Olivia Wilde solves salad dressing mystery with a Nora Ephron recipe



An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the recipe was posted on Instagram on Monday. It was posted on Tuesday.

Olivia Wilde, actress/director/current tabloid fascination, on Tuesday night posted a recipe on Instagram for vinaigrette, which under normal circumstances is a normal thing for a normal human to do. But! The plotline and lead characters here are anything but: Wilde seemed to be answering a collective fascination with the “special salad dressing” that she allegedly prepared for her current beau, Harry Styles, prompting her then-partner Jason Sudeikis to lie under her car to prevent her from delivering the food to Styles, at least according to a dirty-laundry-airing former nanny whose account both Wilde and Sudeikis have denied. After the nanny’s narrative ran in a now-deleted story in the Daily Mail, people quickly began speculating about the dressing.

The scene she described involving Wilde and Sudeikis — a man realizing the depths of his partner’s betrayal because she made the other man salad dressing — could have been lifted from a book by Nora Ephron, the late writer whose characters often experience love and loss through food. And here’s where the subtext of Wilde’s recipe-posting gets truly, well, wild. The “Don’t Worry Darling” director actually posted an image of a page from Ephron’s 1983 novel, “Heartburn,” in which infidelity and food are inextricably linked. (Though it is crucial to note that in “Heartburn,” the protagonist, a thinly veiled version of Ephron herself who makes the vinaigrette, is the devastated partner whose husband’s affair blew up their marriage.)

In the novel, the vinaigrette is a motif for something essential between husband and wife as well as the secrets they keep from one another. It also can be read as a symbol for marriage itself: a tenuous blending of disparate elements that can easily fall apart.

We cannot know what Wilde’s motivation for posting the recipe was. What were we supposed to make of it? I dove into “Heartburn” looking for clues. The novel has a tabloid-worthy backstory of its own: Ephron famously based the plot on her marriage to former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. In the book, her character, Rachel, is a cookbook writer, and her husband, Mark, is a columnist. Her fictional telling of his affair, which took place while she was pregnant, seemed an exercise in score-settling, as was Jack Nicholson’s caddish portrayal in the movie version opposite Meryl Streep.

Let us break all the drama down for you with ‘Don’t Worry Darling’

As Rachel experiences the indignities and wounds of Mark’s cheating, she sees everything through the prism of food. She wonders how he could live not just without her, but without the salad dressing she has perfected. “Even now, I cannot believe that Mark would risk losing that vinaigrette,” she muses. “You don’t bump into vinaigrettes that good.” And she wonders how her husband could be happy with his mistress, who has no interest in food and made “gluey puddings.” Recipes are scattered throughout the book, not separated out, but tucked into the text as in a conversation.

And there are breakup foods, so many breakup foods. There is a creamy sorrel soup Rachel makes while staying in her father’s apartment after leaving her husband. (“If I couldn’t have Mark, I could at least be back making sorrel soup.”) She eats takeout shrimp fried rice with Chinese mustard and ketchup, “which is something I love when I’m feeling blue.” There is bacon hash, “another thing I like to eat when I’m feeling blue.”

Ephron’s most perfect, tear-jerking rendering of food to console a broken heart comes in her passage describing potatoes. Beginnings of relationships, she writes, call for crispy versions: potatoes Anna or pancakes. Endings, though, call for something soft. “Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful. The problem with mashed potatoes, though, is that they require almost as much hard work as crisp potatoes, and when you’re feeling blue the last thing you feel like is hard work. Of course, you can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you’re blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you.”

But back to the vinaigrette. Later in the book, Rachel returns to Mark after he promises to end things with his girlfriend, but she is rightfully wary. Mark asks her to teach him how to make the dressing, and she initially refuses. “I figured my vinaigrette was the one thing I had that Thelma didn’t (beside a pregnancy), and I could just see him learning it from me and rushing over to her house with a jar of Grey Poupon mustard (the essential ingredient) and teaching her the wrist movement and dancing off into a sunset of arugula salads.”

Finally, she breaks it off for good, a choice she cements by launching a Key lime pie at Mark’s face during a dinner party, in a scene memorably repeated in the movie version. Only then, in the book’s very last passage, does she share her vinaigrette recipe with her soon-to-be ex-husband as a sort of farewell gesture and with readers, as if revealing something fundamental about their story.

And although we can speculate on what else Wilde might have been trying to communicate by sharing the page, there is always the possibility that she was merely passing along a recipe for a really good vinaigrette. Was this, I wondered, a salad dressing that could make an otherwise sane man sprawl out in front of a car?

Ephron’s is a simple formula: “Mix two tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard with two tablespoons good red wine vinegar. Then, whisking constantly with a fork, slowly add six tablespoons olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy. This makes a very strong vinaigrette that is perfect for salad greens like arugula and watercress and endive.”

I followed the directions, making sure to procure some Grey Poupon rather than the other Dijon I had on hand. I wondered about using a fork instead of a whisk, worrying that it would not emulsify properly. But I pressed on, and soon had the smooth mixture Ephron had promised. It was potent, as advertised, with the heavy dose of mustard adding extra acidity. I did not even miss salt and pepper, which I typically use.

I tossed it with arugula and dug in. It was good, really good. But it was not so exceptional that I would risk life and limb for it. But then again, as Ephron well understood, food and cooking is intensely personal. Each of us has recipes and flavors that evoke memories and emotions.

To Proust, a madeleine is not just a little cake. Perhaps to some, salad dressing is not a mere condiment. As Ephron writes in “Heartburn,” as her heroine contemplates the dissolution of her marriage: “I know how complicated things get when food and love become hopelessly tangled.”

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