Many people erroneously assume that America is divided North and South by The Mason-Dixon Line; the survey boundary that separates Pennsylvania from Maryland and West Virginia.
In truth, America is divided North and South by mayonnaise.
Yes, mayonnaise, created in Spain and popularized by the French since the mid-eighteenth century, this condiment has garnished generations of American salads and sandwiches. Its long-lasting influence in our country can be traced to two families: the Duke’s and the Hellmann’s, or more specifically, Eugenie Thomas Duke and Margaret Vossberg Hellman.
A tremendous rivalry between the brands still exists with loyal fans steeply entrenched in respective camps. In order not to show any partiality (yet), I will present the stories in alphabetical order.
Eugenie Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1881. At the age of 19, she married Thomas Duke, an electrician, and the couple eventually moved to Greenville, South Carolina.
In 1917 thousands of soldiers were living at Camp Sevier, only six miles north of Greenville. Eugenia decided that she could start a sandwich business, making pimento, egg salad, and chicken salad sandwiches, and sell them to the army camp.
With the help of her daughter, Eugenia made the sandwiches daily, carried them on the local train to the camp, and sold them to the army canteens for ten cents each. Her profit amounted to two cents per sandwich.
The popularity of her enterprise led Eugenia to increase her sales by also selling sandwiches to the shops on Main Street and to local textile mills; eventually expanding her business to the fashionable city hotel dining rooms as well.
Five years into her sandwich business, Eugenia had received many letters from soldiers asking for the recipe to her delicious sandwich spread. Rather than give out the recipe, she started bottling her mayonnaise and selling it as a separate product. Her husband joined her in the business.
The ingredients included oil, egg yolks, and cider vinegar. Because sugar had been rationed during the years of WWI, she left it out of the recipe.
Her mayonnaise became known as Duke’s Real Mayonnaise and by 1929 they sold the lucrative business to the C.F. Sauer Company.
Eugenia lived to be 90 years old and left her culinary mark on mayonnaise history. Originally sold only in the South, Duke’s Real Mayonnaise is available across the nation, but has its most loyal followers in the Carolinas and Georgia. Duke’s is recognizable by its bright yellow cap.
Margaret Vossberg emigrated from Germany to the United States with her family at the turn of the twentieth century and settled in New York City. There, her family opened a very successful delicatessen.
In 1904 Margaret married Richard Hellmann, whom she knew from her earlier years in Germany. Richard worked as a wholesale grocer but had the immigrant’s aspiration of one day owning his own company.
One year into their marriage, Richard found a vacant store on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side of New York City. He promptly decided that he and Margaret could now open their own delicatessen.
They worked together day and night with hardly a break until the delicatessen was a success. A major draw was their mayonnaise. Made fresh daily, they tinkered with the recipe until they found the perfect combination. While the recipe was a closely guarded secret, most culinary researchers believed the Hellmann’s used oil, raw egg yolks, white vinegar, salt, sugar, and a dash of lemon juice.
The fresh batches of mayonnaise sold out quickly each day.
By 1912 Margaret and Richard Hellman entered the profitable market of manufacturing mayonnaise wholesale and distributed it coast to coast, but it still remained a Northern favorite.
Margaret died in 1920 and Richard sold Hellman’s in 1927 to Best Foods. The jar, however, still continues to have its iconic blue cap.
Eugenie and Margaret’s lives shared a familiar parallel—women who became business entrepreneurs through diligence and hard work.
It is hard to pinpoint today the fervent dedication people have to a particular brand of mayonnaise. Perhaps it harks back to childhood with the taste of a perfect pimento cheese sandwich or a summertime tomato sandwich on white bread. For the generations of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression, sandwiches laced with mayonnaise were a daily staple.
Regardless of where your loyalty lies, you can thank these two women for helping to bring the ultimate gift to America foodies—the perfect mayonnaise.
I was raised on Hellmann’s. Need I say more?
~ Linda ~
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