The news media delved deep (well, deepish) into the history of Russian dressing in 2017 after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer mentioned the condiment in a news conference.
“If the president puts Russian dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection,” said Spicer (who, by the way, is from Barrington, R.I.) on March 28.
The Washington Post had already covered the story two years earlier, but not in the context of statecraft. “A Nashua grocer named James E. Colburn invented the spread in 1924,” reported the Post. The newspaper cited the 1927 text from the book New Hampshire Resources, Attractions and Its People, a History, by Hobart Pillsbury.
Colburn sold the salad dressing to “retailers and hotels across the country,” earning “wealth on which he was enabled to retire.”
Today, Russian dressing has given way to its milder cousin, Thousand Island dressing, and has largely disappeared, the Post reported.
It was actually around long before James Colburn had his brainstorm.
Food historians agree it is a creamy vinaigrette, but they don’t agree on much else. Some evidence shows Russians knew about creamy vinaigrettes in the 19th century, but they got it from the French.
Mixed green salads go back as far as the ancient Greeks. Dinner salads were popular in the Renaissance. What we now call chef’s salads — composed salads with layers of ingredients — appeared in the 18th century. Then they were called Salmagundi.
But what was in Russian dressing?
An early version of Larousse Gastronomique claims it consisted of mayonnaise, tinted pink with poached coral and the pulverized shell of a lobster, and seasoned with salt and caviar. According to restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, it contained mayonnaise, chili sauce, horseradish, grated onion and caviar.
But according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, caviar is an unlikely ingredient. It probably got its name because of the Russian love of pickles, the encyclopedia says.
Today, Russian dressing generally consists of mayonnaise, chili sauce or ketchup, relish, horseradish and paprika.
It’s quite certain Nashua’s James Colburn didn’t put caviar in the salad dressing he bottled and sold under the name “Russian.”
He worked in a meat market until he opened his own wholesale grocery and meat business in 1906. While running that business he hit upon the idea of a Russian salad dressing. He was able to retire on the proceeds.
His biographer wrote, “As he rests on his laurels, he is conscious of having done his part well in conferring a blessing upon the people who have learned the art of eating well.”
The Boston Globe’s Household Department provided the following recipe for the condiment on Jan. 25, 1914:
Get a large bowl and mixer, then beat yolk of three eggs, one teaspoon of mustard and one of salt, a dash of paprika and 1/2 cup of vinegar. Mix up well and, while mixing, add 1 pinch olive oil and continue mixing until thick. Strain one-half bottle of chili sauce through a cloth and mix what remains with the dressing. Add some chopped chives and a dash of Worcestershire sauce and the dressing is complete.
Image: By rick – Flickr: Bill’s Place burger with grilled onions, cheese and russian dressing, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19068595.
This story last updated in 2022.