Ranch Dressing. America’s Favorite.

Although it first began showing up on supermarket shelves in the early 60s where I grew up, I really don’t recall its popularity soaring until some twenty years later while I was cooking in New York City. It was there in the “big city” that I started to think, “Folks are so crazy about this stuff that I’m surprised they don’t put it on their breakfast cereal.” Now don’t get me wrong, I like ranch dressing. But there are other dressings I like on my salads just as well, and in some cases, better.

So where and how did ranch dressing begin? And why is it so damned popular?

the-hensons

It all started in 1949 when plumbing contractor Kenneth (he later changed his name to Steve) Henson and his wife Gayle took a job in the remote Alaskan bush. In addition to his plumbing skills, Henson also loved to cook and consequently prepared most of the meals for his crew. It was during these years that he began to develop what eventually became ranch dressing, constantly tweaking the recipe until it had the perfect flavor profile–creamy, cool, with just the right amount of twang.

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In 1954, the Hensons decided to leave Alaska and retire in sunny California. But retirement wasn’t for Henson and he began searching for something productive to fill his time. It wasn’t too long before he heard that the Sweetwater Ranch, nestled in the mountains of San Marcos Pass outside of Santa Barbara, was for sale. Steve had always dreamed of becoming a rancher, so in 1956 he and Gayle purchased the picturesque 120 acre ranch, promptly renaming it Hidden Valley Guest Ranch.

During the day, ranch guests enjoyed a plethora of outdoor activities ranging from riding to hiking, from fishing to swimming. Guests also enjoyed great home-cooked meals and freshly prepared salads, always dressed with the buttermilk dressing Henson had perfected while in Alaska. As the word spread about this unique dressing, folks began to frequent the guest ranch as much for the opportunity to sample the special concoction of herbs, spices, buttermilk and mayonnaise as for the activities. Soon guests were asking for jars of the stuff to take home.

Then Henson began getting so many requests for his dressing that he and Gayle created a dry spice mix that, when blended with mayonnaise and buttermilk, allowed the customer to enjoy the same ranch dressing experienced while a guest at the ranch. They also trademarked the name Hidden Valley Ranch.

In 1957, Kelley’s Korner, a small store located on the corner of what is now State Street and La Cumbre Road, was the first to start selling imagesHenson’s packets of Hidden Valley Ranch mix. In fact the dressing packets sold so fast (more than 140 in two days) that the store’s owner Lloyd Kelly thought his employees were stealing them.

Realizing he was on to something big, the Henson’s began a mail order business selling the packaged dressing mix for 75 cents each. Demand for Hidden Valley Ranch dressing continued to grow until soon it took up every room of their home. And by the mid-1960s the mail order business had completely taken over the guest ranch, and by the end of the decade orders from all 50 states and over 30 countries were being filled. It was also at this time that Henson’s dressing was being distributed in stores throughout the Southwest.

In the early 1970s, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing production had outgrown the ranch facilities and had to be moved offsite, although the ranch remained corporate headquarters. Griffith Laboratories was contracted to blend the dressing mix and ship it to a 65,000 square foot facility in Los Angeles where it was packaged at the rate of 35,000 packets a day. Similar operations were later set up in Colorado and Nevada.

In 1972, the Hensons sold their Hidden Valley Guest Ranch, and by October of the following year Clorox had purchased the Hidden Valley dressing business for $8 million.

dressings-original

Clorox reformulated Steve Henson’s ranch dressing in order to make it more consumer friendly. The first improvement was to add buttermilk flavor to the spice packet so standard milk could be used, rather than buttermilk. The most important improvement came in 1983, with the shelf-stable, ready-to-use bottled version found on the grocers shelves. Today, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is sold in both packets and bottles.

While Hidden Valley Ranch was the first, it is certainly not the only ranch dressing on the market. Today ranch dressing is also produced by Ken’s, Draft, Marie’s, Newman’s Own, Wish-Bone, as well as a number of private and lesser known brands.

In 1992 ranch dressing overtook Italian dressing as the leading salad dressing flavor sold in the United States and Canada. However, in the rest of the world it is virtually an unknown. So for now at least, I guess those folks will have to continue using milk on their breakfast cereal.

Make Em: Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

Quince: Another of America’s Forgotten Fruits

Originally from the Caucasus Mountain foothills of Iran and Turkey, this highly fragrant relative of the apple was once a commonplace orchard fruit in the early American Colonies. Quince was one of the first fruits introduced here by English settlers, and by 1720, their cultivation was thriving in Virginia.

50092427In the mid-nineteenth century, Reverend William W. Meech discovered an American variety of the fruit in Connecticut, which he introduced as the “Pear-Shaped Orange Quince.” In his 1888 book, Quince Culture, Reverend Meech described it as the “most uniformly prolific of all known varieties,” hence its name Meech’s Prolific. While this native variety is known for its reliable high yields and superior quality and remains popular by plant enthusiasts in England, Meech’s Prolific is now extremely rare in this country.

The delicate, yet heady fragrance of the quince is said to be reminiscent of lemon, pineapple, flowers, and apple. The claim of ancient traders was that a single ripe quince could perfume an entire caravan.

quince-jellyTraditionally the quince was used by English colonists in pies mixed with apples or pears and sweetened with honey. It was also used to make aromatic jams, jellies, and marmalades. In fact, the English word marmalade is derived from the Portuguese word “marmela,” meaning quince.

Quince are generally not eaten fresh because of the hardness of the fruit and the acidity, astringent, and sometimes grittiness of its flesh . However, when cooked they are transformed into a beautiful rosy pink color with a unique flavor and delicate peach-like texture. Quince can be used in the preparation of a variety of sweet and savory dishes from cakes and pies, to stews and chutneys, to fruit sauces as an accompaniment to chicken, beef, pork, and game. Another simple but delicious way of serving quince is to peel, core, and stuff them with raisins, nuts, and spices and bake them until tender.

quince on a treeAs American farmers moved westward, so did the quince, with sizable cultivations recorded in both Texas and California. By 1914, noted plant breeder Luther Burbank wrote that “the soil and climate of California are peculiarly hospitable to this fruit” where at the time there were about nine hundred acres of quince being grown. California remains the only state to commercially farms quinces, although the land devoted to its production has reduced to only about one-third of what it was in its heyday.

455014tqji54l2Although practically unheard of for decades, today the quince, like other once popular but neglected fruits, seems to be making somewhat of a comeback. In recent years, there have been at least three books and numerous articles containing quince recipes. The fruit has also become an increasingly featured item in a number of high-end restaurants, and at least half a dozen have even been named after it.

The quince is a seasonal fruit generally available only from early fall through January but may be found up until March in some areas. If you are fortunate enough to find them in your supermarket or green grocer, we recommend you pick up a few and rediscover the delights of this remarkably versatile but forgotten fruit.

Try Em: Quince Restaurant, Jackon Square, San Francisco, California; Quince at the Homestead, Evanston, Illinois; Quince Café and Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Make Em: Milopita, Poached Quince, Quince Clafoutis, Quince Tarte Tatin