The Strange Reality About Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing That More People Should Be Aware Of
By Ryan Unger
Love it or hate it, ranch dressing has become a pantry staple. Nearly every food pairs perfectly with the rich, creamy sauce, and it seems to pop up as a dipping accompaniment on nearly every menu. But where exactly did the idea behind the iconic salad dressing actually come from? The answer might surprise even the biggest ranch-heads.
More for the hardcore
People have been coming out of the woodwork recently to flaunt their love of ranch dressing, while many foodies are known for slathering the classic sauce on salads and pizzas. According to some fans, it might even be an idea to take a raw shot of the stuff from time to time! To add to that, there are places online where you can buy merchandise showcasing your ranch passion. But that’s only scratching the surface...
Where did it all begin?
There are plenty of ranch-loving maniacs around the world today, but how many of them really know the backstory behind their beloved condiment? Chances are good that most of them haven’t a clue. It turns out that ranch dressing originally came from the mind of a man named Steve Henson. He grew up in the small town of Thayer in Nebraska. In 1934 hen he was just 16 years old, though, Henson would head off on his own.
Escaping the depression
The Great Depression hit the country like a wrecking ball. So, Henson jumped a train to California, where he worked menial jobs until relocating to Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife Gayle in 1949. At the ripe old age of 35, Henson was able to retire thanks to a lucrative plumbing career, and the couple moved down to Santa Barbara, California.
Santa Barbara offered the perfect lifestyle for a couple looking to relax. After a year, though, Henson grew restless, having left his career behind him while still in the prime of his life. He always had a passion for ranching, however, so in 1956 he purchased a ranch in California’s San Marcos Pass called Sweetwater Ranch. And Henson had big ideas for the land.
Making big changes
Soon enough, Henson dropped the “Sweetwater” moniker so that he could make the ranch his own. He renamed the plot “Hidden Valley Ranch,” and he started making massive renovations to host guests who wanted to explore the beauty of the sprawling land surrounding the estate. It was going to be like no other place in the country.
Outdoor activities for all
Henson’s plan was to have visitors come and stay for days at a time as if they were visiting a hotel. However, he wasn’t just offering room and board to paying guests. A variety of exciting activities were also on offer, which people could take part in to fully experience ranch life, such as fishing, hiking, and of course, horseback riding. But the best part would be served at sundown.
A new kind of dressing
At the end of every fun-filled day, Henson offered guests a large banquet of hearty home-cooked dishes. It was at these meals that people grew to love his homemade salad dressing, made from a mixture of mayonnaise, buttermilk, and a variety of spices. Word quickly spread about his concoction. And before long, ranch dressing wasn’t limited to the ranch anymore.
The word spreads
The first place Henson’s ranch dressing hit the shelves was at a small eatery nearby called Cold Spring Tavern. Henson whipped up a batch for his friend the store owner Audrey Ovington and she added it to her menu. People came, they tried, and they fell in love with the rich flavor. Ranch dressing was on the move.
Picking up speed
Just one year after Henson and his wife bought their ranch, several locations expressed an interest in stocking it on their shelves. Henson couldn’t believe that an idea which had simply started out as salad dressing was picking up speed at such an incredible pace. One store named Kelley’s Corner even developed a unique format for selling it.
Instead of selling the dressing in jars, they sold individual packets of the seasonings and spices that Henson used so customers could whip up batches in their own kitchens using buttermilk and mayonnaise. The packets were so popular that in a two-day period, more than 140 were sold. It was almost too much for the inventor to process.
Henson couldn't ignore the facts: He was onto something much bigger than he ever intended, and he had to capitalize on it. The operation soon spread to fill up nearly every room of the ranch’s guest house, which sent out tons of mail-order deliveries every day. The couple was shipping orders to all 50 states and over 30 countries!
Too big for A ranch
By the time the early 1970s hit, the Hidden Valley Ranch operation had grown to be far too big to fit inside the confines of Henson’s ranch. Griffith Laboratories in San Jose soon took over the production. The dressing mixture would be made in huge vats there and then sent down to Los Angeles for packaging.
So much ranch
The packaging plant in Los Angeles was an enormous 65,000-square-foot building that brought in tons of workers to help meet the demand for the dressing. Every eight hours, employees packed roughly 35,000 bottles into boxes and readied them for delivery all over the world. As you can imagine, Henson had an enormous challenge on his hands — so he made a drastic decision.
Selling it off
Henson made the tough call to sell off his company. After putting in tons of hard work over the years, Henson wanted to live out the rest of his life with his wife peacefully and without the worries of the business weighing them down. The Clorox Company made a bid, and Henson accepted. But would he regret it?
A solid investment
Fortunately for him, his hard work had paid off tenfold. Steve and Gayle were able to live out the rest of their days in style. But the real winner here was actually everyone who loves ranch dressing. The fate of the condiment would spin off in wild directions that the Hensons could likely never have seen coming.
Since Henson’s delectable creation, tons of other companies have released their own versions of ranch dressing. Just stroll through any supermarket aisle containing salad dressings, and you’ll see shelves filled to the brim with the stuff. Henson would be proud to see so many others taking to his brainchild. Granted, some are perhaps a little bit too excited.
Love in all forms
Ranch dressing has actually developed a rabid fandom. On websites like Etsy, ranch fiends can buy a variety of items to prove just how dedicated they are to the creamy dressing. These range from mugs and T-shirts to slippers and bathing suits — and pretty much anything else that you can imagine. The attitude seems to be, “Ranch dressing or die.”
The true ranch dressing
Every person has their own favorite brand of ranch — some might be on the sweeter side, while others prefer a zestier kick — but Hidden Valley Ranch is the true original. The next time you drizzle Henson’s creation on your salad (or pizza), just know, though, that you’re biting into history. Ranch dressing is a true American success story, which can’t be said of every one of your favorite foods.
Take the potato chip — a snack often paired with ranch dressing. Potato chips were actually invented by a chef named George Speck. Born in Saratoga County, New York, he worked for years as a hunter before manning the ovens at the Moon’s Lake House. Guests knew him for the way he cooked wild game. That was until the day that one important visitor walked in.
The chip-creating chef
In fact, it was none other than the ultra-wealthy Commander Cornelius Vanderbilt who had entered the building, hoping for a meal. When Speck heard this, he probably wasn’t actually that surprised. Moon’s Lake House was a special restaurant, after all, and visitors like this weren’t entirely uncommon. The eatery was a well-to-do establishment in the Adirondacks, a wealthy area of New York, and a lot of the patrons were powerful and well-off figures.
High end dining
But at Moon’s Lake House — unlike in other establishments of the time — rich patrons would dine alongside common laborers. So, it wasn’t unusual for Speck to interact with individuals like Vanderbilt, though he was a military officer and a member of a prominent family. In fact, the two had met before. And by the 1850s, they had something of a relationship.
The origin of Mr. Crum
Once, while waiting for food, Vanderbilt had mistakenly called George Speck “Mr. Crum.” A chef with a good sense of humor, George Speck wittily replied, “A crumb is bigger than a Speck!” And from then on, Speck wore the nickname as a badge of honor. He was George Crum, and he was proud of it.
A picky patron
This is where things get interesting. The legend says that one night, a patron — the story suggests that this was Commander Vanderbilt, but others say that he wasn’t in the area at all — complained that his potatoes had been cut too thickly. He sent them back to the kitchen. History was about to be made
There, Speck was swamped with orders from demanding Manhattan visitors. Without a thought, he grabbed the offending potatoes and cut them just a little bit thinner, to the width of a modern-day French fry. He sent them back to the table... only to see the potatoes coming right back through the door just moments later. Crum was apparently furious. Stressed out, he grabbed his knife and sliced the potatoes in a way only seen a handful of times before.
Eliza the potato cook
See, Speck was reportedly not the first person to have ever cut a potato into thin chips. A newspaper article dating as far back as 1849 actually spoke about a woman named Eliza who was known for her delicious potato dishes, and especially her thinly sliced “fried crisps.” But even she was ultimately out-chipped in the history books.
The cook’s oracle
Going back even further, an 1822 recipe book by a British man named Dr. William Kitchiner cited an item resembling potato chips that it called “potatoes fried in shavings.” The book was titled The Cook’s Oracle, and it might represent the first official potato chip recipe in history. But you won’t believe what Dr. Kitchiner thought about chips...
Making A chip
Dr. Kitchiner’s book was actually meant to be a guide to eating healthy. Yep, he believed the snack was a healthy one. Getting back to George Speck, after cutting the potatoes wafer-thin, he dropped them into oil, frying them up until they were so thin that he was certain that they wouldn’t even hold between the prongs of a fork. Satisfied, he sent the crisps to his guest.
A new dish was born
To Speck’s surprise, Vanderbilt was apparently absolutely delighted by the salty, crunchy snack. Other guests noticed the commander enjoying his meal, and soon, more people were requesting that their potatoes were cut thin and fried as well. Speck eventually added the treat to the menu, calling the item “Sarasota Chips.” He then opened his own restaurant, Crum’s, where the potato slices were sold as “Potato Crunches.” There, he continued to grow the legend of chips.
Fact vs. myth
Some historical records suggest that Speck put a whole basket of potato chips on every single table for hungry guests to snack on as they waited for their food. The details of the matter aren’t entirely cut and dried, though. As chip historians look back at Speck’s life, they have a hard time separating facts and myths.
“We’ll have plenty of these”
Some accounts say that Speck’s sister, Catherine Wicks, invented the chip when she accidentally dropped a piece of potato into boiling grease. Speck then fished the chunk out of the pan and said, “We’ll have plenty of these.”
Just A myth?
Regardless, Mr. Crum and his wife went on to operate a restaurant together until their retirement and his “Potato Crunches” remained a fan favorite there. Still, there’s a reason you aren’t pulling bags of “Crum Chips” off grocery store shelves, though — so you might suspect that there’s more to the history of the humble potato chip.
The first person on record to commercialize potato chips on a mass scale was actually William Tappendon of Cleveland, Ohio in 1895. He began selling bags of potato chips to consumers so that they could enjoy them from the comfort of their own homes — or wherever they wanted. From there on, the industry only grew. Potato chips were on their way...
Frito-Lay is born
Fast forward to the 1920s. A young Herman Lay was laying the foundations of the potato chip empire that we know and love today. At the time, he was driving around, selling bags of potato chips out of the trunk of his car. He had one big problem, though.
Short shelf life
Lay found that a significant problem with his product was that the greasy chips got messy when they were delivered in the paper bags that were available at the time. What’s more, the paper bags also meant that the chips didn’t stay fresh for very long. But a woman in California was working on a solution that would change all of that.
Remaking the paper bag
Indeed, in 1926 Laura Scudder’s potato chip factory in California completed their re-design of the paper bag, adding in a coated lining that kept the chips fresher and spared consumers much of the greasy mess. At this point, potato chip packs had effectively taken on their modern form. And from there, the potato chip industry simply exploded — growing and growing, to become what it is today.