The End of the Summer, the Summer of Duke’s Mayonnaise (with an Oven Door Update)

Let me assure you, I have been cooking and cleaning as much as I ever do, but in the homestretch of summer I’ve also been forced to put a lot more effort into what they call parenting, and this has cut into my ability to focus on writing and being the Hausfrau. I think the word for this is “ironic” but so it goes. I guess the nice way of thinking about it would be, “I’ve been busy doing primary research for this long-range, ongoing project.” Being, my life.

I have good news though, which is that my husband and I seem to have fixed our oven door. We affixed the door’s front glass panel to the metal oven door and we used C-clamps and stacks of books to press the pieces together while the silicone adhesive cured, which took 24 hours. I admit that we were slightly, slightly leery of actually using the oven the first time after that 24 hour period; I did a test which involved baking something (can’t even recall what) at 325°, which seemed a nice, cautious temperature. But since then I have made pizza at full blast, and the oven door looks fine. My take on the matter is, Yes, it was something of a pain in the ass, but we have fixed our oven without paying GE untold hundreds of dollars to do it, and we are better people for it. And by the time this glass panel has to be re-glued, either a) I will know how to do it immediately, and just take care of it, or b) we will no longer be living here, and it’ll be someone else’s problem.

On to brighter subjects, namely, the awesomely kind gift a woman I barely know gave me.
Some months back, I wrote a Facebook post about Duke’s Mayonnaise, which is a product I’ve heard about for years but never knowingly tasted. Where I live, the mayonnaise that serves as the gold standard is Hellmann’s. But I have long been aware that down South, the gold standard is Duke’s. There are, if you poke around online, long and heated discussions on the matter. And discussions of pimiento cheese — a subject near and dear to my heart — often revolve around the Duke’s/Hellmann’s debate. But I never really took a position; at least, I’ve never said anything more intense than, “I dunno, Hellmann’s seems fine to me.”

I would have been happy to explore the world of Duke’s, mind you. I am all for trying out regional condiment specialties. But you really can’t just waltz into a Stop and Shop and buy a bottle of Duke’s. You can order it online, but the shipping costs are ludicrous, especially when you remember that you’re just trying to buy a three dollar jar of mayonnaise. I’ve had several Facebook associates offer to ship me a jar, but I’ve always said no, because I couldn’t bear the idea that someone I knew would spend close to ten dollars to ship me a stupid jar of mayonnaise.

But hey: sometimes oddball things happen. And so it was that a few weekends ago I was at a party celebrating the wedding of two friends, and one of the guests, who is also a dedicated home cook, showed up with a bag for me. “Here,” she said, handing it over. I said, “What?” and she said, “Just — enjoy.”

I took the bag out into the backyard with me — that’s where all the drinks were, and where my daughter was about to decorate the driveway with elaborate chalk drawings — and peered into the bag. The bright yellow Duke’s label smiled up at me. “I’ll be damned!” I said. My husband looked at me in confusion. “Why did she give you a jar of…. mayonnaise?”

“Because it’s Duke’s!” I said.

Now, this woman lives in Connecticut, but not in my neck of the woods, so to speak, and apparently there is a shop near her house that regularly stocks Duke’s. Being a kind soul, she’d bought this jar to bring to the party knowing that I’d be there. How thoughtful is that? And, yeah, that’s some memory she has, that she would remember some random online conversation about mayonnaise from, you know, six months ago. (I just went and checked: this discussion of where to get Duke’s happened almost exactly six months ago.)

“Well,” I told her, when I crossed paths with her again a few minutes later, drink in hand, “Now I have to make pimiento cheese.”
“Well, yes,” she said: it was obvious to her, too, that pimiento cheese would have to be the first recipe tackled.

So the next day, anticipating a long day at the ol’ swimmin’ hole, I began to plot a picnic lunch. I had a loaf of bread; I had potato chips and a very large bag of Bugles. I had plums that felt so juicy I knew they’d be a total freaking mess to eat, and so I packed into the cooler a roll of paper towels. My game plan was to make pimiento cheese, and egg salad, to spread on bread or scoop up on potato chips or in Bugles. “This is gonna be great,” I said to myself as I took out my knife and cutting board. I dove into making pimiento cheese and egg salad with much enthusiasm and excitement.

Duke’s and Hellmann’s, scooped up with a spoon, look more or less the same. I mean, they’re both vaguely yellowish unguents. But on closer examination, they do have unique characteristics. One thing I learned: it turns out they do have distinctly different flavors. A look at the list of ingredients makes it clear why. Duke’s is heavier on the eggs (by a significant amount, it seems); Hellmann’s has sugar; the vinegar contents of each vary (and probably also significantly). Basically what you have to arrive at is that these are similar products, but, yes, different things. Comparing them to each other is not unlike comparing Hellmann’s to homemade mayonnaise. Sure: both things are mayonnaise. But they are not the same thing.

I know  this not merely from reading one of the thousands of articles online that discuss this; no, I have personal experience. I took a dab of each on a spoon, and ate them straight.

There was no doubt in my mind, these were different things.

And the Duke’s was yummy, absolutely. It was sharper than the Hellmann’s, and tangier (the vinegar!); Hellmann’s was milder, but also seemed quite salty.

“This is gonna be great,” I said. Pimiento cheese assembled, egg salad assembled, everything packed neatly into little plastic tubs to carry safely on ice packs, I felt very smug and accomplished as I washed all the prep dishes. The cooler was packed full and I had the day licked. I put the jar of Duke’s in the fridge feeling triumphant.

I laid out our picnic lunch with all the skill I’ve honed in this area. Tablecloth, plates, spreaders for all the things. And my husband and child went swimming and then after an hour or so they announced they were famished and I said, “So, go eat!” They hunkered right down. “Mmmm, Bugles and pimiento cheese,” was said more than once. Sandwiches were made. And conversation was non-existent. But after a few minutes, my husband spoke.

“The thing is,” he began tentatively, “I actually don’t see any difference with the Duke’s.”
“No,” I admitted. “Me neither.” My daughter shrugged, indifferent.

On their own, if you’re just taking the mayos on spoons and tasting, yes, there is a huge difference between Duke’s and Hellmann’s. But my family has concluded that once you’ve mixed these things up with other ingredients — particularly strong-flavored other things, like cheeses or tuna — there’s really not an appreciable difference.

I’m sorry. This was as grave a disappointment to me as I’m sure it is to my readers. But I have to call it as I see it. Given the effort required for us to acquire Duke’s, here in Southern Connecticut, I have to say, I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to get it again. There is definitely a novelty in having the two jars sitting next to each other in the fridge. I’m glad to have the Duke’s, and I would totally buy it if I noticed it in a shop. But is it the end-all-be-all of mayonnaises? No, it is not.

However, there is something very pleasant about opening the fridge here and seeing, sitting in a neat little row, a jar of Hellmann’s, a jar of Duke’s, and a bottle of Kewpie (the Japanese mayonnaise that really is different from Hellmann’s and Duke’s). My husband remarked upon this last night, in fact, when we were eating bowls of sushi rice salad, which had been liberally decorated with squiggles of Sriracha and Kewpie. “We have three different kinds of mayonnaise in this house right now,” he said in wonder.

“I know,” I said placidly. “We are blessed.”


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