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Take a stunningly beautiful location, add a tear-jerking love story, a voluptuous celebrity, a millionaire or two, some fashionable hotels and a maitre d’ with an outsized ego.
Top with one culinary mystery.
This is the recipe for a two-hour documentary two Central New Yorkers are filming this summer with hopes to air it nationwide next year, on PBS and/or a food or travel channel.
Eric J. Roberts and Andrea Reeves hope their film untangles the uncertain origins of Thousand Island Dressing.
They’ll settle for posing questions and examining the answers, even if they can’t prove the “truth.”
“The mystery is the mystery,” said Roberts, a Syracuse advertising executive with experience in television writing and production. “Part of the fun is having it out there and seeing if people can help solve it.
“But in the end, it’s going to give people outside this area a good look at the Thousand Islands. And that’s great in itself, even without a mystery.”
But wait. Perhaps you didn’t know there is a Thousand Island Dressing mystery.
While many people link the dressing’s origins to the region where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario, there is less agreement about who made it first and where it was introduced.
Was it the maitre d’ who worked at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel for George Boldt, builder of Boldt Castle near Alexandria Bay?
Was it the wife of a Clayton charter captain who shared the then-unnamed recipe with anyone who asked?
Was it the chef at a renowned Chicago hotel, who may have been inspired while vacationing in the Thousand Islands?
Swirling through all these legends is the character of May Irwin, then the highest paid star on Broadway and a frequent visitor to the islands, known as much for her buxom figure as her singing talents. She may have connections to each of these scenarios.
“All these stories are out there, and they all have problems,” Roberts said. “None are completely proven, not yet.”
Making the film
Roberts grew up in Syracuse hating condiments.
“I hated ketchup. I hated mayo,” he said. “I didn’t put anything on anything. But my mom made this dressing one day, it was pink, it was pretty good and I loved it.”
Later, while staying at a cottage on Wellesley Island, Roberts “put two and two together” to connect his mother’s concoction to the product known as Thousand Island Dressing.
He’s had a career that moved from advertising and producing commercials, to writing for the PBS children’s show “Pappyland,” to other TV production work. He’s done it all in Syracuse.
Earlier this year, he learned that PBS was offering grants to people who wanted to make mystery-based documentaries. He remembered the competing stories about Thousand Island Dressing.
He recruited Reeves, with whom he has collaborated before. She’s a senior graphic designer at the local PBS station, WCNY, and is a drawing and graphic design instructor at Onondaga Community College.
This summer, they worked to get financing. Instead of the PBS grant, they found private backers, including pioneering cable TV executive Nyhl Henson (a founder of MTV), who Roberts had worked with on “Pappyland.”
With a production budget of about $25,000, they are conducting on-camera interviews and plotting historic re-enactments. They’re fishing for historic photos of the places and characters (for those Ken Burns-style slow-motion panning shots).
They’ll go to Chicago and New York City, but much of the film will be shot in the Thousand Islands, in places like Boldt Castle and the Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, which claims to have the “original” recipe.
They’re also incorporating a “blind taste test,” in which they film people trying unmarked versions of the dressing associated with each of the three competing stories: one from Boldt Castle, one from the Thousand Islands Inn and one from the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago.
None of these dressings, by the way, resemble the processed store-bought version. All are fresh-tasting. The Thousand Islands Inn and Chicago versions are pink, while the Boldt Castle dressing is decidedly orange.
“It’s a fun way to get people involved in the project,” Reeves said. “We’ll see which they like best.”
A whimsical tone
One of the first people to take the blind taste test was Shane Sanford, who directs Boldt Castle operations for the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. (He did not pick his own dressing.) He also talked on camera for the documentary.
Which version of the story does he believe?
“Obviously in my position, I have to subscribe to our story,” Sanford said. “That’s the version I grew up with, and I’ve lived here all my life.”
His version is the one in which an employee of George Boldt invents the dressing, which is later introduced at Boldt’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. It’s frequently repeated on local tour boats, along with the tale of how George Boldt built an island castle in the river for his wife, who died during construction. Boldt was so heartbroken he left the castle unfinished.
“Of course, any discussion of this, and the Thousand Islands, clearly benefits the whole region,” Sanford said. “So all the stories are good in that way.”
Allen Benas, who owns the Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton with his wife, Susan, doesn’t need to be quite so diplomatic.
He believes the story in which Sophie LaLonde, wife of a Clayton charter boat captain, invented the dressing during a shore dinner for their fishing clients. LaLonde shared the dressing with many people, including the woman who owned the Herald Hotel in Clayton.
That’s the property Benas and his wife bought in 1972 and turned into the Thousand Islands Inn. He says he found LaLonde’s original recipe in the inn’s safe when he took over.
Why isn’t that story better known?
“They (the Boldt story backers) preach the romance,” Benas said. “There is no romance in a charter captain’s wife. There aren’t any rich people in our story.”
But, Benas said: “We have proof. We have the recipe.”
He doesn’t give it out, in part because the Thousand Islands Inn bottles its own.
He notes that no one ever bothered to copyright the name or patent the recipe.
“At that time, when it was invented, nobody gave a hoot,” he
aid. “Our claim to fame is that this was the first place to serve it to the public.”
As for the Chicago connection, Benas said, “I don’t know where the hell that comes from.”
In their documentary, Roberts and Reeves are going to re-enact both the Boldt yacht cruise and the LaLonde shore dinner, and perhaps something in Chicago.
They don’t seem to have a favorite among the stories, at least not yet. They won’t take any “solution” of the mystery too seriously.
“The overall tone is going to be whimsical,” Roberts said. “It’s a fun topic. The whole thing is going to be fun.”