In 2011, Eric J. Roberts and Andrea Reeves took an “Uncle Sam’s” boat tour one morning during a day trip to the Thousand Islands (both reside in the Syracuse area). They learned about George Boldt and his famous castle and how, while Boldt was entertaining lunch guests on his yacht with a lunch cruise around the Islands, the chef aboard accidently created the recipe for Thousand Island Dressing. According to the tour guide’s story, the chef had run out of the ingredients to make his usual salad dressing and had to improvise with what was on hand.
The dressing he whipped up was met with such great acclaim by the company on board that on-the-spot Boldt named it after his beloved islands and ordered it served at the Waldorf-Astoria in NYC, where he was the proprietor. From there Thousand Island Dressing became a nationwide sensation and the lucky chef – Oscar Tschirky – blessed with this turn of events, was promoted and rose to prominence as the famous Oscar of the Waldorf, creating other dishes such as Veal Oscar, Eggs Benedict and the Waldorf Salad.
That afternoon, while having lunch at Clayton’s Thousand Islands Inn, Reeves and Roberts noted that on the back of their menu was a history of the Thousand Island Dressing. However, it was different from what the guide on the tour boat had said.
This was a story about Sophia LaLonde, a fishing guide’s wife, who in the early 1900’s created the dressing for her husband’s shore dinner guests, one of which was famous Broadway actress May Irwin. May, who was staying at the Herald House while her cottage in the Thousand Islands was being built, asked for the recipe so she could have it served to her daily in the hotel dining room.
According to this telling, it was Irwin who named it Thousand Island Dressing and then gave the recipe to fellow NYC resident George Boldt on recommendations to serve it at the Waldorf-Astoria. Once again, the Waldorf became the launching point for the dressing’s nationwide popularity. When questioned, the folks at the Thousand Islands Inn said the Boldt yacht story was a total fabrication made up for the tourists and stole the rightful recognition from the dressing’s true creator - modest, hardworking Sophia LaLonde of Clayton.
These encounters of two widely different stories sparked the curiosity of Roberts and Reeves, who then began to do more research in days following. “What we found out about May Irwin made our jaws drop. She was far more than a famous Broadway actress, she also was Canadian and a trend-setter in the most daring ways such as filming the first scandalous on-screen kiss for Thomas Edison in 1897.” said Roberts.
“We then discovered a third claim by Chef Theo Rooms that he had created Thousand Island Dressing for the Blackstone Hotel’s 1910 grand opening in Chicago. This was backed up by documentation at the Chicago Culinary Museum showing Rooms had received an award for being the originator of the dressing in 1925. This sealed it – we became consumed with finding the truth,” said Reeves.
They began with a “Taste Test” held on the grounds of Boldt Castle in September 2011 where they made a public appeal, asking for any information to be sent by letter or email. This led to introductions to Sophia LaLonde’s grandson and great-grandson.
Soon the researchers were traveling far and wide. New York City to the Waldorf-Astoria. Chicago to the Blackstone Hotel. Perhaps one of the most interesting visits was to the Cornell University Archives which houses the Oscar Tschirky hotel menu collection. Interesting for what was not discovered – there was no mention of Thousand Island dressing in any of the vast collection of Oscar’s material. One bit of information led to another and then to another until it became evident that all the stories had some element of truth.
The 8-minute trailer for the film gives you the “flavor” of this important TV documentary. Video courtesy Mysterious Origin Productions, Inc.
Still absent though, was the “missing link” – that one piece of evidence that would tie in all together. Days before they called it a wrap, Roberts and Reeves found it – right in Clayton, the same town that spawned the search over a year before.
This summer they returned to Clayton, with their 58-minute-TV Documentary called the Mysterious Origin of the Thousand Island Dressing, as guest presenters for the History at Noon series at the Thousand Islands Museum.
Roberts and Reeves requested the opportunity to present the film from the Museum’s Board so they could thank the conscientious volunteers who watch over the many pieces of memorabilia that make up Thousand Islands history. In fact, as Roberts would passionately describe, “without the efforts of all those interested in preserving these archives in Clayton and other towns and villages across the United States and Canada, much of our shared heritage could be lost forever.”
To demonstrate, Roberts turned to a binder they discovered at the Thousand Islands Museum that became their “eureka” moment in their search for the true origin of Thousand Island Dressing. Until that moment, nobody in the audience had any idea they were sitting in the very room - beside the very binder - that held the answer as to who really created the famous 1000 Island Dressing!
Roberts sent me a copy of the movie. I was intrigued by the still photographs and historical review of the Thousand islands and I was introduced to several important characters who gave impressive on-screen interviews and provided credible information.
- Karen Killian, who has a most extensive collection of May Irwin memorabilia, provided extensive knowledge of May’s life in the Thousand Islands.
- Shane Sanford, Director, Boldt Castle Facilities Operations and Maintenance, Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, presented his important version of the story. He also shared the Alexandria Bay version of the bottled Thousand Island Dressing for the Taste Test.
- Allen Benas, owner of the landmark Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, showed the filmmakers the hotel safe where he found Sophia LaLonde’s hand written recipe. Allen also supplied the hotel’s bottled version of Thousand Island Dressing for the Taste Test.
- Dean Georgelos, history buff on the culinary industry in Chicago, revealed the legacy of the Blackstone Hotel and Chef Theo Rooms’ role in creating Thousand Island Dressing. Georgelos also provided the recipe for the Blackstone Thousand Island Dressing for the Taste Test.
- Roger S. Lucas, independent researcher, editor and publisher of several books on the life and times of George Boldt shared his knowledge of Boldt and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
- Russ Tarby, journalist and music critic, offered important insights as to the impact of May Irwin to the entertainment industry in the early 1900’s
- Jerome LaLonde, grandson of Sophia and George LaLonde provided insight into early Clayton life and his grandmother’s cooking.
- Hillary Dorsch Wong, Senior Manuscripts Processor, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University described Oscar Tschirky’s extensive menu collection.
- Ed Evans, historian and journalist, provided critical research and on-camera help in weaving all the pieces of the puzzle together for the viewer to finally answer the question of the Mysterious Origin of Thousand Island Dressing.
I could tell you the ending right here, but I won’t.
I have researched the Thousand Islands for several decades, and I thought I knew it all, or most of it! Suddenly, on the screen and with all the pieces in place, I had that “Eureka moment.” The answer was right there, tucked in an envelope in the May Irwin Binder on a shelf at the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton, NY. It had been there for many years.
Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who have been to a showing, if not we can do two things: a) Perhaps you can convince me to share the answer in TI Life through your comments or there will be another presentation in the 1000 Islands before the end of the year. or b) I asked Eric and Andrea to share their film, so you can order a DVD copy of The Mysterious Origin of Thousand Island Dressing by emailing your request to email@example.com.
I want to thank Eric and Andrea for their efforts. They have produced a riveting film, with beautiful graphics and a story that will fascinate even those not interested in history or salad dressings and best of all they have given us a great gift – the answer.
http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2011/09/a_mystery_with_flavor_film-mak.html – “A mystery with flavor: Film-makers explore the origins of Thousand Island Dressing” by Don Cazentre, September 03, 2011 and updated September 12, 2011. Syracuse.com powered by The Post-Standard.
www.mysteriousorigin.com - this will give you the overview of the series of food mysteries Eric and Andrea are presently researching for possible production.
One more thing Eric says, “Why does ‘Thousand Island Dressing’ not have an “s” on Islands? Do you know? We don’t.”
By Susan Weston Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org