What are your first memories of middle school? Catching a glimpse of your crush’s braces-crossed smile? Straining to remember your locker combination? Half-heartedly digging through your backpack to "find" the homework you knew you’d forgotten at home? My earliest middle school memory took place in the cafeteria, on the first Friday of the month: pizza day. I was sitting across from my friend Allen, mouth agape, as I watched him douse his slice of pizza in ranch dressing. I’d never seen anyone do that before.
"You ever try this?" he asked, grinning.
"No," I said, trying my damnedest to decipher the swirl of cheese, tomato sauce, bread, and tangy buttermilk. It didn’t make any sense. Ranch was for salads, not pizza. That combination simply couldn’t be good… could it?
"It’ll change your life," he said, offering me a bite.
Allen was right.
The marriage of ranch and pizza is said to have begun in the South, when Pizza Hut began offering it as a side with their pies, but we'll never know for certain who came up with that brilliant scheme. I can only deduce that the person in question was a bona fide genius.
However, the practice of dipping pizza—or even just the crust—into ranch dressing has its detractors. In protest of the growing trend, one Dallas pizzeria famously charges $1,000 for a side of the stuff, and more than one publication has sounded off on the matter.
In a recent article published by The Washington Post, "Ranch Dressing Is What’s Wrong With America," Ben Adler suggests, among other insults, that ranch is something other than perfect.
Clearly, that’s an absurd statement, and the article was met with controversy (just scroll down to the comments section). But while there are die-hard ranch fans and people who want to see every last bottle dumped out, if anything I think Adler proved ranch is more beloved than it is scorned.
Ranch dressing was invented in 1949 by a cowboy from Nebraska named Steven Henson, while working as contract plumber in Alaska. In 1954, Steve and his wife, Gayle, opened a ranch near Santa Barbara, California, and would often serve their guests a special dressing made of buttermilk, mayonnaise, and herbs. Their home was called Hidden Valley, and the dressing would eventually be known as… well, you know.
In 1972, the entire dressing brand was bought for a staggering $8 million by The Clorox Company, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the more popular non-refrigerated bottle hit supermarket shelves. Less than a decade later, ranch would become America’s favorite condiment, and by the mid-90s, it had become a staple far beyond salads: Kids would trade anything in their lunch for a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
As a kid, I was never one to consume ranch with reckless abandon. But after that day in the cafeteria with Allen, my taste for the dressing started to grow. Soon I was regularly using it as a condiment for pizza and fries. The only thing holding me back was the knowledge that my family would ride me out of town on a rail if I polished off the entire bottle the way I really wanted to.
But eventually I left for college, where rules were meant to be broken. In our dorm, my friends and I engaged in what I can only refer to as "culinary experimentation." Ranch on burgers. Ranch on steak. Ranch on beans. Ranch on pie. Ranch and Diet Coke. OK, we never did the last one, but there is such a thing as ranch soda.
I never considered the possibility that I might take it too far, but in the end, I flew too close to the sun on wings sprinkled with dill and dried parsley, and the inevitable happened: I made myself sick. I know plenty of people who lost their taste for tequila after an overambitious night in college. But me, I overdid it on the ranch. I put the bottle back and didn’t touch it for over a year.
When my favorite condiment and I got back together, it was—appropriately enough—in the Midwest, where the ranch dressing flows like wine. I was sitting in a bar, waiting for my girlfriend to finish class. We were doing the long-distance thing, and she was finishing a degree from the University of Wisconsin. I ordered a pint of Spotted Cow and the fried cheese curds, which were served with a plastic tub of ranch dressing for dipping. I stared at it with cautious interest, like a bear gazing at an open picnic basket. I knew what ranch had done to me in the past, but I wasn’t ready to pass over a regional delicacy. Gingerly, I dipped the curd in the dressing... and promptly went back in time.
Suddenly, I was in eighth grade all over again, in that noisy cafeteria with Allen. Enough time had passed, and my heart was ready to accept the treasure trove of buttermilk and herbs. I’d rediscovered white gold. Elated, I texted my girlfriend, who responded with understandable confusion. She’d grown up in Massachusetts but had spent enough time in the Midwest to know that ranch was king. Despite being in the middle of her class, she texted me back: What? Yes. Ranch is effing majestic. How could you not know it’s good on cheese curds?! Or like… on everything??
The question remains: Why is ranch so good on everything? NPR pondered this a few years ago and came to the conclusion that ranch is so good just because… well, it’s delicious. It’s tangy, creamy, smooth, and naturally, full of calories. It tastes good because it makes you feel good, like eating an ice cream sandwich or waking up for work—only to realize it’s Saturday.
I'll never understand the snobs who think ranch isn’t high-end enough to be delicious. Like other classic comfort foods, it doesn't require expensive, difficult-to-procure ingredients in order to be amazing, but that doesn't make it any less valuable to me. However, ranch did end up teaching me a valuable lesson in temperance. It may be delicious on everything—and I do mean everything—but I've learned to use the American classic the way it was intended: in moderation, savoring each and every bite.
Show how you ranch out your favorite foods with a dip, dunk, or drizzle of Hidden Valley Ranch. Snap a picture of your Ranched Out dish and then visit RanchOutSweeps.com to enter. You can also enter by sharing it on Instagram or Twitter with #RanchOutSweepstakes. NoPurNec18+ Rules @ HiddenValley.com Ends:4/19/17@11:59am PT.