“Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies,” goes one version of the old Milton Berle joke. The joke works on two levels: It may be that the Jew is dying out of horror at a clueless deli patron, since everyone knows corned beef goes with mustard and rye. Or it may be that the Jew is dying because she herself has chosen mayo and white, and therefore is no longer a Jew. In either reading, the mayo critique is clear—Keep your slime off my food!—a protest that critics of the sauce would make ever more emphatically as the 20th century wore on.
You wouldn’t guess from Berle’s joke that he himself took his corned beef with mayo on white, a preference he attributed to a nomadic showbiz youth fueled by pit stops at railroad lunch counters in the 1920s. But for many Jewish Americans who came of age in that era, the frequent combination of white mayonnaise, white bread, and white gentiles created a lunchroom culture clash in which they were on the losing end. “They would make fun of me because they would be eating their sandwiches on white bread,” recalled Fred Okrand, who grew up in Los Angeles. “And I remember feeling ashamed, somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t.”
In the postwar years, however, Borscht Belt comedians turned this insult on its head. Well-sensitized to the fault lines in the American condimental landscape, and inspired by the seemingly boundless zeal for mayo expressed by a nation of molded-salad-obsessed housewives, these comics made the mayo-munching majority a target for gentle ridicule. To Mel Brooks, a Midwesterner was someone who “drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes, and mayonnaise.” Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’ ”
These jokesters formed the advance guard in a burgeoning late-20th-century anti-mayo movement. Woody Allen underscored mayo’s goyish qualities in both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; humorist Harry Shearer profiled a family of pasty Midwesterners who maintained personal mayonnaise bottles in his 1985 mockumentary The History of White People in America. The menu at Katz’s Deli, Manhattan’s famous smoked-meat joint, bowed to the anti-mayo comedic-industrial complex by warning pastrami seekers to “ask for Mayo at your own peril.” By the 21st century, the condiment’s link with square, fair-skinned peoples was such that in the 2002 comedy Undercover Brother, learning to like mayo was one of the eponymous protagonist’s key training tasks for passing as a “tight-butt white man.” (For more mayo mockery, don’t miss Meshugene Men.)
A graph of historical appearances of the phrases “hold the mayo” and “hold the mayonnaise” in the Google Books database offers a glimpse into the rise of the mayo opposition, and reinforces the impression that anti-mayonnaise ideology is mainly a late-20th-century phenomenon. (And one that is associated, at least temporally, with emerging concerns about the risks of dietary fat.)