What is tartar sauce?
Eugene Walter—food writer, raconteur, former assistant to Fellini, chum of Alice B. Toklas, and committed oddball—asks just this question in his 1995 essay, “Truth in Tartar.” In that essay, he gets at the sauce’s fundamental paradox: one hundred different recipes for tartar will all taste roughly the same. And they will all be tartar sauce, an essential component of any good Ipswich clam roll, Maryland soft-shell crab sandwich, Texas-fried catfish, Cape Cod haddock cake, or Canadian cod-tongue fritter.
Outside of its seaside habitat, tartar remains a benign novelty, a condiment relic from a time when people had more enthusiasm about things like chowchow and relish. Early cookbooks pair it with more terrestrial entrees: hot tartar with hot meat and cold tartar with chilled meat, with cuts like broiled tripe and basted pigeons singled out as ideal conduits. Charles Ranhofer, of Delmonico’s fame, had a recipe for both hot (with velouté as the base) and the more familiar cold (mayonnaise-based, with both anchovy essence and Worcestershire) versions. The permanent pairing of modern tartar sauce with baskets of fried fish and surf-clam strips might make more sense if its essential flavor retained more of the seashore spirit of Worcestershire, with the deeply intoned flavor of a million tiny anchovies. [1. A pamphlet titled “Whales and Porpoises as Food,” put out by the Bureau of Fisheries in 1918, recommended Worcestershire-heavy tartar sauce as an accompaniment for porpoise boiled with bay leaves and peppercorns.] But as it stands, all tartar sauce has in the way of beachy flavor is its suggestion of brine by way of dill pickles and salty capers. [2. A recipe from an 1882 housekeeping guide includes samphire, or sea beans, “chopped small” for some genuine shoreline flavor.]
The etymology of tartar sauce is generally associated with the Tatars, the broad ethnic group of nomadic Turkic Eurasians. But the dish’s origins likely had less to do with the Tatar people and more to do with the whims of Auguste Escoffier, whose names for such recipes were popularized and codified in early-twentieth-century cookbooks. (Speaking of which, the monolithic Larousse Gastronomique describes “tartare” sauce as mayonnaise made with hard-boiled egg yolks, chopped chives, and spring onions.)
But in the 2011 edition of Walter’s essay, renamed “Who & Where is Sauce Tartare?” he seeks out more nuanced definitions. He turns to Isabella Mary Beeton, a precocious, nineteenth-century proto-Martha Stewart type, and Jules Gouffé, a French chef known for his brutally ornate chicken terrines. Gherkins, cornichons, shallots, and mustard powder are integral to their tartar recipes. Another recipe, from Côte Vermeille, contains orange juice and zest. Mint and wild thyme are part of Greek tartar, and a sauce from Denmark has chopped baby shrimp and a slug of aquavit. Straight-up mayonnaise is never assured. A wise sous chef at Les Halles in Paris tells Walter that “no two cooks make tartar alike,” and “we have some violent disagreements,” though cornichons, capers, and something oniony always make the cut. [3. Even at McDonald’s, the portion-controlled smear of tartar sauce on the Filet-O-Fish sandwich always has capers, even as it has shed ingredients like dehydrated onion and parsley flakes.]
In the broader realm of culinary titans, simple but major variations can be found: James Beard added parsley for color; Bill Neal augmented his with scallions. Edna Lewis included chervil but refrained from using dill pickles, opting instead for diced and salted cucumber. In the corporate tartar sphere, Mazola took out an abundance of four-color ads in housekeeping magazines starting in 1947, featuring an aproned, basting-brush-wielding fish pushing a tartar recipe that incorporated green olives and diced pimiento.
“Consistency is one of the virtues of the great restaurants, but Sauce Tartare is obviously a safety valve for individual talent,” Walter writes. He closes the briefing, already overstuffed with wisdom, with a pledge to write an entire “thick” volume covering tartar sauce that will place it in the spectrum of rémoulades and gribiches. But Walter, who died in 1998, never got the chance to write that book. His own variant recipe is built on a base of yogurt and is finished with a little gin.