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What Makes Duke’s Mayo a Cult Favorite?
For Southerners, it's all about the "twang."
06-28-2021
Marshall Bright

Duke’s mayonnaise is a product of Sauer Brands, based in Richmond, Virginia, and for years it was nearly impossible to find outside of the South. Despite being born in Tennessee, however, I wasn’t properly introduced to Duke’s until I moved back after more than a decade of living in the Northeast.

On a fateful trip to Bare Bones Butcher in Nashville, I sang the praises of my meal to the owner, down to the aioli I’d dunked my fried potatoes in. He leaned in conspiratorially: "It’s just Duke’s with garlic microplaned in." I bought my first jar the next day.

Like legions of fans before me, I was won over by the rich, creamy texture and pleasant tang. That’s because Duke’s, unlike its biggest competitor, Hellmann’s, uses just yolks (no whites) in its recipe. Duke’s also uses apple cider vinegar instead of white vinegar, and it contains no sugar. That lack of sugar is part of what gives Duke’s its signature tang—or what Duke’s refers to as the "twang." In comparison, Hellmann’s, the mayo I grew up with, started to taste bland and a little flat.

As I started stocking Duke’s in my fridge, I also started noticing it elsewhere. Priced similarly to other name-brand mayos, and with a massive, 32-ounce jar still running shoppers less than $5, it’s hardly a luxury good. But restaurants in the South, including upscale ones, are quick to name-check the mayo on their burgers or sandwiches as Duke’s. I’m used to seeing call-outs like this reserved for artisanal ham or local eggs, not a commercially produced spread. But then again, how many other condiment brands have inspired people to get tattoos? Or, um, made it into someone's cremation plans?

But are the rarity and regionality of Duke's part of the mayo's appeal? For years, a friend had her mom mail her Duke’s care packages to Brooklyn. Fans without a Southern supplier often turn to Amazon. America’s Test Kitchen’s own Bridget Lancaster is known to get deliveries of it to her Massachusetts home. But now, it's cropping up in more retailers and in more states.

Curious if I was just getting swept up in some mayo-based regional pride, I asked my boyfriend to set up a blind taste test. Even as a lifelong mayo devotee, my stomach churned a bit at the idea of eating it straight off a spoon. But one tentative lick was all it took: Hellmann’s retained the balanced, bright flavor I recognized but ultimately lacked much depth. I couldn’t picture slathering it on my BLTs or dipping my fries in it like I do with Duke’s.

If you’re already a Duke’s devotee, you can relate. If you haven’t yet tried the beloved condiment, I encourage you to seek some out. When you do, here are a few of my favorite ways to eat it:

  • BLTs: For a sandwich so simple, you want the best ingredients. The rich creaminess of Duke’s offsets the acidic bite of the tomatoes and the salty richness of the bacon. I planted four tomato plants this year mostly with this in mind.
  • Tomato Pie: I still have to explain to non-Southern friends that tomato pie doesn’t refer to pizza. This summer classic is the perfect vehicle for tomatoes and includes a healthy dollop of mayo.
  • Pimento Cheese: One good Southern spread deserves another. There are lots of Pimento cheese recipes floating around, but I keep it simple: cheddar cheese (never preshredded), diced pimentos, and Duke’s stirred in until it gets to the right consistency.
  • Shortcut Aioli: We almost always keep a tub of this in the fridge. To make it, grate a small clove of garlic into 1/2 cup of Duke’s mayo. Add another clove if you want more garlic kick, but let it sit for a bit first. The spread is as good on sandwiches as it is for dunking.

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