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TRANSCRIPT | Dude, Ranch

Laura Weber-Davis: Tell me about the first time you ever saw ranch and pizza combined.

Wesley Taylor: It was in high school. Ann Arbor Huron, specifically. I was indoctrinated into – there was an indoctrination of ranch and pizza. I learned from the lunch table that this was the way to do that. That this was the condiment that went with pizza.

Laura Weber-Davis: This is Wesley Taylor. Part of a group of friends I have that lays claim to the origination of many trends.

Wesley Taylor: For a while we would have pizza slices and they would have the ranch dispenser. And so it was – No, it was a ranch dispenser!

Laura Weber-Davis: This is a topic I hold most sacred. The relationship between pizza and ranch.

Wesley Taylor: No it was definitely meant to be as a combination. That was a delicacy …

Laura Weber-Davis: What year was this?

Wesley Taylor That was in 1996. No, I graduated in ‘96. But I was indoctrinated in like ‘92. You know what I mean?

Laura Weber-Davis: Are you saying that Ann Arbor Huron High School started ranch and pizza circa 1992 in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

Wesley Taylor Arguably. Arguably

Laura Weber-Davis: You heard it here first, folks. Pizza first collided with ranch in arguably – 1992. At Ann Arbor Huron High School. At Wesley Taylor’s indoctrinated cafeteria lunch table. Maybe

April Baer: Laura. Really? That’s how it happened?

Laura Weber-Davis: Who knows? I’m not sure that we know where this seemingly mismatched pair got together and made a gorgeous food baby, but we do know that a salad dressing fancied up pizza and became one of the most controversial and cult-like phenomenons in modern pizza consumption. Spurring a whole pizza industry subset of dipping cups at pizza chains. And today, April, I’m going to walk you through the brief and significant history of my favorite pizza condiment: ranch.

April Baer: Okay, here we go then. I’m April Baer, chronic ranch skeptic.

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis. Ranch enthusiast. This is a Dough Dynasty Extra Cheese.

April Baer: I’m not going to lie to you. I think this combination is at best unnecessary and at worst, just gross. And I’m not alone. 

Scott Wiener: To me, ranch is a way to make bad pizza passable.

April Baer: Scott Wiener of Scott Wiener’s Pizza Tours in New York City. The man knows his business.

Scott Wiener: And to that end, I’m all for it for other people. But in my existence, I don’t find a pizza that I like that is benefited from ranch.

Laura Weber-Davis: But like you said, he’s from New York! A city that has looked down its nose at our midwest culinary sensibilities for time immemorial. But I’m here to say that they’re all wrong.

Ranch is a necessary part of life like you just have to have ranch. As a matter of fact I have ranch with my fries

They want ranch to dip it on the pizza. And they want like four cups at a time.

We have ranch dipping cups in all of our stores all across the country so use it how you want.

My kids drink ranch, I’m telling you.

Laura Weber-Davis: And now with the advent of Detroit style pizza taking over the pizzaverse, even New Yorkers are discovering what they’ve been missing.

Scott Wiener: One of my tour guides, Amy, she’s from right outside of Detroit, and then when Jet’s came to New York and we went there together and they said ‘oh yeah, do you want ranch?’ she cut me off and said ‘the answer is yes, don’t listen to him.’ And I dipped it and I did the whole thing and I have to say I get it, I get what you like about it, it just doesn’t light my candle.

Laura Weber-Davis: But Scott is hitting on something really important here in this pizza-ranch saga. Jet’s!

Jet’s Ad: Life is short, eat better pizza, let’s get Jet’s.

Laura Weber-Davis: I’m not saying they were the first ranch with pizza. I’m saying that they’re the best. Any pizza ranch lover will concur. It’s not a debate. And the company knows we feel this so deeply in our bones so much so that they not only sell ranch in those pedestrian cups, but also in full size squeeze bottles. Only for the real ones.

Alex Beggs: The bottle is superior not only because it has the quantity of ranch that you need, which is lots, and because you can squeeze it on the pizza in like, you know, like a nice chefy looking swirl or zig zag really elevates the experience.

Laura Weber-Davis: This is Alex Beggs, freelance food writer and editor. Ranch enchantress.

And how do you take your pizza?

Alex Beggs: Jet’s with the crust a little bit far done. … Pepperoni side of ranch. But make that a squeeze bottle of ranch.

Laura Weber-Davis: Because Alex is a real one.

April Baer: Okay but what makes the Jet’s Ranch so special?

Laura Weber-Davis: It’s equal parts about texture and taste.

Alex Beggs: The bulk of the pizza, the cheese is greasy and fatty. The pepperoni is greasy and fatty. It's a really rich, beautiful, beautiful eating experience. And the cold of the ranch, contrasting with the hot temperature is one nice thing. But the acidity of the buttermilk cuts through the fat. And it just makes sense in your mouth. … and it keeps you coming back for another bite…

Laura Weber-Davis: But here’s where things get complicated. Because even though the Jet’s ranch is practically perfect in every way, if you get deep in this ranch analysis you start to get into conspiracy theory.

April Baer: Ranch conspiracy?

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes. Go with me here.

Alex Beggs: Sometimes people are like, you know that you know that the Jets Ranch is just Hidden Valley.

April Baer: What?!

Laura Weber-Davis: I know.

Alex Beggs: And they say that it's this conspiracy theory. So here we go. Buckle up. They – the rumor that's unconfirmed because Jet’s won't reveal. They say it's homemade dressing, but like any restaurant that's like ‘our sources are homemade.’ You know, it's a pretty loose term that the theory is that it's hidden valley powder mixed with buttermilk and mayonnaise and some other stuff.

April Baer: I am clutching my pearls.

Laura Weber-Davis: Oh April. There’s more.

Vicki Haber: We are the number one ranch seasoning that’s used at restaurants.

Laura Weber-Davis: That’s Vicki Haber – the brand experience lead for Hidden Valley. On a short list of jobs I envy.

Vicki Haber: And how do I like my pizza? I really like a slice from one of the shops in New York City when you’re walking down the street with hot pepper on it and a side of ranch.

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes, cause, New Yorkers are going to think that’s blasphemy.

Vicki Haber: I know. Sorry, guys.

Laura Weber-Davis: Hidden Valley is more than just the most popular ranch in America. It is also the first. It all started in the 1950s with a guy named Steve Henson, who owned a ranch with his wife called, can you guess?

April Baer: Uh, Hidden Valley Ranch?

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes! And folks would come there for like midcentury agritourism. And Steve would feed them! Salad with his own buttermilk dressing recipe.

Vicki Haber: He had spent years perfecting the formula with different seasonings and such, and they would serve it on a salad to the folks who came to the dude ranch, the working dude ranch. And what he found is that when people left, they wanted his ranch. And so he started packaging up just the seasoning piece of it and then giving instructions on how to turn it into the ranch that people were enjoying on their salads. And he would send people home with it. And then he started getting letters asking for folks asking for more of it.

Laura Weber-Davis: So that shelf-stable bottled ranch with the blue and green lid, the one you recognize as Hidden Valley, that’s actually not where it started! It was all with those powdered ranch seasoning packets you find next to the dressing. And those are still available for any restaurant – or pizza chain – that wants to use them in their house made ranch.

Vicki Haber: I think it's over 50% of restaurants use Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning. I'm not at liberty to say which ones do and don't because we greatly respect them. And customers will use the seasoning in a different way, right? They might have their own secret formula that turns it into that dressing that you really like at your restaurant.

Laura Weber-Davis: Now, why protect these restaurants if there's you know, if somebody is going in there and they're like your homemade ranch, you know, they'll put homemade ranch on the menu or whatever. And it's so clear and it's like, oh, this ranch is delicious. But then you can kind of see like the dried seasoning has a specific look in the buttermilk compared to like a freshly chopped, you know, garden herb. … So I'm like, why would you protect them?

Vicki Haber: Well, you know, there are customers and there are business partners, right. And we will always respect whatever strategy they have for the product that they want to put out to consumers. And really at the core of it, we just want people to enjoy great ranch.

Laura Weber-Davis: Okay. Without divulging your sources and your connections, does that mean that you have potentially major corporate partners in pizza chains?

Vicki Haber: I would say we definitely and probably do have some larger national partners. Yes.

Laura Weber-Davis: I appreciate that that's as far as you'll go.

Laura Weber-Davis: And April, it’s worth noting that in all the deep pizza reporting you and I have done for Dough Dynasty, there was more than one occasion when we saw Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning packets in storage rooms and walk-in refrigerators right next to vats of house made ranch. But! In the spirit of Hidden Valley, I shall not reveal those chefs' secrets. But I did take it upon myself to see if I could make a ranch that tastes like my favorite Jet’s – using Hidden Valley seasoning. When we return, we head into the kitchen. Stay with us.

Laura Weber-Davis: Alright here we go. Heading into the Weber Davis test kitchen to see if we can make Jet’s tasting ranch. Okay this recipe is literally called “Jet’s ranch dressing.” It’s from simplyscratch.com, which is a woman who makes all of her recipes from scratch and it’s notable that she’s a Michigander. And here’s what we need: half of a cup of buttermilk. Very gloopy. Already getting the consistency of like ranch dressing. Okay, half of a cup of mayonnaise. I’ve been told, or the recipe says full fat is best so we’re going full fat mayo. A full cup of full fat mayonnaise. Looks appetizing now but just imagine the ranch it’s going to be in about five minutes. Half a cup of sour cream. Okay all of my wet ingredients are off and away and now it’s the time for the Hidden Valley ranch packet. And I am just going to go ahead and dump this whole thing in. And now we give this a mix. I have to say this looks identical to Jet’s ranch. Or any of my favorite ranches. The consistency is thin, but not watery. It’s like perfectly speckled like you’d expect from a good pizza ranch. And now is the real test. Just a taste test. I don’t know why I’m nervous, but I feel a little nervous. Okay here we go. It literally tastes like Jet’s. I’m not saying that I’m confirming that Jet’s perfect ranch is just Hidden Valley, especially because Jet’s wouldn’t return my phone calls to talk about it, but I will say I could make Jet’s ranch at home now. I’ll still order Jet’s but that was incredibly easy.

April Baer: So this brings us back to the pizza places. You still haven’t told me, I mean do we know when ranch and pizza first entwined on a dinner plate?

Laura Weber-Davis: I’m sorry to say no.

Vicki Haber: I wish we did.

Laura Weber-Davis: Vicki Haber again from Hidden Valley.

Vicki Haber: I wish we had data that showed exactly when it flipped and more people were using ranch on things like pizza and chicken and fries than they were on salads and veggies. But we don't have that historical data. But what I will say is that we were marketing, we were talking about salads and veggies up until about seven or eight years ago. … And it's for me, it was this big aha moment where we realize, hey, we've got, people don't just like ranch. People love ranch. …How do we sort of catch up with them and communicate back in the language that they're already speaking about our product?

Laura Weber-Davis: So, okay, so I'm just going to end by telling you that I have a group of friends who went to high school in Ann Arbor in the early and mid nineties, and they believe they started the pizza and ranch trend in high school. And while that's ridiculous, a ridiculous notion, I also can't find anybody who said anything before 1992. So I'll just say Huron high school is where it started.

Vicki Haber: I have never heard anything before 1992, and I am more than willing to come to Ann Arbor in order to investigate.

Laura Weber-Davis: So there you have it. It can’t be disproven that ranch as a pizza condiment started right here in Ann Arbor in 1992.

April Baer: But it also can’t be proven.

Laura Weber-Davis: Okay, sure. But unlike so many trends in the pizza industry, this – one ranch dipping sauce for pizza – does not seem to start with the big chains. Before the 21st century, pizza chains offered ranch for other things, like Crazy Bread, salads and chicken wings.

April Baer: Okay, okay. Got it. Got it. Got it. So this all probably started with chicken wings.

Laura Weber-Davis: Not according to my friends! Which brings us back to Ann Arbor, Michigan. 1992. Huron High School cafeteria. My friend Wesley Taylor is just a kid and discovered for the first time a giant pump dispenser of ranch at the salad bar, that kids were using for pizza. Here’s our friend Trey.

Trey: If there was somebody that originated that, we, it had to be there. … I didn’t know about it before then.

Laura Weber-Davis: At least first generation ranch observers.

Wesley Taylor: For sure. It’s got to be that. I’d be curious of like the indigenous uses of ranch prior to that. The indigeneity of ranch use, like I’m curious about that.

Trey: But before that. Nobody was talking about that.

Laura Weber-Davis: So there you have it. Ranch and pizza collided in the mid 1990s, and forever changed this industry and my taste buds.

April Baer: You expect me to believe that? That it all began at Huron High School.

Laura Weber-Davis: Maybe! After all this region has been the national trendsetter in pizza since the late 1950s as this series Dough Dynasty has laid bare. I don’t see why that couldn’t be true for pizza dipped in ranch at Huron High School as well.

April Baer: This has been a Dough Dynasty Extra Cheese. I’m April Baer.

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis.

April Baer: Our podcast editor is Rachel Ishikawa. Other producers on Dough Dynasty include Mike Blank, Ronia Cabansag, Mercedes Mejia, and April Van Buren. Additional help from Olivia Mouradian.

Laura Weber-Davis: The Dough Dynasty Extras theme is from Gemini – another Ann Arbor original! Additional music from Audio Network.

April Baer: We have more fun extras coming to the podcast feed. That’s it for now see you later.

Laura Weber-Davis: Bye!