It’s worth a trip to the Beehive State alone just to try it.
During the year I lived in Utah, I learned how much changed at the state line: Just feet past where I-80 crossed east into Wyoming, the beer suddenly contained more alcohol but the fries lost their special sauce (the same fate befell them if I drove west into Nevada). What I learned was that in Utah, no establishment serving French fries dared do so without fry sauce on offer. Outside Beehive state borders, those fry sauce reservoirs dried up.
What Is Utah Fry Sauce?
In the globe-spanning sameness of fast food cut from identical cloth, Utah’s fry sauce leaves a pale but stubborn orangey-pink stain of local identity. The pre-mixed combination, primarily ketchup and mayonnaise, is served just like those individual condiments—in packets, pumps, and ramekins—and epitomizes the concept of something more than the sum of its parts. Sure, you can just mix them yourself, but in Utah, you don’t have to, and it somehow tastes better, too (more on that in a moment). More than two decades after my Utah stint, I now see fry sauce occasionally seeping across borders to pop up on menus in southern Idaho and eastern Nevada. But for a condiment untethered by local ingredients, it remains stubbornly regional–the Internet, Reels, and TikTok be damned.
Who Invented Fry Sauce?
Fry sauce shares one thing with other beloved regional foodstuffs: an intriguingly murky and disputed origin story. For years, Don Carlos Edwards, who founded Utah burger chain Arctic Circle in 1950, received credit for the invention. The official company line stated that, in an effort to save labor, Edwards combined his two burger condiments; when he dipped a fry in the efficient creation, a sauce was born.
But Stan’s Drive-in, a single-location stand in Provo, Utah, that opened in 1955 as an Arctic Circle franchise (and recently closed), offers a competing—or at least more complicated—version. Ron Taylor and Ellis Peay, two teens working the night shift, played around and mixed up the first batch, which they started serving regularly as a fry dip. Corporate got wind of it and began recommending all franchisees serve it.
Somewhere, fry sauce collided with the chain’s proprietary white burger sauce, and got a few secret touches. Other places add pickle juice, a bit of relish, or a dash of garlic powder. Salt Lake City’s big burger havens each make and sell their own proprietary version: Crown Burgers’ leans picklish, Hires Big H’s color gives away that it goes heavy on the ketchup, and Arctic Circle’s own descendant of the original gleams in a distinctly pinkish hue.
Edwards, Taylor, and Peay—or anyone else in Utah claiming a piece of the fry sauce story—hardly invented the idea of combining mayonnaise and ketchup. Continue down the path of doctoring the mix with relish, and you get to Russian dressing, add a few seasonings and you land on Thousand Island dressing or Argentina’s salsa golf, all three of which arose in the early 20th century, well before fry sauce. But in Utah, those are coincidental cousins, not forebears. Pizza comes from Italy, but the street slice belongs wholly to New York and fry sauce to Utah—a cultural entity of a specific place.
Keeping the Fry Sauce Faith
Since leaving Utah, every time I order French fries I DIY my own fry sauce,using my first fry to stir together ketchup and mayo in tiny paper cups. And while I now see fry sauces here and there around the West, I refuse to order it outside the boundaries of its home state. For me, it’s important to maintain my one-woman defense of regional fast-food traditions. Fry sauce and Utah forever!
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