A Bottle of Red, A Half Gallon of White
When he downshifts to wrap up the 7-minute frolic that is “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” Billy Joel flips the opening line of the now iconic waiter’s question that inspired the hook in the first place:
A bottle of red, a bottle of white
Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight
I’ll meet you anytime you want
In our Italian Restaurant
It’s one of Joel’s signature songs, one of his personal favorites, and when played live is often punched up with an intro of band member Mike DelGuidice singing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” to set the mood. Which is what a great songwriter does, weaving a story of things that inspire, that are both new and familiar all at the same time, that makes something sound like a thing everyone has done, and can relate to, and make it seem exciting.
“That ended up becoming a very important recording in my career,” Joel explained in an interview. “Towards the end of the night, that’s one of the big finale songs. I don’t think I could do a show without performing that song — which is why I’m sick of it… [laughs]. It’s basically the story of Brenda and Eddie told through a meeting at an Italian restaurant during a dinner. It’s something that a lot of Long Islanders do, kind of reminisce over Italian food. And everybody’s got their Italian restaurant.”
I certainly have mine, like millions of others. “My” true Italian food place is in Germany, of all places, run by my dear friends the Piromalli family, but the local place where I’ve eaten on and off for 15 years now is pretty good. And at least every other time I go, I think of that song, and that lyric, when darkening the side door to get the carryout from over the dessert counter. “Bottle of white, bottle of red” I could mumble and hum scanning the wine rack while waiting and trying not to buy cheesecake and fresh filled cannoli. Which was what I was doing as I was handed a bottle of white — just not what I was expecting.
And by bottle of white, I mean a half gallon jug of ranch dressing.
“This is a rib, right?” I asked the lady behind the counter, sporting the restaurant’s shirt that proclaimed across the back “Italian from folks who speak Italian”. She just smiled. “You said, specifically, how much you love our ranch and you wanted a gallon of it. But don’t worry, we only charged you for a half gallon.”
“I guess that is what I get then,” I conceded.
“What you get for putting ranch on your pizza in the first place,” came the reply, followed by some Italian words that I am assuming were not flattery.
Long before folks were accusing each other of pizza heresy over pineapples, there has been debate about ranch dressing and pizza. Purists and folks who have enough of the old country in them — or beat into them by those who did — hated it, but the rise of pizza and wings as tag team champions of Americanized cuisine pretty much made such a debate a moot point except to the diehard purist. But it wasn’t always that way, and ranch as the most popular of dressings and dips is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nor were the now-staples of pizza and wings the launching point of ranch’s conquering of America.
How that happened is a funny story, and not just because it ended up with me getting trolled by my prefered Italian restaurant.
When a plumber from Nebraska, temporarily working in Anchorage on a construction job, was pressed into service as the cook for the work crew, fresh ingredients in the last frontier weren’t happening. So Steve Henson managed to combine dry herbage and creaminess using what he had on hand. Having a moment of inspiration to combine both new and familiar all at the same time, making something new and exciting out of the mundane and ordinary, is as much a necessity as making it edible in the first place. Making simple sing, if you will.
The actual ingredients are simple enough: herbs — usually parsley, thyme, dill; a punch of onion and garlic; creaminess from sour cream, mayonnaise, buttermilk, or a combination thereof; pepper to cut through the whole thing and finish it off. Thus, ranch dressing was born of ingenuity and necessity.
One of the things that makes ranch…well, ranch as we all know and love it, is the fact it has to be made with dried ingredients. Oh, you can make it with fresh and it’ll no doubt be a fine thing, but it won’t be ranch dressing the flavor that is imbedded in folks’ minds. This of course drives the more snobbish foodies nuts, since fresh ingredients and made from scratch is not only a badge of honor but a line in the cutting board for many of them. But you could argue the tradition of ranch dressing not only allows, but demands, the use of those bottles in the cupboard, drawer, or spice rack. Or the bench stocked items for an Anchorage construction crew and their midwest plumber/cook just trying to be creative.
Or as millions have known it since, in the paper packages.
Those started with Steve Henson too. Some time after his northern exposure, Steven and his wife Gayle bought property outside Santa Barbara, California. The land was called Sweetwater Ranch, but it was rather rough and tumble when the Henson’s first got ahold of it. But enterprising as ever, they soon had it up and running as a guest ranch — an actual working ranch, not dressing. Funny thing, though; more people were coming to eat than anything else, and soon the place was renowned as a steakhouse, with folks carrying mayonnaise jars of Steve’s dressing home to boot. Sensing an opportunity, they soon started selling the dry mix in packages for folks to either pick up or order by mail, to add to their creamy element of choice and complete as needed.
Before too long it was showing up on salad bars across the Midwest and slowly crept its way east. Branding being important to any good business, the dressing took on the name the Henson’s had dubbed the resurrected Sweetwater Ranch: Hidden Valley. By the 80s it was on shelves in ready-to-use form along with the green and white packages of mix. Unlike Brenda and Eddie back on the green, the Henson’s remained both married and the king and queen of ranch till death did part them, first Gayle in 1993 then Steve in 2007. But by then, Hidden Valley and ranch in general had gone big time, nationwide, and international. Steven didn’t know that when he did it for the work crew, but he had made a medley of flavor that millions would enjoy for decades to come.
By the time that waiter at Fontana di Trevi at 151 West 57th Street in New York City asked Joel to pick between Red, White, and Rose, the idea of ranch dressing on anything would have been scoffed at, if they even knew what it was. Probably wouldn’t have made for a very good song anyway, wondering about what dressing to put on a salad while Brenda and Eddie reconciled and lived a happy, boring life somewhere.
But in the mid-80s, things changed, and change came in an unusual form: a mass produced triangle-shaped flavor delivery system.
If you have a popular dip, and you have a chip, why not just combine them? Which is exactly what Frito-Lay did in the mid-80s with Cool Ranch Doritos, to great success. It was the chip that took the ranch brand and flavor from Midwest salad bars to worldwide attention first. By the mid-90s, pizza joints were regularly sending out wings along with their pies, and ranch went along for the ride, slowly eclipsing blue cheese as the dip of choice for hot wings. The combination of creamy and herby is just is too much of a match for food that is fried, spicy, bland, or otherwise could use either pumped up or toned down. Such is the versatility of ranch dressing that it went from that Alaskan construction crew to dressing of choice in America within one lifetime. And ranch is the American dressing of choice, so much so that the European version of Cool Ranch Doritos is labeled “Cool American” flavor.
For such a little chip it really does have a medley of flavors. Folks can argue how many of those there are, but there are 34 chemical components involved, everything from the straight to the point “Blue No.1” to the barley pronounceable “disodium guanylate”. If that sounds like a bunch of chemicals and ingredients for a chip, consider the Chicken McNugget has 40 and the Twinkie has 42. You can’t have a medley of flavor without a plurality of flavor inducers. There has to be a combustible element in there somewhere. And the main thrust of those flavor inducers is not very dissimilar to Steve’s original dry mix for ranch.
Nearly 60 years on, it is amazing to see how ranch went from Steve’s Alaskan work trip to the jug of a practical yet still edible joke in my refrigerator door. Looking at it from 40 years distance, it’s easy to see how Joel’s rumination of wine selections and baby boomer marriage issues has stood up so well. You go back, Joel sings, but you can never really go back. You might get a moment, a smile, a laugh, a good bottle of red, but then it ends and off you go into the night again. Billy Joel has lasted and had a long career because of his hard work, talent, and he is really good at making good music. Good things tend to linger. Like Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. Like ranch dressing on anything fried, cheese, greasy, veggie, or spicy. Like Steve Henson’s little packets of flavor that seem to go well with, or make better, just about anything. Like pizza and wings with the family, and getting enough ranch that they don’t fight over the cups that come with carryout pizza, which was all I was trying to do in the first place.
I probably don’t want to know how long I will be the butt of that well done joke played on me by my Italian Restaurant, but it will probably last a while. Longer than my half gallon of white did, which was about two weeks. Then I was back at my Italian restaurant, ordering with more specificity and care this time. I like that place, and wasn’t about to let that be the end of a really good thing. Besides, it put a song in my heart, and a smile on my face. Which is the mood I hope to be in every time I leave that place. Which is what keeps me coming back. A smile, a laugh, a moment of just simple joy before going back out into the night. The way our Italian restaurants should be. Just don’t ever joke about the ranch dressing.