If Homer Simpson is meant to represent the American everyman, then it makes perfect sense he loves ranch. “Bring me my ranch-dressing hose!” Everyone loves ranch – Americans consume over 100 million bottles of the stuff annually (it’s a $1.7 billion industry). And yet this gooey, rich, ever-popular condiment – basically a mixture of buttermilk, mayonnaise, and various herbs and spices – has very humble beginnings with cowboys on the High Plains.
The earliest recipes for buttermilk dressing date back to around 1937, in Texas. Buttermilk was more readily available on the Plains than vegetable-based fats, hence its popularity among cowboys. And it was indeed a former cowboy who became the father of the ranch we know and love today, albeit in a somewhat circuitous way.
Steve Henson, a cowboy-turned-plumber who found himself working in deepest, remotest Alaska, loved to cook. In particular, he spent years perfecting his buttermilk dressing recipe, which he would try out on his co-workers. After retiring from the plumbing business and moving to California with his wife, Henson opened a dude ranch – called Happy Valley – where they served his creation. It proved so popular they started making more for direct purchase, both as a finished products and as bags of seasoning to be added to buttermilk and mayonnaise.
As demand grew, they incorporated and opened a factory to distribute his ranch, first across the Southwest, then nationally. In 1972, the Henson’s sold the brand to Clorox for $8 million, which turbocharged ranch’s popularity – soon, both Kraft Foods and General Foods were producing similar products. Improvements were made to the packets of seasoning, making them tastier and longer lasting, but the real breakthrough came in 1983 – bottled ranch that did not require refrigeration (they’d last 150 days in your pantry).
This took ranch mainstream, and it soon outstripped Italian as the nation’s number one salad dressing. It arrived at a time when, due to its high fat content, mayonnaise was falling out of favor, and Italian was seen as being old-fashioned. Salads in places like McDonald’s started coming with sachets of ranch, and it found fame as a spreadable ingredient in burgers, wraps, and sandwiches. By the time Cool Ranch Doritos appeared in 1987, its status was cemented – potato chips, taco shells, dips for everything from wings to pizza, and even soda came in ranch flavour. Americans couldn’t get enough of it.
It’s a trend that continues to this day, and shows no sign of waning; “Ranch Nation” declared the New York Times two years ago. Happy Valley is still the leading brand, and now sells over 70 different varieties. Celebrity fans are legion, and it’s hard to find a menu anywhere that doesn’t feature ranch in some form or other – ironically, lettuce is probably the last place you’ll find it these days.