Eugenia Duke, Mayonnaise Maven

The summer heat is still holding a firm grip on the Southern United States as I write this post. Hints of fall are evident, but still lacking are the cooler nights and drier air we associate with a change over to the most colorful of all seasons. Even if my mind is turning with thoughts of pie baking and celebratory events soon to come, a quick step outside with my dog reminds me that summer is still upon us.
Change comes upon us sometimes suddenly, or unexpectedly, and whether we are ready to embrace it or not, change is, oddly enough, constant. Change can bring excitement or worry.
However, sometimes we find ourselves fighting for change and hopefully, all for the better. As someone concerned with women’s issues, I will be happy in celebrating the fight for change our ancestors fought for in obtaining the right to vote.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment allowing women in the United States the right to vote. It was a battle fought over decades with little changes, and with many stories of courage and determination, along with scars both physical and mental, for the effort. Many others changed our lives simply by going about the daily business of getting things done. One such woman was a southern girl who did just that. Her name was Eugenia Duke.

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Mrs. Eugenia Thomas Slade Duke.

 

Eugenia Thomas Slade Duke never dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur or a legend, she just wanted to serve others as best she could, doing what she did best. And in making sandwiches for troops on their way to Europe during World War I, she planted the roots that would become an empire. And among Southerners and many world-class chefs, Eugenia Duke is a household name.

In 1917, the world was fully entangled in the war in Europe, and as the United States joined forces overseas, many a young soldier found himself miles from home, training for trench warfare in military posts across the States. None of these young men knew what they were about to encounter, and leaving behind the only life they knew must have been a shock, especially considering America was still a mainly agricultural society then, especially in the South.
While women rolled bandages, knit socks, and sewed blankets, Eugenia began making sandwiches.
Chicken salad, egg salad, and pimento cheese slathered between slices of bread would have been welcome to any boy far from his mother’s kitchen, but it was Eugenia’s homemade mayonnaise that made all the difference. Charging just ten cents each, soldiers couldn’t get enough of Eugenia’s sandwiches.
When the war ended, Eugenia began selling her sandwiches at a local Greenville drugstore and demand was such that is rumored that in the spring of 1919, she once sold 10,000 sandwiches in one day.
In 1923, she was encouraged by her top salesperson, C.B. Boyd, to concentrate on her mayonnaise spread, as that was what made her sandwiches so special. Eugenia took a leap of faith and bought a building in downtown Greenville to manufacture “Duke’s Mayonnaise.” She made another savvy move in striking a deal with the Ottaray Hotel, by asking them to allow her to host tea parties in their lobby. Of course, the sandwiches were made with Duke’s Mayonnaise.

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Mrs. Eugenia Duke with jars of Duke’s Mayonnaise

Active in women’s rights, Eugenia Duke became a fixture in Greenville society and I am sure discussions about the right to vote came up during those elegant tea parties as she was active in seeing women obtained the right to vote. No doubt she did more for the women’s vote in the South with her sandwiches and mayonnaise than a thousand marches and riots ever could. Afterall, the deciding vote came from Representative Harry T. Burn from Tennessee who opposed women having the right to vote, then remembered his mother and her support of the 19th Amendment. Maybe he also remembered the home cooked meals she fed him growing up.
Oddly enough, a 1920 Census report, she lists her occupation as, “none.” Apparently, she thought her thriving empire was just something she did for others, not a sign of her making her mark on the world or as a means of making a statement about the ability of a woman to make a name for herself in a man’s world.
By 1929, Duke’s Mayonnaise was so successful that Mrs. Duke sold the company to C.F. Sauer, a family-owned company producing spices and extracts for housewives. The company still markets Duke’s Mayonnaise to this day.
But selling her business didn’t mean Eugenia was finished and ready to hang up her apron. In 1950, her daughter Martha, married and moved out to California. Eugenia and her husband soon followed, and Eugenia began making sandwiches again under a new name…The Duchess Sandwich Company. They continued to sell sandwiches until Eugenia died at age 90.
Both home cooks and celebrated chefs use Duke’s Mayonnaise in their kitchens today. We love the tanginess of Duke’s and what it brings to recipes that other sandwich spreads do not. Made with a heart to serve others may be the secret ingredient in Eugenia Duke’s recipe that made her a woman before her time. I cannot imagine a Southern kitchen without a jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise or a world without a spirit like Eugenia Duke. Let’s celebrate our Votes For Women victory with a sandwich made with a spoonful of Duke’s Mayonnaise.

Photos: The C.F. Sauer Company

Author: Sissy1Pip

Born in Georgia and raised in North Carolina, I inherited the baking bug like so many of us; through childhood memories and standing by my mother's side as she prepared our family meal. I began this blog as a way of sharing my love of Southern baking and its treasured heritage.

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