Undressing the Green Goddess

Green goddess dressing has a long and distinguished lineage. There is some thought that people were enjoying this basically oil and acid dressing with a lot of herbs in the Eastern Mediterranean some 2,000 years ago.

What is certain is that it had reached Rome (perhaps via the agency of Roman legionaries)  by around the fifth century AD when Apicius included an early version of it in his cookbook. He titled his recipe Lus Viride in Avibus, Green Sauce to go with Fowl, and indeed, green sauce does go very well with chicken. Apicius’ version included the key ingredients: green herbs, oil, vinegar and wine. And his additional ingredients were pepper, cumin, honey and dates.

The sauce was developed further to include onion and garlic; anchovies; mustard; and in an important development, bread. The bread gave the sauce a rich, full, stiffer and creamier texture.

It seems likely that Catherine de’i Médici, or rather her chefs, took this sauce to France when she went there to marry the future Henri II. There is became known as sauce vert au pain. According to Larousse Gastronomique, it was served to Louis XIII as an accompaniment to eel.

After the invention of mayonnaise (see this post) the French substituted mayonnaise for the bread to achieve the creamy fullness; and they substituted lemon for vinegar.

So the French sauce vert was now mayo, lemon, and lots of herbs – easily recognisable as a modern day Green Goddess sauce… so where did it get its name and how did it come to change its nationality – it’s quintessentially from the US now, and a bottled version manufactured by Kraft is widely available across the north American continent?

In 1921 a Scot called William Archer wrote a play entitled The Green Goddess, a rip roaring yarn involving two men and a girl stranded in a foreign country whose population demands their execution to satisfy ‘the green goddess’. It all ends happily ever after when six British biplanes come to the rescue.

The play was a huge success with the leading role of the Raja being played by George Arliss. It moved to Broadway, together with the original cast. And by 1923 it seems it was playing in San Francisco, where Philip Roemer, chef at the Palace Hotel produced the dressing and named it Green Goddess in homage to Arliss (who later played the same role in the film version).

Roemer’s version consisted of mayonnaise, garlic, white wine vinegar, chives, parsley, anchovies plus the oil from their tin, and pepper.

The basic recipe remained more or less unchanged (although more often the vinegar was replaced by lemon juice), enjoying a burst of popularity in the 1970s, particularly in the southern American states where people enjoyed it with fried oysters and seafood.

That is until 2021 when a Baked By Melissa recipe went viral on Tik Tok. This recipe was for a whole salad with the basis for the salad being basically cabbage cut with a few cucumbers and spring onions.

But the Green Goddess dressing that went with it had more than just a light makeover. With basil, nuts, garlic and olive oil it just needs some hard cheese and it has morphed into a pesto. And, indeed, it does feature nutritional yeast which is a good vegan substitute for grated hard cheese.

The dressing may be good, but it’s no longer a Green Goddess in our, Saucy Dressings, view. A Green Goddess dressing needs:

  1. To be herby – with a good basis of the mild-tasting parsley, and a nice mix of other soft green herbs, especially coriander, tarragon, and chives. Using just basil (albeit supplemented by spinach) turns it into a basil, rather than a ‘green’ sauce.
  2. To have a creamy base derived from bread or mayonnaise…. or yoghurt, or sour cream, or coconut cream, or an avocado. It might be argued that the nuts give this effect, but the result, in reality, is more of a pesto effect.

So here is our more traditional modern version.

NOTE: half of the herbs in this dressing is composed of the parsley, and the rest can be a mix of soft herbs… chives, mint, sage, tarragon, coriander, borage…. but I recommend against using too much dill. The little lengths give a less pleasant texture. Dill works well for example in the yoghurt coating for slow roasted lamb where it’s had time to soften. If you want to use dill make the dressing ahead of time… although not too far ahead as the soft green colour will begin to turn a less appetising beige.

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