When Genie Bronson Kramer moved to the South, she was in for a big surprise.

Duke's Mayo
Credit: Gary Clark

Nearly ninety years ago, Genie Bronson Kramer ate Duke's mayonnaise in Piedmont, California—decades before the condiment gained its cult following and trekked across the Continental Divide. Genie's grandmother (and namesake) Eugenia Duke made it from scratch to serve on white bread, just as she had in Greenville, South Carolina, where she launched the Duke's Sandwich Company a century ago.

But in California, Eugenia was known as the Duchess, having sold the Duke's name twice: her mayonnaise to the C.F. Sauer Co. in Virginia, and her recipes to her bookkeeper, Alan Hart. Similar to Duke's origins in the Piedmont of South Carolina—hawking pimento cheese and egg salad to soldiers stationed at Camp Sevier in World War I—the Duchess Sandwich Company catered to a shipyard during World War II, as well as to local drugstores and cafes. "In the summertime, she would have me and some of my friends come down and wrap sandwiches," Genie says.

The comment recalls Genie's mother, Martha, who earned the title "Sandwich Queen" back in Greenville for her work with Eugenia. "The ‘Sandwich Queen'?" Genie ponders. "I've never heard that." Apparently once settled in California, Eugenia—whom folks called Cush for her soft build—didn't dwell on her earlier businesses. "My grandma Cush never told me that she had a sandwich company," Genie says. "She didn't toot her horn at all and my mother didn't toot it for her."

Imagine, then, when Genie moved across the country in 2002 to be with her youngest daughter in Charlotte, North Carolina, and stepped into a Harris Teeter grocery. "I was flabbergasted," she says. "I saw this wall of Duke's Mayonnaise and couldn't believe it."

Like her grandmother, Genie didn't toot her own horn, claiming ties to Duke's royalty. "I never made a public announcement about it," she says, having only told a few close friends (and, admittedly, also the manager at her local Food Lion store). But sometime around Duke's Mayonnaise's 90th anniversary, a newspaper blew her cover. "My doctor saw it," she remembers. "He introduced me to his nurse as some sort of celebrity!"

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At the end of this month, Genie will attend the Duke's 100th anniversary celebration in Greenville as something of the same, hobnobbing not far from the Manly Street apartment where Eugenia got her start. Then it's home to Charlotte for more celebrating. Genie turns 90 in May, though she currently has no set plans for a party. A chocolate cake with Duke's mayonnaise seems appropriate (the spread makes for an insanely moist crumb).

"I hear people say, ‘Be sure you use Duke's' for a recipe' and I think, ‘Jiminy, whoever knew there'd be such a claim over that?'" says Genie. "Such is life." It is. And it's better with some mayonnaise in the mix.