I showed up at the gate of the C.F. Sauer Co. in Richmond pronouncing myself something of a mayonnaise scholar.
“I wrote my master’s thesis on pimento cheese,” I told Erin Hatcher, who oversees the company’s Duke’s Mayonnaise label. As any Southerner knows, mayonnaise is one of pimento cheese’s most important ingredients.
But Hatcher almost blew my academic cover when she began to tell me about Duke’s legions of dedicated fans. They send an endless stream of fan mail, including letters, recipes and … paintings.
“Paintings of a jar with a sandwich,” she told me, arching her eyebrows. “A lot.”
“Paintings?” I can be heard saying on a recording of our conversation. I was in a mayonnaise factory, but I must have turned three shades of ketchup red: I myself had recently penned a small drawing of the yellow-lidded Duke’s jar.
Paintings, though, are fairly tame when it comes to Duke’s fans.
“You just would not believe,” Hatcher told me.
There was the man on his hospital death bed who asked for a tomato sandwich made with Duke’s. After the company switched from glass to plastic containers around 2005, there was the mother of the bride who demanded four glass jars with labels intact to use as centerpieces at her daughter’s wedding. And there was the elderly woman in North Carolina who wrote in hopes of obtaining three glass jars. She wanted to be cremated and have her ashes placed in Duke’s jars for her three daughters. Hatcher assured me that she followed through on that request.
Duke’s is mayonnaise with meaning, and its appeal is equal opportunity. The spread is as comfortable on white-bread sandwiches in brown paper sacks as it is on crudites and fine china. For almost a century, it has been there for work and pleasure. And it’s good: a thick, tangy mayonnaise that’s the worthiest mate for a ripe summer tomato.
Of course, not everyone is crazy for Duke’s. Regional for most of its history, it isn’t known nationwide – even though it’s the third-largest mayo brand in the U.S., behind Hellman’s and Kraft, and is growing.
Love of Duke’s is so intense in the South that Eugenia Duke’s own granddaughter, Genie Kramer, was flabbergasted when she moved to Charlotte from California 11 years ago and encountered the wall of Duke’s at a Food Lion near her house.
She couldn’t believe it, she said. In California, where Kramer was raised, Eugenia Duke’s mayonnaise was just a small part of the family lore – a chapter from her Southern days.
The making of a legend
Eugenia Thomas was born in October 1881 in Columbus, Ga., the last of 10 children. Her South was one of transition, as the 1880s saw the initial shift from an agricultural to an industrial-based economy.
At 19, she married Harry C. Duke, an electrician who set up power plants across the South. The couple landed in Greenville, S.C., where he’d been named district supervisor for the Southern Power Co.
A desire to contribute to the family income led Eugenia to start a sandwich-making business in her kitchen. Her selection included pimento cheese, egg salad and chicken salad. It was August 1917, thousands of soldiers had moved into nearby Camp Sevier for training.
With the help of Martha, her only child, who was known as the Sandwich Queen, Eugenia began selling sandwiches to Army canteens for a dime apiece. Ten cents covered the cost of the ingredients and the round-trip railroad fare to Camp Sevier – about 50 cents – with a profit of 2 cents per sandwich. She had to sell a lot of sandwiches to amass much of an income, but she did.
The story goes that in 1918, Eugenia sold almost 10,000 sandwiches in one day and put the money toward a Duke’s delivery truck. That’s probably an exaggeration (or it glosses over unnamed workers who must have helped Eugenia and Martha), but the number says a lot about the demand for Eugenia’s products.
In addition to Camp Sevier, she supplied sandwiches to downtown canteens, Main Street stores and textile mills. Eugenia didn’t sell only to the working class, though. She also set up shop in the Ottaray Hotel in downtown Greenville, where she sold dainty sandwiches.
For Eugenia and other entrepreneurial housewives of the New South, food became a window into business ownership, financial independence and creativity. Andrew Smart, current president of Duke Sandwich Co., puts it this way: “Here’s a woman in 1917 who was an entrepreneur and was a business leader in a time before she even had the right to vote.”
Thankfully, Eugenia didn’t stop with sandwiches. Inspired by letters from soldiers requesting the recipe for her sandwich spreads, she began bottling mayonnaise as a separate product around 1923. She used oil, egg yolks and cider vinegar, which gave the mayonnaise a particular tang, and she left out sugar, which had been rationed during wartime. (The original Duke’s is still made without sugar.)
By 1929, Eugenia couldn’t keep up with demand. Rather than expand, she offered the mayonnaise to the C.F. Sauer Co. and sold the recipes for her sandwich spreads to her bookkeeper, Alan Hart. Both businesses still operate near Greenville.
Eugenia and Harry moved West, following their daughter – Martha Duke, the Sandwich Queen. Within a year, Eugenia opened a new business.
Because she had sold the Duke’s name – twice – she called it the next best thing: the Duchess Sandwich Co. As she had done in Greenville, she sold Duchess sandwiches to cafes and drugstores. When World War II started, Eugenia secured a contract with a shipyard to operate a concession.
Spreading the word
Eugenia died in 1968 at age 90, 13 years after her husband. His obituary credits him with founding the Duchess Sandwich Co., obscuring Eugenia as the visionary businesswoman that she was.
Even her granddaughter Genie Kramer, didn’t know she had owned a business beyond mayonnaise back in Greenville.
The connection to Duke’s mayonnaise was surprising to some family members, too. As Kramer’s son-in-law told her after living in North Carolina for a while, “Mom, I think there’s a cult following.”
Before 2006, Duke’s focused distribution to Georgia and the Carolinas, where it ranks as the best-selling mayo brand, but has since expanded it to include 19 states. As Kramer now knows, you can find Duke’s in many Southern states and well beyond.
Her sister recently called to relay a friend’s message: “You won’t believe this. They have Duke’s mayonnaise in Oakdale, California.” Kramer’s response? “Well, go get yourself some.”
When she told me that, we were seated in a new Panera Bread by her home in Charlotte. It was the restaurant’s opening day, so we waited some 20 minutes for a place to sit.
“This place is still doing a booming business,” Kramer said as crowds continued through the door about an hour into our visit. “I can’t believe it.”
I could. As her grandmother’s story confirmed, you can do a lot with some bread and some mayonnaise. Paired with intellect and drive, it was bread and mayonnaise that empowered a Southern woman to care for herself and her family, and to build a powerful brand that is certainly worthy of a little hype – perhaps even a painting.
Emily Wallace is a Durham-based writer and illustrator. This is an edited version of a presentation she gave at the Southern Foodways Symposium at the University of Mississippi. Reach her at eewallace.com.
Duke’s Chocolate Cake
Adapted from dukesmayo.com. Mayonnaise in a cake sounds crazy, but it makes it exceptionally rich and moist. You'll need deep-sided 8-inch-round cake pans.
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for the pans
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s, of course)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 to 6 cups confectioners’ sugar
6 tablespoons low-fat milk, plus more as needed
HEAT the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to grease 2 deep, 8-inch round cake pans, then dust each one with a little cocoa powder, shaking out excess.
SIFT the 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder, the flour, baking soda, salt and granulated sugar into a mixing bowl. Use a stand mixer or hand-held mixer to beat on low speed to combine. Add the mayonnaise, vanilla and water; beat on low speed to form an evenly moistened batter, being careful not to overmix.
DIVIDE equally between the cake pans, making sure the batter is smooth and level on top. Bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
TRANSFER to wire racks to cool; carefully dislodge from the pans after 10 minutes and cool completely on the wire rack.
MAKE the frosting while the cake is cooling: Sift the cocoa powder into a mixing bowl and add the butter. Beat on low speed with a stand mixer or hand-held mixer. Stop to scrape down the bowl, then beat in the vanilla. On low speed, alternate adding the confectioners’ sugar and the milk, in several additions, to form a smooth, spreadable frosting. (You might not need 6 cups of sugar, or you might need more than 6 tablespoons of milk.)
USE a serrated knife to even the surface of each layer, if necessary. Invert one layer and frost the surface, then place the remaining layer directly on top. Cover the cake with all of the remaining frosting.
Per serving (based on 10): 840 calories, 6g protein, 112g carbohydrates, 45g fat, 14g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, 610mg sodium, 4g dietary fiber, 76g sugar.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
Adapted from “The Casserole Queens Make-a-Meal Cookbook: Mix and Match 100 Casseroles, Salads, Sides and Desserts,” by Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock (Clarkson Potter, 2013). Choose a clear serving dish to show off the layers.
2 cups spring salad mix
1 bunch green onions, trimmed, then coarsely chopped (use all but the toughest of the green ends)
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and cut into medium-size pieces (a generous 1 cup)
16 ounces frozen green peas, thawed under running water
2 cups Duke’s low-fat mayonnaise
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
10 slices low-sodium bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled
CREATE even layers of the following ingredients, placing them, in order, in a 13-by-9-inch serving dish or individual dishes of equal volume: the spring salad mix, scallions, green bell pepper and peas.
WHISK the mayonnaise in a medium bowl to make it evenly creamy and smooth. Use an offset spatula to spread it evenly over the mixture, making sure to completely cover the vegetables.
SPRINKLE the cheese evenly over the top, then the bacon. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving and serve within a few hours.
Per serving: 330 calories, 11g protein, 11g carbohydrates, 27g fat, 7g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, 630mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber, 3g sugar.
Yield: 10 servings.