Why does Sweden have a salad dressing named ‘Rhode Island’?

Why does Sweden have a salad dressing named 'Rhode Island'?
Rhode Island is similar to the Thousand Islands dressing, but otherwise not related. Photo: Oliver DelaCruz/Wikimedia Commons
How did Sweden end up with a salad dressing named after the smallest state in the US? American Ken Appleman discovers that the answer is clouded in mystery.

When moving to a new place, a new country, it's nice to see things that remind one of home. It can make one feel more comfortable, more welcome. When I first arrived in Stockholm, a city that is very different than the one I grew up in, I was happy to see many things that made me realise that it wasn't quite as different as it first appeared. There was one thing among these, though, that had me really baffled.

I'm a New Yorker. A Brooklynite, to be precise. New York is a tall, noisy city. The sounds of a New York City streetscape – honking horns, sirens, midnight trucks grinding gears, people shouting, radios blaring, an unidentifiable, sourceless, pervasive din that makes it necessary to shout just to think – these things are lullabies to me, the sounds of warmth and energy that, without which, for a good portion of my life, I struggled to sleep.

Stockholm isn't like that. I still tell friends back home this thing which makes the place sound almost idyllic – but you'd have to be a New Yorker, or a native of any of the other very noisy metropolises in the world, to know why it isn't – that there are parts of Stockholm where the loudest thing one hears is the sound of children playing.

It's a low, quiet city, dimly-lit. Do I mean “sleepy” – no, not really. Just more like a place that doesn't feel it needs to shout – or build tall buildings – to get one's attention.

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But, as I said, there are plenty of things to comfort a homesick New Yorker. Brooklyn Beer. I-Heart-NY logos and its local derivatives. Baseball caps from the New York teams. The strange presence of lots of 7-Elevens (I haven't seen any place in the US where they are as densely packed as here – though since in the US they are known for providing huge sizes of extremely unhealthy food – “Big Gulps” of soda, for example, or the “Big Bite” hot dog – perhaps in calorie density their distribution is similar). McDonald's. Starbucks. Subway.

But, with all of these actual, authentic, US referents, why is there this weird, baffling, inauthentic thing mixed in? Why, everywhere salad is sold, in bottles, in single-serve packets, on menus, is there a salad dressing named “Rhode Island”?

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US, a state that consists of suburbs and beaches (great, if you like either of those things) located pretty much where the arm-making-a-fist-shaped piece of land that is Cape Cod connects to the mainland.

A few years ago, I had to leave New York to move there. I was not happy to be there. Nor, I soon discovered, were most Rhode Islanders.

“The armpit of New England,” a native Rhode Islander told me of the place, not long after I moved there.

“Everyone here is crabby, but no one ever leaves.”

“If it takes more than 20 minutes to go someplace, no Rhode Islander will go there.”

So, clearly, as you can see from these unsolicited Rhode Island facts I received from helpful locals upon my arrival (I was an Uber driver at the time; I met a lot of locals quickly), it's not exactly the best place to live, and certainly not a place to name something after, even if it's just salad dressing.


One of many lovely beaches in Rhode Island, but no trace of the eponymous dressing. Photo: JJBers/Flickr.com

I will say, though, that with those beaches – and there are lots of them – it is (again, if you like beaches) a nice place to visit. And, if you do like the beaches, and you do travel from distant locations just to get to them, then there are also terrific restaurants in which to eat after a long day of sun or water bathing. And, inevitably, when those restaurants sell salads, they are all almost certainly dressed, in one way or another. There is no dressing, though, in any of those restaurants, that is uniquely Rhode Island – or, if there is, that resembles the eponymous stuff sold all over Sweden.

Even the president of the Rhode Island Swedish association – a US organisation that celebrates Swedish people and culture in Rhode Island and the surrounding states – had no idea why there would be a salad dressing with that name in Sweden.

So, what is the deal? Why does this dressing have this name throughout Sweden? Is it named after the US state? Or, perhaps, are it and the US state somehow named after the same thing in Sweden? (This is not a difficult theory to come up with for a kid who grew up in “New” York, a city that had once been known as “New” Amsterdam, across the river from “New” Jersey). Is the Rhode Island in the US a “new” Rhode Island? Is there an old one somewhere in Sweden (and do they make salad dressing there?).

While an interesting theory, a little bit of Googling told me that it is not the case. While there is, in a sense, an old Rhode Island, it is the Isle of Rhodes, in the Mediterranean – which early explorers found an island in the bay of the state someday to bear that name vaguely reminiscent of. So, no shared Swedish origin of the name. And, while both the state and the dressing could still possibly be named after that Mediterranean island, it seems unlikely. The explorers saw reddish clay hills on both that island in the Mediterranean and the nascent US state. Reddish clay is really not an evocative substance for beige lettuce sauce.

So, what is the story? I asked the maker of the most popular Rhode Island dressing brand in Sweden, Felix, why the dressing had that name. I got the following response:

Dear Ken,

Thank you for your e-mail and how nice to hear that you seem to appreciate our products!

Classic Rhode Island sauce has actually nothing to do with the state of Rhode Island in the US. It is a Swedish innovation by our well-known Swedish chef Tore Wretman. Wretman was also one of the founders of the Academy of Gastronomy. Tore came up with the basic recipe of Rhode Island Dressing which since then has been developed in many ways.

I hope you enjoy living in Sweden 🙂

Have a wonderful day!

Best regards,

Orkla Foods Sweden

Okay. Is it not immediately obvious that they – despite the interesting response – did not answer my question?

And when I went to Tore Wretman's Wikipedia page, this creation of his was not even deemed important enough to mention.

All of which leads me to the only possible conclusion. No one here can tell this occasionally homesick New Yorker why he is regularly accosted by reminders of a place near his home for which he is not at all sick. The reasons are just not known (one entertaining discussion that I found on the net conjectured that the original creator – who, as we just found out, was Tore Wretman – saw a blob that was roughly the shape of the State of Rhode Island upon first pouring it out on a surface, and so named it thus – but the likelihood, I think, of a chef in Sweden thinking first of the State of Rhode Island upon observing a salad dressing Rorschach test just seems to me to be very slim).

All of which leads me to my favorite response, offered up by a long-time Stockholmer when I asked her what she knew about the origin of the name. She looked at me a bit baffled and said, “Why? What is Rhode Island?”

This article was written by The Local's reader Ken Appleman. Would you like to share your story about life in Sweden with The Local? Get in touch with our editorial team at [email protected].


Swedish chef Tore Wretman (right). Photo: TT


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