Find Lucille Ball, Mark Twain, and Salad Dressing in Upstate N.Y.

January 10, 2021 Updated: January 13, 2021

Leaving Chautauqua County, my husband, Vic, and I continued our Empire State Road Trip in upstate New York, this time headed toward Watkins Glen and the Thousand Islands. Our trip was organized by the Harbor Hotels, and when we left one for the other they each gave us a little cooler full of water, fruit, and snacks to fortify us for the three-hour drive to the next one.

I left behind a museum devoted to one comedic icon to pursue a more subdued testament to another: From the zany and frenzied Lucille Ball and her museum in Jamestown we set out to visit the more philosophic and observational humor of Mark Twain.

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Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. (Public domain)
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Some of Mark Twain’s classics in his study in Elmira, N.Y. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Long before “I love Lucy” were the glories of romping around with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn—literary classic versus TV classic. En route to Watkins Glen at the bottom of one of the many Finger Lakes in the area, we stopped to revel in Mark Twain’s small study set on a tiny plot of land on the bucolic Elmira College campus. His authentic study, where he worked and wrote those classics, impacted me a lot more than the re-creation of the Ricardos’ TV-set apartment, a mainstay of the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum.

The study was originally situated on Quarry Farm, where Twain’s wife grew up and her family lived and where he spent many summers. During his summer visits Twain realized how conducive the farm was to his writing, and his sister-in-law gave him the free-standing study as a present in 1874. It was from here that he gave the world “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” The farm where Twain chose to write is now restricted to Mark Twain scholars who come there to do the same, but these people are writing about Mark Twain. Samuel Clemens, no doubt, would have been pleased.

Dr. Joseph Lemak, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, told us that Twain looked out at the river from his study and thought of his own life on a riverboat, and Huck Finn emerged. The study itself was moved to the campus in 1952 to be more accessible to the public.

Copies of his own handwritten notes for a short story he wrote in 1874 lie on the desk. Sitting in the desk chair, I could channel Twain conjuring up Tom Sawyer. Unfortunately, after several family tragedies, Twain stopped writing in his study around 1890 and later passed away in 1910. Still, the study affords a connection to the great author and humorist that feels imminently moving.

I waved goodbye to Twain and headed to the Thousand Islands. So with snack box in tow, I moved from cultural icons to a culinary one. In all of my years of savoring the zesty flavor floating atop my salad greens, not once did I make the connection between the dressing and my upcoming destination. But yes, the Thousand Islands area is indeed where the dressing was first concocted and relished—so to speak. Tales of how that came to be abound, but the most celebrated is this.

In the early 1900s a favorite activity of wealthy visitors to the islands was to hire a fishing guide. It was tradition, after a morning of fishing, for the guide to prepare a “Shore Dinner”—actually a midday feast—featuring the morning’s catch. The tradition continues to this day.

One particular guide, George LaLonde, included a dipping sauce for the fish created by his wife, Sophia, as part of his feast. When Vaudeville actress and cookbook author May Irwin visited, she fancied it instead as a salad dressing. She asked for the recipe and shared it with the chef at the Herald Hotel, where she and her husband stayed. There Thousand Island Dressing, newly named by Irwin, was first served to the public. But it gained real prominence when she returned to New York City and gave the recipe to fellow Thousand Islands summer guest George Boldt, an owner of the famed Waldorf Astoria, who then introduced it to the world.

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The original Thousand Island dressing is sold exclusively at River Rat Cheese in Clayton, N.Y. (Courtesy of Victor Block)

As an adjunct to the story, the Herald Hotel was ultimately purchased in 1972 by Allen and Susan Benas, who renamed it the Thousand Island Inn, with its namesake dressing becoming the “official” house specialty. Today, they own the rights to the original recipe and sell it exclusively at the River Rat Cheese shop in Clayton, the entryway to the Thousand islands. Don’t even think about asking for the ingredients, though. That’s proprietary information—and it still remains the only dressing named for a region of the United States.

The Empire State Road Trip includes so many other things to see and do—rolling countryside, intriguing forests (yes, intriguing), wineries galore, fascinating museums of comedy and glass, an Antique Boat Museum, a lavish castle, and more. But none is so intimately connected to its surroundings as the Thousand Islands are to their namesake dressing.

When You Go

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Mark Twain Studies:

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Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Copyright 2020