How a Nobel Laureate Invented Argentina's Favorite Salsa Dip

How a Nobel Laureate Invented Argentina's Favorite Salsa Dip

Why you should care

Because both condiments and science are important.

Teenage Luis Federico Leloir was snacking on prawns with his buddies in the refined dining room of the original clubhouse at Mar del Plata Golf Club on a fine summer day in 1925. Bored with the traditional aderezo of mayonnaise, Leloir asked the waiter to bring some supplies from the kitchen. After lots of experimentation, and plenty of laughs, the friends decided that mixing equal quantities of mayonnaise and ketchup, along with a few drops of cognac and Tabasco, resulted in the perfect accompaniment for prawns. They baptized the creation “salsa golf” — a nod to where it was invented.

“There’s nothing special about the anecdote,” says Víctor Ego Ducrot, author of Los Sabores de la Patria (The Flavors of the Homeland). “It was just a bunch of bored kids doing what bored kids do.” What makes it fascinating, he says, is that both the sauce and its inventor went on to play major roles in 20th-century Argentina.

The popularity of salsa golf grew slowly at first, until the 1960s, when big brands like Fanacoa started producing it commercially (without the cognac and Tabasco). This was ramped up a notch when Hellman’s, which displayed a penchant for creating regional varieties throughout South America, arrived in Argentina in the 1970s. By the 1980s, no cocktail party was complete without either a plate of palmitos (hearts of palm) con salsa golf or — if the hostess really did have the mostess — individual servings of coctel de camarones, aka shrimp cocktail. These days, though it has “gone a bit out of fashion,” says Ducrot, salsa golf is still readily available in supermarkets and fast-food joints throughout Argentina, where it’s slathered on everything from hot dogs to pizza.

If I had patented that sauce, we’d have a lot more money for research right now.

Luis Federico Leloir

And no, this isn’t your mama’s Thousand Island dressing. That was invented in the Thousand Islands region of New York in the early 1900s, includes much smaller quantities of ketchup, a smorgasbord of minced pickles, onions, bell peppers and olives, and several other curious additions. Salsa golf’s closest North American relative is in fact fry sauce, which came about at least 15 years after its Argentine cousin, thanks to Salt Lake City food cart owner Don Carlos Edwards. When Edwards’ star rose (due in no small part to the simple yet delicious sauce that accompanied his fries), he was able to open the brick-and-mortar barbecue joint that ultimately became the Arctic Circle chain. To this day, fry sauce is the pride and joy of the 67 Arctic Circle restaurants dotted across Utah and Idaho.

Believe it or not, Leloir went on to achieve even greater things than Edwards. Despite a rocky start to his medical career — he failed anatomy four times — with the help of his mentor, Dr. Bernardo Houssay, winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1947, Leloir carved a niche for himself in the field of biochemistry. “Biochemistry and I were born and grew at about the same time,” he wrote in a short autobiography titled “Far Away and Long Ago,” which appeared in 1983’s Annual Review of Biochemistry. In the same essay, Leloir credits his great-grandparents for buying the lands that “brought riches to the country and to the pioneers who worked on them,” noting how his wealth enabled him to dedicate his life to research in a country where funding for such work was hard to find.

Salsa golf

Not your mama’s Thousand Island dressing: salsa golf is made with scientific precision.

Source Creative Commons

Apart from brief stints in Cambridge, England, and at the Cori Laboratory in St. Louis, Leloir spent his career in Argentina — most of it as director of the Campomar Institute of Research in Biochemistry, a tiny foundation funded by Argentine businessman Jaime Campomar. In the face of political turmoil and meager finances — he once fashioned a gutter out of cardboard so he could continue working in a badly leaking lab — Leloir and his team made many important discoveries about renal hypertension, carbohydrate metabolism and, most notably, sugar nucleotides, which, funnily enough, are abundant in salsa golf.

Leloir never said much about his shrimp-lovers’ condiment, except to ponder how he might have leveraged the invention to fund more research. “If I had patented that sauce, we’d have a lot more money for research right now,” he once said. But Leloir wasn’t one to live in the past. In fact, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1970, he and his colleagues celebrated the news by stopping only briefly to drink champagne out of pipettes and burettes before getting back to work. His speech at the Nobel banquet later that year was also full of characteristic humility, ending with the memorable line: “Finally, I might paraphrase Churchill and say, never have I received so much for so little.”

Not one to retire, Leloir died of a heart attack in 1987, at age 81, shortly after getting home from a day’s work in the lab. In 2001, the Campomar Institute was renamed the Leloir Institute Foundation. These days, the facilities are state-of-the-art and the foundation, a leader in Latin American research, supports more than 170 scientists.

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