Why Coleslaw Is the Ultimate Divisive Food

Coleslaw is contentious even among those who like it. (Photo: Elena Vaselova/Shutterstock)

For as long as I can remember, I've been turned off by coleslaw with the exception of one version I make for my Southern pulled pork with coleslaw, which I recently discovered might be more akin to pepper slaw than coleslaw.

My mom made coleslaw frequently when I was a kid. She'd smother the cabbage with Miracle Whip, add some vinegar, and shake on celery seed, salt and pepper. Then it would sit and get soggy and watery before she brought it to the table. It was gross.

I'm not the only one who finds coleslaw gross. It's a divisive food. People either love it or hate it. One person who hates the common, mayo-based version is Chef Barbie Marshall, former contestant on "Hell's Kitchen" and "Hell's Kitchen All Stars."

"I'm really passionate about my distastes and dislikes," she said. "Out of everything edible or accused of being edible, coleslaw is one of the greatest offenders. Who said we should take mayo and put it on raw cabbage? It's texturally just uck and it's never appetizing."

She admits she knows a lot of people who really do love it, though, including her own mother.

Those who love coleslaw

cole slaw, hot dogs, picnic
If there's coleslaw on the family picnic table, it often comes from a family recipe that's been handed down from generation to generation. (Photo: Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock)

The interesting thing about those who love coleslaw is that they tend to love one specific version of it. So it can still be a divisive topic — even among coleslaw devotees.

There are many family recipes for coleslaw that get handed down through the generations. Although my mom never used a specific recipe, I do have my ex-husband's family recipe. It was the only coleslaw brought to family gatherings, and someone always brought it.

When I asked my Facebook friends to share their thoughts on coleslaw, the responses from the "like" crowd all included a specific version. Some loved their grandma's coleslaw, or a version from a particular restaurant, or one they make themselves. I was given advice on the right way to chop the cabbage or how to salt the cabbage and let the water drain from it first to keep the final product from getting so soggy.

There were those who swore mayonnaise was the best ingredient and others who said Miracle Whip is the only way to go. There were cabbage-only purists and those who add other ingredients like carrots or raisins.

If you want to get Chef Barbie really going about coleslaw, mention raisins. "Keep the raisins out of mayonnaise," she demands. "Both need never touch each other again."

Those who hate coleslaw

pulled pork slaw
Even those who hate watery mayo-based slaw may appreciate a vinegar-based version on a sandwich to give it some crispy balance. (Photo: Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock)

The very first comment I got on Facebook when I asked for thoughts on coleslaw wasn't in words; it was in emojis. The green-faced, throwing-up emojis made a definite statement. Others simply commented "eww" or "food waste" — particularly the slaw that's served as a side at a restaurant in a bowl or paper cup (so its juices don't contaminate the rest of the food).

Chef Barbie has another reason to dislike coleslaw. It's on the top of her list of things not to bring to a picnic or potluck for food safety reasons.

"If you're going to bring something with mayonnaise that will sit out for hours on end, you have about four hours before you're going to wind up in the bathroom in extreme knots and pains," she said. "Another underlying factor is that if the cabbage isn't washed well, there's a potential for dirt to be in it. There could be other things brewing in that cesspool of mayo."

And brewing is a good way to think about it. Cabbage ferments easily.

"All it takes is salt to ferment cabbage," said Chef Barbie, "so its already starting to ferment as soon as you make it. Add mayo and uncontrolled temperatures and it becomes dangerous."

She's not totally against slaw, through, just the mayo-based runny versions. Pepper slaw, a cabbage-based slaw that's made with vinegar instead of mayonnaise plus some spicy pepper, salt and sugar, is very balanced, she said.

"Both the salt and sugar will pull the water out of the cabbage which is why it will retain that crunch element to it," she said. "In theory, that's why it's paired with a BBQ sandwich. It's the crispy, crunchy, creamy element in between the soft roll and the soft, sweet protein. It provides balance to a sandwich in an atypical way."

There's more than one way to dress shredded cabbage

shredded cabbage
This shredded cabbage can be turned into slaw without mayonnaise ever touching it. (Photo: Sea Wave/Shutterstock)

If all you're accustomed to is mayo-based coleslaw and you hate it, you may enjoy it a different way. Try this no-mayo Peanut Slaw made with napa cabbage, rice-wine vinegar, Sriracha, peanut oil and peanuts.

You're probably thinking, "That's not coleslaw!"

You're right. There's a wide world of mayo-less slaw out there waiting to be discovered.