and we came across a lot of questions that struck us as pretty vital to an understanding of ranch. So we took it upon ourselves to field those heartfelt questions and stir up some real answers, all in the name of good taste. Without further ado, then, here’s the rich, creamy truth about Montana’s condiment of choice. First question:
Q: I could drink ranch dressing, holy crap, it’s soooo good. —Jeremy K.

Well, Jeremy, that’s not really a question, but we know what you mean. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that ranch dressing is not just for salads; it’s a taste of mind.

In fact, salad hardly came up at all in our electronic investigation into the whys and wherefores of ranch dressing. According to the Ranch Dressing Worship Site (yes, there truly is such a thing, http://homepage.rconnect.com /nboley/ranch.htm) salad is only the seventh-best possible use of ranch dressing. (You don’t want to know what the other six are.) So what are people really using it for? Depends who you ask. ZZ’s Pizza Parlor in Austin, Texas, offers ranch dressing as a topping. Another online gourmand suggests slathering ranch on submarine sandwiches. Several others reserve ranch strictly as a dip for french fries. And perhaps most disturbingly, one crafty newsgroup cook recommends using ranch dressing in place of tomato sauce on pizzas. That’s right. No red stuff, just pints and pints of ranch dressing (plus bacon, sliced tomato and a pound of colby-jack cheese, according to her recipe). Please do not try this at home.
Q: Ranch dressing is hella good on all kinds of food. Where did it come from? What food is ranch dressing not good with (besides pickles)? —Kevin

That’s the real question, isn’t it, Kev? I mean, we all know that thousands of highway diners and sports bars would go out of business if ranch dressing were to suddenly disappear from our gastronomic landscape, but who’s behind it all? Well, we did some digging and came up with the answer. Sort of.

According to the Educational Menu Series at Yale University (we are not making this up), ranch dressing was invented by a contractor in Alaska during the 1950s. It was then and there that our culinary hero—who to this day wishes to remain anonymous—came up with a devilish concoction that has only been described as “buttermilk, mayonnaise and herbs.” In the ’60s, our inventor moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he started a dude ranch called—are you ready?—the Hidden Valley Ranch. That’s right. And it was there every night where he prepared feasts featuring his homemade dressing, which quickly became the talk of the cowboy-wanna-be, wrangler-for-a-weekend circuit. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the thick, creamy news to spread.

In 1967, the Hidden Valley Ranch was converted from a suburban bunkhouse to a “manufacturing operation,” and only five years later, our nameless protagonist sold his recipe, lock, stock and barrel, to—are you ready again?—the Clorox Company. Really. The official web site for ranch dressing (www.hiddenvalley.com) confirms that the super-secret recipe is copyrighted by The HV Food Group, “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Clorox Co.”

As for what ranch dressing doesn’t taste good with, the Independent kitchen, after much distasteful testing, came up with this list: chocolate chip cookies, flour, valencia oranges, whole coffee beans, whiskey, candy canes, Diet Coke, and apricot jam. Pretty much everything else tasted OK to us.
Q: Does anyone have a recipe for ranch dressing I can make at home? —Heather

Well, the true, original recipe may forever remain a secret of the Clorox Company, but there are enough variations out there to give us a sense of what Montana’s favorite condiment is really made of. It goes a little like this:

1 clove garlic, peeled 3/4 cup buttermilk 1/2 cup mayonnaise 2 tablespoons lime juice 1 tablespoon minced parsley or cilantro 1 tablespoon chives salt and pepper to taste

Crush garlic and salt into a paste. Mix into buttermilk, mayonnaise, lime juice, parsley, chives and whisk until well blended. Add pepper and perhaps more salt to taste. Chill before serving.

Feel free to adjust to your own tastes. The Clorox Company certainly did. After all, it seems damned unlikely that the original Alaskan recipe for ranch dressing called for xanthan gum, MSG and disodium inosinate. But that’s what you get today when you buy it by the bottle. Please don’t despair, though. Maybe the frontier has closed. Maybe the West has been fenced in. But as long as we can preserve at least part of its culinary heritage, we can keep the spirit of the West alive. Then, we can dip our pizza crusts in it.

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