2000s Archive

The White Album

Originally Published November 2000
Alan Brown reveals a lifelong secret addiction.

Mayonnaise and I go way back. Almost a cultural chronicle of the past half century, our deliciously sordid affair began in the Eisenhower era, in the small Pennsylvania town where I was born. Mine was an ordinary, pre-cholesterol family: We drank so much chocolate milk that in our house the unadulterated version was referred to (without irony) as “white milk.” And my older sister’s favorite dinner was a bowl of elbow macaroni with an entire stick of salted butter melted on top.

I was an innocent in a Zorro mask and a Howdy Doody hat, a finicky eater whose favorite lunch was a tuna salad sandwich on Jewish rye, hold the lettuce and tomato. And only my mother’s version would do: snowball-size scoops of mayonnaise mashed into a bowl with the canned tuna—no relish, no spices—until the mixture became a luxurious paste. Heaven.

Food, I quickly surmised, was invented solely as a vehicle for mayonnaise. A gourmand friend taught me to smother cheeseburgers with it. A Dutch exchange student showed me, with missionary zeal, how to dip French fries in it. At lunch, I began to alternate tuna with egg salad. At summer barbecues, I gorged on potato salad. And when, in my high school years, my mother introduced green salads to our dinner table, she coaxed me into eating my plate of iceberg lettuce by dousing it with an exotic ketchup and mayonnaise concoction called “Russian dressing.” Licking the dressing bowl, and loving it, felt daringly unpatriotic. Could the Soviet Union really be so bad? I wondered.

I went to college. And when fate brought me an Orthodox Jewish roommate who managed to keep kosher by limiting his diet to canned tuna and mayonnaise, I knew I was lost. After graduating, I headed west to San Francisco, where I moved into a dysfunctional commune (was there any other kind?). I’d never seen an avocado until one was served to me on seven-grain bread with Monterey Jack cheese, alfalfa sprouts—and mayo. In California, I was shocked to discover, mayonnaise was cool with the counterculture. Mao and mayo were only a letter apart. Joan Baez and Alan Watts surely must have been eating it. From the look of him, Jerry Garcia indulged daily.

Then, without warning, the cultural climate shifted. Baby boomers discovered exercise, and California cuisine reared its ascetic head. In the cultural wars, mayonnaise was suddenly the culinary equivalent of Ronald Reagan and Wonder Bread. A zealous zeitgeist follower, I signed up for yoga classes, bought a juicer and a rice cooker. Miso replaced mayo in my fridge. I stopped eating tuna sandwiches. In fact, I stopped eating sandwiches, period, because, well, what was the point? Nothing tasted good on bread anymore.

Mayonnaise-free decades passed. I was clean, and I never looked back. Then, last winter, I was given a month’s residency to work on a new stage play at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ retreat in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

At VCCA, lunch is delivered each day to the artists’ studios, so that creative work can continue uninterrupted. When my lunch pail arrived on my first day there, I carried it to my desk, turned off my computer, and put on my Discman headphones. I opened the pail and looked inside: A sandwich wrapped in wax paper; a bag of carrot sticks; a cookie; an apple.

I still remember what I was listening to when I unwrapped the wax paper and took my first bite of that sandwich down there in the snowy Virginia hills. Ella Fitzgerald singing “These Foolish Things” from her Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert recording (her best, I think). The sandwich was a BLT on supermarket wheat bread: a generous helping of greasy bacon; crisp iceberg lettuce; a slice of tomato; and a sensuous blanket of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise, I quickly learned, is one of the basic food groups in Virginia; it’s on every menu, at every meal. It was a harsh winter; the snow fell and a chill wind howled. Inside my warm studio, though, I listened, transported, to Ella, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, and Anita O’Day, wiping mayonnaise off my chin and typing fingers.

I will refrain here from a Nabokovian rhapsody on the very sound of the word, the slippery slope of those syllables. But, I confess, mayonnaise did become the culinary Lolita of this now-middle-aged man. It became my laudanum, my opium. I begged the kitchen staff for extra sandwiches. And—surprise!— the words flew across my computer screen. My muse had not just paid me a visit, she’d moved right in, seduced by ambrosia-in-a-Hellmann’s-jar. I wrote my new play with a speed and lucidity I’d never known before.

It is summer now, and I am revising a new novel, a daunting undertaking. Yet I am oddly confident and serene. Friends attribute it to my yoga classes and lap swimming. But those who spot me late at night slinking down New York’s steamy streets and into the corner grocery store—those with a similar, telltale sheen to their skin—know the shameful truth. Virginia Mayo, I am your slave.

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