When New Yorker writer David Wallace met poet, critic and theorist Fred Moten for lunch, the garlicky aioli on Moten’s hamburger sparked an exchange about the nature of mayonnaise, the classic emulsion of egg yolk, oil and an acid like vinegar or lemon juice:
“I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime,” he said. “And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.”
“It’s liminal also,” I offered.
“It’s liminal, and it connects to the body in a certain way.”
“You have to shake it up,” I said. “You have to put the energy into it to get it into that state.”
“Anyway,” Moten said, “mostly I just don’t fucking like it.”
Well, I love mayo, especially with this new view I hadn’t considered of the complex relation to the sublime that homemade mayonnaise definitely has, particularly garlicky aioli. Although I make the occasional from-scratch mayo, for everyday I mostly stick with Hellman’s. I view it as a blank slate, long-lasting base mayo because a) I don’t have to worry about spoiling egg yolks as I do with homemade mayo’s short shelf life and b) it takes well to doctoring up. There are other mayo brands that have a non-sweet neutral flavor—one reader recommends Duke’s, a Southern favorite said to taste like “real” mayo. At all costs, steer clear of Miracle Whip or other sweet mayos.
There are enormous possibilities for jazzing up a plain base mayo:
-Assertively flavored oils like roasted sesame or peanut oil, with or without complementary flavorings like ginger, garlic and cilantro
-Roasted walnut, hazelnut, pine nut and pistachio oils pose interesting possibilities.
-Tough, fibrous herbs such as rosemary, thyme, savory and sage become gritty in a mayonnaise. Instead, warm them several minutes in olive oil to infuse it; when cool, beat the infused oil into the mayo
-Dried ground spices such as ancho and other chile powders, curry powder and garam masala should be moistened in a few teaspoons of hot water to release their flavor before adding them to mayonnaise
-Flavoring possibilities are legion and include fresh or roasted garlic, grated horseradish, minced caramelized shallots, grated ginger, minced or grated ramps, regular or Meyer lemon zest, olive paste and minced soft fresh herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro and chives.
When improvising, add the flavorings a little at a time, until you get the degree of intensity you like. Heighten flavors with a pinch of salt or a few drops of fresh lemon juice or vinegar.
…mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime…
Here are three of my favorite riffs:
—For an Almost-Homemade Mayo for Everyday, I whisk in as much extra virgin olive oil as possible, that is, that it will absorb without breaking, roughly 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil to 1/3 cup mayo. Spoon about 1/3-cup commercial mayonnaise into a medium bowl and position the bowl on a damp tea towel to keep it from sliding around the counter. Whisk the mayo with one hand as you slowly dribble in about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in any flavorings that come to mind. Blend in a few drops of lemon juice if necessary to balance the flavors. Season with fresh pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate.
—Bacon Mayo. Bacon is a sensational flavoring for mayo (think BLT) that is perfect on tomato and cheddar sandwiches, pan-fried fish sandwiches, cold roast pork, chilled steamed shrimp and lobster, and potato salad. Whisk 2 tablespoons warm, strained, rendered bacon fat into 1/2 cup commercial mayonnaise. Season liberally with freshly ground black pepper.
—My Garlic Mayonnaise is a fast, unpolished version of aioli, the classic accompaniment to fish in the South of France.
Cut a garlic clove in half lengthwise and remove the green sprout, if any. Discard the papery skin.
Reduce the garlic to a puree with salt; you can do it right on the work surface with a pestle. Or, using a chef’s knife, mince 1 peeled clove garlic with a pinch of coarse salt. Placing the flat side of the knife almost parallel to the work surface, mash the garlic a little at a time by crushing and smearing it against the cutting board until it is completely reduced to a paste. Another quick method is simply to grate it on a microplane grater and then mash with a bit of coarse salt.
Spoon 1/3 cup commercial mayonnaise into a medium bowl and position the bowl on a damp tea towel to keep it from sliding around the counter. Whisk the mayo with one hand as you slowly dribble in about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic paste to start, adding more to suit your taste; the garlic flavor will strengthen as it sits. Blend in a few drops of lemon juice if necessary to balance the flavors. Season with fresh pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate.