Stamatakis: De-ranchify your life

By Nick Stamatakis

I bet many of you love ranch dressing.

I bet that when you open a pizza box, the first thing… I bet many of you love ranch dressing.

I bet that when you open a pizza box, the first thing you look at is not the glorious pile of cheese and sauce, but the unremarkable cylindrical container in the corner.

You see the ranch, and you feel an easy shot of pleasure. And you know you’re not alone.

Our nation’s obsession with ranch dressing doesn’t reach too far back. Before 1992, according to Slate, our favorite dressing was Italian — a delicate oil suited for hoagies and lettuce but little else. Chemists had not yet developed a stable recipe for ranch — yes, ranch comes from a laboratory, not a, well, ranch — and we all contented ourselves with eating food not covered in mayonnaise and buttermilk.

But once the recipe was perfected, three terrible trends made the dressing’s dominance inevitable. First, in an era of political correctness we had to collectively find the least offensive topping available, and the bland, non-textured white cream served as a suitable symbol for our desire not to affront each other.

Second, our increasing “health awareness” made us more susceptible to marketing that advocated “health awareness,” leading everybody to assume that something named after a rural pasture couldn’t possibly be fattening — a minor miracle considering that ranch is, by weight, half fat, beating out even water in mass.

Finally, ranch offers an easy solution to every culinary problem in the world. If something is too spicy or too bland, ranch seems to somehow make it work. Anything offensive about a potato or meat dish can be covered in a heavy layer of lipids and turned into something everybody, age one to 92, can tolerate.

Now, ranch is so entrenched in our lives that we hardly notice it. A Chili’s menu, for instance, has 29 mentions of ranch, beating bacon at 26 and any vegetable I could think of. While ranch still loses to cheese — thank goodness — it’s striking how something that wasn’t even perfected 30 years ago has smothered our culinary landscape.

The rise of ranch since the early ’90s stands in sharp contrast to the decline of another once ubiquitous food item: toast. In a survey of food trends over the past decade, Harry Balzer, the vice president of consumer marketing research firm NPD Group, listed the oft-buttered browned bread as the largest decliner. While Americans have been ingesting more breakfast sandwiches and on-the-go foods, toast consumption has diminished.

This is hardly surprising, considering how taken Americans are with ranch. Toast requires 216 seconds to prepare properly, an eternity in our instant gratification ranched-out society. Ranch represents the antithesis of toast: a flowery, substance-less mess squirted wildly everywhere in a world that more than ever could use a solid foundation.

The transition from toast to ranch is not meaningless for society as a whole. Food holds a special place in our culture because everybody, regardless of income or status, needs to eat. Furthermore, food is not something that people interact with casually — unlike fashion, music or art, nearly every time we interact with food, we are making an active decision to consume something specific.

Food is as cultural as a culture gets. To paraphrase French foodiphile Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, if you know what you eat, you know what you are.

For this reason, we should be concerned that people are picking ranch over toast. Decisions about food reflect our natural decision making process. From a public health perspective, more than 15 grams of fat in two tablespoons of anything should freak people out enough. But the ranch philosophy — quickly cover up anything with some enhanced mayonnaise — is potentially just as damaging in terms of social consequences.

Just think of politics. Why address serious long-term debt issues when we can squirt some ranch on the problem for a few months by passing a new debt ceiling increase? Why look at our long-term traffic congestion crises when a quick federal bill to pave some roads will do? Why try anything big in your own life when I could watch another episode of “Downton Abbey” and be just as happy for now?

So next time you are presented with the option of ranch or toast, pick the option that will bring you the most long-term happiness. Pick toast.

Contact Nick at [email protected]