“Why, really Sir, a play requires so much attention,– it is scarce possible to keep awake if one listens; – for, indeed, by the time it is evening, one has been so fatigued with dining, – or wine, – or the house, – or studying, – that it is – it is perfectly an impossibility.” – Evelina, Letter XX
Thankfully for British actor George Arliss, this wasn’t the case when he appeared in the play “The Green Goddess” in San Francisco. In fact, the play was so wildly successful that it was made into a silent film in 1923 and a “talkie” in 1930. In fact Mr. Arliss played the antagonist, the Rajah of Rukh, in all three productions. It was such a popular story, and his performance so brilliant, that he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He did lose, but to himself, as he was also nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Disraeli in the eponymous film!
But back to the 1920-21 theater season, and George Arliss was staying at The Palace Hotel. Someone, and it has been suggested that it was Arliss himself, thought that the hotel should do something in honor of his success. The chef in the hotel’s exquisite kitchen, clearly influenced by suggestions of greenery and the like, created a crab and romaine salad in honor of the consummate actor. Green Goddess dressing was born.
Now, I remember Green Goddess dressing fondly from my childhood. It was the 60’s, and mothers across the country were swept up in the home economics trend. Packaged foods, premixed sauces and dressings were the rage. I have no doubt that the Green Goddess we were offered on many a night with our salad was from Kraft. We were all quite cosmopolitan feeling when we were allowed to choose our own salad topper from an array of bottles.
The basic premise of this culinary delight is a salad with some sort of seafood, and a dressing made of mayonnaise, anchovies, herbs and spices – heavy on the tarragon. Since the original this sauce has been used on other sorts of salads, as an accompaniment to broiled fish, and as a tasty topping for steamed artichokes. It is quite versatile, and much like Caesar dressing, for those of you who think you don’t like anchovies, you’ll never know they’re there.
There is a classic recipe, the one created by our aforementioned chef. There are also more variations on the theme than I care to count. A quick Google search revealed more than 2,400 recipes, no doubt many of them are repeats of each other, but clearly a rather large vat of salad dressing! I looked for some of the more interesting, though admittedly I did not wade through all the entries available. There are even more entries for the green lady when one includes that Green Goddess is also a euphemistic term for the hallucinogenic drink absinthe, some various druidic sorts, and even a character from the original Tarzan series.
I’m always fascinated by the evolution of recipes. Numerous chefs substituted for the classic mayonnaise – cream, cottage cheese, tofu, and buttermilk all made appearances. Fresh herbs versus dried herbs (not surprisingly, the main of these being from the McCormick spice company’s website). To anchovy or not? And if so, whole, chopped, or paste? There was even a recipe that was little more than pureed frozen peas with some herbs and soy sauce tossed in. My one constraint in selecting recipes to try was that they had to include at least some of the three primary flavors – tarragon, garlic and anchovies.
Being the intrepid sort in the kitchen, my plan was to whip up a few of these concoctions, toss in the bottled variety for comparison, and have some friends over for a taste test. It was a raving success, mostly accompanied by the good humor that my acquaintances have in assisting me with these bizarre whims that I shower on them. We even had a contest for who could pick out the original recipe (the first person to get it did it by deductive reasoning – 1920s, no blenders, so eliminated the blender versions; it was a hotel kitchen – had to be the one that tasted most like mayonnaise… he was right!).
We had an immediate setback. Despite scouring the shelves of grocery stores throughout the area, not one bottle of Green Goddess was found. A visit to Kraft’s website yielded no clues as to whether they make it anymore, but was quite scary in the discovery of the number of brands that they own. A morning was spent shopping, blending and mixing, veggies were cut (for dipping), the table was set, and the Open House Festival of the Green Goddess was on!
So, how did the half dozen entries fare?
The very 70s version based on yogurt, fresh herbs, and lime juice was quickly voted the Weakest Link and headed for the drain. We decided it might have made an okay dip for a steamed artichoke, but had little else to offer.
The evaporated milk based recipe had good flavor but was the consistency of, well, milk. It required a spoon to eat it as it ran right off of anything dipped into it. Not quite the Weakest Link, but headed down the tubes right behind the one that was.
Mixed reviews came in for a recipe from the Cook for Good Health cookbook. Some of us liked it, some didn’t – with its base of fat free cottage cheese and pureed cucumber. One thing was clear, it didn’t fit the Green Goddess mold in flavor, and it was relegated to the sidelines.
In third place, the entry from the spice company, McCormick. This was the only entry based on dried herbs and spices, so I was curious to see how it would fare, and it did well. I’m not totally surprised, my McCormick Spice Cookbook is still one of my most used tomes. The flavor of this one was quite good, and ran a very close third place to the second place winner…
…which was the original recipe from The Palace Hotel. Both of these were mixed versions based on mayonnaise and not pureed in the blender. Though it was clear that the original had more subtle flavors than the McCormick version, and the mayo showed through more clearly, most of us liked that. It fit the idea of a crab and romaine salad, stood the test of time, and showed why some recipes are classics.
However, the first place award went to the dressing recipe from the Velvet Turtle restaurant chain. This chain of no frills, no surprises restaurants is, I believe, no longer, but at one time operated in the southern California area. The recipe was the most complex of all the entries, and had some of the most intense flavors. The garlic and anchovy came through loud and clear, the tarragon was barely there, but we liked it, we really liked it!
So, I give you the top three recipes. Have fun with them!
McCormick’s Green Goddess Dressing – Bronze Whisk
Mix together in a bowl:
3 cups mayonnaise
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 can (2 oz) anchovy fillets, mashed
1 tablespoon dry minced onion
1 tablespoon dry parsley flakes
1 tablespoon dry tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon dry chopped chives
⅛ teaspoon onion powder
⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
Let stand for at least 30 minutes to blend the flavors and soften the dried ingredients (which, of course, McCormick’s specifies as their own brand).
The Palace Hotel’s Green Goddess Dressing – Silver Whisk
Mix together in a bowl:
2 cups mayonnaise
1 mashed garlic clove
4 minced anchovy fillets
1 chopped green onion
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
Mix well and let stand to blend flavors. Classically, the garlic clove is just mashed on the inside of the serving bowl, much like a caesar salad – that way the garlic is much more subtle – I just used a smaller clove…
The Velvet Turtle’s Green Goddess Dressing – Gold Whisk
Place in a blender:
2 cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons anchovy paste
1 cup sour cream
1½ teaspoons seasoned salt (I used Lawry’s because it’s what I grew up on)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
5 garlic cloves
1½ medium onion
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
1½ teaspoon celery seed
1½ teaspoon thyme
1½ ripe avocado
1½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
a couple drops of green food coloring
Blend until very smooth and let sit for flavors to meld.
I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.