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Mayo in the Middle, A Condiment Divided

Photo by Tim Hussey
Photo by Tim Hussey

“Where’s the mayo?!”

Mitch’s voice boomed from the kitchen through the open house. His wife Terri was unpacking the kids’ clothes in their respective rooms of the beach house they had rented for the week.

“In the grocery bag with the bread!”

They’d driven down from Charlotte to visit Charleston and unwind. Having not seen my old friends in years, I was eager to grab lunch with them and catch up.

“I said ‘mayo’, not Hellman’s!”

As Terri stormed into the kitchen, I wondered if my childhood memories of potato salad and bologna sandwiches had been a mirage. Was Hellman’s no longer mayonnaise? Had the food gods played a cruel trick on me?

“Relax, Mitch. It’s only mayonnaise.”

As I uttered these words I realized I had stepped carelessly into the line of fire. Both faces turned and shot me piercing yet disbelieving stares–not quite daggers, more like butter knives, very sharp and angry butter knives. Fortune smiled upon me as Mitch grabbed the keys from the counter and retreated out the door.

“I’m going to get some Duke’s!” he proclaimed.

Fortune’s smile was fleeting as I found myself alone, a man without a condiment. Terri took in a deep breath and charged her emotional cannons. I noticed the children sitting in the other room, their timely lunch now collateral damage of the Mayo Wars. My attention turned back to Terri in time to experience the full barrage. Epic tales of picnic skirmishes, clandestine grocery cart switch-a-roos, and pantry betrayals followed in rapid-fire succession.

“You know how it is,” she sighed.

Her statement may as well have been in a foreign language. I had no clue what she was talking about. To me, mayonnaise had always been just mayonnaise. As long as it wasn’t the flavorless paste spread on cafeteria sandwiches or the sour, pureed marshmallow-fluff pawned off as a Miracle Whip, I was content with whatever was at hand or on sale. Perhaps I had been too complacent in relegating this noble spread to an afterthought.

Living in the South the majority of my life, it’s easy to take essential ingredients for granted and overlook how ubiquitous they are.  It’s also easy to ignore that these ingredients have a history and heritage as rich as the South itself.

The most probable origin of mayonnaise is the port city of Mahón in the Menorca region of Spain. Following their victory over the British in 1756, the French brought back a local recipe for salsa mahonesa, a creamy sauce made from olive oil, eggs, and lemon juice. After establishing itself in France, the sauce took on its modern name of mayonnaise and spread across Europe and America where it was made in small batches in home kitchens, delicatessens and restaurants.  In the early 1900s, two mayonnaise stars would rise to national fame.



In 1905, in a small deli in New York City, German immigrant Richard Hellmann would sell salads dressed with two types of mayonnaise based on his wife’s family recipes. The dressings became so popular he began selling them, first in wooden “boats” used to weigh butter and then in glass jars.  To differentiate the jars, Hellmann tied a blue ribbon around the more popular mayonnaise. This would become the famous Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise.

Farther south in Greenville, South Carolina, Mrs. Eugenia Duke would sell sandwiches to soldiers at Fort Sevier as they readied themselves to serve in World War One. On these sandwiches she would spread a layer of homemade mayonnaise. Demand for both Eugenia’s sandwiches and her mayonnaise soared, and after selling her eleven thousandth sandwich, she invested in a delivery truck, and Duke’s Mayonnaise was born, becoming an instant Southern classic.

“Now we have mayo!”

The jar of Duke’s slammed onto the coral counter with the authority of a gavel. Mitch had returned triumphant and lunch could proceed. Terri hastily threw together sandwiches for the kids.  Her daughter scrunched her face in disgust at the mayonnaise. As Terri handed her daughter a dry and undressed sandwich, she contemplated the possibility of a baby mix-up.

It was my turn to make myself lunch. I stared of the two jars of mayo, identifiable only by their labels.  I could feel anticipating eyes behind me, eagerly waiting for an impossible tie-breaking vote. I dipped the knife in the Duke’s and spread a healthy layer, curious to taste a flavor that could drive a wedge into a marriage.

We sat down at the kitchen table. Ham, cheese, and Hellman’s to my left. Ham, cheese, and Duke’s to my right.

Two sets of eyes waited for me to take a bite and declare a winner. I bit.

I’d been familiar with Hellman’s since practically my first taste of solid food. Mild, light, and slightly sweet with balance and understated acidity, Hellman’s was synonymous with mayonnaise in my condiment world. With Duke’s, there was something more: more flavor, more creaminess, more tanginess, just more mayonnaise.

Lost in the assertiveness of this new flavor I forgot that the judge, jury, and plaintiffs awaited my reaction.

“It’s good.”

My noncommittal response instantly disappointed both and the two sets of eyes rolled in opposite directions.  Another battle would result in yet another draw.

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