11.24.2012

Tom Nealon — food historian

By Josh

Tom Nealon owns and operates the used and rare bookshop Pazzo Books in Boston. He is an adventurous chef who writes about the strange history of food at the websites HiLobrow.com and Cruditas.com. He contributed the excellent article “Weird Facts About Condiments” to UNBORED.

Here are a few fun facts about Tom:

* He and his wife have a daughter, who is in kindergarten; and they are expecting another child shortly.

* In his youth Tom worked as a short-order cook and clearing poison ivy vines from nature paths.

* Tom is preparing a catalog of cookbooks — published from the 16th century to the early 20th century — that he has collected. The catalog will include recipes and tips on cooking dishes that Shakespeare, Louis XVI, or Julius Caesar might have eaten.

Here’s a photo I took of Tom and his family this past summer, when we were camping together in Truro, Mass.

And here is a sample entry from “Weird Facts About Condiments”:

MAYONNAISE
The spread that started a war

Mayonnaise is an emulsion, meaning a mixture of two un-blendable liquids plus an emulsifier: that is, an ingredient which makes an impossible blend possible. Allioli, the Spanish precursor to mayonnaise, had been around at least since the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote about it 2,000 years ago. But how did the Spanish end up (probably during the Renaissance) transforming this paste made of oil, garlic, and salt into emulsified mayonnaise? We now know that someone must have added an emulsifier (egg yolk) and an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to the recipe, and… ya está! Mayonnaise. But its tasty recipe remained secret for a long time; it was the culinary equivalent of black magic.

This amazing, mysterious new sauce (in Spanish: salsa mahonesa) was named after the town where it was first created: Port Mahón, on the Spanish island of Minorca. And here’s where world history enters the picture. In 1756, a French force under the command of the Duc de Richelieu captured Minorca from the British, who’d controlled it since 1708. This was the first event in a global military conflict that was later known (in Europe) as the Seven Years’ War or (in the US) as The French and Indian War.

What was the true cause of the Seven Years’ War? Could it be that the French wanted to capture Spain’s secret mayonnaise recipe? If so, they succeeded brilliantly. They renamed the sauce mayonnaise, and wrote cookbooks claiming that it was a French recipe; they even suggested the word comes from an ancient French word (moyeu) meaning “egg yolk.” Today, you’d be hard pressed to even find a resident of Minorca who thought mayonnaise was Spanish. That’s something to chew over next time you’re spreading mayo on a BLT.