DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Without the Duc de Richelieu we might not have tuna salad or coleslaw or a proper BLT. For this week's food moment we bring you the history of mayonnaise. There are differing theories, but the most common and the one we like the best has mayo celebrating its 250th birthday this summer. Here's the story in a nutshell.

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ELLIOTT: A French general by the challenging name of Louis Francois Armand du Plessy duc de Richelieu led his troops onto the island Minorca in June of 1756 and took it from the British. Minorca is a tiny island off the coast of Spain, but it was strategically key to the British Navy. So the French duke's victory was a big deal.

Mr. RICHARD GUTMAN (Curator, Culinary Archives and Museum): Well, in order to celebrate this meal the duke's chef created a new sauce.

ELLIOTT: That's Richard Gutman, curator of the Culinary Archives and Museum of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Mr. GUTMAN: And evidently he was lacking some cream to mix with the egg yolks and he used oil instead, and the new sauce became mahonaise, which would be a derivation of Port Mahon, which was the port that they had conquered.

ELLIOTT: Now just to be fair, we should say this story does have it's detractors.

Mr. GUTMAN: Absolutely. It's not ironclad and when you're trying to pinpoint the origins of foods, it - there are many claims. And one is a theory that attributes the sauce's origin to the Bask region town of Bayonne. And it was originally called bayonnaise sauce, which somehow became mayonnaise sauce. I'm not sure about that one.

Another hypothesis is that it came from the old French word for egg yolk, moyeu, and moyeunnaise became corrupted into mayonnaise. And a fourth version would be from the French verb monyea(ph), which was also an obsolete word for to stir. So take your pick. Certainly the Richelieu one is compact and nice and the Mahon makes sense to me.

ELLIOTT: Richard Gutman of the Culinary Archives and Museum. Thanks so much.

Mr. GUTMAN: You're welcome, Debbie.

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ELLIOTT: So how did mayonnaise become a staple of the American diet?

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ELLIOTT: Well, a German immigrant named Richard Hellman opened a deli in New York City in 1905. His wife's recipe for mayonnaise was used in many of the deli's salads and it became so popular that Mr. Hellman began selling it in little wooden boats used to weigh butter. He sold two varieties, actually, and to distinguish between them he placed a blue ribbon around one. By 1912 he started bottling the blue ribbon version. And you probably don't even have to run to your fridge to know there's still a blue ribbon on the label of every jar of Hellman's, or best, as it's called in the West.

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ELLIOTT: And by the way, according to our research, your mom was wrong all these years. You will not get sick if you leave the picnic potato salad out too long, or at least mayonnaise is not to blame. Before you call her, go to our Web site to get the facts, npr.org.

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ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.

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