"Hey, how come people don’t have dip for dinner? Why is it only a snack, why can't it be a meal, you know? I don’t understand stuff like that."
We don’t understand either, but it’s also hard to fathom how this perfectly reasonable question was used as a laugh line on ‘‘Seinfeld’’ years ago. (It was asked by Elaine’s lug of a boyfriend Puddy; she tried to break up with him in the same scene.)
When did dip become a joke? Clearly it was after the great dip rush of the early ’50s, which began when a recipe for clam dip presented on television’s ‘‘Kraft Music Hall’’ caused such excitement that the next day New York City sold out of canned clams.
On the other coast, in 1952, a California housewife mixed an envelope of Lipton’s onion soup mix into sour cream and set off a similar craze. According to Jean Anderson’s ‘‘The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century,’’ ‘‘Word of the new dip spread through Los Angeles faster than a canyon fire, newspapers printed the recipe, onion soup mix sales soared, and Lipton executives, a continent away in New Jersey, were ecstatic. They tracked down the recipe, perfected it, and beginning in 1958, printed it on every box of Lipton Recipe Secrets Onion Soup Mix.’’ It was known as California Dip.
According to Anderson, though, dip had been around for some time. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson made a version of clam dip for her husband (she jotted the recipe down on a notecard between 1915 and 1921). Anderson’s own mother had a pretty extensive collection dating from the early ’40s, when James Beard published his first cookbook, ‘‘Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapes.’’ Potato chips, pretzels, vegetables and crackers were all acceptable ‘‘dunkers,’’ as Beard referred to them.
The Golden Age of Dip lasted well into the ’80s, when cookouts and cocktail parties across America included such classics as French onion, hot crab, Ranch and various cheese dips, such as Roquefort sour cream.
But what was once a homemade specialty was now mass-produced, and more easily available. We kind of overdid it, until dip and chips took on a junk-food status.
It was a dark time, when a person had to sneak around just to eat a whole container of grocery store dip with a bag of Ruffles.
But today no one would frown on Carol Murphy Clyne, visiting instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., for having an extra serving of the modern version of chips and dips she recently enjoyed at chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Per Se, in New York City.
‘‘My husband and I had chips thinly sliced on a mandoline, with black truffle oil and a delicious creme fraiche dip,’’ she said. ‘‘It was a little snack to go with drinks before dinner.’’
And that little snack, Clyne said — fresh, simple, a bit exotic — is representative of a new era.
Today, it’s plain to see that a revolution has been taking place, one that embraces all dunkers and dips. Once described by John F. Mariani (in his 1983 ‘‘Dictionary of American Food and Drink’’) as ‘‘a condiment, often made with mayonnaise or sour cream, into which one dips any of a variety of vegetables or snacks,’’ a dip — and its dunkers — is not so easily defined today.
The dip-and-chip combo of the 21st century has evolved, reflecting international culinary influences and a new sophistication and ease.
‘‘When you go to a store (like Whole Foods) now,’’ said Clyne, who teaches a popular tapas class at C.I.A., ‘‘there are so many dips that are freshly made and natural, with fewer preservatives, the way you’d prepare them at home: tapenades, bean dips and the Greek-yogurt based dips. And that’s what people want: a relaxed casual food that’s also delicious and good for you.’’
According to the trade publication Refrigerated & Frozen Foods Retailer, dips and spreads are ‘‘on fire.’’ Hummus (a chickpea and sesame paste dip) is on its way to becoming the new salsa. (It doubled in sales in the last half decade and now has sales of $390 million.) And the dip/spread category, according to a recent ACNielsen group report, is one of the fastest growing food categories in the supermarket.
We’re making such a satisfying array — Middle Eastern eggplant dips, Tuscan roasted vegetables, Mexican salsas and guacamole, Greek tzatziki, not to mention the bean and fish dips from practically every country — that a person would not seem like an oddball serving dip for dinner, with crudites, or toasted pita squares, or good French bread.
‘‘You could live on hummus, and do very well,’’ Clyne said.