Kathleen Purvis

Which mayo do the chefs really pick?

There’s a lot of trash talk about mayonnaise around here, people. There’s the Southern favorite, Duke’s. And the mainstream favorite, Hellmann’s.

The line is drawn very quickly between the two, with Duke’s held up as the totem of down-home purity and Southern tradition, while Hellmann’s gets firm, if sheepish, avowal from its fans.

Add to the equation the spectacular simplicity that is a midsummer tomato sandwich – white bread, mayonnaise and slices of tomato – and it smacks of religious fervor.

Among members of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a Charlotte-area organization of chefs and farmers, it became a challenge last winter: My Duke’s can beat your Hellmann’s, hands down.

Kim Shaw and Rohan Gibbs of Small City Farm, who grow a sizable number of tomatoes and other produce for local restaurants, agreed that at the height of tomato season, they’d host the Mayo Throwdown on their farm: Tomato sandwiches. A blind tasting of mayos. Put your tastebuds where your mouths are, chefs.

On Monday night, the day off for many chef-owned restaurants, a crowd of about 40 food people made its way to Small City, near Brookshire Freeway, just as a ferocious summer storm was tapering to a sprinkle.

Of course, chefs being chefs, they had to class it up a little. Ben Philpott of the Block & Grinder brought bacon he had cured himself. Bill Logan of Carolina Artisan Bread donated loaves of white bread. Shaw provided mounds of Arkansas Traveler tomatoes.

The voting table was set up with a bowl of ice cradling two color-coded Ball jars of mayonnaise. To vote, you had to taste samples of each mayonnaise and make your choice: A red ticket for the one on the left, a white ticket for the one on the right. Then you got a sandwich, built by Alex Verica of Heritage Food & Drink, with generous squiggles of the mayonnaise you picked.

Only Shaw and the guild’s web and media specialist, Tom Petaccia, knew which was which. Even Naomi Knox, executive chef of St. Mark’s Soup Kitchen, who ran the voting table, didn’t know, so her expression wouldn’t give it away.

Some people chose quickly, in a hurry to get to the sandwich. Others, like Paul Verica – a Philadelphia native and firm Hellmann’s man – tasted slowly, smacking lips and studying consistency and aroma.

People discussed their choices: The one on the right seems sweeter, and everybody knows Hellmann’s has sugar. The one on the left is eggier and creamier, with a hint of acidity. Definitely Duke’s on the left, Hellmann’s on the right.

As the tickets piled up, red outnumbered white. With a few exceptions, notably Terra Ciotta, a chef-instructor at the Art Institute, most people were sure Duke’s was the red ticket.

Shaw and Petaccia double-counted the tickets to be sure: 28 red tickets, 13 white. More than two to one in favor of the one on the left.

As the evening drew on, humid and steamy, a rainbow actually appeared over the fields. Duke’s was on its way to triumph.

Then Shaw and Petaccia stood, arm in arm, and made the announcement:

Hellmann’s won. It was the one on the left, the one the Duke’s fans were sure was their favorite.

Howls and laughter. Verica danced a jig. Ciotta took a victory hand-slap from Shaw, who admitted crushing defeat.

Any way you slice it, there are some sheepish chefs and farmers around Charlotte this week. And yes, I’ll admit it: I voted for the one on the left, too.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis