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A love letter to Duke's Mayonnaise

As brand gets sold, we make the case on why this Southern staple should not be messed with

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
If you're not using Duke's Mayonnaise to make your pimiento cheese, restaurant critic Matthew Odam says you're doing it wrong. [Contributed by Duke's Mayonnaise]

Elizabeth entering my life changed everything. My future wife expanded my empathy, honed my communication skills and showed me what a life full of compassion, grace and beauty looked like.

She also introduced me to Duke’s Mayonnaise. Marrying a strong Southern woman delivers a multitude of blessings.

Elizabeth comes from North Carolina, specifically a part of that heavenly state where hot dogs are dressed with creamy slaw, and peanut butter, banana and mayonnaise sandwiches constitute an afternoon snack. She knew the glories of Duke’s and shared them with me. I can’t even remember the first time I tried it. Like James Taylor’s music, Duke’s just feels like something that’s been in my life forever.

I always considered myself a mustard guy growing up. Hitting Whataburger? I’ll take mine with cheese, pickles, lettuce, onions and mustard, please. Having a hot dog or ham sandwich? Ditto, minus the lettuce. Duke’s changed all of that.

Duke’s rich creaminess and tangy lash of apple cider vinegar set it apart from the other brands of mayonnaise in which I dabbled in my misspent youth. Maybe it’s the thick, creamy consistency or the acidic pop that taps into what I love about mustard that made me an instant convert. It has a better mouthfeel than the others, more character. It just seems like a separate condiment altogether.

I started using the spread on everything. Burgers? Check. Sandwiches? Check. Hot dogs? Ditto. Pimiento cheese and turkey clubs? Mandatory. I even substituted the sugar-free mayonnaise (sugar was rationed in wartime and never made it into Duke's) for butter to paint the exterior of grilled cheese sandwiches before they hit the griddle, giving the sandwich a little less saltiness and a whole lot more flavor.

Like Elizabeth, Duke’s Mayonnaise also hails from the South, and its roots trace to another strong Southern woman.

Georgia-born Eugenia Thomas married Harry Duke and the two settled in Greenville, S.C., in the early 20th century. Eugenia started supporting the war effort and her family by making sandwiches for troops at Camp Sevier, a National Guard training camp near Greenville, in 1917. Her chicken salad, pimiento cheese and egg salad sandwiches were all a hit, according to Duke’s website. But it was her homemade mayonnaise that really set the sandwiches apart, and she started selling that addictive spread separately a few years later, as her sandwich business grew after the war.

Eugenia would end up selling both her sandwich enterprise and her burgeoning mayonnaise empire at the end of the 1920s, the latter to the C.F. Sauer Co., now based in Richmond, Va. The woman who created a sensation with her mayonnaise in the South eventually moved to the West Coast to be with family. There she created the Duchess Sandwich Co., while the company to which she originally gave birth slowly became a staple across the Southeast.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Falfurrias Capital Partners recently announced plans to acquire Duke’s Mayonnaise and assorted food brands from the 132-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. But Duke’s website promises that the new owners, who grew up fans of the brand, have no intention of messing with perfection. They'd better not, or the voices of dissent will start in the Southeast and roll all the way across the country in a creamy wave.