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The Mystery of the Thousand Islands Dressing


CLAYTON, NY

The salad dressing that put this place on the map might have a slight geography challenge.

That's because an ongoing rivalry between Alexandria Bay and Clayton over bragging rights to the world-famous Thousand Island Dressing continues a century after it was first created.

The cast of characters at the centre of the battle over the culinary claim to fame include a Canadian-born Broadway star, a local fish wife, the millionaire hotelier who built Boldt Castle on Heart Island and his maitre d' at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

   

Thousand Island Dressing

Kim Lunman © Recorder and Times
Allen Benas offers a bottle of Thousand Island Dressing which is sold at the TI Inn and on their website. The hotel produces 5,000 bottles a year on sale at the inn and through its website at www.1000-islands.com/dressing.

Allen Benas, owner of the landmark Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, sticks by the story the recipe was first made by the wife of a local fishing guide and first served at his hotel, then known as the Herald Hotel, in the early 1900s.

"Alexandria Bay has their story but ours has never been challenged," said Benas. "The recipe you get in the store is nothing like ours."

Sophia LaLonde

Citizens of Clayton lay claim to Thousand Island Dressing, saying a local resident named Sophia LaLonde

created the salad dressing for shore dinners. She is said to have concocted the tangy dressing to be served at fishing parties for her husband George LaLonde Jr., who guided fisherman for black bass, northern pike and muskie along the St. Lawrence River. Benas, a fishing guide, maintains LaLonde is the original creator of the recipe and that it was first served at his Clayton hotel.

The inn and its award-winning restaurant - which serves the Thousand Island Dressing as its "official" house dressing along with fresh perch and walleye - has been featured in Gourmet Magazine and Travel Channel's Taste of America.

"Sophia's son delivered the recipe," said Benas. "We had living witnesses. We have depositions."

The tale goes that LaLonde's husband George was guiding a prominent New York City actress named May Irwin and her husband. Irwin, who was born in Whitby, Ont., was a vaudevillian performer and silent film star who penned the lyrics to a song called "Hot Tamale Alley" and vacationed in the Thousand Islands near Clayton at an island called Club Island she named after herself near Grindstone Island. A street is named in her honour in Clayton, where she retired.

Folklore has it the actress was so impressed with the salad dressing she asked George LaLonde for the recipe. At the same time, Sophia LaLonde gave the recipe to the owners of the Herald Hotel, one of the most popular hotels in Clayton frequented by Irwin and her husband.

In doing so, Tschirky received credit for introducing Thousand Island Dressing to the world, said Benas. Today it is the only salad dressing named for any region in the United States.

But citizens of Alexandria Bay say Thousand Island Dressing was created by a chef (some maintain it was Tschirky) of George Boldt's while boating in the area on his yacht around the same time.

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"The story is that while cruising on his steam yacht, the chef was lacking ingredients and created the Thousand Island dressing and George Boldt so liked it he asked the chef to make it again and served it in his hotels," said Shane Sanford, Boldt Castle operations manager and Thousand Islands Bridge Authority promotions director. The dressing is sold at Boldt Castle's gift shop on Heart Island.

"It's associated with the Thousand Islands and we get recognition for the region," said Sanford. However, The Thousand Islands Inn was licensed by New York State in 1990 to bottle Thousand Island Dressing from the "original" recipe from Sophia LaLonde for resale. The hotel produces 5,000 bottles a year on sale at the inn and through its website: www.1000-islands.com/dressing.

"We ship it all over the world," said Benas, who shrugs off any claims to Clayton's celebrated salad dressing from the neighboring river town while keeping the inn's recipe a carefully guarded secret and source of civic pride. "There's always been a rivalry of sorts between Alexandria Bay and Clayton," he said.

    

By Kim Lunman KimLunman@ThousandIslandsLife.com

Kim Lunman is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Reader's Digest, The Calgary Herald and other newspapers. She has returned to her hometown of Brockville, "City of the 1000 Islands," where she is a staff writer and photographer for the Recorder and Times. The Mystery of Thousand Islands Dressing is reprinted with permission from “Island Treasures”, Brockville Recorder and Times.

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