Food & Drink

Duke’s Mayonnaise has legions of dedicated fans

I showed up at the gate of the C.F. Sauer Co. in Richmond last summer 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 United States, behind Hellman’s and Kraft, and is growing.

Love of Duke’s is so limited to 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, and six miles north of Greenville, thousands of soldiers had moved into 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, unlike a more famous national brand.)

By 1929, Eugenia couldn’t keep up with demand. Rather than expand, she offered it 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 – when Martha married a soldier from Los Angeles. Within a year of moving to Oakland, 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, who called her “Cush,” 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 Genie’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 Genie 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.” Genie’s response? “Well, go get yourself some.”

When Genie told me that, we were seated in a new Panera Bread by her home near The Arboretum in Charlotte, where she moved to be near her daughter. 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,” Genie 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 writer and illustrator based in Durham. This is an edited version of a presentation she gave at the Southern Foodways Symposium at the University of Mississippi in October. She can be reached through her website, Kathleen Purvis contributed to this story.