Peek into the walk-in refrigerators of the most lauded restaurants in the country, and you will likely find just one store-bought ingredient: Duke's Mayonnaise. But what most people don't know is that the company was founded by a Southern woman at a time when many women like her didn't run businesses.
"We make everything from scratch at Rhubarb," says John Fleer, a five-time finalist for a James Beard Award and the chef and owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Rhubarb in Asheville, N.C. "Duke's is one of the few packaged items we use, but we use the heck out of it," he says. And he's pretty serious about his affection for the condiment. "I don't associate with chefs that don't use it. Or else, I enlighten them," he adds with a smile.
Fleer and many other professional chefs are not ashamed to admit that their own fresh-whisked mayonnaise can't compete with the magic found in a bottle of Duke's. As the cult of Duke's has racked up converts, and begun to expand beyond its original territory in America's Deep South, even the yellow-capped jars themselves have become treasured collector's items, serving as wedding centerpieces and cremation urns.
Unlike most other mass-produced mayonnaise, Duke's contains no sugar. This gives it the signature tang that has kept both chefs and home cooks raving about it since the company was founded over 100 years ago. "When they teach you how to make mayonnaise in culinary school, they are essentially teaching you how to make Duke's," says Fleer. "It has the right balance of richness and acidity."
But while the taste of Duke's mayonnaise has become well-known, many people probably don't know the story of how it was created.
The culinary genius behind this mayo is an unlikely one: Eugenia Thomas Slade Duke of Greenville, South Carolina — a self-described housewife who became an entrepreneur and a manufacturing tycoon. Duke was just 18 in 1900 when she married Harry Cuthbert Duke and moved to a rented house in Greenville, according to records compiled for an exhibit honoring Duke at the Upcountry History Museum in South Carolina.