Why Thousand Island Dressing Has Replaced Ketchup as America’s Condiment

The endlessly versatile ketchup-mayo mash-up is the secret sauce (literally, in the case of several major burger chains) to improving just about any dish

The 1000 Islands — that is, the archipelago packed tightly between New York state and the Canadian province of Ontario — hold three unusual distinctions. The first is that there are way more than 1,000 islands in the 1,000 islands: 1,864, in fact. The second is that one of these islands, Deer Island, is owned by the Yale University secret society Skull and Bones. The third is this: From these islands came a substance that has enriched the culinary world.

You may think of Thousand Island dressing merely as an orangish goo found at your local chain grocery store, sitting forlornly on a shelf with other lackluster salad dressings, but the difference between this and the good stuff is vast. And I don’t just mean in how it’s processed or what’s in it — I mean that practically every Thousand Island dressing recipe on the internet, whether by a professional chef or from an amateur cook, differs, and often in major ways. Look, I had to go to Wikipedia just to get a half-way decent list of the huge range of ingredients that can be used to make the dressing. 

With mayonnaise forming its main base, it can also include but is not limited to ketchup, mustard, olive oil, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, tomato purée, cream, paprika, chili sauce, lemon juice and orange juice. Then it may or may not contain some combination of “finely chopped ingredients” such as pickles, onions, garlic, bell peppers, hard-boiled eggs, olives, pimento, parsley, chives and chopped nuts. However, if you take even a cursory look at the millions of homemade Thousand Island recipes online, you’ll probably also see horseradish, sugar, Sriracha, roasted red peppers or red pepper relish, tomato paste, cloves and so forth. Mathematics isn’t my strongest suit, but I feel confident saying there are probably as many Thousand Island recipes as there are Thousand islands.

This complexity has given it culinary uses far beyond the salad bowl. “It’s a very universal sauce,” says Allen Benas, former owner of the Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, New York, which first produced the dressing in the early 1900s after being gifted the recipe by its creator, Sophia LaLonde. (There are actually three contentious origin stories for the birthplace of Thousand Island dressing, but a 2012 PBS documentary found evidence LaLonde was the rightful originator.) Benas now sells the original dressing in small batches online and knows the many ways people use it. “It’s very adaptable to many things. It goes with almost any kind of beef you would be inclined to put a sauce on. We’ve had people who have used it on chicken.”

The first, most familiar place Thousand Island dressing shows up is on Reubens. The classic sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and grilled, buttered bread would be probably fine without its special sauce on it, but it’s the Thousand Island dressing that pulls all the ingredients together. As Chef Jeff Meyer, head of the Element 29 Deli in Culver City, California, wrote on his restaurant’s blog in a post titled “Why the Reuben Works So Well”:

“The truth of the Reuben is that it is a perfectly balanced sandwich. Each element brings together a complex comingling [sic] of flavors. The base of the sandwich, the rye bread, is earthy and strong, sometimes sour and sometimes spicy. This flavor is softened and enhanced by the butter used to brown the bread in a pan.

“Inside the sandwich, the saltiness of the corned beef is balanced against the sour acidity of the sauerkraut and the sweetness of the Swiss cheese (a flavor enhanced upon melting). All of these flavors are then melded and united by the Thousand Island dressing. A proper Thousand Island dressing is a menagerie of flavors from mayonnaise to ketchup, sweet relish to onion. It is, by itself, a complex ingredient, and one that ultimately determines the success of the Reuben. But a quality Thousand Island dressing represents the other flavors brought together — the earthy, sour, salty, and sweet flavors all united.”

The Reuben is essentially the Voltron of sandwiches, and Thousand Island forms the head that links its components together. The Reuben is so powerfully delicious it’s used for far more than sandwiches — you don’t have to look too hard to find recipes for Reuben dips, Reuben pizzas, Reuben eggs benedict, Reuben salads — after all, the dressing comes preloaded — Reuben loaded fries, even Reuben eggrolls and Danishes. (In case you just gagged, that’s meant to be a savory Danish, by the way, not a sweet one.)

Thousand Island dressing is an extremely special sauce, both figuratively and literally. The legendary secret sauce that the equally legendary, West Coast-burger chain In-N-Out uses for its burgers is Thousand Island dressing. Additionally, “special sauce” has always been the most celebrated part of McDonald’s iconic Big Macs, but its specialty has been known for years: It’s also Thousand Island dressing, albeit one using a really simple recipe with a pile of sugar thrown in for good measure. And while it’s not touted as a secret sauce at Steak ‘n Shake — it’s not mentioned at all on the menu, actually —Thousand Island is essentially what makes the chain restaurant’s patty melts so delicious (after all, if you add more mayo and ketchup to Thousand Island, you’re just making more Thousand Island). 

I have my own theory as to why Thousand Island tastes so damn good on hamburgers, and it’s this: It is, in fact, the perfect condiment. Think about its most traditional ingredients. Once you’ve gotten its mayonnaise base, you’re putting some kind of tomato sauce in it. Mustard isn’t universal, but it’s a common ingredient in the dressing, while the vinegar provides a bit of tanginess — assuming you aren’t using actual pickle relish, another standard burger topper. Thousand Island dressing is, or can be, everything people usually want on their burgers, just combined in a way that becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. 

As such, it can be used just about anywhere ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise is used to delicious effect. If you use mayo in your potato salad or pasta salad, Thousand Island can bring a far more flavorful tang to the dish. While traditional Cajun remoulade is spicier than most Thousand Island recipes, it’s still usually mayonnaise-based and includes a variety of the ingredients listed above but with the addition of bay seasoning or other spices. The two are close enough that some recipes tell cooks to simply toss a few things into Thousand Island dressing and call it a day. (Dear Cajun and Creole readers: I’m sure you think this is all heresy but before you take my head please check the internet, and know I am merely the messenger here.)

And whether you put ketchup on your French fries (like the bulk of America) or mayonnaise (as is popular in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, or anyone who likes aioli and never learned that it’s just mayo with garlic in it), you’re only getting half of the pleasure you could be enjoying. A beloved ketchup-mayo blend is called “fry sauce” in Utah and other Intermountain states, but is enjoyed all over the world, and Thousand Island is just a richer, more complex evolution of the condiment. Think of fry sauce as a Neanderthal to Thousand Island’s Homo sapiens.

Regardless of what food you’re putting it on, why settle for the one-note flavors of ketchup or mayonnaise when you can have both? Why not combine the best of both worlds and use it as the foundation of a sauce that you can adapt to provide any and every taste you’re looking for? 

Thousand Island dressing is the Alpha and Omega of condiments. In its infinite variety, it encompasses all. Maybe that’s what we should be calling it: Infinite Island.