When did we become a nation of aioli eaters? And how did I miss it?

I’ve started to make a game of “spot the aioli” – and the exuberant variations – on menus whenever I eat out in Greater Portland. In a cursory online survey of local restaurants this morning, I found aioli on nearly 20 menus ranging from the upscale (Sea Glass), to the hard-core foodie (Central Provisions), to the casually delicious (Duckfat), to the beer-soaked (Sea Dog Brewing). Given another hour, I suspect I could have found 20 more.

Flavors ran the gamut, too, from saffron, hot pepper or dijon aiolis to sriracha, smoked jalapeño and lobster aiolis. Scales offers aioli in one form or another seven times; admittedly, the place has a large menu.

Given its ubiquity, I probably don’t need to tell you what it is. But in case you’ve been living on the moon (or staying home for dinner) – aioli is garlic-flavored mayonnaise, and it originated in the Mediterranean regions of Italy, France and Spain. The name itself comes from the Catalan words for oil and garlic (spelled allioli there), making its name on many local menus, “Garlic Aioli,” redundant. (The Catalan version is chiefly those two ingredients; elsewhere egg is added, which helps the sauce emulsify.)

In my unscientific sampling, aioli is served in southern Maine mostly with potatoes, typically fries, but under the spiffier name of frites (Five Fifty-Five’s Truffle Frites with Parmesan Reggiano Aioli); with fish (Walker Maine’s Tuna Tostada with Bacon Aioli, Avocado and Cotija); and on burgers and sandwiches (Biscuits & Company’s Moxie BBQ Pulled Pork with a choice of extras, including dijon aioli).

Some of these aren’t so far off from its traditional uses – including with salt cod, fish soup, meat, paella and potatoes. The French dish Le Grand Aioli makes the condiment a star, using it as a rich, satiny dip for a platter of simply prepared vegetables, steamed fish, seafood, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

I called Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a Camden resident, cookbook author and expert on Mediterranean food, to ask her about its omnipresence.

“People love to talk about aioli this and aioli that,” she said. “Menus are always advertising saffron aioli and chili aioli and tarragon aioli because mayonnaise sounds like something your grandmother put on tuna fish. But it’s basically just your grandmother’s mayonnaise.”

And about all those flavors? I asked her. Would Mediterranean cooks cringe at the liberties we’ve taken?

“Home cooks tend to be very purist about things,” Jenkins said. “But restaurant chefs are always looking for the next big thing. It doesn’t make any difference if they are in France or Portland, Maine or Camden, Maine. They want to get talked about, and the way you get talked about is to try something new. I would advise all those chefs in Portland to try some other new thing if they want to get talked about because it sounds like everybody is making aioli.”

Or perhaps they could try a more outré variation. She suggested seaweed aioli: “It would be very Maine.”

On a whim, I googled “aioli and McDonald’s.” Once a trend hits the fast food outlets, it’s yesterday’s news. Apparently, they’re serving it at McDonald’s in Australia, where it is fulsomely advertised as “Smooth and creamy, this Aioli builds on the taste of any masterpiece in the making.” (Jenkins laughed when I told her this, saying something along the lines of “Oh those Australians, they are always on the cutting edge of food.”)

Burger King, which I Googled next (oh the rigors of research), began serving zesty avocado aioli with the Avocado Swiss Whopper Sandwich way back in 2013, I learned, a development I’d somehow entirely missed despite the large-font, all-caps headline on the press release in which it breathlessly announced several new menu items: “BURGER KING KICKS OFF THE NEW YEAR WITH BIG NEWS: NEW CHICKEN NUGGETS!”

In the end, Jenkins and I agreed that we didn’t care if aioli was everywhere, nor if it wasn’t as chichi as it pretended to be. Paraphrasing a famous New Yorker cartoon in which a little girl refuses to eat a vegetable her mother assures her is broccoli (“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it,” the child retorts) Jenkins said, “I don’t say the hell with it about aioli, because it is really delicious. But I do say it’s mayonnaise.”

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected] Twitter: pgrodinsky

AIOLI

Recipe from Camden resident Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She says: “Traditionally aioli is made with egg yolks, stirred with olive oil and pounded garlic, but I think that makes a very heavy mayonnaise. So I make it in a blender with a whole egg and an extra egg white to lighten the sauce. I pound the garlic separately because in my experience the blender does odd things to the taste of garlic. It is, after all, a garlic sauce and traditionally it calls for two cloves of garlic per person, but a lot of people will find that overwhelming so the cook must use his or her own judgment on the quantity to use.”

1 whole egg

1 egg white

Sea salt

1 to 1 1/2 cups fruity olive oil, extra-virgin of course

Strained juice of half a lemon, or more to taste

4 to 8 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

Whirl the egg and egg white in a blender with a pinch of salt. With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, a very thin thread at first, until the mixture starts to thicken. Stop the blender and add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice (being careful not to add any seeds which will embitter the sauce). Start the blender motor again and continue adding oil as the mixture emulsifies and thickens. When you’ve added 1 cup of oil, check the consistency. If it’s still too thin, add more oil, up to another half-cup. If, on the other hand, it’s too thick, add more lemon juice.

In a small bowl or a mortar, combine the chopped garlic with a teaspoon of salt and pound the garlic in the mortar or in the bowl. Crush the garlic into the salt with the back of a spoon, until you have a thick and homogeneous paste. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the mayonnaise from the blender into the garlic paste and turn gently to incorporate everything. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if you wish.

Correction: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Wednesday Aug. 8, 2018, to correct the amount of olive oil in the recipe.

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