The Ritzy Origins Of Thousand Island Dressing

People don't typically associate an everyday product like Thousand Island salad dressing with high society, but one purported tale of its recipe's origins involves New York's elite. While many recipe variations exist today, the base of Thousand Island dressing is generally accepted as ketchup and mayonnaise, two basic table condiments that hardly scream glitz and glamor. Two origin stories surround its invention, both involving the picturesque northern New York region called Thousand Islands. 

The name refers to the island archipelago located in the St. Lawrence River between New York and Canada that once served as a popular vacation retreat for the wealthy (via Food & Wine). One story alleges that in 1900, millionaire hotel magnate George Boldt, then owner of New York City's renowned Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was sailing down the St. Lawrence River in his private yacht with his wife Louisa to show her a castle he was having built for her as a summer home. 

The prodigious 120-room castle, constructed on the romantically-symbolized Heart Island within the Thousands Islands chain, would become known as Boldt Castle. Boldt's chef had prepared the lovebirds a meal for the journey that included a salad, but he forgot the dressing and improvised. As Food & Wine relates, the resulting blend of mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce, and one hard-boiled egg impressed Boldt and Louisa so much, they named it after the region where it was created, thus the moniker Thousand Island dressing.

A fisherman's tale

Another tale of Thousand Island dressing's provenance maintains that the original recipe belongs to a woman named Sophia Lelonde. According to NPR, after buying a restaurant called the Thousand Islands Inn in the resort town of Clayton, New York, a fishing guide named Allen Benas discovered a piece of paper in the establishment's safe containing the recipe for a dressing called "Sophia's Sauce." Benas showed the ingredient list to his cooks, who identified it as a recipe for Thousand Island dressing. 

As it happened, Sophia and her husband George, a fisherman, had once owned the restaurant toward the end of the 19th century. The Lelonde's mostly served the dressing to the fishermen who worked along the river, but as Thousand Islands Dressing relates on its website, Sophia shared the recipe with a prominent stage actress of the time named May Irwin. In this version, it was Irwin, also an avid cook, who dubbed it Thousand Island dressing, and eventually introduced the recipe to menus at swanky New York City hotels.

Food origin stories are seldom straightforward, whether it's a sauce or a New York deli staple like the Reuben sandwich. The truth of Thousand Islands dressings' roots might fall somewhere in between according to chef and food historian Ben Davison, who notes to NPR that it's possible that both Sophia and the Boldt's chef "concocted Thousand Island dressing around the same time."