Holding mayo to the test

Panel tastes the contenders, and the favorite might surprise some

May I explain why I managed to invite six food experts to my office one cold and rainy afternoon to lick mayonnaise off pieces of white bread? It’s a bit of a story:

Several months ago when the Cherokee Purple tomato vine in my backyard was heavy with fat, firm, “eat-me-now” specimens, I decided to have my first Southern tomato sandwich. I made it with one thick and drippy slice of the maroon fruit, two pieces of white bread and whatever mayonnaise I had in the fridge, which was Hellman’s. Delicious. I posted a note on my Facebook page and then published a column on the experience.

I subsequently got hundreds of comments and e-mails from readers and got stopped repeatedly in the hall at work to discuss this sandwich.

Some told me it was about time I had discovered a quintessential Southern summer experience. But many more were aghast at the jar pictured in the accompanying photo.


In the South you put Duke’s mayonnaise on your tomato sandwiches and everything else, I was told in no uncertain terms. Created by Mrs. Eugenia Duke of Greenville, S.C., in 1917, who sold mayo-laden sandwiches to soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Sevier, Duke’s is the true emulsion of the South.

But, wait, no!

If you’re from the Gulf states, then chances are you may prefer Blue Plate, which has been made the same way in Louisiana since 1927, and has such a following that Web-based retailers ship it hither and yon.

Unless, of course, you don’t like either. There’s no shame.

You might have been raised to slather your sandwiches with one of the two nationally popular Kraft contenders — either Real Mayonnaise or its tawdry cousin, Miracle Whip, which isn’t a mayonnaise at all but a “salad dressing.” I don’t believe anyone in gastronomic history has actually dressed a salad with this stuff.

All that being good and true, plenty of Southerners don’t buy into the Duke’s orthodoxy and argue for the superiority of — ta da! — Hellman’s, just as Northeasterners have since 1905, when German immigrant Richard Hellman began selling his wife’s blue-ribbon-wrapped jars out of his New York deli.

Our compatriots out West have never heard of Hellman’s, though they eat it all the time. Once you approach the Continental Divide, the brand’s name changes to Best Foods.

But let’s get back to the comments that people posted on Facebook and ajc.com, which piqued an anthropologic interest in me at first. It seemed silly to get so het up about prepared mayonnaise. I assumed preferences said more about upbringing than taste. But then I had an image of myself buying that same jar of Hellman’s that I used on my tomato sandwich. Did I just pull it off a shelf, oblivious of its label? No, I searched high and low for that blue ribbon on the label. I always buy Hellman’s.

So, for my own piece of mind, I had to put these jars of emulsified soybean oil through their paces. I chose the five popular brands mentioned above and one ringer. I cut little rounds of Pepperidge Farm Very Thin white bread (Sunbeam lovers, hold your tongues), slathered them with six mystery mayos, and invited the following folks to come and taste them from numbered plates:

Susan Puckett, a Decatur-based author and former AJC food editor. Brought up on Blue Plate in Mississippi, Puckett has switched allegiances to Duke’s in adult life.

Deborah Duchon, food anthropologist and founder of the Culinary Historians of Atlanta. Brought up on Miracle Whip, Duchon is no mayonnaise obsessive. “Whatever is on sale,” is her brand.

Krista Reese, restaurant reviewer for Georgia Trend magazine. Reese’s parents are Southerners, but she was raised in Indiana, which perhaps explains her family’s shameful preference. “This is a sad confession, but my brothers forced our family to buy Miracle Whip.” She’s a proud Hellman’s gal today.

Gena Berry, food consultant, film and television culinary producer. Growing up on St. Simons Island, Berry’s family defaulted to Kraft. While she still likes Kraft, she has started inching toward the Duke’s camp.

Chris Lee, chef at Waterhaven restaurant. A Memphis native, Lee is a Hellman’s aficionado now and forever. Hellman’s as a child, Hellman’s as an adult.

Suzanne Van Atten, an AJC editor who used to sit near my desk and joined in a heated mayonnaise discussion, so I made her an honorary food expert. Born and raised in the heart of Duke’s country — Charlotte, N.C. — Van Atten, has lately pitched her tent in the Hellman’s camp. “Duke’s is better,” she insists, “but doesn’t blend into dressings like Hellman’s.”

And so they nibbled on their odd canapés and after a while started licking the mayo off the tops of their bread rounds.

“Can I try number two again?” Puckett asked, and I passed a container of creamy goodness marked with only a Post-it Note. Soon all the containers were making the rounds as my industrious panel tasted and retasted.

Mayo clinic: diagnosis

Here is what the experts found, with their ratings on a 1 to 5 scale (5 is the highest):

Hellman's: (Rating 4.7) The clear winner, the panel found it "smooth, creamy, rich" (Puckett), with a "touch of spice" (Berry) and a "wasabi" note (Duchon). "Best all-around flavor," wrote Lee, summing up the panel's conclusion.

Blue Plate: (Rating 3.7) Some found it tart and pleasant; others deemed it bland. "Not a lot of depth," sniffed Reese.

Duke's: (Rating 3.7) Puckett noted the heavy, "almost sticky" texture. Reese thought the saltier flavor would stand up best to a tomato sandwich. Lee found it balanced but didn't like the aftertaste. Just about everyone noted a vinegary kick lacking in the other brands.

Kraft: (Rating 3) Opinions were all over the board. Duchon found it "savory," and Lee and Puckett complimented the smooth texture. But others were put off by what they perceived as a light, sweet flavor. "Yuck. Discount brand?" asked Van Atten.

Kewpie brand from Japan: (Rating 2.5) This yellowish mayo in its distinctive doll bottle can be found in any Japanese kitchen. Though the color suggests fresh eggs, the real secret ingredient of note is MSG, which gives Kewpie a savory, lingering flavor. Opinions were all over the board. Duchon loved the "complex flavors," but Reese said it "had no snap." Others guessed it was a poorly prepared homemade mayonnaise (harrumph!) that needed more acid and salt to come into balance.

Miracle Whip: (Rating 1.5) Two commenters (Puckett and Lee) said it tasted like pickle relish. Everyone found it too sweet, and just about everyone recognized the flavor instantly.