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Put up your Duke's

A venerable Southern name branches out



Like many folk in the Carolinas, I was brought up on Duke's mayonnaise. In fact, considering that my mother did all the grocery shopping, and I spent all my time bugging her for quarters to feed into the little trinket machines and electrified rocking horses in the front of the store, I never knew there was any other brand of mayonnaise until I started doing my own grocery gathering. It was the first mayo I ever ate and is still the brand I buy to this day, even as I commit the possible heresy of buying the green-label reduced-fat version, which I still find quite tasty.

Frankly, I can't imagine a summer tomato sandwich without its slightly more acidic, creamy consistency (Indeed, a friend of mine talked of a tomato sandwich he'd eaten slathered with Hellman's, and pronounced it "an affront to the love apple").

Evidently, I'm in good -- or at least, infamous -- company. The Duke's Web site boasts famous aficionados as varied as the late race car driver Dale Earnhardt, TV cook Paula "Y'aula" Deen, golfer Davis Love III, and even heir to Confederate royalty/historian J.E.B. Stuart IV.

Duke's is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year and is still made in Greenville, S.C., where Eugenia Duke whipped up her first batch for Camp Sevier soldiers stationed in the area way back in 1917. Today, Duke's cranks out nearly 250 jars a minute, but the initial recipe -- save a few additions like the odd preservative -- has remained almost exactly the same: heavy on the egg yolks -- nobody ever said the stuff was healthy, just delicious -- and light on the added sugar (as in none added whatsoever).

Available in parts of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as newer locations in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, Mom's favorite mayo is also now available online.

Fans of Duke's (if a moniker is in the offing, "Jarheads" gets my vote) will be pleased to learn that there's even more good news on the horizon: an ever-burgeoning chain called the Duke Sandwich Company. Related to the original company but not a subsidiary (originally, Eugenia Duke, evidently a hell of a businesswoman, sold her spread recipes to her bookkeeper, Alan Hart, and her mayo recipe to one C.F. Sauer), the Duke Sandwich Company first made its name by selling sandwiches to textile mills (who would then sell them to their workers) and soda fountains and drug stores outfitted with canteens.

In 1964, Hart sold the Duke Sandwich Company to his wife's brother, Loran Smart. Richard Smart, Loran's son, then took over the family business, and, over the next 30-odd years, took the company from a wholesale to a retail business, establishing several restaurant locations throughout upstate South Carolina, with most of the locations concentrated around the company's home base of Greenville.

By 2002 Richard Smart's son Andrew Smart took over the company and announced plans to open franchises in four Duke's-friendly Southeast states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. To date, Duke Sandwich Company has opened four franchise locations and awarded 11 others in the state of South Carolina and four in the greater Atlanta area. (The closest such franchise to Charlotte is in Spartanburg, incidentally).

All of the franchises to date stay pretty true to the company's original brown-bag-lunch-style offerings. There are fresh-made grilled cheeses, PB&Js, deviled egg salad, pimento cheese, a sort of high-end "deviled ham" (the baked ham, pepper and onion), hot dogs, deli-style cold cuts, chicken salad, minced barbecue (albeit not slow-cooked in the classic Southern fashion), and a straight-out-of-the-Junior-League-cookbook concoction, the "exotic" cream cheese, pineapple, and pecan spread sandwich. There are also pinto beans, vegetable beef soup, gumbos, cream of potato soup, chicken noodle soup, chili, pasta salad, potato salad, fruit salad, cole slaw and more.

Such rapid expansion is banking on a couple of things. First, that folks will immediately conjure up images of their favorite Southern spread when faced with a Duke's sign in their nearby strip mall, and secondly, that there's still a market out there for nostalgia as it relates to nourishment.

Seeing as Duke's seems to be cropping up everywhere recently -- on the Food Network, in the food mag Saveur, and, once again, in the peanut oil section of your local grocer (poet James Dickey was a fan, I've learned) -- I wouldn't bet against them. Few things inspire Southern loyalty like homegrown, iconic brands -- Sun Drop or Carolina Gold rice, anyone? -- and what's more, most of these companies have gotten by (thrived, even) with very little in the way of advertising except word of mouth and Southern homemaker guilt-by-disassociation.

What could be better than a fresh-made sandwich slathered with Duke's? Why, one made for you, of course.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site, among other publications.

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