(Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons / theimpulsivebuy)
A salad isn’t a salad without dressing, and—according to a trade group called the Association for Dressings and Sauces—a whopping 40 percent of Americans pick ranch dressing as their favorite.
Hidden Valley Ranch is the brand that started it all, and it’s become a fixture of American culture, topping everything from pizza to tacos to chicken wings. You can even find ranch-flavored ice cream and soda. And YouTube is filled with videos of hardcore enthusiasts taking the ranch challenge, which means simply chugging the stuff.
But behind the delicious, creamy pleasures of the taste of Hidden Valley, once upon a time there was a real ranch, right here in the heart of California.
If you look at the label on a bottle of the world’s most popular salad dressing, the lush, California-sun drenched expanse you see is actually about 2,000 miles south of the real birthplace of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing.
But Frozen Alaskan Bush Dressing doesn’t sound quite as good.
“There was a man named Steve Henson, he was from Nebraska, and he and his wife moved up to Alaska in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s,” says L.A. food writer Katherine Spiers, who hosts the culinary history podcast Smart Mouth.
“He was a contractor working as a plumber for Alaskan oil companies. He also became a cook for the crews, which was just a hobby of his. He enjoyed doing it.”
Henson came up with a buttermilk-based dressing, mixing in garlic, salt, pepper, herbs and spices. The crews loved it, but after three years in the wild, his contract was up. Though Henson was done with Alaska, it had given him the magical, still-nameless salad dressing that was to change his life, and the lives of salad lovers, forever.
“He and his wife Gayle moved down to Santa Barbara County and bought a ranch that they named Hidden Valley Ranch,” Spiers continues. “It was meant to be a dude ranch, a guest ranch, but they started making more money off the salad dressing that they had made and popularized there.”
But it wasn’t an overnight success. In the mid-‘50s, the Hensons worked hard to keep things afloat, fixing up the run down ranch in the San Marcos Pass north of Santa Barbara.
When things started getting busy, Gayle would single-handedly cook up to 300 steak dinners a night, and then entertain guests by playing the organ.
And they named the ranch appropriately.
“It was off the road, just a little sign carved out of wood that said Hidden Valley Ranch, but when you got in there the ranch house was quite nice,” says Carol Henson. She’s married to Nolan Henson, the son of Steve and Gayle, who’ve both passed away. These days, Nolan is suffering from poor health, but Hidden Valley Ranch was his career. Carol met Nolan when he hired her to work for the company. She knew the whole family.
“Steve was a little dickens,” Henson says, “but he came up with that and it’s just gone, as they say nowadays, viral! But he told me they fooled around with it for a while, and it was invented so they could buy booze and cigarettes!”
Ranch guests demanded jars of the stuff to take home, which led to the Hensons creating a powdered version. That really took off, and the family was able to mail the mix anywhere in the country. Back when he was a kid, Nolan’s first family job was putting the mix into envelopes and mailing it out.
By the early ‘70s, Hidden Valley Ranch was a phenomenon, in demand at supermarkets and salad bars nationwide. In 1972, the Hensons bowed out of the dressing game, selling their name and recipe to the company that owns Pine Sol, Mr. Plumr and Fresh Step kitty litter.
“They sold it to Clorox Corporation,” Henson says. “They had a big party—they have tons of attorneys—and they tried to get Nolan drunk, but he kept throwing the drinks in the planter.”
Why were they trying to get him drunk?
“Less money if he signed something, ya know? There you go!”
The Hensons ultimately got $8 million for the dressing. Good money back in ’72, and a good deal for Clorox. In 2017, Hidden Valley products earned more than $450 million.
All that for a simple concoction, but after all, it was the taste of California.
“A big part of it is all the herbs in it,” says Katherine Spiers. “Are they using fresh herbs in the mass produced Clorox version? No, why would they? It would go bad. So no, I don’t think it tastes like California as-is, but you can make your own ranch dressing, it’s relatively simple. And that, absolutely, tastes like California.”
It’s a taste that Nolan Henson still enjoys.
“Oh of course, of course he does,” his wife confirms. “We still make us a quart, now and then. We have the ingredients and stuff, but nobody’s getting ’em. They have to figure it out on their own.”