Navigating The Rumor and Fable of Thousand Islands Dressing

By: Lenka walldroff

The Thousand Islands are steeped in mystery and rumor. Some stories are true, like those of smugglers and rumrunners on the St. Lawrence River, and a rumored cave system beneath Watertown’s Public Square. Some are patently false, like the “real” story of Boldt Castle (Louise Boldt did not run away with the butler), or the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand actually referencing the hamlet in Jefferson County rather than the Pennsylvania metropolis. Whether true or false, the stories suggest that there is more to the Thousand Islands than meets the eye. However long and varied the list may be, no such list would be complete without a spot reserved for conjectures regarding the Thousand Islands dressing recipe.

    People and places from Chicago to Canada to New York City have staked claim to the origin or authorship of the original recipe. The fracas over the Thousand Islands dressing recipe has become so heated in recent years that even food historians have chimed in on the debate. The stories of the recipe’s genesis are wide, varied, sometimes fantastic, and often nuanced versions of each other.

    Some claim that the dressing was invented by a chef aboard a Canadian steamer on the St. Lawrence River who, caught short on ingredients, improvised the recipe – and to much acclaim. Another version of the same story claims that it was none other than the Waldorf-Astoria’s executive chef who invented the recipe on the fly during a lunch served on Mr. George Boldt’s personal yacht. The story goes on to contest that Mr. Boldt, who at the time was managing the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, was so taken with the recipe that he ordered it to be added to the hotel’s menu.

    Still another claim to the authentic origins of the recipe nods to 19th-century Broadway actress, singer, and “foodie” May Irwin  (who, we would be remiss to note, has the distinction of scandalizing polite society in 1896 by partaking in the first on-screen kiss in history.) This version claims that Ms. Irwin was served the dressing during lunch aboard a yacht and was so taken with it that she not only asked for the recipe, but passed it along to her friend, and fellow Thousand Islands summer resident, George Boldt who then had it served at the Waldorf-Astoria.

    And a fourth story alleges that it was Theo Rooms, executive chef of the renowned Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, who invented the dressing, which was at that time called “Blackstone Dressing.” The hotel was awarded a culinary prize for the founding of the Thousand Islands dressing in 1925. Apparently, the dressing was renamed “Thousand Islands dressing” after a collaboration between Chef  Rooms and his maître d’hotel. The story, however, doesn’t make accommodation for why a recipe supposedly based in Chicago would be named after a region in Northern New York. 

    With so many stories, no wonder the origins of the Thousand Islands recipe have caused such a mêlée! How can anyone possibly hope to get to the bottom of such a culinary mystery? A conversation with the lovely Ms. Sharon Bourquin, a researcher at the Thousand Islands Museum, would do it. The Clayton-based museum claims to have the original Thousand Islands recipe tucked away under lock and key. Compelling evidence for the veracity of the claim comes in the form of a letter written by May Irwin to her cottage caretaker George Kenyon postmarked Oct. 7, 1907. The handwritten letter contains the recipe for the dressing, which is noteworthy as culinary historians have otherwise dated the earliest published reference to 1912; the sauce made its debut in the dining room of the fabled Waldorf-Astoria in 1913.

May Irwin

    What follows is the story as relayed to me by the delightful Ms. Bourquin:

    May Irwin and her husband, Kurt Eisenfeldt, regular summer residents of the Thousand Islands enjoyed fishing. The couple would often set out with their fishing guide George LaLonde, who habitually provided a shore dinner for his tour group at the end of each day.

    The story goes that one fated day, Mr. LaLonde asked his wife Sophia if she would serve something different with the shore dinner. Sophia obliged and the result was what came to be called “Sophia’s Sauce.” May Irwin happened to be present at the shore dinner where the sauce was served that evening, and being an excellent cook herself (who loved to collect and share recipes)  asked Mrs. LaLonde for the sauce recipe. Sophia obliged.

    Enter the Thousand Islands Inn. The inn, which closed in 2015, was one of the last original Gilded Age hotels in Clayton. Everything else from that era had long burned down or been torn down. The inn, which was originally called “The Herald House”, functioned in recent years as a restaurant, and advertised that it served the original Thousand Islands dressing. Was that true and how was that connection formed? And if so, how did the Waldorf-Astoria come to possess the recipe?

    The Herald House was owned by the Bertrand family. Ella Bertrand was on friendly terms with May Irwin, who gave her the recipe for “Sophia’s Sauce.” Ms. Bertrand then not only had the sauce served in her hotel, but also passed on the recipe to another summer resident of the Thousand Islands (and fellow hotelier) George Boldt. George Boldt passed the recipe on to the Waldorf’s executive chef Oscar Tschirky, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    So what about the other stories?

    While George Boldt did spend time on the St. Lawrence River in his yacht (and surely had many lunches served while on it), Oscar Tschirky would not have been there. Reports claim (and history supports) that Mr. Tschirky hated being on the water, and never came to the Thousand Islands as he spent any free time away from the Waldorf in his home in the Hudson Valley.  There are also other compelling arguments against the possibility of Mr. Tschirky developing the Thousand Islands dressing. If Mr. Tschirky had been the originator of the famous dressing, the recipe certainly would have been featured in his famous cookbook (simply called “The Cookbook”) amongst his other culinary inventions- including the Waldorf salad and Eggs Benedict. It was not.

    And then there’s the Blackstone. While the claim that the Blackstone Hotel created the recipe is not true (the Blackstone opened in 1910, and Ms. Irwin’s letter containing the recipe is postmarked 1907), the Blackstone’s involvement in the propagation of the recipe could be legitimate. The Blackstone Hotel is situated near the former location of a theater where May Irwin often performed. Historic accounts of Ms. Irwin confirm that she would often find her way to the kitchens of the hotels where she stayed, chatting with the chefs about food and wine and sharing recipes. The Blackstone was (and continues to be ) one of Chicago’s most glamorous hotels and it is absolutely possible that Ms. Irwin stayed there. Ms. Irwin’s sharing of the Thousand Islands recipes with Chef Theo Rooms would explain why a dressing “founded” in Chicago would be named after a region in upstate New York.

    The origins of the delectable Thousand Islands dressing will perhaps always be shrouded in a bit of mystery, forever associated with the romance and grace of the Gilded Age and intertwined with the other-worldly characters of May Irwin, George Boldt, and “Oscar of the Waldorf.” But as for this Rueben lover, I will always be grateful to the culinary prowess of Mrs. Sophia LaLonde and the influence of May Irwin for sharing this delightful sauce with the world! Corned beef and sauerkraut will forever be in their debt.

** Credit and gratitude to Ms. Sharon Bourquin of the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton for being so generous with both her time and her knowledge, and for helping the author to navigate around the shoals of rumor and fable that surround the story of the Thousands Islands dressing.