Mostly what I seem to find written about mayonnaise these days is the debate about which is better – Duke’s or Hellmann’s. They make the point that when the mayonnaises are tasted blind, people – even staunch supporters of Duke’s or Hellmann’s – can’t pick the difference out in a blind taste testing. I think I’ve read about and thought about about this Duke’s vs. Hellmann’s question enough to know what I believe to be the truth. First, both are excellent examples of mayonnaise – just try a taste of Miracle-Whip and that will make my point. Or, if you happen to be staying with friends and your only option is a mayonnaise they’ve bought at the health foods store, you’re in trouble. More about that later. If you grew up in the South, the sight of the Duke’s label is enough to make you sure that it’s the best mayonnaise. If you grew up in the North, I think the same is true for Hellmann’s. Whatever you grew up being served by your family is the mayonnaise you think is the superior. But, there’s a lot more to say about mayonnaise.
Oh, I almost forgot: Along with the Duke’s vs. Hellmann’s debate, there are also those who confess always avoiding mayonnaise, but finally becoming fans when they make it homemade. Allison Roman, in her 2017 cookbook ‘Dining In’ – which by the way is fabulous (in fact, my favorite cookbook of the last 10 years, which is saying a lot) – says this: “Pretty much the only downside to being my father’s daughter is that, growing up, I, too, was taught to hate mayonnaise, that it was my enemy, not to be consumed under any circumstances. As a result, for nearly twenty-five years, I ate my tuna sandwiches with only mustard and celery, endured very dry BLTs, and always ordered my In-N-Out without special sauce. All that changed the day I learned to make my own mayonnaise, it was called ‘aioli,’ but let’s be real: they are nearly the same thing. I found the process of drizzling oil into eggs, creating a thick, smooth, velvety sauce that was yellow with egg yolks, completely therapeutic. And guess what? It was also crazy delicious…”
My love for mayonnaise began at an early age. The first foods I was able to make for myself as a kid were sandwiches. At my house… there were always pickles and mayonnaise and occasionally strips of leftover bacon in the refrigerator… and peanut butter and bread in the pantry. Along with the ubiquitous tin of Charles Chips on the counter. I made crazy sandwiches using all of these ingredients. I later heard such crazy, multi-ingredient sandwiches were called dagwoods . The name came from the comic strip Blondie and a character with that name. Many of the best southern sandwiches I love… pimento cheese, chicken salad, egg salad, crab salad – all use mayonnaise as a key ingredient. And then there’s potato salad and coleslaw… Where would we be without mayonnaise?!
In Rick Bragg’s article For the Love of Mayonnaise, he tells the story of his love for his Mama’s mashed potatoes. In all the places he lived, he tried to recreate them, but failed. Here’s an excerpt from the article: “I always wondered where the magic came from. It being my mother’s mashed potato recipe, I just assumed it was love. I have had them in a thousand meat ¬and ¬threes, spooned out by ladies in hair nets and orthopedic shoes, and in a thousand perfect bistros, dusted with parsley or parmesan. None were as good as hers, conjured in her battered pot in the pines of Alabama. I asked her secret. “Just butter, milk, salt and pepper,” she lied. I know she lied because I tried it, homesick, in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, other places. I almost lit Cambridge on fire, trying to create what that old woman had.
Her potatoes were creamy, perfect, with real butter pooling in small lakes. Lumps were for tourists. Skins were for Philistines. These, cliché or not, melted on your tongue, with just a little extra, a lingering taste of … what? I could duplicate everything but that. Then, lurking just outside her kitchen one Thanksgiving, I saw. It was not some magic turnip, or some deepwoods spell. It was just a damn condiment. After mashing, salting, peppering and adding whole milk and what seemed a half-pound of butter, she opened the refrigerator and reached for a quart jar of mayonnaise. She took one heaping spoonful, for about a gallon or so of mashed potatoes, and whipped it in, meticulously, so that there would be no more than a hint, that touch, on any fork.”
There are plenty of people, like me, who love mayonnaise and couldn’t do without it. My friend Alex Hallmark maintains that he told his bride, Jo Ann, on their honeymoon ‘Jo – you must never run out of mayonnaise.. It would be grounds for divorce.’ And, all these years later, her mayonnaise inventory always includes a quart in the refrigerator and two quarts in the pantry.
Yes, there are many mayonnaise lovers, but there’s also a vocal community who hate mayonnaise. This mayonnaise hatred is passed down from generation to generation – if your mother or father hates mayonnaise, together you play a game of mayonnaise avoidance – with lots of questions when ordering out, and the explanation for why you don’t like coleslaw, chicken salad, tuna salad, etc. There’s a group on Facebook about mayonnaise hatred. There’s a website, too. They express their disdain for the condiment I love. Part of their mission is to try and convince others to join their tribe. I won’t tell you some of the things they say, for fear that you might consider their dogma, and maybe even join them.
The categories of their disgust include the look, the texture, and the taste. There are also lots of tales about people’s first encounter with mayonnaise. They usually start with eating at a friend’s house. They took a bite of a sandwich, and noticed a strange taste, whereupon they opened the sandwich up and saw something white and unfamiliar, and gross looking – they say.
There have been other attacks on mayonnaise… The Health Department said it wasn’t safe, especially in picnics in deviled eggs, potato salad, etc. Then, the nutritionists came along and proclaimed it unhealthy because of all the eggs… cholesterol. Then, there’s a more obscure notion that mayonnaise created friction between the Gentiles and the Jews. There’s the Milton Berle joke: ’Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.” The Jews liked rye bread and mustard, and the gentiles ordered white bread and mayonnaise.
When we opened Wellspring Grocery, I wanted to have a mayonnaise for sale – hey, I needed some to take home! When visiting all the stores while researching Wellspring – stores in California, Texas, Washington State, and Colorado – I never saw any real mayonnaise.
The hippies got a lot of things wrong when it came to food, and mayonnaise would go at the top of this list. Here’s why: companes like Health Valley, Hain, and Westbrae had many different product offerings, all under the banner of good health – nut butters, salad dressings, pasta, and more. They all had mayonnaise. But in formulating their mayonnaise, they looked to Best Foods – the best selling mayonnaise on the west coast, and Hellmann’s, the best selling mayonnaise on the East Coast – which were basically the same recipe. The ingredients included sugar – the hippies substituted honey. For oil, they used a very heavy flavor-forward expeller pressed oil, which gave the oil a terrible texture. All in all, the mayonnaise would rate an F in my taste testing, against Dukes.
I tasted through the natural food offerings, and I think I picked Westbrae as the least heinous. But, when I was doing product reviews after the first six months in business, I realized I was selling almost no mayonnaise. Maybe two jars a week. The mayonnaise tasted bad, was really expensive (3 or 4 times as much as Dukes or Helmann’s per quart). I decided to take the plunge – I ordered a case of 32oz Duke’s. I couldn’t put my normal mark-up, or I would have a price-sore-thumb compared to what they were selling it for at Harris Teeter, Kroger, or the Food Dog.
Here’s what happened: the shelf with the mayonnaise began to heat up. I think I sold a dozen quarts of Duke’s the first week. But guess what: I didn’t sell a single quart of Westbrae, and when I looked at my profit, I had to sell six jars of Duke’s to make the profit of three jars of Westbrae. I carried on with the strategy, and looked at other categories like ketchup, corn chips, and others – to see if I could apply my strategy there, as well. My rule was…if I wouldn’t take what I was selling home and be happy with it, it was time for a change.
When Ann and I were running Wellspring Grocery, we had a policy that no one could check themselves out at the end of a shift. As they left the store to go home, we checked receipts and backpacks. There was a young man who worked in the product department named Kris. Every time I checked his backpack at night, he had an inordinate amount of globe eggplants he had purchased. One night I asked him, “Kris, what in the hell are you doing with all these globe eggplants?” He told me he had a way to make them that was easy and that he was addicted to. Here’s the story he told me about the eggplant:
You know how eggplant soaks up oil when you’re cooking it? Well, if instead of oil you use mayonnaise (he knew I was a mayonnaise lover), it clings to the outside and doesn’t absorb into the flesh. Cut the eggplant into rounds. He said if he had time he would salt the eggplant and get rid of some of the water, but if he didn’t have time, he would just slather the mayonnaise liberally on both sides, put it on a sheet pan, and bake it in the oven. Sometimes he would bake it at 250 for a longer amount of time, or sometimes 350 for shorter. You want it to become a beautiful brown before you turned it. He usually turned it once. He couldn’t really tell me how long it was before he flipped it; he cooked it every day so he said he just cooked it by intuition—the best way to cook by the way. Sometimes he would season the mayonnaise… most often with garlic, crushed red chili, and a whisper of oregano. When using dried oregano, your intention should always be to put so little in that people can’t tell it’s in there.. Anyway, I immediately took a globe eggplant home and tried Kris’s method, and it became a staple in our house as well. The kids liked it with a slice of cheese and maybe a spoonful of tomato sauce on top. I remember preparing a large sheet pan of eggplant using this recipe to make eggplant parmesan.
Tom Robins wrote a book called Villa Incognito, about 3 young men who were shot down in the Vietnam War. The military thought they were POWs, but in fact they were MIAs because they chose to be. One of the three was from Mount Airy, NC, and loved the life in Vietnam – beautiful women, plenty of drugs and a castle-like Shangri-la to live in, but one of the three, named Dickie, was from Mt. Airy, North Carolina – and he missed mayonnaise. When one of the women he was hanging out with traveled to one of the major Asian cities, she returned with a jar of mayonnaise – although I believe it was Hellman’s and not his beloved Duke’s. Tom Robins describes the love of mayonnaise this way: “All Carolina folk are crazy for mayonnaise, mayonnaise is as ambrosia to them, the food of their tar-heeled gods. Mayonnaise comforts them, causes the vowels to slide more musically along their slow tongues, appeasing their grease-conditioned taste buds while transporting those buds to a place higher than lard could ever hope to fly. Yellow as summer sunlight, soft as young thighs, smooth as a Baptist preacher’s rant, falsely innocent as a magician’s handkerchief, mayonnaise will cloak a lettuce leaf, some shreds of cabbage, a few hunks of cold potato in the simplest splendor, restyling their dull character, making them lively and attractive again, granting them the capacity to delight the gullet if not the heart. Fried oysters, leftover roast, peanut butter: rare are the rations that fail to become instantly more scintillating from contact with this inanimate seductress, this goopy glory-monger, this alchemist in a jar.”