Romano’s on West Gray has outlawed dipping pizza in ranch dressing. The pizzeria’s owners, two cousins named Frank and Vinny, were born in Calabria, Italy. They spent 15 years working in New York pizzerias before coming to Texas. The cousins pride themselves on making one of the best New York-style pizzas in Houston.
Where Frank and Vinny come from, dipping pizza in ranch dressing is not done. “It's a crime against nature,” railed New York food writer Ed Levine, author of Pizza: Slice of Heaven, when I e-mailed him about the pizza/ranch combination.
But pizza dipped in ranch dressing is gaining ground in the rest of the country. The Washington Post credited inebriated college students with making the combination popular at a pizzeria in Georgetown. “Ranch Chicken Pizza,” a grilled chicken pizza covered with ranch dressing, was a special this summer at the Schlotzsky's sandwich chain. The pizza came with more ranch dressing for dipping.
“Pizza Hut franchises in the South began offering cups of ranch alongside their pies… Although dunking one's pizza in ranch dressing is a culinary act best described as arterial suicide,” wrote Brendan I. Koerner in a 2005 Slate article titled, “Ranch Dressing: Why Do Americans Love it So Much?” Koerner offered a genesis story for the dressing involving a Southern California ranch and recalled an episode of the Simpson’s when Homer uttered the immortal words “Bring me my ranch dressing hose” to a room full of harem girls.
From his tone, I suspected Koerner was a vegan who grew up eating granola in Boulder, so I sent him an e-mail and asked him if he liked ranch dressing. He turned out to be a nice guy from Los Angeles. He wrote back, “I'll confess to an affinity for ranch dressing, especially when drizzled on a nicely constructed club sandwich. I tried using it as a dipping sauce for pizza once, and almost didn't survive the experience. The phrase ‘fat bomb’ comes to mind.”
Obviously, Brendan I. Koerner hasn’t eaten Daniel Boulud’s foie gras-stuffed burger or Mario Batali’s cured pork fat, known as “lardo” in Italian. If he likes the flavor of ranch dressing but is worried about his arteries, why isn’t he dipping his pizza in Kraft Fat-Free Ranch Dressing? Probably because it’s not the fat content in ranch dressing that made it the object of his derision. It’s being accused of having the same culinary sensibility as Homer Simpson and the bubbas down South that really frightens him.
As a Texas food writer, I long ago made my peace with ranch dressing. In truth, I think it is unfairly maligned. After all, the main ingredient is buttermilk. I published a recipe for the stuff in the Texas Cowboy Cookbook, including a variation using yogurt instead of mayonnaise for those concerned about fat.
The origins of ranch dressing have been widely misrepresented. Brendan I. Koerner credits Steve and Gayle Henson, the couple who owned Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California, with inventing the dressing. The Hensons started out selling spice packets that consumers mixed with buttermilk and mayonnaise, and their recipe was bought by Clorox in 1972 and marketed in a shelf stable formula.
In fact, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is simply a brand name for buttermilk dressing, a Western favorite that may have had its origins in cowboy cooking. Cowboys acquired a taste for buttermilk because chuck wagon cooks had so little else to work with. West Texans didn’t come to love buttermilk pie because they didn’t like peach or apple. It was because there wasn’t any fruit to be had on the High Plains in the early 20th century. Vegetable oil was rare and expensive, but animal products were cheap, hence the popularity of buttermilk dressing.
Here’s a recipe that appeared in the San Antonio Light on November 3, 1937, long before Hidden Valley Ranch existed:
One cup thick buttermilk
One-half cup fresh mayonnaise
Juice of half an onion
One-half teaspoon lemon juice
One-fourth teaspoon powdered mustard
One-eighth teaspoon white pepper
One-eighth teaspoon paprika
Method: Stir all ingredients into unbeaten buttermilk.
One West Texas chef told me that the modern buttermilk dressing binge started when restaurants began serving whipped low fat spreads instead of real butter. Cowboys craving butterfat responded by dunking their bread and biscuits in the buttermilk dressing instead of using the crappy spreads. And pretty soon they were dunking their chicken-fried steaks, onion rings, French fries, pizza and chicken wings in it too. Wherever the trend got started, it has taken hold of the condiment industry.
In 1992, ranch became the most popular dressing flavor in America. In Texas, we consume ungodly amounts of the stuff, both as a salad dressing and as a dip.
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“Ranch is the new ketchup,” wrote fashion columnist Stephen MacMillan Moser in the Austin Chronicle. “I wouldn't be surprised if it turned up as a selection all its own on menus: Ranch: cup $1.99, bowl $3.99, pitcher $7.99. I'm shocked that we don't have Ranch-flavored ice cream.”
Personally, I have come to prefer ranch dressing over ketchup as a dip for onion rings. I had never dipped pizza in ranch dressing before I read the sign in Romano’s. But once it became the forbidden fruit, I found it irresistible. A search of my fridge during the writing of this article turned up a foil-wrapped slice of leftover pepperoni, Canadian bacon, black olive and green pepper pizza and a bottle of Whole Foods Organic Ranch Dressing.
So I did a taste test. And I concluded that the flavor was very similar to a slice of pizza that got some salad dressing on it. To Frank and Vinny, Ed Levine, Brendan I. Koerner, and all those who find the combo potentially lethal or otherwise abhorrent, I say: “Don’t have a cow, man.”
– Robb Walsh