A hundred years ago, an enterprising woman named Eugenia Duke started selling sandwiches made her homemade mayonnaise to soldiers stationed near Greenville, South Carolina. By 1919 she was selling over 10,000 sandwiches a day, making her a successful and profitable entrepreneur in an era when women had little leverage in the business world. But that pales in comparison to her eventual legacy that was set into motion when she sold her recipes to C.F. Sauer in 1929, the person who established the first Duke’s mayonnaise factory and sent the product out into our world.
It’s not news that most Southern cooks and eaters are fiercely loyal to our Duke’s. It’s a matter of taste and decorum. Duke’s mayonnaise remains sugar-free, which is rare among bottled condiments these days. (It wasn’t necessarily a stroke of culinary genius to leave her mayo unsweetened—although it was—so much as a practical response to sugar rationing during the war.) Duke’s contains a higher ratio of egg yolks than most other commercial mayos, which makes it rich, creamy, and less likely to separate when heated. There’s a wisp of tang from vinegar and a touch of paprika. Its texture is thicker and almost custard-like instead of simply slick or gelatinous. All of this makes Duke’s look and taste more like homemade mayonnaise, a wonderful thing that is quite tedious to perfect.
Duke’s is the brand that many of us Southerners grew up on, so it’s the mayo that tastes like what we expect and crave. Most food memories of this caliber require the replication of a prized family recipe. Duke’s requires only the twist of that signature bright yellow lid. Each new jar is a fresh start full of promise, a legacy and luxury for about four bucks a pop.
Southerners have particular skill and proclivity in using Duke’s as not only a condiment and sauce, but as an ingredient in all sorts of iconic Southern recipes, such as chocolate cake, pimento cheese, deviled eggs, coleslaw, and potato salad. Ah, the salads. So many salads. The range of recipes that some Southerners call salads is curious and contentious in that not all of them contain raw vegetables, or any vegetables at all for that matter. But if you define a Southern salad as a concept on a sliding scale, then Duke’s is the perfect thing to grease the skids.
Duke’s mayonnaise has inspired art, poetry, essays, scholarly treatises, lectures, and quarrels with those who prefer Hellmann’s, Blue Plate, or (shudder) Miracle Whip. Emily Wallace, a Southern food scholar who knows her Duke’s, tells of a woman so loyal that she beseeched Sauer to send her three of the glass quart jars when word got around that they were switching to plastic bottles. Her intent, if not her final wish, was to have three jars (with labels intact) so that each of her daughters could have one to store a portion of her ashes once she had passed on to her reward. Surely to goodness someone congealed a salad to serve with a dollop of Duke’s at that dear woman’s wake.
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Thank you kindly, Ms. Eugenia, for bestowing Duke’s mayonnaise on us, the spread that binds countless Southern recipes and graces more ‘mater sandwiches than there are stars in the heavens.