What Came First: the Mayonnaise or the Egg?
Make a product better by tearing down what came before and building it back up again—this is the cult of creative disruption, and today’s start-up culture worships at its altar. While the ouroboros-like cycle is most strongly associated with tech, the Silicon Valley mentality has bled into the food industry, perhaps most famously (or lucratively) in the case of Hampton Creek. With millions in seed investment courtesy of Bill Gates, the company is trying to disrupt one of the most essential ingredients: the egg. Massive retailers, including Walmart, have picked up Hampton Creek’s eggless cookie dough and other vegan products, including Just Mayo. Using peas in lieu of egg yolks to emulsify oil into the rich sauce may be Hampton Creek’s most revolutionary move—how can you have mayonnaise without eggs?
Hellmann’s, which sells more of the $2 billion worth of mayonnaise Americans eat every year than any other company, believes that you cannot. Its parent company, Unilever, is suing Hampton Creek for false advertising and fraud. The multinational corporation, worth $67.4 billion, is demanding a payment three times the profit Hampton Creek has made on Just Mayo. (The company is privately owned and does not make sales figures public.) It also wants Hampton Creek to recall what’s on the retail market and to stop using a logo that shows a pea shoot growing through an egg.
“Despite its name, Just Mayo does not contain just mayonnaise,” the complaint reads. “In fact, it is not mayonnaise at all. Rather, it is a plant-based vegan alternative to real mayonnaise.”
Not to get all poststructuralist here, but what is “real” mayonnaise? The Food and Drug Administration defines the sauce as “the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil” and made with an acid “and one or more of the egg yolk–containing ingredients.” The acceptable egg by-products the agency included were “liquid egg yolks, frozen egg yolks, dried egg yolks, liquid whole eggs, frozen whole eggs, dried whole eggs, or any one or more of the foregoing ingredients listed in this paragraph with liquid egg white or frozen egg white.”
By that measure, Just Mayo—which is not marketed as “mayonnaise”—doesn’t fit the bill. But history tells a different story, one that frames Hampton Creek’s innovation as more of a throwback to a few thousand years ago.
Even back then, people living under Roman rule in Catalonia were dunking fish and vegetables in garlicky allioli, a mayo-like sauce made with emulsified olive oil beat into a paste of mortar-crushed garlic that’s still found in Barcelona tapas bars today. Around 77 A.D., Pliny, who was stationed in Tarragona during the end of Nero’s reign, just down the coast from the Catalan capital, wrote of a sauce resembling vegan eggless allioli. When garlic is “beaten up in oil and vinegar, it swells up in foam to a surprising size,” much like whisking oil into egg yolks makes mayo.
Hellmann’s, for its part, first went into production in 1912.
The most triumphant historical narrative for mayonnaise dates its creation to 1756, when the French captured Mahon, the port city on the Spanish island of Minorca, during the Seven Years’ War. To celebrate the victory, the duke de Richelieu asked his chef to make a rich sauce using eggs and cream. There wasn’t any dairy around, so the chef whipped oil into egg yolks, and mayonnaise—Mahon-aise—was born.
That’s the origin story told on the Hellmann’s website, but it smacks of history as written by the victorious. Minorca, it’s worth noting, lies off the Catalan coast of western Spain. Before the Franco dictatorship outlawed all languages save for Castillian Spanish, residents spoke a dialect of Catalan, which today is listed alongside Spanish as the official language of the island. It seems rather convenient that the chef of a Parisian royal “invented” a variation of allioli on an island awash in hundreds of years of the stuff. Adding an egg makes the sauce very different—but over in Provence, egg-based aioli is similarly symbolic of both the cuisine and the culture.
Now, a Catalan will tell you that allioli made with eggs isn’t allioli. And adding crushed garlic to mayo and calling it aioli is a sure way to offend a Provençal cook. Still, mayonnaise doesn’t begin and end with an FDA definition.