There are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who like mayonnaise, and the blasphemous ones who don’t.
We, like any good Southerner, are unapologetic about our adoration of this simple condiment, about our insistence on its inarguable place on every sandwich, about our pantry stockpile— always at the ready with at least two jars. It is the secret to every good grilled cheese you’ve ever eaten, especially when cooked in a cast-iron pan.
In South Carolina and Tennessee, where we come from, mayonnaise—the simple fusion of eggs, oil, and acid—makes its way into many a dish and is the secret to most sauces. Though said to be the invention of a French chef in 1756, as far as we’re concerned, mayo has become the American, and in many ways the penultimate Southern, culinary accoutrement.
In all honesty, is there any condiment more contentious than mayonnaise? Between its proponents and its opponents, and worst yet, amongst its fan, between which kind of mayonnaise indeed.
There was Coke versus Pepsi, McDonald’s versus Burger King, Ford versus GM, Levi’s versus Wrangler, and we all know that Hellmann’s versus Duke’s is the cultural competition of the day, with northerners usually rooting for the former—among which Julia Child, Ina Garten, and Anthony Bourdain can be counted as admirers—and southerners firmly rooted in the latter, particularly these days. Nashville’s Sean Brock and New Orleans’ Mason Hereford all swear by the stuff.
It’s a debate so divided that, it has sparked news articles, rambling Reddit threads, and even some sparring on social media, with one unlikely tattoo contest for fans to show off their favorite. (Unsurprisingly, Duke’s won, with a Richmond tattoo parlor creating a coterie of yellow-capped artworks.)
Born in South Carolina, raised in Tennessee, let us start with a moment of truth. During our early years, we didn’t eat Duke’s—the official cool kids of mayo; we ate Miracle Whip. We know, we know, but we’ll also call a bunch of you from our neck of the woods and over a certain age who suggest anything otherwise. In fact, until just a few years ago, those black, white, and gold labels were barely sold beyond the Carolinas and Georgia. Luckily, we came around.
But wherever you hail from, it could be argued that Duke’s came first, arriving in 1917 when the grand dame Eugenia Duke began selling 10-cent sandwiches with her homemade slather to soldiers at Fort Sevier in South Carolina. Hellmann’s arrived three years later, with a delicatessen in the heart of Manhattan, New York. Within a few years, both brands started selling their signature sauces, and soon enough, the sweet Kraft salad dressing of our youth would come online, too, making its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, after which America would never be the same.
With World War II, mayonnaise became a vital ingredient while eggs and oil were rationed. It was used as a base for cakes and dressings and a go-to binder for myriad recipes. In the mid-century decades that followed, mayonnaise would firmly cement itself into American cuisine, even though its origins date back further and farther away.
The origin story of mayonnaise is almost as controversial as its modern-day predicament, this time a battle in Europe. France says one of their own invented it after the capture of the Port of Mahon (in Minorca, Spain, no less), from whence it gets its namesake. Spain, of course, counters that it was first developed by that city’s local residents invented it.
Still, the etymological mystery continues, with Larousse Gastronomique suggesting that the name may just be a bastardized moyeunaise, derived from the Old French moyeu for “egg yolk,” while others still suggest it should actually be bayonnaise, for the French-Basque town of Bayonne.
Either way, it is likely rooted in that border between the two countries, in its predecessor, aioli—an emulsion of garlic, oil, and salt—which has been made in southwestern France (with a hint of lemon) and northeastern Spain (with a touch of heat) since at least its time in the Roman Empire.
Still, pioneering French chef Marie-Antoine Carême would cement the spread’s role into haute, and in turn, American cuisine. By the 19th century, it would wind its way onto fancy menus up and down the East Coast, perhaps starting at Delmonico’s in 1838, but eventually finding itself in the likes of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, circa 1896. Suddenly everything became a salad, and before long, with the invention of the mechanical bread slicer in the 1920s, a sandwich, and the rest is history.
Today, no picnic or potluck would be complete without the help of this both luxurious and humble staple. For us, it is requisite for Thanksgiving leftovers. For the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore barbecue sauce. For the culinary gift that is pimento cheese dip. For every burger, for BLTs, and, best of all, the rare perfection that is a thick swipe between two slices of white bread with a ripe summer tomato.
These are undoubtedly the reasons why mayonnaise remains the best-selling condiment in the United States—over ketchup, over mustard, or its wannabe, ranch dressing (for which we also hold a soft spot).
With its cidery tang and lack of sugar, Duke’s will always be our number one, but there’s also a time and a place for Kewpie, and in a pinch, we won’t stick our nose up at Hellmann’s—unless another Southerner is looking.