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.

hidden_ranch_t479

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

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A St. Louis Original: Ooey-Gooey Butter Cake.

A few weeks back, I was watching Martha Stewart Bakes during which she made something I had never heard of in my forty-plus years as a chef–a Gooey Butter Cake.

gooey-butter-cakeIt seems this cake was invented during the Great Depression in the 1930s by a German-style bakery located on the St. Louis South Side. And like a number of foods we enjoy today, the gooey butter cake came about quite by accident. While making a batch of standard coffee cake, the baker transposed the ratio of flour to butter, or maybe it was butter to sugar, but whichever it was resulted in a gooey, sticky mess. And times dictated the bakery try to sell the resulting mistake rather than let the product go to waste.

Oddly enough the new cake sold so well that the bakery continued making them. Soon other St. Louis bakers began producing their own versions of gooey butter cake, and what began as one baker’s accident became area icon.

As with most new foods that become popular, multiple claims of its origin begin to appear. The gooey butter cake is no exception. Two groups in particular lay claim to this iconic dish: the Danzer family and the Koppe family.

According to Richard Danzer, one Saturday morning in late 1942 or early 1943, St. Louis baker Johnny Hoffman messed up one of his recipes. Upon discovering the results were surprisingly tasty, he called his friend and fellow baker Herman Danzer, Richard’s father, and told him what had happened. The two bakers spent the rest of the day at Danzer’s shop trying to recreate Hoffman’s blunder. Just as they were finishing their final and successful effort, Melba Danzer came in to see what the two friends were up to. Upon tasting their creation, she exclaimed “this sure is gooey” and thus the name.

Herman Danzer died in 1997. Unfortunately, neither his son, Richard, nor his wife, Melba, had retained any of his recipes and therefore have no way of proving the accuracy of the story.

paula-deens-gooey-butter-cakeAnd then there is the Koppe side of the story as told by the daughter of Master Baker John Koppe who owned a bakery throughout the 1940s during WWII. It was during these years that John was to have developed the gooey butter cake. Following the war, Koppe sold his business and went to work for St. Louis Pastry Shop, giving them his recipe for this classic St. Louis specialty.

Again, there is no concrete evidence that shows John Koppe to be gooey butter cake’s inventor. Also, I find it intriguing that he gave his recipe to the same bakery owned by Johnny Hoffman.

If these two claims were not confusing enough, there is the distinct possibility that this St. Louis treat was actually created in Philadelphia. It seems that the Philadelphia Butter Cakes have been sold by the area’s German bakeries since the 1930s, although I find nothing to suggest that any particular bakery there makes claim to its origin.

There are two things upon which everyone seems to agree. The original gooey butter cake had a sweet yeast dough base with a topping made from corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, and of course butter. It was certainly not the modern version made today by some using cake mix base with a cream cheese topping. And while gooey butter cake is a type of coffee cake rather than a dessert cake, it can definitely be eaten at any time of the day.

Today you can find the gooey butter cake in bakeries all over the St. Louis area. There are also versions available nationwide, including a variety called the Paula Deen Baked Goods Original Gooey Butter Cake sold in Walmart stores throughout the country.
Another bakery, Ann & Allen Baking Company, sells a whopping 76 varieties of gooey butter cake marketed online in all 50 states. The company’s original version even won top prize in Food Network’s Food Feuds.

There seems to be a revival today of classic Americana sweets, and the gooey butter cake is just one example. I’ve added instructions for both the original and modern versions of this delicious yet unusual treat to the Recipe Index of this website for your convenience. I hope you’ll try baking one soon, and let your family find out what folks in St. Louis have known for more than eighty years–regardless of who the originator was, the Ooey-Gooey Butter Cake is one mistake worth making.

Make Em: Killeen’s St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, Paula Deen’s Gooey Butter Cake