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Who really created Thousand Island dressing?

Julia Botero
Local fishing guide Alan Benas now bottles and sells Thousand Island dressing using what he claims is the original recipe.

Thousand Island dressing gets its name from the chain of islands straddling northern New York and Canada. At the turn of the century, this region along the St. Lawrence River was a summer destination for the nation’s elite. It was the Gilded Age. The creamy pink salad dressing was all the rage among cooks at the hotels and resorts dotting the river. There are two competing local legends on who first came up with the dressing.

The first story involves a billionaire, true love, an island castle and a steam yacht.

On this day earlier this year, the boat shuttle to Heart Island is packed with vacationers. More than 90,000 people travel to Boldt Castle every year. The owner of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, George Boldt, built this immense summer home for his wife. He even changed the shape of the island to resemble a heart.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
WRVO News (file photo)
Shane Sanford, who manages Boldt Castle, says a chef created Thousand Island dressing while preparing lunch for George and Louise Boldt on their steam yacht. Boldt later put the dressing on the menu at his famous hotel.

Shane Sanford manages Boldt Castle. He said the couple loved the Thousand Islands so much they named a salad dressing after it.

“The real story, and the true story, regarding Thousand Island dressing is when George Boldt and his wife Louise were out on a Sunday afternoon cruise on one of the steam yachts,” said Sanford.

Boldt’s chef, Oscar Tschirky was preparing their Sunday lunch with whatever he had in the steam yacht’s kitchen. According to legend, he whipped up a dressing out of mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, and a hard-boiled egg. Thousand Island dressing was born. Boldt later put it on his menu at his famous hotel.

Sandford said this is the story visitors will hear touring the castle.

“As a native to the Thousand Islands, it’s always been the accepted story of Thousand Island Dressing,” he said.

Allen Benas said the story linking the dressing to Boldt is just a marketing ploy.

“If you’ve ever been on a tour boat you know not all you hear is fact.”

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Alan Benas claims he found a similar sheet of paper with Sophia Lelonde’s Thousand Island Dressing recipe in a safe after purchasing the Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, NY.

Benas claims there’s another story out there that he can back up with documents.

He said he found the recipe for the dressing when he bought the Thousand Islands Inn in the village of Clayton. He opened a safe in the back of the restaurant one day in 1972. Inside was a single sheet of paper. He asked the cooks what it was. They said it looked like a recipe for Thousand Island dressing.

Benas later traced the recipe back to a woman named Sophia Lalonde. She’d make the dressing for her husband who was a fishing guide. He’d serve to fisherman at shore dinners along the St. Lawrence River. The famous actress May Irwin was on one of these fishing trips. She asked that Sophia serve the dressing at restaurant The Herald House, now the Thousand Islands Inn.

The inn has since closed, but Benas now bottles the dressing using Sophia’s original recipe. He pulls out a bottle from his fridge, shakes it up, takes out a spoon and lets me try some. It tasted a little sweet but also had a kick to it because of the horseradish.

“People who don’t like Thousand Island dressing like this,” said Benas.

Out here in the Thousand Islands, I found people make Thousand Island dressing lots of different ways. Usually mayonnaise is the base, then a tomato sauce and outside of that anything goes.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Mike Simpson, chef and owner of the Clipper Inn in Clayton, says Thousand Island dressing isn't their bestseller but people order it a lot for special events.

At the Clipper Inn in Clayton, chef and owner Mike Simpson whipped up a batch of the dressing in the restaurant’s kitchen. It’s very traditional.

“So we’re going to use ketchup, sweet pickle relish, Worcester sauce, mayonnaise and just a little water for consistency and that’s it,” Simpson said.

He mixed it up and took a taste.

“It’s pretty good. I haven’t had it in years. I kind of just like olive oil and salt on salads.”

Simpson said the dressing isn’t their biggest seller. Mostly, people request it for weddings and big events, as kind of a novelty food item, since they’re in the Thousand Islands.

Chef and food historian Ben Davison said Thousand Island dressing came out of the first salad craze in American history. There was serious salad hysteria in the culinary world of 1900s.

“Most likely all the people who have a claim on it probably came up with the idea at the same time.”

Back then the only local greens around for salads were very bitter. Think endives, watercress and chicory. Chefs cooking for visitors experimented with ways to bring out the flavors of these local greens.

“Mayonnaise helps cut some of that bitterness,” said Davison. And ketchup was an exciting new product.

The “secret” sauce on a Big Mac tastes a lot like Thousand Islands dressing, so does the creamy dressing on a Reuben. Restaurants, like the Wooden Boat Brewery in Clayton, even serve it on pizza.

Davison said today Thousand Island dressing is no longer associated with the culinary elite.

“You know that nothing you’re about to eat is good for you. Bring out the Thousand Island dressing!”