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Duke’s Mayonnaise marks century of sandwich dressing

By Fred Sauceman • Aug 17, 2017 at 1:38 PM

It’s tomato sandwich season! And nothing could be simpler and less expensive. At most, there are four ingredients: a thick slice of homegrown tomato, maybe a little salt, a couple of slices of inexpensive light bread, and mayonnaise. You can experience the glory of a tomato sandwich for less than a dollar per serving.

There’s no need to fancy it up. Lemon-garlic aioli is unnecessary. In fact, there’s no need to make your own mayonnaise. Not when Duke’s is available.

The year 1917 was a significant one when it came to food and drink in the South. In the midst of World War I, the Chattanooga Bakery turned out its first MoonPie that year. In the North Carolina Piedmont town of Salisbury, L.D. Peeler added cherry flavoring to a soft drink formula and came up with Cheerwine, a happy-sounding drink born during a sugar shortage. And down in Greenville, South Carolina, Eugenia Duke mixed up her first batch of the mayonnaise that would carry her name long after her death.

The entrepreneurial Eugenia was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1881. She married Harry Duke in 1900. When Harry took a new job with Southern Power Company about 10 years later, the family moved to Greenville. Textile mills were running at full capacity, and about seven years after the Dukes moved to town, hundreds of soldiers began reporting to Camp Sevier, a National Guard Training Camp, as the United States entered World War I.

In 1917, Eugenia Duke began selling sandwiches dressed with her homemade mayonnaise to the soldiers in camp. The soldiers loved her chicken salad, pimento cheese, and egg salad and paid a dime each for those sandwiches. Eugenia cleared a profit of two cents a sandwich.

After the war, she sold her sandwiches at several Greenville drugstores and opened up her own tea room. By 1923, Eugenia had begun offering her mayonnaise as a separate product. As mayonnaise sales took off, she would eventually sell her sandwich business to her accountant. Duke Sandwich Company is still in business in Greenville.

In 1929, Eugenia sold her mayonnaise enterprise to the C.F. Sauer Company, in whose hands it remains today. She would continue to serve as the spokesperson for her mayonnaise, even after she moved to California to live closer to her daughter. Still with an eye for business, she sold homemade sandwiches to local drugstores and cafés in California, under the name Duchess Sandwich Company.

Light mayonnaise, squeeze bottles and plastic jars have been added to the Duke’s product line. But while other mayonnaise companies were downsizing to 30-ounce jars in the late 2000s, Duke’s kept its size at 32. Over the 100 years of its existence, the Duke’s Mayonnaise recipe has never changed.

On its web page, Duke’s features a photograph of mayonnaise, bread, and tomatoes, those simple tomato sandwich elements. Chef Sean Brock, a native of Wise, Virginia, says Duke’s is one of the few store-bought ingredients he uses in his Husk restaurants, in Charleston and Nashville, with ones set to open soon in Greenville and Savannah.

“When you make your first tomato sandwich with Duke’s, that flavor is locked into your brain, and every time you make mayonnaise, you’re chasing that flavor,” Brock told Garden & Gun magazine. “And then you wonder, ‘Why am I even making my own mayonnaise?’ I haven’t made mayonnaise in 10 years.”

Duke’s has never contained sugar, making it more tangy than other mayonnaises on the market. It’s that acidic brightness that sets the product apart from its competitors.

Kinston, North Carolina, chef and PBS personality Vivian Howard, who is now doing commercials for Duke’s, calls it “the mother sauce of the South.”

Vivian Howard’s Chicken Salad

2 cups leftover rotisserie chicken, shredded

¾ cup Duke’s Mayonnaise

¼ cup sour cream

2 stalks celery, small dice

1 cup grapes, halved

1 medium red onion, small dice

2 scallions, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Add the shredded chicken to a large bowl along with the remaining ingredients. Stir together until just combined.

Fred Sauceman’s “Potluck” column appears monthly in the Kingsport Times-News and Johnson City  Press. His new book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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