Over at Slate, writer David Merritt Johns looks at the worldwide trend of “mayophobia,” but gives special consideration to the condiment’s relationship with Jews. He accurately notes the history and some of the hypocrisy of traditional Jewish mockery of mayo, but seems to miss the most important distinction: generally, mayo is fine for Jews, as long as it’s not on our beloved cured deli meats.
Johns gives a thorough run down of the anti-mayo trope that runs through Jewish humor. Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, and Jackie Mason all cracked jokes about mayonnaise signifying a non-Jew, either literally or in spirit.
These jokesters formed the advance guard in a burgeoning late-20th-century anti-mayo movement. Woody Allen underscored mayo’s goyish qualities in both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; humorist Harry Shearer profiled a family of pasty Midwesterners who maintained personal mayonnaise bottles in his 1985 mockumentary ‘The History of White People in America.’ The menu at Katz’s Deli, Manhattan’s famous smoked-meat joint, bowed to the anti-mayo comedic-industrial complex by warning pastrami seekers to “ask for Mayo at your own peril.”
But Johns also points out that even a kosher-style institution like Katz’s carries many mayo-based products that are above scorn. Combined with ketchup and relish, the condiment becomes Russian Dressing, a perfectly acceptable topping for many a sandwich; and no self-respecting Jew would pass up whitefish salad on a bagel. So why this disparity?
Some of it is just good culinary sense. Made mostly of eggs and oil, mayo is basically pure semi-solid fat. Putting it on fatty cuts of meat like pastrami or corned beef can create a sandwich that is just too rich, with the two fatty flavors drowning each other out. Spicy, acidic condiments like mustard or horseradish contrast and highlight the flavor of a cured deli meat, brisket, or roast beef sandwich. Meanwhile, the fatty emulsion is the perfect complement to leaner white meat like fish or poultry.
Notably, many of the Jewish jokes about mayo deal strictly with deli meats: Berle warns that “anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies,” and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall embarrasses his character by ordering the stuff on pastrami.
But some of the animosity is cultural too. It may not be so much that Jews traditionally disliked mayo, but that everyone else liked it so much. As Middle America in the early and mid-20th century went crazy for “salads” of any food item combined with mayo, Jews lumped the condiment in with everything else that signified that clean-cut, wholesome, affluent world that they were not yet allowed to join.
Food became a battleground. In Lenny Bruce’s famous bit “Jewish and goyish,” food is used disproportionately to illustrate the difference: Kool-Aid, Drake’s cakes, white bread, instant potatoes, and lime jello (processed, bland foods) are all “goyish,” while pumpernickel, and macaroons are Jewish. Jews had been munching on pumpernickel, pickled herring, and onion sandwiches since living in tenement buildings in New York’s Lower East Side, and this pungent, colorful lunch came to represent all the pride and anxiety of the immigrant community in comparison to the neat, bland combination of luncheon meat, white bread, and mayo believed to be enjoyed by the rest of the country.
In this sense, mayo hatred is just another way that food is used to form cultural identity, from the Biblical kashrut laws through contemporary cultural battles over eating healthy.
As Johns explains, there are many reasons to dislike mayo that cross ethnic boundaries: it is slimy, reminiscent of completely unappetizing substances, and overused. But if a fear of seeming “not Jewish” was stopping you from adding some Hellmann’s to your smoked turkey, you might reconsider.