In 1990, upon my arrival in Salt Lake City, my then-boyfriend, a Utah native, found some high pleasure into taking me on the rounds of all things Utah. I didn’t really get it then, but after 17 years here, I certainly do now. I would love to take the uninitiated on a leisurely and wacky tour of the provincial quirkiness found here in abundance, and of course, one of my first stops, like his was, would be to one of the many establishments serving “fry sauce.”
At Hires Big H, when he ordered it along with our Veggie H’s, fries, and onion rings, I had absolutely no idea what or how it would be served-I had visions of something sizzling, exotic and vaguely Asian, perhaps associating ‘fry’ with ‘stir-fry’. No, I learned, the ‘fry’ alludes to potatoes, the French fry. And the sauce is for fries, hence, “fry sauce.” It wasn’t exotic or even vaguely Asian, it was all-American for sure, thick and pink-orangey, unidentifiable in taste until I learned of the simple ingredients, essentially ketchup and mayonnaise. I loved it.
It’s difficult to properly convey just how culinary central, definining, and beloved fry sauce has become to Utahns. There are loads of articles and blog entries written in kitschy homage, containing stories about trying to obtain it abroad (meaning not in the Western frontier) and simple, reverent odes. So, it’s just ketchup and mayo, right? What’s the big deal? Apparently something.
Fry sauce was invented in the 1940’s here in Salt Lake City, by the owner of the still-existent Arctic Circle burger chain. And there has been a healthy rise in the popularity of the sauce since. Nearly all local fast food chains, both locally and corporately owned, offer fry sauce, either in fresh “pump” dining-in form , or commercially prepared tiny tubs. Even McDonald’s carried it until 1999. Many local diners and pubs also offer the sauce, with fine culinary twists, such as hints of barbeque sauce, or roasted red peppers. It is prevalently stocked in supermarkets among other condiments, and there are T-shirts and other souvenirs available with its emblazoned image. Fry sauce gained wide popularity and some national notoriety as a Utah icon during the 2002 Winter Olympics, with the hugely popular demand for the Utah Fry Sauce Olympic Pin.
What on earth is going on? Well, David M. Candland, in his City Weekly article, Sauceand Effect, writes “…we’re talking about the simple mixing of ketchup and mayonnaise. Are you kidding? Is the “Mona Lisa” mere globs of paint on canvas?” In the article, he also refers to the sauce as “celestial serum.” He may have hit on something here.
“Celestial” refers to the “Celestial Kingdom,” the highest plane of three heavens within Mormon dogma. To tag the condiment with such a phrase is not a mockery, and makes perfect sense. It imbues it with an inseparable sense of specific place and belonging. The fry sauce seems to have become a safe, non-threatening miniscule hologram of which all Utahns, regardless of their LDS affiliation, can relate and partake harmlessly. The fry sauce phenomenon is so Utah, Utah is so undeniably steeped in the eccentricities of Mormon culture, Mormon culture can be so uniquely quirky. An internal commentary on such profound quirkiness is sure to rear its head, and fry sauce itself as an entity is so harmless; it’s a perfect vehicle. Mormons and non-Mormons alike can exist together at places like Crown Burger and Hires Big H, as they do, and in their upholding and veneration of fry sauce, safely and quite unconsciously, amicably acknowledge the culminated culture.
Making homemade fry sauce is very easy. The traditional recipe calls for 2 parts mayo to 1 part ketchup. Some purists argue that of pickle relish is essential, and it does help to authenticate it, but not necessary. Healthier alternatives for the mayo can be substituted nicely-we use Nasoya brand soy based mayonnaise, and the results are fabulous. It’s also easy to experiment with more exotic ingredients, such as a few drops of barbeque sauce or horseradish sauce. There are lots of variations, and ‘oh my heck,’ it’s all good and nothing is too unorthodox.
The best selling commercial fry sauce is Some Dude’s Fry Sauce, and it can be purchased both in Western grocery stores, and online via their website. On a side note, they are also vendors of Uncle Shady’s BBQ Sauce, and it is the absolute best I have ever tried. It can likewise be purchased at the website.