Gunnars Mayonnaise and the Icelandic Imagination
In late June, Gunnars Majones, an Icelandic company known for its sauces—and more particularly for its marquis product, mayonnaise—announced that it had gone bankrupt, quite possibly, it must be noted, because the founder’s daughters and then-co-owners were making large withdrawals from the company coffers in order to finance their extravagant lifestyles.
Despite the fact that its bankruptcy would in no way hinder its continued sauce production, this announcement generated a great deal of publicity, ranging from short news articles focusing on Gunnars’ long history as a family-run business to vaguely elegiac blog posts. “One feels a bit strange to think that Gunnars Mayonnaise has gone bankrupt,” wrote TV personality Egill Helgason. “But like the wind, time moves forward. Gunnars is like a memory of the old days, when Icelandic products in Icelandic packaging were ubiquitous.” There was even a three-page photographic spread in daily paper DV on the company’s eccentric former CEO-turned-sole-shareholder, the so-called “Mayonnaise Queen,” Kleópatra Kristbjörg Stefánsdóttir.
When you scrape the surface, however, the significance of Gunnars’ bankruptcy appears to have less to do with the possible loss of a favourite condiment than it does with the flagging of a symbolic institution—the company certainly, and more to the point, mayonnaise itself. It’s perhaps fair to say that many Icelanders have the same affection for Gunnars mayonnaise that Americans do for Heinz Ketchup or Brits HP Sauce. It’s familiar, it’s homey—it’s served on, with, or in nigh on everything. As author Andri Snær Magnason has satirically asserted, “Gunnars Mayonnaise is, in some way, more Icelandic than the coat of arms and flag.”
The Man Behind the Mayo
Gunnars Mayonnaise was founded in 1960 by Reykjavík-born Gunnar Jónsson. He was, by all accounts, a much-beloved, well-educated and ambitious man: his July 1998 obituary in Morgunblaðið spans two pages, with heartfelt tributes from friends, neighbours, relatives and employees. “He dedicated all his energy to the company,” one entry reads. “And worked at it with diligence and dedication. Elsewhere, he’s championed as “the man behind the best mayonnaise in the whole world,” and described as being “an unusual man, some kind of ‘Bjartur of Summerhouses,’” referring to the fiercely self-reliant protagonist of Halldór Laxness’ iconic novel ‘Independent People.’
Gunnar was a trained agronomist who also spent time working on an Icelandic egg farm and driving a taxi before relocating to the Minnesota in the U.S. to obtain a degree in business and economics. Later, he found work in New York with International Harvester, an agricultural machinery manufacturer, and Sheffield Farms. He returned to Iceland in 1959, supposedly in possession of a secret mayonnaise recipe that he developed while in the States. His company—which he ran with his wife, Sigríður Regína (“Gígí”) Waage, until his death—was founded a year later.
Today, in its iconic, utilitarian, and none-too-stylish white plastic tubs and squeeze bottles, Gunnars sells an astounding 32 kinds of sauce, ranging from Bacon Sauce and Sweet Mustard to ‘Chilly Jalapeno’ dip, Spanish Garlic Sauce, and Thousand Island dressing. Of these 32 varieties, seven are different kinds of mayo—salad mayonnaise, citrus mayonnaise, egg-free mayonnaise and ‘thick’ mayonnaise among them. There are also three kinds of remoulade and Iceland’s ur-condiment, kókteilsósa (cocktail sauce), both of which have a mayonnaise base.
The Pre-Gunnars Years
“Who can imagine a sandwich without Gunnars Mayonnaise?” wonders the ‘About Us’ page on the company website. “Gunnars has been one of the facts of life here in Iceland for over forty years!” This isn’t just marketing bluster, either. At its height, says food historian Sólveig Ólafsdóttir, “this plastic tub was in every refrigerator, in every household. It’s no wonder that it’s nostalgic now.”
Of course, it took some time for mayo to gain such ubiquity in Iceland, but its popularity is easily traceable to the Gunnars’ founding. The earliest mention of mayonnaise in a recipe in an Icelandic newspaper—or, as the Morgunblaðið piece would have it, “mayonnes” with a sceptical set of scare quotes—dates to 1927. Just over twenty years later, in October 1948, an article printed in the paper Dagur provides a basic introduction to the condiment with the note that an Icelandic word had been designated for the spread—as good a sign as any that it had begun to take hold in the national consciousness.
The word chosen—olíusósa, or oil sauce—had been selected, the recipe notes, despite the fact that ‘sósa’ is “admittedly not good Icelandic” and that by rights, the word “ídýfa,” an old, rarely-used word for ‘dip,’ should be used. It then goes on to a rather in-depth explanation of the best methods for making olíusósa, summing up with the advice that in the absence of “cooking oil,” the home cook could easily use clean paraffin oil instead.
Everything Is Mayo
Surveying Icelandic cookbooks from the middle of the twentieth century, Sólveig finds almost no mention of mayonnaise until 1960. “There are a few recipes that call for it in ‘Húsfreyja’ and ‘Eldabókin’ before that, but after Gunnars, it explodes: everything is mayo,” she explains, listing off the many classic mayonnaise-based ‘salads’ that achieved popularity at this time.
There was a quasi-coleslaw or white cabbage salad—shredded cabbage, carrots, orange squash (syrup), and mayo. There was fish paste salad and shrimp salad, the latter of which, incidentally, coincided with the growing popularity of shrimp cocktail—cold shrimp dipped in copious amounts of kókteilsósa and served out of Manhattan glasses—as a Christmastime standard. There was curry salad (macaroni, curry powder, and mayo) and fruit salad (pineapple, banana, nuts, and mayo). And, of course, there was the so-called Italian salad, a mixture of (canned) green peas, carrots and mayo that to this day is often used to make hangikjöt (smoked lamb) sandwiches.
“Everything that was a little bit healthier, a little bit green was then drowned in mayo,” says Sólveig.
The brauðterta, or sandwich cake—also rose to prominence in the 60s and was particularly popular for special occasions. These festive creations were basically alternating layers of sandwich bread and some sort of mayotastic filling—such as shrimp and egg or hangikjöt and Italian salad—which were then coated with a thick layer of mayo all around the outside, often using a piping bag to add decorative rosettes and flourishes, just as one might do with cake icing.
Sólveig notes that a “standard table” for a formal occasion around this time—be it a birthday, a confirmation party, or a funeral reception—would have certainly included pancakes with whipped cream, several kinds of dessert cakes, and certainly at least one brauðterta, which would undoubtedly have been “the star of the table.”
Indeed, mayonnaise was a rather sophisticated condiment at the time, the key ingredient in the special dishes that were made for company, or to commemorate an important event. Mayonnaise, she says, “was a town food, a city food” and in fact, “part of the reinvention of Reykjavík.”
By the 80s, however, it seems that mayonnaise had lost a bit of its hold on Iceland. In what she refers to as “the hippest and coolest” cookbook from that decade—the “intellectual cookbook, quoting Erica Jong and such”—Sólveig finds only one sauce recipe that calls for mayonnaise, and not even as the primary ingredient. Instead, there’s French dressing, or a green sauce made with yogurt. The focus, she says, “is a more European type of cooking.”
Even the beloved brauðterta lost its charmed status at this time, partially supplanted in the trendy ‘Kökubókin’ (Cake Book) recipe pamphlets with a similarly savoury but warm bread dish called ‘Gestaréttur’ (Guest Dish) which is cemented together with cream and cheese instead of mayo. (Mourn not for the brauðterta, however: should you want to experience this culinary masterpiece yourself, you can still buy a slice at Kaffiport, the café in Reykjavík’s weekly Kolaportið flea market.)
But while Sólveig is sceptical that there will continue to be “a stable market for all those sauces” in the coming years, it seems probable that mayonnaise—and Gunnars mayonnaise, in particular—will remain a fixture in the Icelandic imagination.
Consider, for instance, that in 2011, food photographer Áslaug Snorradóttir opened a restaurant in the downtown theatre Tjarnarbíó, christening it Mayonnaise. “This is a somewhat Icelandic atmosphere and mayonnaise is, as it were, the basis for Icelanders’ food memories,” she was quoted in the paper Fréttatíman. “When people want to have a good time and enjoy life, then they have mayonnaise,” she continued, stating for the record that her preferred brand was, of course, Gunnars.
See also: “Mayonnaise in Memoriam” by Andri Snær Magnason.