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Where Are These Thousand Islands? The Origins of 7 Condiments & Sauces

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We've looked at the origins of a few of our favorite condiments on the blog before, but that didn't quite answer all of our questions about the namesakes of our favorite spreads, sauces, and dressings. Here are a few stories that you can use to regale your friends the next time you chow down.

1. Thousand Island Dressing

Is the delicious dressing that gives a Reuben its tanginess named after an actual chain of islands? You bet it is. The Thousand Islands are an archipelago that sits in the Saint Lawrence River on the U.S.-Canada border, and there are actually 1,793 of them, some of which are so small that they contain nothing more than a single home.


So why is the dressing named after an archipelago? No one's quite sure. Some people claim that early film star and vaudevillian May Irwin, who summered on the Thousand Islands, named it, while others contend that George Boldt, the famed proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria, gave the dressing its name because of his own summer place in the region. No matter who named it, it's tough to beat on a sandwich.

2. Ranch Dressing

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Yep, the beloved dressing and dipping sauce actually got its start on a real ranch. When Steve and Gayle Henson opened a dude ranch in California in 1954, they had an ace up their sleeves: a delicious dressing that Steve had concocted while the couple was living in Alaska.


The couple did a nice business at their Hidden Valley Ranch, but guests were always flipping out over just how tasty Steve's dressing was. Eventually, the Hensons started bottling the stuff, and the popularity grew so quickly that they had to hire a twelve-man crew just to help mix up each batch. Steve's culinary creativity turned out to be lucrative; in 1972 Clorox forked over $8 million for the recipe.

3. A1 Steak Sauce

According to the brand's website, A1 has been around for quite a while. Henderson William Brand worked as the personal chef for King George IV from 1824 to 1831, and at some point during this employment mixed up a new sauce for the king to use on his beef. George IV allegedly took one bite of Brand's creation and declared that it was "A1." Brand then left the king's employ in order to go peddle his new sauce.

4. Worcestershire Sauce

lea.jpgWorcestershire sauce was invented accidentally in England by Brits trying to ape what they thought was authentic Indian food. In this case, the demanding diner was one Lord Marcus Sandy, a former colonial governor of Bengal. Having grown attached to a particular flavor of Indian sauce, he recruited two drugstore owners, John Lea and William Perrins, in hopes that they could recreate it based on his descriptions. Lea and Perrins thought they'd make a profit by selling the leftovers in their store, but frankly, the sauce they created had a powerful stench "“ so they stashed it in the basement and forgot about it for two years while it aged into something that tasted much better. (We suspect that in a similar manner, we are harboring the next big culinary phenomenon in the back of our fridge.)


Lea and Perrins sold the stuff to a boatload of customers, literally; they convinced British passenger ships to carry some aboard. Presumably they didn't mention the way they'd come across their secret recipe since it probably would have made most people seasick.

5. Heinz 57

HEINZ.jpgLegend has it that Heinz 57 takes its name from H.J. Heinz's company formerly marketing 57 products at once, and except for the number, the story holds up. Heinz's website tells a story that Henry John Heinz was riding a train when he saw a billboard advertising 21 varieties of shoes. He so liked the idea he wanted to try it with his own condiment company. Thus, he started touting Heinz's 57 varieties.


There was only one catch: Heinz marketed well over 60 products at the time. So where did the 57 come from? Heinz thought the number was lucky. Five was Heinz's lucky number, and seven was his wife's. He mashed the charmed digits together, got 57, and never looked back.

6. Tartar Sauce

Fish's best friend is named after an alternate spelling of the word "Tatar," which was how Western Europeans once referred to almost anyone of Mongolian or Turkic descent. Many of these Tatars/Tartars ran roughshod over Europe in the time of Genghis Khan, but they knew how to cook. One of the dishes they left behind, beef tartare, came back into fashion in 19th-century France. These helpings of steak tartare came with a number of garnishes, including the creamy white stuff that eventually became generically known as tartar sauce.

7. Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise, the lemon-butter-and-egg yumminess that Eggs Benedict can't live without, isn't actually Dutch. Instead, it's one of the most well known French sauces. The sauce first appeared in French cooking in the 17th century, and is apparently named both because it somewhat resembles an old Dutch sauce and because the Dutch had such thriving butter and egg industries that provided two of the sauce's main ingredients.

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Design
The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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