Ask anyone from outside of the state of Utah what food invention the state is most known for, and they’ll probably say, “Um, something Mormon?” But ask anyone who’s actually from Utah, and they’ll most likely reply with an emphatic, “FRY SAUCE.”

For those unfortunate souls who don’t know what fry sauce is, it’s actually pretty likely that you’ve had something very similar. In its basic version, fry sauce is nothing more than ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together (traditionally one part ketchup to two parts mayonnaise), to form a brand new condiment. Variations on the basic recipe are endless, with people adding their own twist of ingredients and spices. As the name implies, it’s usually employed as a dipping sauce for french fries, but it goes with just about anything.

It seems like anyone could have come up with mixing ketchup and mayo together, but its actual origins are hotly debated, and dearly held by residents of the Beehive State. The connection between Utah and fry sauce seems to lead back to the regional fast food chain, Arctic Circle. The exact source of the Utah origin story is unknown (Arctic Circle representatives have not responded to our inquiries), but according to a 2010 article in the Deseret News, the sauce was developed by the restaurant chain’s founder Don Carlos Edwards.

Fries and the requisite fry sauce at a restaurant in Utah.
Fries and the requisite fry sauce at a restaurant in Utah. Public Domain

Supposedly Edwards came up with the sauce as a signature topping for his burgers in the late 1940s. Simply calling it “pink sauce,” Carlos’ recipe included ketchup, mayo, garlic, and a mix of other spices that are a closely held company secret to this day. While he was cooking up some burgers one day, Carlos tried a french fry in his pink spread, and realized that its true calling was as a dipping sauce. Ever since then, fry sauce has been a staple of every Arctic Circle store across the Western United States. It can be pumped out of in-store dispensers, taken to go in little dipping cups, or even purchased by the bottle. It is as necessary a condiment as barbecue sauce might be at other fast food chains.

Of course, tracking down the first person to combine ketchup and mayo is a nearly impossible task. Variations on what Utahns so staunchly insist is fry sauce exist all over the world. The most common cousin to fry sauce is probably Russian Dressing, which combines mayo, ketchup, and usually onions, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce among other ingredients. Asking for fry sauce on the East Coast will often result in a confused look from your server and a small dish of Russian Dressing. Another close relative is Thousand Island dressing, which also works from a mayo and tomato base.

Even a cursory search of “fry sauce” on Wikipedia points to over a dozen similar variations on a theme, from Argentina’s “golf sauce,” which was supposedly developed by a Nobel laureate at a golf club in the 1920s, to the “burger sauce” of the United Kingdom which is also eaten with fries, but is obviously seen as more of a burger topping than anything else. In other countries ranging from Iceland to Spain to Venezuela, variations of a mayo-ketchup sauce are used on everything from fries to meatballs.

Fry sauce and a pastrami burger, two Utah specialties.
Fry sauce and a pastrami burger, two Utah specialties. Fuzzy Gerdes/CC BY 2.0

The possibility that fry sauce is not a wholly unique Utah creation has done nothing to slow the popularity of the sauce in and around the state. Nearly every single American fare restaurant in the state carries fry sauce, including local burger chains like Crown Burger, Hires Big H, and, yes, Arctic Circle. Even global chains like McDonald’s and Burger King stock their own fry sauce to meet the demand. Bottles of small batch fry sauce can be bought off grocery store shelves. When the Olympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002, the official set of commemorative pins in the shape of Utah-specific icons included a fry-sauce-shaped pin.

The fry sauce craze has spread to nearby states as well, especially into Idaho, famous for its potatoes, where it is often called “Idaho fry sauce.” Many Idahoans even believe the sauce was invented there as opposed to Utah (but Utahns know the truth).

Possibly the single biggest factor in fry sauce’s rampant cultural ubiquity in Utah is that unlike other regional culinary icons like “funeral potatoes,” fry sauce is not generally seen as having originated in Mormon culture. While Arctic Circle’s Edwards was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his supposed innovation has grown far beyond the influence of his religion. Fry sauce has become the signature taste of an entire region.

You may think you’ve tried fry sauce, but as anyone from in and around Utah will tell you, you haven’t tried it until you’ve tried it in Utah.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.