May I explain why I managed to invite six food experts to my office one cold and rainy afternoon to lick mayonnaise off pieces of white bread? It’s a bit of a story:
Several months ago when the Cherokee Purple tomato vine in my backyard was heavy with fat, firm, “eat-me-now” specimens, I decided to have my first Southern tomato sandwich. I made it with one thick and drippy slice of the maroon fruit, two pieces of white bread and whatever mayonnaise I had in the fridge, which was Hellmann’s. Delicious. I posted a note on my Facebook page and then published a column on the experience.
I subsequently got hundreds of comments and e-mails from readers and got stopped repeatedly in the hall at work to discuss this sandwich.
Some told me it was about time I had discovered a quintessential Southern summer experience. But many more were aghast at the jar pictured in the accompanying photo.
In the South you put Duke’s mayonnaise on your tomato sandwiches and everything else, I was told in no uncertain terms. Created by Mrs. Eugenia Duke of Greenville, S.C., in 1917, who sold mayo-laden sandwiches to soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Sevier, Duke’s is the true emulsion of the South.
But, wait, no!
If you’re from the Gulf states, then chances are you may prefer Blue Plate, which has been made the same way in Louisiana since 1927, and has such a following that Web-based retailers ship it hither and yon.
Unless, of course, you don’t like either. There’s no shame.
You might have been raised to slather your sandwiches with one of the two nationally popular Kraft contenders — either Real Mayonnaise or its tawdry cousin, Miracle Whip, which isn’t a mayonnaise at all but a “salad dressing.” I don’t believe anyone in gastronomic history has actually dressed a salad with this stuff.
All that being good and true, plenty of Southerners don’t buy into the Duke’s orthodoxy and argue for the superiority of — ta da! — Hellmann’s, just as Northeasterners have since 1905, when German immigrant Richard Hellmann began selling his wife’s blue-ribbon-wrapped jars out of his New York deli.
Our compatriots out West have never heard of Hellmann’s, though they eat it all the time. Once you approach the Continental Divide, the brand’s name changes to Best Foods.
But let’s get back to the comments that people posted on Facebook and ajc.com, which piqued an anthropologic interest in me at first. It seemed silly to get so het up about prepared mayonnaise. I assumed preferences said more about upbringing than taste. But then I had an image of myself buying that same jar of Hellmann’s that I used on my tomato sandwich. Did I just pull it off a shelf, oblivious of its label? No, I searched high and low for that blue ribbon on the label. I always buy Hellmann’s.
So, for my own piece of mind, I had to put these jars of emulsified soybean oil through their paces. I chose the five popular brands mentioned above and one ringer. I cut little rounds of Pepperidge Farm Very Thin white bread (Sunbeam lovers, hold your tongues), slathered them with six mystery mayos, and invited the following folks to come and taste them from numbered plates:
Susan Puckett, a Decatur-based author and former AJC food editor. Brought up on Blue Plate in Mississippi, Puckett has switched allegiances to Duke’s in adult life.
Deborah Duchon, food anthropologist and founder of the Culinary Historians of Atlanta. Brought up on Miracle Whip, Duchon is no mayonnaise obsessive. “Whatever is on sale, ” is her brand.
Krista Reese, restaurant reviewer for Georgia Trend magazine. Reese’s parents are Southerners, but she was raised in Indiana, which perhaps explains her family’s shameful preference. “This is a sad confession, but my brothers forced our family to buy Miracle Whip.” She’s a proud Hellmann’s gal today.
Gena Berry, food consultant, film and television culinary producer. Growing up on St. Simons Island, Berry’s family defaulted to Kraft. While she still likes Kraft, she has started inching toward the Duke’s camp.
Chris Lee, chef at Waterhaven restaurant. A Memphis native, Lee is a Hellmann’s aficionado now and forever. Hellmann’s as a child, Hellmann’s as an adult.
Suzanne Van Atten, an AJC editor who used to sit near my desk and joined in a heated mayonnaise discussion, so I made her an honorary food expert. Born and raised in the heart of Duke’s country — Charlotte, N.C. — Van Atten, has lately pitched her tent in the Hellmann’s camp. “Duke’s is better, ” she insists, “but doesn’t blend into dressings like Hellmann’s.”
And so they nibbled on their odd canapes and after a while started licking the mayo off the tops of their bread rounds.
“Can I try number two again?” Puckett asked, and I passed a container of creamy goodness marked with only a Post-it Note. Soon all the containers were making the rounds as my industrious panel tasted and retasted.
Mayo clinic: Diagnosis
Here is what the experts found, with their ratings on a 1 to 5 scale (5 is the highest):